Weekend away: Adare Manor Villas, Co Limerick
Let's start with the best bit. By the time the thaw arrived in mid-January, we were all sick of frosty dawns and snowcapped hills.
But that late winter morning in Adare, when we woke to a scene of Dickensian splendour, will stay with us for a long time. We breakfasted late and heartily and then, wrapped in layers and wearing sturdy boots, we set out to circuit the manor's estate, before we descended upon Adare village, invigorated, ravenous and delighted with ourselves. Wonderful. A good-to-be-alive moment.
Why go now?
We chose Adare Manor for a number or reasons, but principally because it's a place we've driven past numerous times and mentally jotted down as a Must-Do-Some-Day and because, when you're starting out from Dublin, it's a reasonable drive. But we decided not to stay in the hotel proper but in a self-catering Natural Retreats villa, one in a small but smartly arranged cluster at the back of the massive estate, which comfortably sleeps six and more at a push.
The villas, like the smaller townhouses which are closer to the hotel, are beautifully turned out, smartly designed and finished to a high spec. If that sounds like a blurb from a brochure, well, it can't be avoided. It happens to be true.
I had my reservations beforehand, to be honest. Was this option in bleak mid-winter really a bright idea? Would the place be musty, dreary? Would we feel isolated? Would my 13-year-old daughter Jean and her cousin Alison be bored? Would we all get cabin fever and fall out over our 25th game of snap? I needn't have worried.
But, a confession: we chose to go away with our old friends Marie and Vincent for myriad noble reasons. But there was one overriding priority: food and who would be preparing it. The simple and unvarnished truth is Marie is a wonderful cook and my wife Debs, well, isn't quite as wonderful. Ahem. The idea was we'd have invigorating days in the great outdoors and prepare wholesome food in the evenings. Life doesn't, from my sheltered perspective, get much better than that.
What to do
Adare Manor is a recognised architectural masterpiece, with eye-catching towers, turrets and stonework. Then there's the ornate gardens, the majestic trees and 800 acres to explore.
And the golf? The championship course has hosted Tiger Woods on occasion. You might remember him. Travel bible Conté Nast voted it fourth-best course in the world in 2008. We had planned a round, but seeing as I'm about as adept at golf as Tiger is at monogamy, it was just as well that permafrost cancelled play.
The 19th hole
You have a choice. The clubhouse seemed deserted because of the golf freeze, so we chose to have our pre-dinner drinks in the Manor's quaint bar. This is found in a large old drawing room dominated by two huge ornate fireplaces, which makes very few concessions to the 20th century (the 21st doesn't get a look in), save for discreet lighting and draught lager. We spent long enough there on our final night to embarrass our young charges, but not long enough to outstay our welcome.
We didn't venture far because we didn't want to. It's called indolence and it comes highly recommended. But Adare is on the road west that will eventually deliver you to Tralee, Dingle and beyond. A very manageable one-day round trip.
If you turn right instead, Limerick city is only a 20-minute drive, although the traffic can be nightmarish if you hit rush-hour.
Down the village green
Adare has huge appeal. We wandered down to stock up, but stayed much longer. The female adults, in particular, enjoyed the homely comforts of the Dunraven Arms, where they warmed themselves over numerous hot Ports one bracing afternoon. We also had a light lunch in the thatched and curious Blue Door restaurant, after our march through the ice and frost.
Realising that the pasta dish that my nearest and dearest had prepared on the first night was not going to earn Adare Manor the Michelin star it craves. Other than that: the pool in Adare Manor does not compare with the sort of facility found in even a run-of-the-mill, three-star establishment. Small, squat and a bit of an antique, it didn't impress our two 13-year-olds, nor me. If the weather was more hospitable, the Manor could have offered the girls horse riding, archery, cycling and the like. But that wasn't too much consolation on the day.
The villas can be hired from a minimum of two nights. In the low season to February 12, three nights costs €510; mid-season costs €740 and, in summer, expect to fork out €1,030.
Green fees? Eighteen holes for a Natural Retreats villa resident is €85 in mid-season and €90 in the summer. It is a championship course and a worthwhile binge if you know what you're doing, but a reckless indulgence if you're just an ambitious pitch 'n' putter out of your comfort zone.
Recommended? Most definitely. Three nights in the spring mid-season for, say, three couples is good value. But you'd have to think harder about shelling-out more than a grand in July or August.
Natural Retreats, call 01 685 3013; naturalretreats.ie. Adare Manor, Adare, Co Limerick. Tel: 061 605 200; reservations @adaremanor.com; adaremanor.com.