Nirvana is a balcony among the palm trees
THE location of the Ardagh Hotel in Connemara is the nearest thing to Nirvana. Located just outside the chic cosmopolitan and yet comfortingly country town of Clifden, it is set in gorgeously groomed grounds with stunning views of the bay of Ardbear.
Inside is pretty good too, tastefully furnished, with every room designed to maximise the sea views. It's a regular haunt for tourists as well as holiday-home owners around Clifden, Ballyconneely and Roundstone who like to catch up over a drink and a meal in the spectacularly situated bar.
The welcome extended by the duo who run the hotel adds to the charm of the occasion, and people nod and whisper to each other about what a handsome couple they make. What many of the hotel's clients don't realise is that Monique and Stefan Bauvet are no longer an item.
Marriage break-up is always difficult, particularly if there are children - Stefan and Monique have a 12-year-old son - but when there's a business at stake it's doubly complicated.
Legal wrangling over the spoils can ruin the company so Stefan and Monique decided that while they would go it alone emotionally - Stefan lives in the hotel during the tourist season while Monique has a little house in the grounds - they would maintain a close business relationship. "If we completely split up, it would have benefited the solicitors, not us," says Stefan, adding, "and it means there's a stable home for our son when he's home from boarding school." So while Stefan looks after the front-of-house, Monique takes responsibility for the rooms, the menus and the grounds.
It's hard to imagine an Irish couple being so pragmatic and so frank and, sure enough, Monique and Stefan are originally blow-ins; Stefan was born in Belgium but brought up in Brazil and South Africa while Monique was born in South Africa of Dutch parents whose love affair with Ireland culminated in her family moving here when she was a teenager.
"We lived in South Africa until I was four, then we moved back to Holland and began to come to Ireland every year on holiday," says Monique. "In the beginning, we used to go around the Ring of Kerry, then they fell in love with Connemara. When I was 14, we came to Ireland to live."
From Monique's point of view, it wasn't an easy age to move to another country but, like her parents, she soon grew to love it.
"Fourteen is an awful age to move, and then there was not only the language to try and understand but the humour. But now I feel very Irish, my humour and way of thinking is totally Irish," she says in an accent which is a beguiling cocktail of Galway and the Netherlands.
It can't have been too easy for her parents either; Monique's father was a textile engineer and her mother a beauty technician; not much scope for either profession in the West of Ireland of the Sixties, but they decided there was a living to be made by opening a hotel. In those days, Ireland was only beginning to open up as a holiday destination. So while the Ardagh was being built they bought the d'Arcy Inn in Clifden to get catering experience. They turned out to be naturals. "My mum was an excellent chef." They built up a terrific reputation for the hotel which is 21 years old this summer.
From the time it was built, Monique worked in the hotel in the summers and then decided to make hotel work her career; she studied at Galway college and gained further experience in Ballinahinch Castle and Cashel House, while going to Switzerland during the winter season to gain some continental experience. It was in Zermatt when she was 19 that she linked up with Stefan. "We met in a mountain restaurant facing the Matterhorn," says Stefan.
He had left South Africa at 19 and travelled extensively, always working in hotels and restaurants. He had even spent some time in Halpins restaurant in Cork - "washing pots for £10 a shift" - so he had some experience of Ireland before he met Monique.
They got together and, at one stage, were going to move to Hawaii when her parents offered them the opportunity to run the bar and restaurant while they kept the rooms. "The bar and restaurant are of course the most headache," laughs Monique.
But it worked well, with Monique doing the cooking and Stefan the front-of-house while her parents looked after the hotel side. Sadly, Monique's parents divorced and her mother moved back to Holland (she has since died); her father is still very much part of the business and Monique works with him concentrating on the rooms and grounds and the menus (they specialise in seafood - turbot, John Dory - Connemara lamb and organic vegetables, mostly grown by Monique) while Stefan does the office and all the administration.
When Monique and Stefan's own marriage hit the rocks, they worked out a modus vivendi; they shut for three months in winter when Stefan takes off for the beach in South Africa where he enjoys his space and has his son down for a while. But, he says, when week 10 comes around, "I'm already thinking it's time to go back to Ireland."
During those same weeks, Monique is redecorating the rooms, maintaining the grounds and taking some downtime for herself.
They are at the height of their season right now and don't find much time for relaxing but when either needs a little bolt hole, the plant room is a favourite escape. This is a room on the hotel's first floor where the green-fingered Monique has worked her magic and got all sorts of exotic plantlife to bloom. "Years ago, when the hotel was first built, there were a lot of balconies. Then we upgraded the rooms, and by sealing off the balconies we created more family rooms and more suites. There was an extra balcony so we made it into the plant room."
The decor is pretty but plain - the only furniture a yellow-covered suite and some chairs upholstered by Monique ("I did a whole suite once") against a backdrop of yellow walls hung with just a few paintings by Caldicott, who specialised in musicians.
"Stefan's mother's partner was an art dealer, and in the early days we bought a lot of paintings from him."
The simplicity of the decor is deliberate. The plants are the stars of this room and palm trees, ficus, aloe vera, ferns, cactus, yucca, bougainvillea and giant geraniums flourish happily together, creating an oasis of calm away from the inevitable bustle and buzz of a successful family hotel. And it's that buzz that keeps them both happy. "I like the business," says Stefan, "I love the way the same people keep coming back. I get a kick out of the guests, I love the Irish in particular, they enjoy their food, their wine, the pint of Guinness and a laugh." And Monique adds, "as long as the guests are happy, I'm happy".
Getting to this point was obviously not easy but it's good to see that a man and woman who no longer live together can pose for a photo and look happy. And they've been known to go further. "We have dinner together occasionally," says Stefan adding "I still think she's a great girl." Judging by the quality of the fare in the Ardagh, they're still a great team.
The Ardagh Hotel is openuntil the end of October. Tel: (095) 21384