Ashford Castle, Cong, Co Mayo
Staying in a castle could sound like a decidedly Gothic experience, but not at this welcoming resort. Founded in 1228, the original castle buildings (with added extensions in the late 19th century) are stunning, but it's the homely feel and friendly, local staff that make Ashford Castle a premier destination. Gorgeous views over the lakes and gardens combined with fine dining, luxurious rooms and a convivial atmosphere in the bar at night all add to the feel of good old-fashioned hospitality. The nearby village of Cong was made famous by John Ford's Oscar-winning film 'The Quiet Man'.
Details: 094 954600; ashford.ie; B&B and dinner from €325 for two
Sheen Falls, Kenmare, Co Kerry
Recently sold for €5m, this five-star hotel 20km from Killarney is a real find. Fine dining in the Cascade restaurant, guided falconry walks, trips in the hotel's 1930s Buick and drinks outside surrounded by waterfalls all add to the magic, and its location on the edge of the Ring of Kerry and the Beara Peninsula make it a real gem. Picturesque Kenmare is a mile away, but there's no real need to leave the resort thanks to its spa, swimming pool, bars, restaurants and activities, as well as gorgeously appointed rooms.
Details: 064 664 1600; sheenfallslodge.ie; B&B and dinner from €300 for two
Ard na Sidhe, Killorglin, Co Kerry
Ard na Sidhe (Hill of the Fairies) is the Kingdom's best-kept secret. Everything about this exquisite arts and crafts-style house screams class, from the oak wainscoting and fired-earth sinks to the casement windows with views over Caragh Lake. Ard na Sidhe is a little sister to The Europe and Dunloe Castle, but its detail – dating from 1913 and lavishly restored a few years ago – trumps both. Eighteen bedrooms (request one in the main house) offer further treats in the shape of handmade curtains, claw-foot baths and views over Edwardian gardens. It's currently hibernating through winter.
Details: 066 976 9105; ardnasidhe.com; B&B from €90pps
The Cliff House, Ardmore, Co Waterford
For years, hotel dining in Ireland was synonymous with stuffy, soul-sucking fare. The Cliff House opened in 2006, and within 18 months a (Michelin) star was born. It's no exaggeration to say Martijn Kajuiter's kitchen – through dishes such as Lismore lamb with artichoke, wild spinach pate and toasted garlic, or Bantry Bay salmon smoked on the plate – heralded a new dawn for Irish hotel food. The Relais & Chateau member has 39 boldly-designed bedrooms, its architecture cascades down the banks of Ardmore Bay, and treats like an infinity pool, spa and spiralling staircase are complemented with splashes of contemporary Irish art.
Details: 024 87800; thecliff househotel.com; B&B and dinner from €305 for two
Ballynahinch Castle, Clifden, Co Galway
Turning off an R-road on the rugged Ballyconneely Peninsula, you pass through a patch of forest, round a bend and come face to face with an extraordinary reveal: an 18th century castle reflected in the Ballynahinch River. Things pretty much continue from there. There is the history. There are roaring fires, world-class fly-fishing and, of course, the location. I've yet to meet the person with a bad word to say about Ballynahinch. For what it is, it's the best there is.
Details: 095 31006; bally nahinch-castle.com; 2B&B and 1 dinner from €170pps
Castlemartyr Resort, East Cork
Winding along the driveway to East Cork's most exclusive hotel, you'll be instantly enraptured by epic Irish romanticism. This five-star demesne and majestic mansion is surrounded by rolling pastures, scenic oak woodlands and a 13th century castle; even the resident Irish setters appear like props from an Annie Leibovitz 'Vogue' shoot. Inside, guests unwind in understated country-house luxury, where the exquisite Knight's Bar and Bell Tower Restaurant are highlights.
Details: 021 421 9000; castle martyrresort.ie; B&B from €75pps
Lough Erne Resort, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh
Fresh from its G8 bounce last summer, Lough Erne is firmly establishing itself as a hotel A-lister. Don't expect a typically Irish affair, however. Set along a labyrinthine lakeland wilderness, the hotel is, in fact, a Provencal-inspired chateau, buttressed by charming turreted lodges. Amenities including a Nick Faldo-designed golf course and a soothing Thai spa continue to delight VIP guests (from Rory McElroy to Vladimir Putin), while suites are decadently designed noble affairs. Come morning, look forward to one of the best breakfasts in Ireland.
Details: 04866 323230; lougherneresort.com; B&B from €66pps
The Lodge at Doonbeg, Co Clare
It's no surprise Doonbeg makes our dream dozen. Set along a dramatic crescent cove, there are windswept golden beaches and moody Atlantic sunsets. The hotel features a luxury spa and a dune-dotted golf course, but it's the rooms that are the true masterwork. Antique furnishings, exposed beams and ledged-doors create a classic cottage vibe while cool Bed Bath & Beyond decor lends a contemporary Cape Cod feel.
Details: 065 905 5600; doonbeglodge.com; B&B from €78pps
Park Hotel, Kenmare, Co Kerry
Is there a more personable five-star experience in Ireland than the Park Hotel Kenmare? Out of all the luxury hotels around the country, none matches the Park for that delicate balance of high-end without haughty. It has one thing that few other fine establishments have in their armoury – the beautiful town of Kenmare and its stunning bay. There are also two more good reasons why the Park works so brilliantly – John and Francis Brennan, the perfectionist brothers who run this place as a beacon of excellence.
Details: 064 664 1200; parkkenmare.com; B&B from €295 per room for two
Ballyfin Demense, Co Laois
If you get to spend only one night in a hotel before you die, spend it in Ballyfin Demense. Set in 600 acres of woodland in Co Laois, it has a special old-world ambience and refined opulence that is incomparable. The food, service and management are first-class. You can spend your days enjoying the beautifully landscaped grounds on bikes, golf carts or on horseback or simply relax in the beautiful house. A cursory look at the room rates may cause a deep inhalation of breath, but it is worth every penny.
Details: 057 875 5866; ballyfin.com; B&B and dinner from €800 per night for two
Delphi Mountain Resort and Spa, Leenane, Co Galway
There's no bath butler. Or valet service. So if it's sybaritic levels of luxury you're seeking, look elsewhere. Delphi Mountain Resort & Spa made the dream dozen thanks to the experience it offers. This is a high-end retreat and a place to truly unwind. There are no TVs, no mobile phone coverage and no wifi – they would only break the spell. Mother Nature rules the roost here. The menu is a celebration of local produce, the spa houses seaweed baths and they have their own mountain spring water courtesy of the Mweelrea and 12 Bens mountains that overlook the resort. The adjoining adventure centre offers every possible outdoor activity and then some – brave souls should try coasteering. However, the ultimate activity here is sleeping. With no electronic interference and only the sounds of nature to lull you away, we advise that you prepare for the best night's sleep ever.
Details: 095 42208; delphimountainresort.com; B&B €69pps.
Monart Destination Spa, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford
You could say that Monart is a love letter to Wexford. Everything from the architecture to the interior design, the carpentry to the food has been lovingly created by locals. Not to mention the Celtic Gardens and adjoining woodlands, designed by Chelsea winner Mary Reynolds. Most of the staff are local too, and they are refreshingly devoid of the pomp and ceremony that characterises many five-star hotels. Tranquility is the raison d'être here. They take your car keys from you on arrival and urge you to potter about the place in your bathrobe for the duration of your visit. Make sure to visit the thermal suite: in most spas this is an add-on gimmick, here it's an all-out experience. (Two Shaolin Monks are teaching Tai Chi, Qi-Gong and Kung Fu at Monart until December 13.)
Details: 053 923 8999; monart.ie ; one night B&B with full access to the thermal suite is from €95 pps
By Thomas Breathnach, Katie Byrne, Maeve Dineen, Ian Mallon, Vicki Notaro and Pól Ó Conghaile