'You don't often hear of people going to Tullamore for the weekend," a good pal said with more than a hint of irony when I said I was off to the town's four-star Bridge House Hotel for an overnight getaway. But I was the one with the wry smile as I stretched out in the hotel's spa at 5pm on a Friday evening. I had gone from cold, wintry Dublin to my own private paradise in two hours flat.
Tullamore is only a hop, skip and a jump from Dublin, Limerick or Galway but, in lots of ways, it is a universe away. It is human-sized and welcoming in a way that big cities are not. But then the Bridge House Hotel is not exactly a shrinking violet; it announces itself with a fanfare of flags and columns that are impossible to miss.
Once through the impressive entrance, you are greeted with a Gone with the Wind double staircase and an enormous glittering chandelier, set off by a red and golden carpet that completes the Big House effect. Expectations are high. Maybe that's Vivien Leigh sipping tea in the leather armchair over there by the roaring fire?
The staff are genuine, warm but never intrusive. The hotel might be four-star but the staff are five-star.
Given what had gone before, the accommodation is a little disappointing. The room is dominated by a huge bed dressed in crisp cotton sheets, but the decor is nondescript with a colour scheme of magnolia and green, relieved by pink watercolours on the wall. There are some nice touches, though – chocolates on the pillow, slippers and a complimentary newspaper. The ensuite with bath is perfectly adequate and the room has everything you might possibly need.
Surprisingly wide-ranging. There are 70 ensuite bedrooms, two restaurants, a bar, a nightclub, a fully equipped gym, a leisure club (with indoor swimming pool, outdoor hydrotherapy pool, sauna, jacuzzi and steam room) but, for this visitor, the icing on the cake is the spa.
The subtle lighting, soft music and oil-burner-infused air are mood-altering from the get-go. By the time you find yourself in the pre-treatment relaxation room, your shoulders will be back where they belong and your worldly concerns will have started to slip away. I guarantee it.
What follows is an hour of sheer bliss. Gifted therapist Shauna administers an Academie Body Treatment (€65 for an hour), which involves brushing, exfoliating, moisturising and a few magical minutes inside a mummy-like cocoon. The only exposed part of the body, my head, is given an Indian head massage. I'm drifting away into seventh heaven. Best of all, the feeling of relaxation lasts several days.
You are invited to enjoy a taste of mamma's Italian cuisine. It transpires that Italian mamma is just like Irish mammy and has a horror of empty space on a dinner plate. Whatever happens, you will not leave the Bridge House Hotel hungry.
The menu has lots of Italian specialties yet the rib-eye steak with Gaelic sauce made from the local Tullamore Dew and Chicken Maryland continue to top the list of favourites. Even so, the Balcone does Italian very well; the calamari starter is delicate and tasty and the mushroom risotto, though slightly sticky, is infused with wonderful flavours.
Mind you, Irish mammy might have had the upper hand in choosing dessert – four tasty morsels of strawberry cheesecake, lemon tartlet, chocolate torte and meringue – but they are presented on a plate with a ramekin of smouldering dry ice at its centre. It's a little gimmicky but mesmerising and fun.
Families on their way from Dublin to the North, or vice versa, regularly break their journey here to recharge the batteries. It's also a very popular wedding venue. The locals aren't strangers either. The Library Bar is heaving on Friday night and the foyer is a people-watcher's paradise.
How would you describe the hotel in three words?
Solid, traditional, welcoming.
Things to Do
The nearby Tullamore Dew visitor centre is definitely worth a visit. If the weather is clement, walk along the Grand Canal, a 19th-Century waterway.
This resident slept the sleep of the just but others near the Palace nightclub reported being woken in the wee hours by disco stragglers.
Excellent value. Mid-week spa breaks, including two nights' B&B, one dinner, a spa treatment and a session in the spa's relaxation chambers, from €149pps. At weekends, the same deal costs €189pps.
Would you go back?
In a heartbeat.
The four-star Bridge House Hotel is on Bridge Street in the centre of Tullamore. For more details, see bridgehousehoteltullamore.ie.
Or Lo-call 1850 312 312 / +353 57 9325600.