Secrets of Monart's magic: What does it take to make this spa so special?
For the last two years, you voted Monart as Ireland's Favourite Spa in our Reader Travel Awards. So, what goes on behind the scenes to make the Wexford retreat so special? Orla Neligan checks in to find out. Portraits by Fran Veale
Imagine a place perfectly poised between pony-grazed meadows and wonderful woodland, where lavish meets low-key, where no request is too outrageous and the word "no" doesn't exist, and where you can wander all day from restaurant to spa to garden dressed simply in a bathrobe.
The place exists, and it's called Monart.
It is not a boutique hotel, although it feels intimate. It is not even a hotel in the typical sense, although it has all the hallmarks of a great one. Instead, it defies categories, where life revolves around the spa, the heart of the property.
Whether or not you buy into the idea that a day spent in a bathrobe is appropriate, there's no doubt that a little white-robed nirvana is good for the soul. Ireland's first destination spa is as idyllic a retreat as you'll find, just 10 minutes from busy Enniscorthy.
It's morning as I arrive and the sun is twinkling through swaying trees as it rises over Vinegar Hill. Horses canter in a paddock below the old house and a family of ducks waddles through the woodland on their way to the pond. The atmosphere is a hushed one; the pace slow.
"Guests regularly ask whether we put something in the air down here," laughs General Manager Mark Browne. "Once the gates close behind you it's like you've entered another world, and that's the point."
Browne, of course, is one of the reasons Monart is continuously ranked as one of the world's leading spas and has been named 'Ireland's favourite spa' for two years running in our Reader Travel Awards. He is reluctant to divulge any celebrity guest names, preferring to keep their privacy, but practically squeals with delight at the memory of Roger Moore asking for a Martini - shaken not stirred - on his arrival at Monart.
Like all great managers, Browne is a master of hospitality, insisting on greeting guests personally while maintaining an eye on every corner. It's not easy to offer immaculate service and be disarmingly down to earth at the same time, but he and his 150+ staff at Monart manage the trick with aplomb.
Before I turn the key in the car engine, Michal, the uniformed concierge, is opening the door with a million-watt smile, escorting me inside with friendly ease while his colleague parks my car, setting the tone for service that is old school, yet full of Irish warmth (even if he is Polish). Behind the front desk, Karen O'Leary emerges proffering a plate of mini Bakewell slices while she runs through check-in. Behind me a group of women are exchanging hugs with some of the staff.
It's an unusual scene, but I soon learn it's one that is familiar and somewhat synonymous with Monart: 75pc of guests are repeat visitors, many of whom have become part of the Monart 'family'.
"It's one thing I love about working here," says Food and Beverage Supervisor Margaret Kiernan. "We have so many repeat guests that we really get to know them very well. Recently, a regular guest arrived and came straight up to give me a big hug. There was a long queue behind her of people waiting to check-in, some of whom looked a little surprised. I had to tell them not to worry, that I don't hug everyone... unless they want one, of course," she laughs.
One of the hallmarks of a successful hotel is the length of staff tenure. Like Michal, Head Chef Az Bin Ostman and many others, Kiernan arrived 11 years ago; two years after the property opened its doors. "I wouldn't stay somewhere for 11 years if I didn't love my job, the place and the people," she says.
Browne is equally enthusiastic. "The team here are amazing, and we really are that: a team. Everyone helps each other out, and everybody has a real enthusiasm and interest in hospitality." I'm curious as to how he keeps staff motivation so high? "It's about respect and appreciation. Thank you goes a long way," he smiles.
Having worked for owner Liam Griffin as GM at The Ferrycarrig Hotel for 14 years, Browne didn't hesitate when Griffin asked him to head up his new venture in 2005. "It was October and the weather was awful. We were holed up in a portacabin in a field. The site was a mess; builders everywhere and people were trudging through the mud to be interviewed. I remember asking them to keep an open mind and not to judge us from the state of our surroundings."
It took three months and some teething problems, but when Monart opened for business in December 2005 it was exactly as it is now: modern meets traditional with a quiet elegance and down-home charm, and so clean you could eat your dinner off the floor.
So, what does Monart have that makes people come back for more?
According to Accommodation Manager Catherine Kinsella, who joined Browne from Ferrycarrig 13 years ago, Monart has mastered what guests want.
"Liam Griffin always had an incredible vision for the place. He knew we had to do something completely different to set us apart from other five-star hotels in Ireland," explains Browne. "We wanted to be Ireland's first dedicated spa destination for adults only. There is no golf course, no conference room, no leisure centre, no children. There are plenty of places that offer that and we felt that trying to do too much dilutes the product, so we concentrated on an amazing spa experience for adults and an environment that complements that."
People come to spas for different reasons: bereavement, relationship break-ups, pampering, body issues, but pigeonholing was something Griffin and Browne wanted to avoid.
"The reason we encourage everyone to spend all day in robes is to break down barriers. It doesn't matter who you are or what you're wearing, everyone is equal. There are no superior rooms, they are all the same high-quality standard. It's about the experience."
That's no mean feat in a market saturated with luxury 'experiences' and add-ons. It's no longer enough to provide artisan chocolates on the pillow or plush robes in the marble-lined bathroom - nowadays the meaning of luxury is somewhat blurred with Bentleys on demand and Champagne bubble baths being 'average' requests.
You can go to hotels covered in gold and they are often soulless, impersonal spaces with staff that are aloof and unapproachable and yet they are often perceived as being the ultimate in luxury. Despite having a 'don't say no' policy, Monart's version of luxury is, thankfully, more understated.
"Yes, it's about service but it's also about who we are and that Irish hospitality we're known for. We call people by their first names, we ask them how their dinner or breakfast was, we are genuinely interested in them and people appreciate that," notes Catherine Kinsella.
Luxury can be so simple: a quiet restful space, an incredible meal, a glass of bubbly in the bath, that dessert that you don't normally have.
"It's the fluffy bathrobes, the 300-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and the amazing beds," smiles reservations staff member Karen O'Leary. "It's the peace and quiet," says Spa Café Manager Ula Skarba. "It's fantastic produce cooked to perfection," answers Head Chef Az Bin Ostman. "It's everything at your fingertips - and an amazing treatment," quips Spa Manager Pamela Nolan.
Location, service, style, soul, food, design, seclusion, facilities - whatever your definition of luxury, it should affect the way you feel, in a good way. From the moment guests arrive at Monart, they sense that everything will be taken care of as they sink into a day bed in the relaxation room, dive into the vitality pool or enjoy lunch in the garden. There's an air of everything being 'just right' without being forced. Wandering through the spa, discreet staff are removing used towels, refilling water dispensers, delivering treatment brochures to guests in the sauna, picking up any debris that may have fallen out of people's pockets. It truly is a well-oiled machine.
And, so it should be. The spa is the heart of Monart, designed as much for those who want a five-day detox programme as for those who want the odd treatment, use the gym, take a yoga class or swim in the pool.
You are encouraged to use the thermal suite to its full capacity (it takes 2.5 hours but don't worry, you're in no rush to be anywhere). The treatment menu is the antidote to bog-standard aromatherapy massage and mani-pedi combos, with options like the 'Youth Renew Hydra Glow Peel', spiced mud and seaweed wraps, mums-to-be massages and even therapies suitable for those undergoing or recovering from cancer - all of which target sluggish organs, ignite flagging mojo and leave you feeling decompressed and revitalised at the same time.
Products used are from the organic Pevonia Botanica and Voya ranges - both revered for their results-driven properties. I can't say Elle Macpherson was staring back at me in the mirror the morning after my facial, but my skin felt nourished, fed and visibly different for days after. The key to it all is attention to detail and personalisation: the fruit bowls and flowers in the spa, the herbal teas, bespoke massage oils, a rolling daily schedule of fitness classes, gentle yoga sessions and sauna rituals, the latter of which ends with an ice bucket challenge.
Of course, luxury comes at a premium. Stays at Monart start from €129 per person sharing midweek and €179pps at the weekend. The price includes bed and breakfast, full access to the thermal suite and exercise classes. Spa treatments range from €45 for 30 minutes in the mud chamber to €130 for the 'Signature Monart Experience'.
For a place known for its wonderful detox programmes, you'd expect a spartan menu consisting of mouse-like portions of lettuce and 'training' bread. While there are specific 'diets' for those undergoing a detox plan, however, Monart is a gastronomic haven at the vanguard of clean eating and indulgence.
According to Browne, there are two types of people that come here: those that want the healthy experience and those that want the luxury element and Monart caters for both. Spend your weekend or few days eating light or order the beef washed down with a bottle of red. Food programmes are expertly devised to suit each person and what they are trying to achieve. To help you stay focused, detox menus are served separately to other diners in the Spa Café or bedrooms.
"When you see the food on offer it's just a big tease," laughs Margaret Kiernan, who tells me she once had a guest who told her the meat was so tender it was like someone chewed it for him. Kiernan confirms there is nothing 'off the menu' at Monart.
You can request vegan, vegetarian or raw food. The Spa Café serves vibrantly pretty salads, juices and nutritious dishes. While a traditional menu of burgers, fish and local favourites is available in the Garden Room, Head Chef Az relishes a challenge, spinning out beautiful plates of gluten-free, dairy-free, wheat-free and sugar-free options as well as sophisticated classics often with an Asian twist: fish and chips with black squid ink batter, crispy mackerel with wasabi aioli - his dishes are always 'talking points'.
"I like putting a spin on comfort food," the chef tells me as he preps monkfish for the evening's dinner service. "Recently we had a guest who was gluten-, dairy- and wheat-free but also had lots of allergies. That was tricky, but there's nothing we can't do. I actually love when that happens, it keeps me on my toes," he smiles.
Of course, Monart isn't for everyone. Those looking for 'craic' at the bar until 3am or to constantly check in on or update social media may be out of luck, since early nights are the currency here and there is little or no Wi-Fi (the point is to switch off).
"Liam Griffin once said to me that if someone complains, that's a gift," Browne says. "We're in the business of helping people relax and enjoy their break. But some come with an expectation; they often don't get what Monart is about. It upsets me when that's turned into a negative complaint and we don't get the chance to rectify it," he answers, somewhat irritably.
Later that evening in the thermal suite, a group of women are talking in hushed voices. "Susan said she wouldn't come here," one of the ladies says. "She said it was too quiet and boring." Her friends giggle and one retorts loudly. "Isn't that the point?"
Isn't it, indeed.
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