Tuesday 17 July 2018

Mid-life Crisis: Afternoon drinking, a spa and a swim

Splashing out: Taking a dip in the subterranean lap pool in the Park in Kenmare, brings back special memories.
Splashing out: Taking a dip in the subterranean lap pool in the Park in Kenmare, brings back special memories.
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

There is an argument that the quintessential public space in Irish life is neither the GAA ground nor the pub but the hotel. For all the major life events, from weddings to holidays to dirty weekends to afternoon tea with grand aunts, or grandaunts, it is to the hotel we repair.

If we are meeting a stranger for business or pleasure, it is likely to be in a hotel. Indeed, increasingly, around the country, if we are going for a swim or a spa (pronounced spaw as you head further South) it is to the local hotel that we turn. They are leisure centres, centres of leisure. They are neutral spaces, but they are full of possibilities. A hotel can lift going for a few pints into a different, respectable place. A hotel can even legitimise that greatest of guilty pleasures - afternoon drinking. There is nothing as decadent as a drink or two in the Shelbourne or the hotel formerly known as the Four Seasons. And you can always make up the price premium by scoffing plenty of fancy nuts.

Hotels are also the best places to find a wow factor, like the roof garden in the Marker in Dublin, the lobby in Powerscourt, the penthouses in the Clarence or Aghadoe Heights.

This week, in the final Instalment of our "It's a great little country" series, we want to know your favourite hotels, and you are spoilt for choice. Perhaps because of our alleged tradition of great hospitality, the Irish have always produced great hoteliers, quintessential hosts, men and women who serve without being servile, who gently bully us all through weekend breaks, weddings, functions and holidays, ensuring all the time that we are true to our better selves. Indeed it is perhaps not surprising that two of our best known TV stars - the Brennan brothers - are hoteliers. Indeed the Park in Kenmare was the first five-star hotel I ever stayed in and I will always remember John's reassurance when I felt a bit overawed. He explained that the idea of a five-star hotel was that you felt completely at home so you didn't have to act posh at all. You dressed and acted as you wanted within reason, because you were the guest. I have taken that to heart and I compromise for no hotel now. And the Brennans have created a unique home from home for people in Kenmare, with everyone, adults and kids, feeling right at home the minute they land.

In Ireland there are hotels for every occasion and people swear by their favourites. We all know members of the cult of Kellys. Some of them have gone there the same two weeks every year since they were children, and have now inherited their family's slot in the summer. Kelly's is another one of those home from homes where everyone is totally relaxed while being fed the finest food and wines around the clock and surrounded by one of the best art collections you'll see in Ireland. And your kids seem to magically disappear the minute you arrive. You'll often catch up with them in the early evening, as they dance shyly at the kids disco under an Andy Warhol of Debbie Harry, while you get a pint in before dinner.

The broader acceptance of children has been perhaps the most significant shift in hotels in my lifetime. Even grand dames like Dromoland Castle are now alive with the energy of kids, which is nice for those of us with kids.

Obviously when mine grow up I will be campaigning for children to be back where they used to be - at home. In fairness, most hotels have come up with great child management techniques, from movie rooms to children's tea, to keep the kids out of the way at crucial times.

As someone who enjoys a dip, I would also maintain that hotels are home to some of the finest swimming pools in Ireland. In terms of pool architecture I would point you to places like the Dunloe in Kerry or Castlemartyr in Cork, both best enjoyed in the quiet of the early morning when the light is just starting to flood in through the magnificent high ceilinged glass housings, but I will always have a soft spot for the subterranean lap pool in The Park in Kenmare, where I first learnt to swim.

Send your suggestions to A Great Little Country, c/o 27/32, Talbot St, D1 D01 X2E1, or email greatlittlecountry@independent.ie

There's a prize from www.discoverireland.ie for the best one.

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