The Kingdom of Kerry needs little introduction, and I am met with smiles, kind words and cherished memories whenever I offer it as the answer to the “where are you from?” inquisition. My automatic reply tends to be “I’m very lucky” and despite the mammoth cross country trek to get home, it is always worth it.
I don’t need much coaxing to hop in the car and head south, but upon hearing that Relais & Chateaux gem Sheen Falls Lodge had launched a Wine Academy, my bags were packed almost instantly. The wilderness isn’t something generally appealing to me, but throw in wine and robes and I’m more than happy to drive for five hours to put my feet up in five star luxury.
While it may be in the wilds of Sneem, just a couple of minutes outside picturesque Kenmare, once you arrive at Sheen Falls, it is a drop your car and forget where you put your keys kind of resort. As soon as you step in the door, open log fires exude welcome and warmth – the kind of opulent comfort that almost makes you wish for rotten weather outside so you can cosy up. Something tells me Sheen Falls knew the secrets to a Hygge life long before the Danish concept became a buzzword.
Welcomed and escorted to my abode for the weekend by the friendly local staff, the contemporary yet classic furnishings of the lodge reveal themselves – a splash of indigo purple here, a touch of sage green there. While rooms in Sheen Falls enjoy sweeping views of Kenmare Bay or the river and falls themselves, I wasn’t prepared for how breath-taking the vista from The Presidential Suite would be.
Double doors led to an octagon shaped sitting room, with wall to wall windows offering a 360 degree view of the enchanting falls and the stone foot bridge meandering across them, like something fresh out of a fairytale. An imposing marble mantlepiece frames a log stacked open fireplace and dark wood decor throughout felt strongly informed by the rural setting. Add in 20 foot high ceilings leading to an oculus, through which you can gaze at the stars, and this is undoubtedly the most opulent cabin in the woods in all the land.
The sound of the falls, like the din of heavy rain pelting at the window on a stormy night, makes for nothing less than audible luxury, the only thing interrupting the stillness hanging over the woodlands. Serenity guaranteed, without a chill-out sounds playlist in earshot, two flat screen televisions seemed far less necessary than the two balconies jutting out into the postcard-like landscape.
The bedroom, home to a super kingsize cloud-like goose down bed, was again dominated by a wall of windows commanding every last ounce of attention, until we stepped into the master bathroom and spotted a jacuzzi the size of an alpine hot tub. Double marble vanity stations and a rainfall power shower cemented the feeling that changing back out of my robe and eventually checking out would be a hardship indeed.
As we were being treated to a Wine Academy experience, an immersive stay designed for the vino-loving bon vivant, a beautiful locally sourced cheeseboard and a decanter of port arrived to whet our appetites before heading downstairs to the library for a tasting with Tindal Wine’s Richie Verling.
On another day, the imperative here would be to curl up by the fire with a good book from the extensive selection lining the shelves in this inviting space designed to allow guests to get lost in literature, but a lesson in wine tasting awaited us. All the questions you may have felt too silly to ask – about decanting, acidity, tannins and fail-safe bottle choices – were delved into by our charismatic guide.
Tasting an Alsatian Domaines Sclumberger Pinot Blanc followed by a Tuscan treat in the form of Tenuta Le Calcinaie di Simone Santini Vernaccia di San Gimignano, we discussed venturing outside our comfort zones when faced with a wine list, whilst enjoying delicate canapés from air-dried Connemara lamb wrapped grissini and goats cheese mousse to dainty tuna tartare cones.
The piece de resistance however was a tasting of a prized 1985 vintage Château Mouton Baronne Philippe Hommage a Pauline, robust and well aged, with notes of liquorice and blackberry set the tone for a weekend of appreciating all things vinous.
Our next activity would take place in a charming boutique wine shop in the heart of Kenmare called Vanilla Grape, led by owner Alain Bras. The Frenchmen, a multi-award winning wine expert, lecturer and former Sommelier at Sheen Falls guided us in a lesson on reading wine labels, namely how to decipher the complex puzzle to arrive at a solid choice, when so many labels from a producer are deceptively similar. Alain’s insider tips coupled with solid buying advice from Richie, we left armed with knowledge and a thirst for the wine dinner ahead.
Sheen Falls, we learn as we ascend the stairs to wine lover’s wonderland, is home to the biggest privately owned cellar in Ireland, with more than 1000 bottles and over 300 labels. This cave of wonders is dotted with shelf upon shelf of fine wine dating as far back as 1949, buckets of corks from sips gone by and barely illuminated by soft candlelight.
Returning again to the elegant library, a four course wine-paired dinner led by Duty Manager and Sommelier Quentin Caraux kicked off with the delicacy you cannot leave Sheen Falls without sampling – salmon, caught in the Sheen river and smoked on site in a purpose built smokehouse.
A Taste of Sheen Falls Salmon included both the wooded and deeply savoury smoked salmon and beetroot cured salmon alongside carpaccio-thin raw beets, the perfect pop of fresh, vibrant sweetness to cut across the salmon’s richness, expertly paired with a sharp and grassy Marlborough Walnut Block Sauvignon Blanc.
Next, an espresso cupful of intensely earthy and rich Mushroom Cappucino crowned with truffle foam was delectable alone, not to mention when married with Burgundian beauty Bouchard Pere & Fils Macon Lugny Saint-Pierre.
We learned that bold Italian Primitivo is the same grape as Zinfandel, and marvelled at how wonderfully tannic Luccarelli Primitive from Puglia stood up with spicy kick to a main course of blushingly pink Skegheanore Duck Breast sourced from just over the border with West Cork.
An aniseed spiked glossy jus, creamy dauphinoise-like potato and onion cake, sweet braised red cabbage and perfectly cooked, gamey duck made this a knockout pairing for the bold Italian and a pleasure to eat.
To leave things on a sweet note, the divisive topic of dessert wine was tackled and a Palazzina Moscato paired with Lemon Curd Mille Feuille quickly changed the minds of the naysayers. Tart and zingy curd sandwiched between layers of buttery crisp puff pastry, finished with cocoa sorbet and vanilla cream impressed alone, but shone even more so with the mirrored lemon curd notes of the Moscato. The perfect end to a sensational day of delicious learning.
Study, as we know, is both tiresome and hungry work, so awakening after coma-style sleep in one of the most irresistibly cocoon-like beds I have yet encountered (seems to be a Relais & Chateaux pre-requisite), we looked forward to breaking our not so extensive fast.
Served in the stunning Falls Restaurant, breakfast at Sheen Falls is an elegant affair, with an ample and generous buffet offering of freshly chopped fruit and yoghurt, everything from pain au chocolat to gooey carrot cake and a tempting local cheese and charcuterie board.
It is difficult to save room for the main event with such a spread but we were certainly glad we did. French Toast with fresh berries and maple syrup was among the best either of us has tasted.
There was no issue swapping the ham on my Eggs Benedict for some signature Sheen Falls smoked salmon, a breakfast win with plump and oozy poached eggs and silky hollandaise. Sadly, such an impressive breakfast made impending check out all the more heartbreaking.
Kerry is the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, the light at the end of a tunnel and the true gem in Ireland’s crown. I may be biased, but spend a weekend in Sheen Falls, a retreat dedicated to celebrating the raw natural beauty of the county, and I defy you to disagree.
It is impossible not to fall for the lodge’s understated elegance, other-worldly setting and rugged charm – I never imagined I would find it so difficult to leave it behind. Whether your passion is the great outdoors, the great insides of bottles of fine wine, or both, Sheen Falls will become your cherished Kerry memory.
The next Wine Academy event at Sheen Falls takes place in March and prices start from €499 per couple for DBB plus wine activities.
Sheen Falls Lodge
T: 353 (0) 64 6641600
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake Off and am passionate about discovering and creating delicious things – I can sometimes be caught in the act on TV3’s Six O’Clock Show or RTE Today. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me on my pursuit of deliciousness.