It seems undeniable that the boom times are back, and the term Celtic Phoenix has been bandied about quite a bit in recent times. With the way things are going in the Irish luxury hotel stakes, it would be tough to disagree.
Murmurs of the revamped Adare Manor seeking to be Europe’s premier luxury destination following a €50 million renovation, €20 million pumped into Kildare’s opulent K Club and The Tollman family’s investment of $75 million to bring Ashford Castle up to date have helped fuel this notion.
Irish hospitality and luxury are synonymous, and you could scarcely write an Irish hotel honour roll without mentioning Dromoland Castle. Dating back to the 16th century, the former home of the descendants of legendary High King Brian Boru has recently enjoyed a multi-million makeover of its own and I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t jump at the chance to behold the Castle in its newly restored splendour.
If it is good enough for a High King, it is good enough for me, and driving down the seemingly endless winding drive through greens and fairways, the imposing Baronian Castle takes its time revealing its majestic fascade, but as soon as you clap eyes on ivy meandering up this stonewall fortress you feel like you are stepping back in time.
Top hats and coat-tails greet you with embrace-like warmth and usher cars away without fuss. If you wish to explore the ample grounds, they will whisk you around the picturesque 450 acre estate in a white horse-drawn carriage, just to seal the deal on the fairytale feel.
Straight off the bat, your knight in shining armor greets you in the ruby-walled entrance hall, granted, he is stationary, a little stiff and hundreds of years old, but impressive nonetheless.
As expected in one of Ireland’s foremost luxury destinations, there is no such thing as “second door on the left, up the lift to the second floor” instructions at reception – you are escorted to your boudoir, and made to feel at home as you navigate the centuries old corridors dotted with oil paintings and tapestries.
A magnificent grand staircase sits under a domed and gold-gilded ceiling with the last of the daylight streaming in through stunning stained glass, as I make a mental note to never leave.
Stepping into one of the 16 newly renovated bedrooms, you can’t help but feel like you are stepping into a luxury catalogue. Glittering crystal chandeliers hang from a double height ceiling, blackout Jacquard curtains frame French windows and plush four poster bed(s) beg to be jumped on.
A roomy slate bathroom marries the old with the new seamlessly, with an almost wet-room sized rainfall shower and elegant dressing table-style white marble sink. Throw in pillowy slippers and cocoon-like robes and you have the perfect palatial hideaway, but with a sneaky bite out of an expertly made Macaron from a plate of welcome treats I mustered the energy to explore the estate, and my was I glad I did.
With dinner looming in the fine dining restaurant The Earl of Thomond, I resisted the temptation to have a picnic packed up for the adventure, but this level of hospitality is what Dromoland prides itself on – catering to every desire in an understated and unintrusive way, you get the feeling that nothing but nothing is too much trouble.
What was meant to be a quick stroll turned into a lengthy meander through autumn leaves, with a pitstop on the banks of an idyllic lake where fellow guests were fishing (the chefs will cook up your catch, of course) before discovering the secluded secret garden.
A walled wonderland with babbling brooks and enchanted toadstools surrounded by story-book cottages, this felt like a Disney day dream come true and you genuinely feel like you’re strolling through another century. I spy poly tunnels and my mind wanders back to dinner, the only temptation that can drag me away from exploring.
With a harpist in full ball gown and a full house, which is certainly not always the case on a Sunday night in October, the Castle’s Earl of Thomond restaurant is alive with guests making memories and soaking up the royal ambiance hanging in the air like the magnificent crystal chandeliers.
While such a setting can be intimidating, the long-standing team of true hospitality professionals looking after you are fully at ease within their grandiouse home and that ensures that the opulent dining experience therein needn’t be ostentatious. Pampering without pompousness is the order of the day, and this makes all the difference.
Nicky Flynn, head chef, has been at Dromoland for two decades, as has Executive Chef David McCann, who oversees the menu which is an ode to the Burren and surrounding region. Sommelier Ian Scott has spent 17 years in Dromoland’s embrace and is quick to assist in all wine deliberation, as the decision between nine course tasting menu and Table d’Hote beckons.
Opting for the latter, a tasty morsel of Seared Swordfish with Mango to amuse the bouche arrives and excites. A wonderful dilemma, I was utterly torn between Doonbeg Crab and Galway Bay Scallops to start. Keen to ensure I needn’t feel hard done by, the supremely attentive host Denis brings me a sampling of crab….I only wish I had agonised over the foie gras too!
Not a spice blend you would normally associate with shellfish, Ras el Hanout added a subtle aromatic edge to silky and delicate shreds of white crabmeat tossed in a light aioli. I was pleasantly surprised to find it was indeed a happy bedfellow for the pillowy quenelle of Clare’s prized crustacean, along with a bright red pepper piperade to cut through the richness.
For my actual starter, a delicate cucumber pureé sat alongside a trio of voluptuous Scallops, perfectly burnished in a buttered pan and butter-like within – even alone, these were show-stealers. With no astringency from a topping of preserved lemon threads, a light ponzu dressing lended a pleasant Chili after burn.
Despite mingling Middle Eastern preserved lemon and Japanese Ponzu in a cross continental creation, the dish was elegant and well-balanced, carefully avoiding the pitfall of overshadowing the inherent sweetness of exceptional Galway Bay scallops with two many backing dancers.
Providing a welcome break from the procession of courses, a palate-cleansing salad of pickled cauliflower, carrot, pepper and fennel gave a nod to the fermentation trend while maintaining the classic feel of the Earl of Thomond’s menu.
Cloches add ceremony rather than stuffiness, and for main course reveal a generous Milk-Fed Veal Haunch. More delicate than its rose counterpart and closer in flavour and colour to white meat, milk-fed veal is slightly sweet and more silky in texture.
I prefer my veal quite rare, but milk-fed means it is sweet and tender regardless and with a punchy garlicky salsa verde and slightly pickled braised endive, there was no shortage of highlights to coo over, all on one plate.
A rich and luxurious marsala sauce brought this into saltimboca territory, but girolles routed it firmly in classic French gastronomy. Each mouthful felt like the crunch of autumn leaves under your feet, nostalgic, familiar and ever so satisfying.
A decadent Chocolate Dome En Surprise was always going to be my choice to close the meal – dehydrated sponge, zesty and sharp clementine sauce and slowly oozing chocolate – what more could you want?
A mousse-like centre and crisp sablé base apparently, this dish had so many delicious things going on before you even dive in to the cherried Black Forest hues of a matching Black Muscadet – spoonfuls and sips of heavenly proportions.
The Earl of Thomond is old school, but in the best way possible, regal rather than retro, serving elegant dishes which have moved with the times in terms of flavour. Atmospheric, memorable and quite irresistible – this is a sumptuous dining experience not to be missed.
Whiskey changes to whimsy on autocorrect as I furiously take notes on the vast array on offer, and it seems fitting – a whimsical journey through our premier spirit is possible, and advisable, when cosied up by the fire at Dromoland, moving from the restaurant to the impressive Gallery Bar.
Having deciphered my preferences from vague directions like ‘oaky’ and ‘smokey’, Sommelier Ian settled on Method and Madness and I was duly mad about this Midleton gem, which appears only on well-curated whiskey lists. There are few places in Ireland that could compete with it in the uisce beatha night-cap stakes.
Well rested after a wee dram, breakfast is an ample affair which can start humbly with fresh fruit and local yoghurt, but escalate quickly to include indulgent French classics like Duck Egg and Ham, Breakfast Cassolette or Smoked Haddock a la Creme.
One of the more interesting hotel breakfast offerings I have encountered, dishes like St Tola Feta and Quinoa or Brioche French Toast meant it blended the old with the new flawlessly, as every aspect of Dromoland manages to.
I can’t imagine any soul, young or old, resisting the magical allure of Dromoland. It caters for everyone with the same open arms, which is a difficult brief. It is more than just box ticking, it is bucket-list ticking.
A night at Dromoland is an indulgence you will never forget and you owe yourself a visit at least once in your lifetime. I’m hoping to make it at least twice.
An overnight stay at Dromoland with full Irish breakfast starts from €294 per room.
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. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.