Northern Delights: Solis Lough Eske, Co. Donegal
I was sulking. On an industrial scale. Plans for a long-awaited idyll in Ibiza with childhood friends had been de-railed. A considerate colleague, keen probably to vaporise the nuclear rays of discontent emanating from across the desk, arranged a replacement break for me.
So for the second time this year I found myself heading north.
In February I went to Belfast; this time, on a blisteringly hot June weekend, accompanied by my friend of many years, writer and lawyer-in-waiting Dee, I was off to Donegal. Both Northern delights had the same man in common. My Down highlight was a visit to the Titanic exhibition, the breathtaking behemoth conceived and executed by businessman Pat Doherty, and a few months later I was heading to the Solis Lough Eske Castle resort.
Located a short drive from Donegal in the lee of the beautiful Blue Stack mountains, Lough Eske was bought by Doherty a decade ago. Built in 1861 by the Brooke family, the Elizabethan manor house was once upon a time sustained by a huge farm but the estate diminished down the decades - and when the family finally ran out of money, they simply took the roof off. The inevitable dereliction and decay was immense: Doherty inherited three walls set in 43 acres of woodland and undertook a sensitive and intelligent restoration job.
As you meander up the forested driveway, silver glimpses of the lake winking between the ancient trees, you only see the castle: the extensive modern wings and additions are cleverly hidden. Passing a formal rose garden which has been designed in keeping with the period, you find the handsome spa area which sits in the footprint of, and structurally mimics the old glass houses.
The interior of the hotel is equally impressive - a billiards room has one of the biggest known collections of Fr Brown's photos, the ajdoining study the requisite ghost. There's an extensive dedicated wedding area including a stone bower in the garden for civil ceremonies (though the law currently prohibits them outside) and there's even a quaint gallery for proposals. Portraits of Doherty and Andrew Parker Bowles (he was on the board) by Lucien Freud adorn the elegant drawing rooms.
After our long drive and a swim (the pool overlooks the original old garden walls edged with aurum lillies), a sauna and a lavender and rosemary back massage, we were ravenous and undid any good we achieved by consuming a feast of staggering gorgeousness. Half a dozen Donegal oysters were followed by scallops, carpaccio of beetroot and goats' cheese, superb fillet steaks and rum and raisin ice cream. We fell into our delightfully squashy beds to consume Gosford Park.
The only five-star establishment in the county, Lough Eske is now run by international operators Solis, and it shows. The place is spotless, runs like clockwork and the staff have a matchless charm meeting our various requests - from fans to a copy of the Financial Times - with warmth and efficiency. Another famous hotel in these parts situated just across the lake is Harvey's Point, or Howard's End, as Dee insisted on referring to it. We enjoyed a cool glass of wine on the terrace there, captivated by the view of the lake gently rippling beneath the azure and coral sunset.
Next morning back at base, we were shown how to fillet and smoke a salmon. Sous chef David Doherty took a handsome salmon plucked out of local water the day before and sliced, tweezed and fashioned it into fillets onto which he rubbed a mix of star anise, pink peppercorns, brown sugar and cloves before dressing them with limes. Then it was up to the smokehouse - essentially a garden shed attached to an old bin smoking with oak and ash. He collected two he had prepped earlier. It was just past midday and we'd not long finished a lingering brekkie of fresh fruit, yoghurt, and eggs florentine, and now hot smoked salmon and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc was put in front of us. As the saying goes it would have been rude not to. And so we sat under the pine trees, enjoying the meltingly tender salmon, hearing about David's adventures in the Carribean and the Lissadell estate where he currently resides, the reopening of which, with welcome synchronicity, was that morning's breaking news.
This is a great corner of Ireland to spend time in - truly, there is something for everyone. Our last day was the perfect example of this. We spent the morning in Donegal town, moseying round the shops and having coffee before enjoying a tour of Donegal Castle. The town takes its name from Dun na nGall, fort of the foreigners, its accessibility to the ocean irresistible to the marauding Vikings. Burned in 1159, it became the site in 1474 of the Franciscan friary founded by my maternal ancestor Red Hugh O'Donnell; later his kinsman Hugh Roe O'Donnell marched south from here when Spanish forces landed at Kinsale in 1601. After the Flight of the Earls in 1607, the Plantation of Ulster ensured that the castle was granted to Captain Basil Brooke (of Lough Eske castle) who added a gabled manor house to the original tower. We enjoyed an edifying tour, learning that the Four Masters conceived the Annals of Ireland in these evocative chambers, which have been conserved with great care by their present guardians, the OPW.
Searing temperatures dictated the rest of the day would be spent beachside, and so to Rossknowlagh strand, where we passed a restorative afternoon reading, sunbathing and swimming. The surfers were out and inspired us to plan a week's surfing in Cornwall. Continuing the Cornish vibe we headed up the road to Smugglers' Creek, a popular hostelry with fab views. We sat, taking in the wide blue yonder, drinking beer, talking about our children and our work, books, men, and diets, while the sun beat down on our salty, sandy backs.
It wasn't Santa Eularia - but it was still heaven.
Room rate from €245 per night.
Mid-week Tranquillity Package (valid September - December) from €449 per couple. This includes two nights B and B for two sharing a courtyard room, four-course dinner in Cedars Restaurant on one evening, afternoon tea for two on the afternoon of your choice, complimentary use of heated indoor pool, fitness centre and thermal suite at Spa Solis and 20pc discount off all Spa Treatments of 60 minutes or over
Book Online: www.solishotels.com/lougheskecastle/