Weekend Away: Sandbrook House, Co Carlow
There is self-catering, and then there is Sandbrook House. Tootling towards this 18th-century pile, down an avenue flanked with big trees and munching horses, the late-summer sunlight makes even our humble motor feel as if it's making a grand arrival.
Inside, we flick through a guestbook with entries dating from 1929. Sandbrook is not a jaw-dropping pile like, say, Ballyvolane or Marlfield; rather a slow-burning mix of country luxury, our-home-is-yours service, and art with an edge.
Greeting us at the door, Vera Brennan, the house manager, makes us feel as much like friends as guests.
Room to book
Sandbrook has seven bedrooms, all with thick duvets, heavy curtains, antique furniture and choice views. Some come with marble fireplaces and sinks, most have en suite bathrooms with standalone power showers, and there's a slightly more basic apartment, 'The Dairy'. No two are the same.
The master bedroom comes with a large sleigh bed, for example. Walking through another, I'm surprised to find a small gym. Still another, our five-year-old daughter's favourite, has a circular window overlooking the driveway. The TVs, sprouting exposed cables, should be better dealt with, but we feel like lords of the manor.
The pamper factor
Eclectic décor can often seem potty or contrived, but it works well here, with five reception rooms mixing some fairly bold art up among the antiques, open fires, lounging sofas, sash windows and a big Aga in the kitchen.
It's the kind of place that invites wandering -- you could find yourself pouring a drink from the cabinet one minute, strolling through the walled garden or browsing a big book of Annie Leibovitz photos in an alcove the next.
Sisal carpets can be a little coarse underfoot, but they're the right choice here, swallowing up any evidence of kids or party guests.
Sandbrook is available to rent on a self-catering or staffed basis -- it would be a great spot for a small group, hen party or a family occasion. Kids are welcome too.
Guests can request catered breakfasts and dinners at Sandbrook, or do their own thing in the kitchen. Vera and her two sisters, Ann and Frances, can do as much or as little of anything, provided you arrange in advance.
We went for the in-house dinner, served in front of a blazing fire. Sitting at a big antique table, we started with punchy monkfish cakes with a hint of bacon, followed by a very tender roast rack of Wicklow lamb on a bed of rosemary risotto.
Fresh gluten-free bread, olive oil from a sister estate in Italy and Ballycross juice were nice touches, and dessert was a pert white chocolate and Bailey's parfait served with mixed berries. Hearty, country-house cooking is how I would describe it.
What to do
This corner of Carlow is slowly putting itself on the map, thanks in no small part to celebrity exports such as rugby hero Seán O'Brien and actress Saoirse Ronan.
Aside from a short visit to nearby Huntingdon Castle, we stayed put to enjoy the gardens and trampoline. Sandbrook would also make a good base for fishing, and the gardens at Altamont House are five minutes away.
If you're a horsey sort, you could bring a couple of animals to Sandbrook -- the estate has its own stables and dry arena, and there's plenty of riding space.
A couple of blips, including a lack of signage from Ballon, the absence of a harness for the baby's high-chair and the haphazard TV set-up didn't bother us unduly. If anything, they highlighted how much Sandbrook gets right.
Sandbrook House is available to rent for a weekend at Â¤2,400 for up to 18 people, or for a week at Â¤4,500 for up to 10 people. Breakfast and dinner can be catered for an extra cost.
Ballon, Co Carlow; Tel: 059 915 9247; sandbrookhouse.com.