Weekend away: The Maryborough Hotel & Spa, Cork
Sweeping down a curved tree-lined driveway to the period manor dwelling which houses the Maryborough, you are reminded of the novels of Jane Austen. The impression deepens as you enter the grand hall with its cantilever staircase, just perfect for making meaningful entrances.
Set in a secluded estate of graceful gardens and woodland, the Maryborough Hotel and Spa evokes all the charm and grandeur of the original home built for wealthy merchant Richard Newenham in 1710.
But when you find yourself in the modern extension of this four-star hotel, you can't help but wonder what Lizzie Bennett or her Mr Darcy would make of the chrome, cool-leather sofas of the ultra-contemporary bar or the state-of-the-art gym.
Why go now?
The Maryborough has just completed an extensive refurbishment project, which has seen all of its bedrooms given a facelift. With the hammers silenced and everything shiny and new, it's a great time to visit this hotel, which combines close access to the southern capital with one of the plushest spas in the country.
Room to book
For atmosphere, book one of the five Georgian suites in the original manor house -- their exposed wooden beams and stonework combine with period elegance. Those in search of decadent comforts might prefer to spend the weekend in one of the spa bedrooms, which are nothing short of opulent -- each comes with a double Jacuzzi bath.
Wherever you lay your head, make sure your bedroom has a view of the 300-year-old beautifully manicured gardens, so you can wake to the magical sound of bird song.
Zing's, the hotel's popular restaurant, is closed on Sundays so we dined in the café bar, a much livelier choice for two old schoolfriends having a rare get-together. My friend licked her lips after her roast rump of Irish beef, champ and rosemary jus, while I loved my beetroot and goat's cheese tartlet, with crumbly hazelnut pastry and lots of crisp leaves.
The walk-in cellar makes choosing wine fun. Breakfast was the usual buffet affair -- my only quibble was with the single-serve portions in packets rather than pots from which you serve yourself.
What to do
The escapist in me would propose spending the entire weekend in a fluffy white dressing gown, wandering between the 18m pool and the thermal spa suite, with occasional breaks for food and wine. However, it's hard to resist the draw of Cork's culinary riches, such as the indoor English market or the attraction of a summer evening's drive down to nearby Kinsale.
Despite our grim economy the Maryborough was buzzing all weekend, with a mix of couples and families spoiling themselves with a break away and a good scattering of locals enjoying the restaurant and bar.
The open-plan layout of the modern section, with one side stretching on to the leafy gardens, provides a pleasant backdrop, whether you're stopping off with your laptop for a coffee and scone, or squandering a few hours on cocktails and gossip.
I don't easily declare that the spa is one of the most wonderful I have yet to encounter. Greeted by the sound of free-flowing water, I was delighted to discover it was not a recording but a lovely rain-like feature pouring down outside the glass corridor.
Upstairs all is cool and contemporary, with white sofas and fresh flowers, before you descend into the stone cocoon that houses the treatment rooms, lifestyle showers, rock sauna and thermal pool we found so difficult to leave. If you book a treatment, make sure you get down to the spa early so you can enjoy all the cooling and warming wonders beforehand.
My body massage, from Aoibheann, was both relaxing and invigorating -- exactly what I had asked for.
The hotel is a good 10 minutes' drive from the city centre, which is fine if you have a car but I was limited to taxis. However, for guests planning to sample Cork's night life, taxis are easy to come by.
In any case, just a few minutes' stroll takes you to the heart of bustling Douglas village, which has plenty of interesting food stops and bars.
A two-night B&B break with one dinner costs €139 per person sharing.
Maryborough Hotel and Spa, Maryborough Hill, Douglas, Co Cork. 021-436 5555; www.maryborough.com.