IF someone asked you where was the No 1 Best Bargain Hotel in the World, your head would probably whirl around images of the blue oceans of the Seychelles, a chalet in the Swiss Alps, or a colourful riad in Morocco.
Well, you would be wrong because the World's No 1 Best Bargain Hotel is in our own wonderful town of Dingle, Co Kerry. Helen and Brian Heaton's superb Castlewood House, overlooking the waters of Dingle Bay, has swept the boards, winning Tripadvisor Travellers' Choice No 1 Best Bargain Hotel in the World 2014, No 1 Top 25 Best Small Hotels in Ireland and No 1 Top 25 Hotels for Romance in Ireland.
This is an extraordinary achievement. But then Helen and Brian Heaton are an extraordinary couple. Last October, after staying at Castlewood with visiting American journalists for the Dingle Food Festival, I described it as the "Rolls Royce of guesthouses", being more a boutique hotel in design, comfort and service. Brian and Helen are both very highly trained hoteliers who some nine years ago decided to go for it and open their four-star guesthouse.
There is in fact a bit of an anomaly in describing Castlewood and other such high-end guesthouses as four-star, as they should really be five-star. However, the way the grading systems work with Failte Ireland, four-star is the highest level a guesthouse can currently achieve.
It is more than a little confusing and really needs to be sorted because as it stands, following a change last year, small B&Bs (as well as hotels) can have a five-star grading. Guesthouse owners feel strongly that a four-star B&B does not equate like for like with a four-star guesthouse and does not reflect the level of investment and facilities that guesthouses offer.
On top of the Tripadvisor honour and the impending arrival of twins to join their eight-year-old son Craig, Helen and Brian have also been chosen as finalists in the Outstanding Small Business category in the 2014 Small Business Awards run by the Small Firms Association.
"It is a very humbling experience to receive these accolades and especially because they are all as a result of feedback from our guests. It is also a huge morale booster for the staff who really put their all into their jobs and totally share the ethos that we operate under – the concept of old-fashioned Irish hospitality. We are constantly trying to expand the packages and service that we offer and we are always trying to think outside the box," says Helen.
"You are selling an overall experience – the memories. Whether it is a romantic proposal, a honeymoon, a trip to the Ryan's Daughter locations, or a private guided tour of the Dingle Way, it is memory-building for our guests. Each year we make a new addition to the facilities," she says.
So, what does the visitor experience at Castlewood House? You get the feeling you are in a five-star hotel but at a fraction of the price. The whole atmosphere is one of graciousness and space with unobtrusive yet attentive service. The elegant drawing room perfect for a post-dinner drink or just to relax and look out at the water. The breakfast room is bright and airy and bedrooms are all individually designed, luxurious and spacious. And as for Brian's breakfast, you wouldn't get the selection in a five-star hotel.
On our visit, there were nine different fruits, from prunes to plums poached in star anise and cinnamon, stuffed apricots to nectarines poached with vanilla. People oohed over the freshly baked raspberry scones and bread and butter pudding. Naturally there are cereals and yoghurts to beat the band, not to mention cheese and salami, fruit breads, various croissants and artisan jams and honeys.
You can, of course, also have the Traditional Irish Breakfast including Ashes award-winning sausages, bacon and black and white puddings, but you can also have Dingle Bay Kippers with scrambled egg, Eggs Benedict or Eggs Benedict Supreme with Ted Browne's Dingle Organic smoked salmon.
They say that the last thing you remember when you leave a hotel is the breakfast – believe me, you will be booking your next stay at Castlewood House before you leave.
Others included in the Tripadvisor Travellers' Choice 25 Best Bargain Hotels 2014 in Ireland were: Doonmore Hotel, Inishbofin; Strandhill Lodge and Suites, Sligo; Arbutus Hotel, Killarney; Viewmount House, Longford; Waterfront House, Enniscrone; Castle Hotel, Macroom; McSweeney Arms, Killarney; Mill Times Hotel, Westport; Riverbank Hotel, Wexford; Langton House, Kilkenny.
Harvey's Point in Donegal was No 1 in the Travellers' Choice Top 25 Hotels in Ireland with the Killarney Park Hotel as No 2. Others included the Europe Hotel in Killarney, Hayfield Manor in Cork, the Castle Hotel in Macroom, Ballygarry House Hotel Tralee, Inchydoney Lodge, the Monart Destination Spa at Enniscorthy and Dublin's Ariel House on Lansdowne Road. www.castlewooddingle.com
This time last year I had a very moving experience when I went out with the ISPCA to see them rescue a beautiful donkey, Valentino, who had been abandoned in a remote marsh for some three years.
It is absolutely shocking – and also distressing – to see how some animals are treated. Last year, the ISPCA received 1,933 distress calls related to equine cruelty or neglect.
The ISPCA has just launched its 'Hay Drive' to raise essential funds to rescue and rehabilitate the huge number of horses, ponies, donkeys and foals that need urgent care after being abandoned and left to die.
You can help – I've seen the fantastic work the ISPCA does – if you donate €4 by texting Hay to 50300 or make a monthly gift of €4 through the ISPCA website.