Next stop on this Grand Tour of Ireland’s best is Dromoland Castle, where the gal is greeted at the bottom of the 16-step entrance by GM and Co-Owner Mark Nolan. He has been at this idyllic luxury activity hotel for yonks and he even oversees the decoration of the 100 bedrooms and public areas, and in between he has a little time for that great Irish pastime, golf. His wife is president of the ladies’ club, here for the 18-hole, par-72 Ron Kirby and J.B. Carr course. (The other owners are Americans and Irish, very much an overlap of the consortium that at one time owned Ashford Castle, some 80 miles away.) Dromoland is only eight miles from Shannon airport, once the main stop for international flights, and such names as Charlie Chaplin, and Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe used to fly through here – and Shannon was the start, too, of duty-free, back in 1947. Today’s sensible transatlantic visitors also like Shannon as, going west, you can clear US immigration here.
Sensible visitors to Ireland, by the way, leave the logistics of getting from one place to another in the hands of Bruno Schmidt, the Belgian-born owner of Pro Bus & Car Luxury Touring. What a fascinating guy he must be. He was once pastry chef here at Dromoland, went on to be executive chef at Park Hotel Kenmare, where he gained a Michelin star. After five years of cooking dreams he gave it all up to set up one of the world’s best limousine companies. In partnership with BMW, he has headquarters-tracked cars that are all WiFi enabled – and it works – and drivers who are amazing concierges. I left something behind at one hotel and it was returned to me at Dublin airport on departure. He works with Ashford Castle, Four Seasons Dublin, The Merrion – and Dromoland. Lovely Liam brought me here, and was ready in plenty of time for our 5.45 a.m. departure the following day. And on the way, on this last trip, Bruno Schmidt telephoned me, as he does all clients, to check all is well. The car, as always, had a leather pouch with reading material, including today’s Financial Times.
Dromoland is another imposing castle, the long-time home of the O’Brien and Inchiquin families. It was made into a hotel in 1963 to accommodate The Beatles, for some reason coming to do a concert here in Co. Clare. The half-century is being celebrated with due fanfare, with special logos and overnight packages, and many castle loyalists (17.5% of people staying here are repeaters) of course are coming back. They come for 410 acres of rolling landscape, and the golf, and cycling and fishing, and a big indoor pool, and an absolutely stunning subterranean spa right under the hotel – the spa is run by the charming Tara, who might well recommend a seaweed facial, using local Voya products. Some are attracted by tennis, driving pony-and-traps, stand-up paddleboarding or even playing chess on the outsize, outside board.
Loyalists also come for the elegant and comfy bedrooms, with logistics (like where the light switches are) by Mark Nolan and colour schemes by Carole Roberts of 12 Design in Bath. Suite 309, named for the first king of Ireland Brian Boroimhe, has an antique, usual-size chessboard. The whole suite is absolutely gorgeous (did George W. Bush love it as much as I do?). The colouring is softest yellow and softest eggshell blue, with full-length drapes of yellow flowers embroidered on the blue, and a bathroom with a sumo-sized free standing tub and an open-sided walk-in shower that would take two sumos at once. And look at the bed, a heavenly concoction of pale blue posts, blue and yellow fabrics and gold interior. Mark Nolan, by the way, has yet another hobby, buying antiques at auction – always online, he says, as with his shock of Newt Gingrich hair he is instantly recognizable and the prices might go up.
Mr Nolan is also a foodie. He is justly very proud of the Dromoland chef, David McCann, who has written the hotel’s 50th anniversary cookbook. In its frontispiece is a photo of ‘my’ bed, with the caption ‘fit for a king’. There are recipes for Irish stew through to brown soda bread, and lots of Castle Kitchen Tips, and how nice to see what a typical staff lunch menu is. Monday sees boiled horseshoe bacon with parsley sauce and dumplings, cabbage and mash. Sunday is roast beef ‘with all the trimmings and gravy’, and rice pudding and raspberry jam. Wow… , meanwhile, from the Earl of Thomond Restaurant’s table d’hôte dinner menu, I start with the organic Irish salmon tartare, with soy and mirin and spring onions.
The finale to that last supper, in Ireland on this trip, is a brown bread ice-cream that is highly recommended but, when it arrives, it is hidden under sorbet of the day (gin and tonic). Honestly, the only thing that is simple when it comes to Irish ‘fine dining’ seems to be the bread – here, the bread selection is about six different types, slices and rolls, presented on a wicker tray. Order brown bread ice-cream and it comes as an Ascot-hat confection, but oh this is so divinely Irish, everything is more than you could have anticipated. Come out of the spa here and they offer you a poured glass of Champagne. Go for a bar lunch and you get starched white napkins at least a yard in each direction. But this is undoubtedly why this particular luxury hotel, a Preferred member, is so successful, and why its loyalists rush back.