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Sunday 20 April 2014

Castlemartyr, Co. Cork: A castle –– but no martyrs

I adore the occasional road trips with my girlfriends. The setting can be anywhere from Brittany to Bellinter and the focus is always fun. My travelling companion is usually one or other of my two closest friends – G and T (I kid you not.) This time it was the turn of Dee, a clever, capable working mother whom I've known all my adult life. So on a recent Saturday morning, this stylish blonde pulled up in a navy Merc and off the pair of us set in rare sunshine, chattering 19 to the dozen.

It seemed liked minutes had passed before the Dun-kettle interchange reared up in front of us and we swung a left for our destination – Castlemartyr. This beautiful demesne has a long and vivid history. Variously possessed by the Knights Templar, the Geraldines, visited by Strongbow, home to Sir Walter Raleigh, scientist Robert Doyle and Lord Chief Justice Henry Orrery, its most recent incarnation is as a five-star hotel.

Today the resort comprises the 800-year-old castle (or keep) and the 17th-Century country manor house, out of which extend a couple of modern wings. Dee had stayed here before and warned me that some of the rooms felt a little far away. We put this to the charming Cork man on duty and he said he'd do what he could.

We were ravenous, so a visit to Planet Ballymaloe (only 15 minutes away) seemed like an obvious decision. We browsed the shop with its covetable array of homewares and culinary delights, but the cafe was stuffed with grannies, so we repaired a few miles down the road to another part of the planet. The cookery school was quieter but still beautiful in the soft April sunshine. We devoured pizzas straight out of the oven while perusing the glossy brochure advertising the latest initiative from the resolutely commercial Allens.

The inaugural Ballymaloe LitFest, dedicated to the celebration of food and wine, will take place from May 3 to 6. Leading figures from the world of gastronomy will converge on the Shanagarry estate for a feast of over 40 events – among them cookery demonstrations, wine tastings, panel discussions, garden and foraging walks, book readings. The line-up, led by the redoubtable Darina, glitters with international stars such as Madhur Jaffrey and Skye Gyngell as well as our own home grown epicures (Donal Skehan, Neven Maguire and John McKenna among others).

Back at the hotel, they'd outdone themselves – we were no longer in some far-flung wing but in the manor house, where they'd given us a suite each. And some suites they were – mine had glorious views of the lake, a blissfully comfortable king-size bed, decadent black marble bathroom and this great gadget in my bedside locker with which you turned on lights and closed the curtains.

Delighted with myself, I headed to the pool, where I did 10 lengths and luxuriated in the jacuzzi and the steam room (where I listened to a couple of stags talk football), before heading out with Dee and her pal, a southern belle from Virginia whose passion in life was shooting. We were off to nearby Midleton and the fabled Farmgate, a superb restaurant that was every bit as gorgeous as my last visit there a few years ago with my mother and daughters.

The food was sublime – perfect fillet steak served with onion fritters, crisp sugar snaps and baby carrots – and the ambience was lively though not intrusive. From there it was a taxi to Pat Shortt's bar in Castlemartyr. The joint was jumping – a guy belting out Don McLean classics to a packed pub.

The next morning we were a tad fragile, but nothing the sumptuous breakfast of icy fresh orange juice, eggs Benedict and copious cups of Earl Grey wouldn't soothe. My ever versatile girlfriend, an interior designer in a previous life, admired the stunning French upholstery. Hmm, she mused, I used that in (insert name of infamous property developer now doing time with Nama's) house.

We kept our morning simple and, mirroring the stately atmosphere of the place, we retired to the Knight's Bar (originally an oratory, it has an ornate rococo ceiling) for coffee in front of the log fire and some gentle needlepoint (Dee was deblinging a new blazer) and reading (I was deeply absorbed in Kate Atkinson's mesmeric Life After Life.)

Later we took a long stroll through the dazzling grounds – here a Capability Brown formal garden, there a tiny waterfall, woodlands, a swan lake and the obligatory designer golf course.

Endorphins suitably activated, it was pampering time. One of the legacies of the recession is that the country is dotted with dozens of old houses that have been transformed into hotels with magnificent spas attached. This one had a water lounge with the de rigueur tropical rain/arctic drizzle shower, as well a vitality pool and sauna. Then I was led to a large, treatment room to enjoy a muscular aromatherapy massage. Later we rounded off this sybaritic self-indulgence delightfully with a whiskey sour (Dee) and a classic martini (me), followed by dinner of ham hock and foie gras terrine, rump of lamb and creme brulee.

We were understandably sad to leave the next morning, but consoled ourselves by interrupting our journey home with a visit to Kildare Village – a cliched but perfect end to our wonderful girly break.

Getting there

B&B packages available at Castlemartyr Resort during the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine from just €165 based on two people sharing for 1 night, from €155 per night for 2 nights or more, €245 for 1 night for 2 people with dinner or €385 for 2 people sharing for 2 nights with dinner. There is also a special 4 for 3 package available for guests attending all four days of the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, with the fourth night complimentary at a rate of €165 for the other 3 nights.

Castlemartyr Resort, Castlemartyr, County Cork T: 021 421 9000 F: 021 462 3359 www.castlemartyrresort.ie

For the full programme of events at Ballymaloe LitFest visit www.litfest.ie

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