Explore country houses with gourmet food and elegant period charm
With summer coming – and vaccinations here – Ireland’s luxury country house properties are polishing glassware and plumping pillows for your return
Ardtara House in Co Derry has been lovingly restored to combine its romantic Victorian architecture with all the modern comforts you expect in top class hospitality.
We may not be able to take a romantic break just yet, but when we can, there is no better place to visit for an elite assortment of accommodation, including luxury country house hotels, than Northern Ireland.
If you are planning a break when Covid-19 restrictions allow, we’ve got two destinations to consider that are a home-from-home – and a lot more besides.
Top of many people’s list will be the elegant Ardtara Country House near Maghera in Co Derry. Luxurious from inception, the Victorian property was built by one of Northern Ireland’s wealthy linen barons and is in a picturesque setting amid woodlands and lakes.
It is part of the multi award-winning Browns Bonds Hill Collection, a bespoke restaurant group that includes Browns Bondshill and Browns in Town, both of which are in Derry city, and Eighteen Ninety Four, a fine dining restaurant near the beautiful beach at Portstewart.
All are owned by hospitality specialist Marcus Roulston and chef patron Ian Orr – well known for his appearances on TV cookery shows such as BBC’s Saturday Kitchen Live.
Orr oversees Ardtara Country House’s restaurant, creating amazing dishes with ingredients that are fresh, seasonal and locally sourced – including from its own gardens.
He and Roulston bought the property in 2014, smitten not just by its potential, but by its past.
“We have lovingly restored it, combining its romantic Victorian architecture with all the modern comforts you expect in top class hospitality,” explains Roulston.
Our idea for Ardtara was always for it to be a gourmet destination
Its nine bedrooms are beautifully decorated and feature antiques and heirlooms alongside modern conveniences such as flatscreen TVs and Nespresso machines. The bedrooms, and indeed some of the en suite bathrooms, feature original fireplaces and working fires.
While the hotel is peaceful and secluded, there is that unmistakable buzz that comes from having a full-service restaurant on site, with extensive wine list and cocktail menu.
Open to residents and non-residents alike, it’s a destination eatery that attracts gourmands from far and wide.
The restaurant is recommended by the Michelin Guide, has won the AA award for Guest Accommodation of the Year and was shortlisted as a Hideaway of the Year last year by Georgina Campbell.
“Our idea for Ardtara was always for it to be a gourmet destination,” explains Roulston.
There’s loads to see and do too. The property has 80 acres of lakeside walks directly behind and is perfectly located for exploring further afield. “If you were to put a pin directly in the centre of Northern Ireland you’d land on us,” he points out.
Equidistant from Derry city and Belfast, a 45-minute drive takes you to both cities, or to the Causeway coast.
That puts you in easy reach of popular visitor attractions such as the Bushmills Distillery, the Titanic Centre in Belfast and Derry’s famous City Walls. All around Northern Ireland you’ll see locations familiar from TV’s Game of Thrones and there are plenty of opportunities for walking, from coastal paths to mountain hikes.
Of course, the other significant element of Ardtara Country House’s success is the service which, like all Blue Book properties – of which it is a member – is top notch and polished – without being remotely stuffy.
“This house feels like a home. That’s how guests describe it to us, because they feel so comfortable here,” says Roulston.
A family focus
It’s a sentiment shared by guests at Newforge House too, another Blue Book country house property, which sits in the countryside just outside Magheralin, in Co Armagh.
The house, which dates to the late 1700s, is home to John and Louise Mathers and their young children. It has been in John’s family for six generations.
Guests tell us that being here feels like a home from home
He believes that a huge part of the appeal of the Blue Book’s Country House properties is that they are each unique. “There is only one Newforge House, there aren’t six or seven of us,” he explains.
“Each brings with it its own sense of tradition too, and that lovely welcoming atmosphere, somewhere that is not ostentatious or pompous, just very relaxing,” says Mathers.
Newforge has just six bedrooms, ensuring each guest receives a genuinely personal service. “Guests tell us that being here feels like a home from home. We offer a five-star service but in an environment that is relaxed and homely, where members of staff know guests’ names,” he explains.
It is often the simple things that lead to an exceptional experience, he points out: “It’s about an open fire and a book, tea and home baking, and simple, tasty food.”
Mathers, who is a chef, looks after the menu, and cooks everything from scratch, from bounteous breakfasts to gourmet dinners. Wife Louise, the baker in the family, makes all the fresh breads served daily.
When the hospitality sector reopens, once restrictions are lifted, he expects more people than ever to select properties based on their culinary ethos.
“I think the lockdowns, and indeed Brexit, have encouraged people to appreciate the importance of having good food that is locally produced and sourced.”
“We’ve been doing it for 17 years. For us, keeping things simple and local, and appreciating the importance of food provenance generally, has always been central to the way we operate,” Mathers says.
He is delighted to see such appreciation deepen generally. “We can see it. For example, we have local dairy farms which have changed the way they do things to accommodate people driving up to collect pasteurised whole milk fresh from the farm. I was there on Sunday and there were 10 other cars queuing to collect fresh milk,” he says.
He believes the experiences of the past year may change the way we approach holidays in other ways too. “I think people may feel that it’s just not worth the hassle to take a two week break in the sun, but will take a number of mini breaks instead,” he suggests.
There’s good reason for doing that. And in Ireland’s Blue Book, you’ll find dozens of them.
“With a mini-break you feel like you’ve been away for a week, which means you come back completely refreshed,” says Mathers.
“Whether you’ve been working throughout the pandemic or not working at all, I think we’re all tightly wound right now. More than ever I think people will want to get away somewhere where they can genuinely say, ‘I feel special’.”