Body blasted by wind and sand, hair resembling a haystack, and eyes gritty from both sand and sun, I arrived home the other day, and stood for a few moments gazing longingly at my bath. “If only,” I sighed, “I was in Strandhill in Co Sligo now, I could have a seaweed bath.”
I came to Cork last September after 3 indulgent weeks, being spoiled by friends and family, a totally personal time, so way behind on blog posts and other work. It was rainy, and I holed up for 24 hours at a friend’s house, with my first decent internet connection in weeks (and the last one I had I might add there!) writing and catching up with research and social media.
We spent the next couple of days mainly driving around autumnal Co Cork. It was as green as everyone had promised it would be, and it was also as grey as that green made inevitable. It comes at a price. I knew that I had a few days coming up which would be full of note taking and snapping away, and I very much wanted to simply absorb some Irish-ness. Now, of course, I wish I’d made the odd note to help remember the meaning behind some of the snaps I have, but then again, winding down isn’t a bad thing either, and the photos aren’t that great – all that grey!
Here are just a few, random memories:
I’m a mugwump, as you will know if you’ve read this blog before. That is, I often can’t make a decision about what I prefer: city or countryside? Italian food or Moroccan? Trains or boats? B & Bs or 5-Star hotels?
That last one? That’s the issue here. Generally, B & Bs are great for getting to know your fellow travellers, for feeling “at home,” yet big hotels offer crisp sheets every night, good food, and that touch of luxury which is so good for body and soul from time to time.
What if you could get the best of both worlds? You could say that I’ve spent a lifetime looking, for that magical combination, but never quite found it – until a few months back on a lonesome stretch of lake in Co Donegal, Ireland.
What if you had staff who are as friendly as the staff in your local pub, but do everything with the finesse of perfectly trained 5* staff? What if your room was twice the size of my current apartment, with the sort of furnishings that grace expensive country houses, and a bathroom that belongs in a James Bond movie? What if dinner was fit for the best restaurant in London, and breakfast fit for royalty? What if, as you walk from room to room on the ground floor gleaming woodwork and friendly peat fires make you feel welcome? You must be dreaming, did you say?
Answer is, no I’m not. The name of this little chunk of paradise is Harvey’s Point on Lough Eske in Co. Donegal, Ireland.
Obviously, I’m not in the first flush of youth, so I’ve experienced a fair few hotels over the years, including some well-known names, and Harvey’s Point surpassed them all.
We were a fairly bedraggled group when we arrived. We’d been battered by ocean and by wind, admiring the heights of Slieve League, and watching dolphins play as we drifted alongside in open boats. Frankly, I was tired, and my mind was running more towards hot baths and warm beds than anything else. We were running late, not unusual when you unite bloggers with stunning scenery and photo ops, but our welcome from proprietor, Deidre McGlone was as warm as if we’d arrived on the dot. (I actually suspect that time runs along the same parallel in Ireland as it does in the Canary Islands, which is slightly off from the norm.)
As we stepped into the warmth of the lobby, I was a little disappointed to learn that we had only a short time to spruce up for dinner (a wave had washed over the boat, and me, at one point, in other words no time to wash my salt-encrusted hair!) When I saw my bathroom that disappointment became bitter. Not because I wasn’t hungry, but because the bathroom was an absolute fantasy; a corner Jacuzzi, (which I knew I dared not step into at that moment, for I surely wouldn’t have got out in time for dinner!); a huge shower, which I enjoyed for as long as manners dictated I might, without being too late for dinner; and a full make-up mirror with lights to delight a Las Vegas showgirl. It was crying out to be used, enjoyed, wallowed in, perhaps even all evening!
Here’s where I have to tell you that this type of photography is no way my forte. My photos do not capture the sheer size of the space, although I think you can see the quality of the classic furnishings. The huge bed was easily as comfortable as it looked, and though I was alone, I liked the reading lights on the headboard, in addition to bedside lights, so if you like to read in bed, or check your messages you can do so without disturbing your partner. Oh, and the desk? Perfect. I could have worked there forever.
All this said, it wasn’t simply the quality of my surroundings, nor the comfort which truly impressed so much as the seemingly endless small things, like the books and magazines, the variety of stuff in the mini bar, the bathroom toiletries, the clothes’ brush, the shoe horn – I have never been anywhere before where I felt that all my needs had been anticipated. Well, not just my needs, but even my whims too, seemed to be catered for.
Perhaps the fact that this hotel is owned by a family that is part Irish and part Swiss that explains this extraordinary mesh of luxury and friendliness. That has to be the perfect recipe, when you think about it, doesn’t it?
There is a story – of course, and it is, in part, a love story. Well, maybe two love stories.
The first is the falling in love with this haunting landscape of a young Swiss man. So much so that he decided to make his home in Donegal. His name was Jody Gysling. If you look at the pictures on the hotel’s website, you may why he was inspired to create this hotel. Seen from across the lough, a view I didn’t see, it looks very Swiss, snow capping the hills behind.
Back when Jody arrived, it was a cottage, by the lake, owned by two farmers, brothers, named Harvey, hence the name. The Gysling family bought it and set about creating a hotel, which opened in 1989 with twenty bedrooms. Today it boasts 74, plus an elegant dining room with lake views, cosy but elegant bars and a ballroom. But take a look at their website for details.
The second story concerns Jody’s brother, Marc, who came one summer to help run the family business. That particular summer a young lady named Deidre had begun a summer job as receptionist in the hotel – you guessed it – this is the same Deidre McGlone who had greeted us when we arrived. They fell in love, with each other – and with the hotel I think. 24 years on it’s an idyllic setting, perfect for romance.
My biggest disappointment is that I didn’t truly see it in daylight. We arrived at dusk, and left whilst the day was still too young to do justice to any outdoor photos.
Dinner that night was 5 Star and sophisticated. Genuine smoked salmon was not the florescent pink seen in supermarkets; with just a hint of pink, the taste was, well, smoky, bringing wood fires and wilderness to every morsel. My main course lamb was flavorsome, rich and original – I didn’t want the course to end ….. until, of course, it came to a rich, chocolate desert – well, Swiss, remember!
Breakfast was, quite simply, a feast. We had the advantage of being in the dining room early before the buffet had been picked over, when the fruit looked as if it had just arrived from some tropical island, and the fresh breads smelled heavenly. My personal rule, when not at home (where I endeavor to eat as healthily as I can….hmmm) is to eat a huge breakfast, and to eat whatever is local. So, of course, in Ireland, in addition to bacon and eggs there had to be black pudding; but not only black but white pudding too. That was a new one on me. If there had been more time I would surely have allowed the chef to make me an omelette of my choice, but, alas, we had a schedule to keep!
The walls of the ground floor are filled with pictures of the hotel as it was, and of the family over the years. Animals feature in many of the photos, and apparently when it was a smaller establishment there were several pets around to make you feel at home, although now there is just Harvey, the pet goose, who was having his lonely breakfast as we left. What I learned is that they are a pet-friendly destination. The ground floor rooms with French windows are available for folk traveling with their pets. Just how cool is that – to find a hotel of this quality where you best friend can come too?
I left reluctantly, impressed by the fact that, despite the early hour, Deidre McGlone turned out again to see us on our way, despite her busy schedule (looking very elegant too, by the way – just how does she manage it?). Let’s face it, we were pretty much sold on the hotel by then anyway. It was something she hadn’t needed to do. Even if it had only been as half as good I would have been. Yet this attention to detail is probably the thing that makes Harvey’s Point extra special. I would guess that they are always willing and prepared to go the extra mile, to conjure up a guest’s desires before the guest has even thought of them, and do all of it with a warmth rare in the hotel business. When Deidre talked about the staff being a family, I totally believed it. It’s only when you have that ambience between personnel that it can be passed on to guests.
I’m not the only one to think so, either. Just last week Harvey’s Point was one of only 25 hotels in the world to feature in Tripadvisor’s Travelers’ Choice awards as one of the best in the world.
Here is where I tell you that, yes, I was a guest at Harvey’s Point, when on the FAM trip with Fáilte Ireland, and also that I had only one night to spend there, but I hope you know me well enough to know that, when I say I was overwhelmed by this charming hotel, I speak the truth, so help me *insert name of your chosen deity.*
I should have finished all my posts about Ireland by now. I prefer my posts to be chronological, but I can’t get Ireland out of my head. It’s as if, when the writing is all done, I am afraid that I will be done with Ireland, and I’m not. I doubt I ever will be. I’ll be heading back there at every opportunity that presents itself.
In the meantime, here is, more or less, a photo essay from Co Sligo, which is the place I most want to go back to, the place where I felt utterly at home…..at least in the Fall weather. If I’m totally honest, not sure I could hack winters there after living in the Canaries’ climate for so long, but I’m putting it high on my list of places I may want to settle down again – one day.
These are some of the memories imprinted on my mind and heart, which didn’t fit into previous posts:
Ireland took my heart hostage – that’s obvious by now! It’s scarred history and its wild beauty were perhaps the two obvious reasons to fall for its charms. But for me there was an unexpected (and delicious bonus), and that was the food. I didn’t go to Ireland for the food – but if I had, I would not have been disappointed.
I’d come from balmy afternoons eating wonderful food in France, both in my friends’ home, and in quirky street cafés, and then from the delights of London’s Borough Market, and the delicious Eating London Tour, so I was kind of sated. Plus, when I scanned the schedule for Fáilte Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way tour, packed with glimpses into history, the environment, and sports and leisure activities, I presumed that food would be fast fuel to propel us to the next stop – I couldn’t have been more wrong!
I suppose my awakening had begun in Cork, with the outstanding Boardwalk Bar and Grill, and the sumptuous breakfast at the Montenotte Hotel; and continued in Cork’s iconic English Market, where homemade pastries jostle with Mediterranean olives and Irish pies, and the café and bar on the mezzanine level give “a quick lunch” a whole other meaning.
To go from Dublin to Sligo, as we did initially on this trip, is to traverse the country from east to west, with photo op stops that’s three or four hours or so, so refuelling was necessary. The stop we made for refreshment en route should have been my first clue. At the Mullingar Park Hotel in Westmeath, despite our tardiness (the beginning of this feature of our journey already!) a welcome afternoon tea awaited us. Even though most of us had missed lunch there was going to be no way we could do justice to the mounds of fresh sandwiches and cakes we were offered.
By the time I arrived at my last destination before going to Dublin for the TBEX conference I’d slept in a variety of beds and places, from the cold benches of Barcelona airport; to my friend, Wendy’s, elegant and comfy guestroom bed in France; to couchsurfing with my son, and with my dad in England, and with a friend in Ireland; plus a couple of hotels…quite a variety. I’m blessed with the ability to sleep anywhere, and also an addiction to diversity, so all were ok by me.
Still, I was looking forward to the sort of privacy you can only find in a big hotel by the time I arrived at the Montenotte Hotel in Cork. It seems to be that accommodation is a matter of compromise much of the time. If you want luxury and privacy, then you sacrifice the friendliness you find in smaller accommodations. Some travellers swear by the camaraderie of hostels, and feel uncomfortable in hotels. Others, who can afford it, like the comfort and anonymity of hotels.
In Ireland I found that it’s possible to have both, and this hotel was the key to my discovery.
My abiding memory of Ireland isn’t the landscapes, though they took my breath away; and it isn’t the history, at least not directly; it isn’t even the wonderful food and drink I sampled – and all of those things were beyond compare – it was the friendliness of the people…..which began with my short stay at the Montenotte.
Ireland’s history will break your heart. It broke mine, and scattered the pieces along the coasts of Sligo and Donegal, and it seems like I didn’t quite put it back together. I left some of it behind. Ireland made sure that I need to go back in search of those missing pieces.
Generally speaking I’m a love ‘em and leave ‘em kind of gal. Most everywhere, I fall for some aspect or other of a place, but, a few days after moving on, the glamour fades….that’s travel addiction for you. That hasn’t happened to me with Ireland. Ireland haunts me.