When you plan a trip to Ireland you soon learn there are a wide variety of accommodations to choose from, and often it’s hard to evaluate them if you’re used to US chain hotels. During our stay in Ireland we stayed in a US chain hotel (the Radisson Blu in Dublin), a castle (Dromoland Castle), a luxury Irish spa hotel (Aghadoe Heights), and also at a country home.
I had grand visions of Irish country homes and was eager to stay in one and experience it for myself. A country home may not sound impressive, but actually Ireland is brimming with these huge, over the top homes the wealthy used to live in and they are must-do experience. They aren’t exactly mansions and they certainly aren’t palaces, but are more like an upscale retreat in a country.
We stayed at Gregans Castle Hotel which is located in the Burren in Ballyvaughan. Never heard of the Burren? I hadn’t either before I began planning our trip. The word burren in Irish means a rocky place and that’s an apt description for this very strange landscape that is technically what is called a karst. It’s almost like a moon landscape – all rocks with big cracks in them. There is some grass that grows among the cracks – no trees. It’s rather eerie. There
are interesting sites however, including the Poulnabrone Dolmen Tomb. This is a small stone shelter smack in the middle of the desolate Burren. It’s eerie and moving to think it was created for a body and that it has stood since between 4200 and 2900 BCE (basically a long-ass time).
The Burren is fascinating when you first encounter it but soon it becomes a very dull landscape to view. It’s definitely worth a visit as you are passing through the area (western mid-coast Ireland, south of Galway), but unless you are excited about hiking it, I wouldn’t plan to stay here. But of course, we did exactly that! Gregans Castle Hotel is neither a castle nor a hotel. It’s a large home, situated on the edge of the Burren and indeed there is a rather remarkable view of the Burren from
the backyard, where you can clearly watch the sun and the shadows from clouds move over the bare hills. It’s situated on a winding road (note: back Dramamine if anyone in your group has carsickness issues: I had two kids in the back seat moaning all the way there) and does not look impressive from the road. In fact, it’s rather hard
We pulled in the gravel drive and entered through the very unassuming entrance. The reception area is a tiny spot and immediately the whole thing felt very weird. The gentleman at the front desk (who I am certain is a lovely, lovely man) gave us a bit of a Hotel California feel – as if we might never leave. He did help haul in our ridiculous amount of luggage for a one-night stay (two weeks in Europe leads to plenty of luggage) but was rather unfriendly.
The home is a huge, sprawling place, yet it does not feel grand or luxurious. It truly feels like a place where rich people went to feel rustic. There are hallways that twist and turn with plenty of
old, old portraits of horses and people and country scenes gracing the walls. There are unexpected rooms with bookcases, sofas, TVs (since there are none in the rooms), fireplaces and little nooks with chairs everywhere you turn. There are several staircases (and no elevators which made our luggage mountain even more outrageous). Finally we arrived at our two rooms which were not adjoining, but one room away from each in a separate upstairs hall. Each room is named and has a giant key on a huge plaque. We had a LOT of trouble getting the keys to work.
Once inside, we were shocked by the size of our rooms. They were huge. One room had a separate seating area through some French doors. They were furnished with beautiful antiques, floor to ceiling draperies, and lots of books, china, and knicknacks. It truly felt like you’d been invited out to the country for a spot of fox hunting and some family drama circa Downton Abbey. The rooms were a bit of a trip back in time. The bathrooms certainly felt dated, but dated in a luxurious kind of way – sinks with separate hot and cold taps; long, narrow tubs and ancient tiled floors. The beds were comfortable and the rooms fun to explore.
The hotel has grounds to explore, which include some farm animals, lawn croquet (I kid you not)
and some chairs set outside to enjoy the scenery. The entire hotel was freezing cold in August. The heat was not on in the hallways and common rooms and if you were cold, you were best to find a fireplace and huddle. Our rooms were also cold but we had space heaters we turned on. Our stay included breakfast which was part buffet and part made to order. We again had that creepy Hotel California feeling with staff that was unfriendly (a rarity in Ireland) and stand-offish.
Another problem we had with the hotel was a dinner recommendation. As we were heading out for the evening, we had to turn in our keys at the desk (something American travelers may find annoying, but which is still common in Europe). A very friendly woman behind the desk asked where
we were headed. We told her we were going to dinner and she asked where. She dissuaded us from our choice and instead highly recommended a different place (the Pier Head in Kinvara), saying she ate there often and loved it and added that it was on the waterfront. She said she could call and get us a table with a view since she knew the owner. We usually have great luck with hotel dinner recommendations and so we agreed. We arrived to find a tiny restaurant with gaggles of people (clearly locals) sitting and loudly drinking at picnic tables outside ( a little intimidating to walk through). Our table was not ready and we had to wait. Once we were served, it ended up being the absolute worst meal we had in all of Ireland. I was absolutely shocked that someone at a such a very fine and expensive hotel could send guests to such
a truly terrible place that clearly was in no way up to the standards the hotel had set.
Despite this and the creepiness of most of the staff, the hotel was a lovely place to visit and would be a nice place to come and just sit, if that’s your ideal vacation. There are a number of small towns scattered across the edges of the Burren. Stop in at the Burren Visitor Centre in Kilfenora and pick up a map. The volunteers will mark the highlights of the Burren on it for you and you easily see where you might stop for a bite or a bit of shopping (I bought my best find on the entire trip in a tiny shop across the road from the
visitor’s center, so it pays to poke around!).
I’m glad I got to see the Burren, since it is one of the biggest natural features in Ireland and I’m also happy to have been able to experience a country house. If you have time, both should be added to your itinerary, but if you are looking to hit the hot spots in Ireland I would skip both. The Cliffs of Moher is in the same vicinity and gives you more bang for your bucks when it comes to natural beauty.
When you plan a trip to Ireland you soon learn there are a wide variety of accommodations to choose from, and often it’s hard to evaluate them if you’re used to US chain hotels. During our stay in Ireland we stayed in a US chain hotel (the Radisson Blu in Dublin), a castle (Dromoland Castle), … Read more