Falling in love again

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

GO IRELAND:Sheen Falls excels as a romantic getaway but there is also lots to do outdoors in Kerry, writes SEÁN FLYNN

IT IS STILL raining by the time we reach Sheen Falls Lodge on Friday evening after a thrilling drive over the mountains from Killarney. Inside a roaring fire is burning and there is warmth and conviviality in the welcome. All around there are thick carpets, sumptuous sofas and ornate paintings. Occasionally, the quiet is broken by the splash of the cascading falls just beyond the window.

Sheen Falls is a five-star resort and one much favoured by those demanding types at Condé Nast Traveller – but this is luxury with an Irish twist. There is nothing corporate or austere about what’s going on here. This is first and foremost an Irish hotel, albeit one with world-class standards of service and luxury.

Set on a private 120-hectare wooded estate outside Kenmare, Sheen Falls Lodge is the former summer residence of the Marquis of Lansdowne. In its day, the lodge welcomed the gentry in their pursuit of salmon, trout, herring and pilchards; they would cast a line from the arched stone bridge over the falls, which dates back to 1777.

In the mid-1960s, a Manchester businessman explored the possibility of turning Sheen Falls into a commercial fishery but that never materialised. Today the property is owned by a Danish shipping magnate, Bent Hoyer. Sheen Falls has many virtues – great locally sourced food and luxurious accommodation – but it is above all a romantic getaway.

But this is not just a haven for couples seeking solitude. These days, the clientele is a strikingly diverse mix of Irish, British, European and American. There is a cycling group from Germany; hill-walkers from Portland, Oregon; a large extended family from Cork celebrating a silver wedding anniversary and a group of young businesswomen from Manchester.

Sheen Falls appears to be weathering these tough economic times. It closes for brief periods during the winter but stays open over Christmas and from St Patrick’s Day until the autumn. It employs a fair scattering of locals plus kitchen staff from France and management from Britain and South Africa.

The manager, Alan Campell, who used to work for Richard Branson on the millionaire’s private island, says business is good and back on an upward trajectory. One of his assistants says there will always be a market for top-notch luxury and service and “that is what we take pride in”. Campbell says Sheen Falls is keen to market itself as a five-star resort. It’s also reaching into new emerging markets in India, China and Brazil.

The other changing trend is the demand among guests for activity programmes and sports. In the 1980s the typical guest would confine themselves to the hotel for the most part, venturing out occasionally to Kenmare for Waterford Glass tumblers or an Aran sweater.

Today, guests expect the hotel to help them as they explore the area. On our break, the hotel teamed us with Black Sheep Kerry Adventures run by local man Karl Doyle. Black Sheep offers guided trips through Kerry on foot, by bike or by sea kayak for free. Doyle works for tips, so payment is at your discretion.

He is a hugely entertaining figure who will regale you with hilarious stories from a lifetime of adventure from the other side of the mountain. Doyle once worked 9-5 selling technical machinery to multinationals, but he abandoned that for a life less ordinary.

He took us off the road on a three-hour trek across the mountain range near Tuosist, about eight miles from Kenmare. It was an exhilarating and memorable experience. It’s not an easy walk but the 360-degree views from the summit and across to Carrauntoohil make it worthwhile.

Back at Sheen Falls Lodge, we dive into the Jacuzzi at the spa and leisure centre before having a massage. As Van Morrison might say: “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”

Sheen Falls was busy during our trip in July. The dining room and the bar are buzzing with locals and tourists. Every second person we meet appears to be a regular visitor. One British visitor tells us how a weekend here is her annual gift to herself. It’s not cheap, she says, there are precious few places that are “this luxurious and this friendly”.

Sheen Falls delivers exactly what one might expect: luxurious accommodation, great food and outstanding service. It is a haven of tranquillity in a hurried world. But it can also deliver old-fashioned Irish craic in the bar and in the sitting rooms. It’s the sort of place you will find your mind returning to when you are back in the workplace and in the familiar groove.

As we left in the rain we vowed to return to this special place as soon as possible. Sheen Falls is like that. It draws you in and it casts its spell.

We will return.

Seán Flynn travelled as a guest of Sheen Falls Lodge. See sheenfallslodge.ie

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