First Look: Liss Ard Hotel in west Cork gets a ‘friend’s lavish pad’ makeover

A major refurbishment has been carried out at the former hangout of spies and rockstars

There used to be something a little louche about Liss Ard, but only in the most enticing sense of the word. Maybe it was the rumours of gold stashed in the cellars of the grand house near Skibbereen by an earlier owner, Swiss spy Albert Bachmann.

Tales of stellar rock gods lounging in the hangouts, and hanging out in the lounges certainly added to the allure. In its 1990s hey days, the Liss Ard Festival hosted the likes of Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bryan Ferry, Nick Cave and Robert Plant, all of whom liked to linger on after the crowds were gone, soaking up the atmosphere and the extraordinary beauty of the 200-acre estate, which includes a 40-acre lake.

“I feel a debt to the place,” Cave said, after what must have been a particularly relaxing set of sessions.

But allure fades, and even rock stardust can lose its lustre. Liss Ard became a hotel and wedding venue: quirky, mostly beloved, but gently fading as it languished on the market, first at €7.5million, then at €5million, before being sold for a reported €3.5million in 2021. Having “saved” more than half the original asking price, the new US-based owners set about spending.

Colin Best and Michael Johnston had been trawling Europe for a suitable spot to start what they envision as a new string of unique and luxurious hotels. "Colin had been sending me pictures of castles," says Johnston as he shows me around the grounds.

We pause to ignore my dog, disgracing himself in a herbaceous border. Some of the mews rooms will be dog friendly, though you’ll want to make sure yours is more mannerly than mine. The exceptionally charming Johnston doesn’t seem to mind as he describes the blandishments of France and Italy, with their chateaux, castelli, sunshine, food and wines, and yet how, “when we found Liss Ard, we fell in love”.

Sharp-eyed hotel-goers among you will have noticed that Liss Ard was already open under the new owners last year. But now, after a five -month closure, a major refurbishment project has been carried out, including rewiring, fixing the roof, changing the layout of the bedrooms to make sure the bathrooms are all wallow-worthy, and sundry other chic touches.

With an historic house like this, all the rooms are different sizes and shapes, and while two are erring on the “cosy” side, there is none you wouldn’t want to spend a great deal of time in.

The revamp has brought the room count to 26, so expect chic and niche, rather than long corridors of identikit boxes. Evelyn Best, wife of partner-owner Colin Best, oversaw the look, working with a local team including Marc Ó Riain at Kinsale-based RUA Architects, Mannix Construction, and Delaney Bespoke Furniture, on items including clever desks that open up into vanity units – proudly designed by Evelyn.

“I’m actually a lawyer,” she laughs, via a phone call from California. “So it’s a baptism by fire.”

It’s also all rather gorgeous. Evelyn says her day job gives her an attention to detail, but she clearly has an eye, and the look and feel of Liss Ard shows you don’t need to have done a million hotels to do a good one.

In fact, the freshness might well be better for it. She also has a very well travelled CV that lets her know exactly what she doesn’t want in a hotel.

The vibe of Liss Ard is more about coming to stay in a friend’s lavish pad, should you have such friends. “We’re definitely not off-puttingly stuffy,” she says. “It’s classic, timeless, inviting, a sanctuary. But it’s also fun.”

The fun includes a record player in the lounge, where you can hang out and spin favourites, plus a piano, games and plenty of books. “It’s communal, but you can also be private.”

The décor is refined and muted, a mix of gently modern and antique, giving views of the beautiful gardens centre stage. I can quickly see how it’s somewhere you wouldn’t be in a rush to leave. Spending time is part of the plan, as Johnston explains.

“Lockdown showed us that you don’t always have to be office-based, so we’re planning extended stays during the off-season.” As he describes it, a company might book rooms for 10 days, bracketing a working week with a couple of truly relaxing weekends. He also assures me that corporate group sizes will be small, so that other guests have no need to fear being engulfed by an overriding presence of semi on-duty business types. Unless, of course that’s a possible draw for you?

Liss Ard is just outside Skibbereen, home to the innovative Ludgate Hub, which brought super high speed broadband to the west Cork town before it was even a whisper elsewhere. Liss Ard is upping the ante with Elon Musk's Starlink internet on tap. And it's not just about speedy connections for basking executives; off-season there will also be two rooms made available for artists-in-residence. Check the website for details of how to apply.

Johnston knows his hotels, having previously worked around the world, including opening the Four Seasons in St Petersburg. Having sold out of Russia in what is now clearly a timely fashion, he sees Liss Ard as a space where people can find escape, and a bit of balance.

Liss Ard’s grounds are gorgeous. There are 12km of walking trails, hidden picnic spots, fire pits and the famous James Turrell Sky Garden, where guests can book a 20-minute session, ensuring alone time in this astonishing, monumental and meditative art work.

Other additions include yoga, sauna and workout studios in little cabins on the lake. You can also go fishing, and kayaking, or just jump in for a restorative plunge. Next on the list for renovation (it is currently under way) is the Victorian lake house, where future guests will be able to avail of golf buggies to bring them up to dinner in Alexander Petit’s Garden restaurant, where the emphasis is on produce from Liss Ard’s gardens, and local farm to fork foods.

There is no Swiss gold at Liss Ard, and Lou Reed and his pals have long since departed, but something tells me that there are plenty more good times to come for this beautiful west Cork hideaway.

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