Monday 23 July 2018

Beauty and the Burren: Falling for Co. Clare's old-fashioned friendliness

Rock opera

Limestone landscape: The Burren in Co Clare
Limestone landscape: The Burren in Co Clare
Gemma Fullam on Lahinch prom
Hilltop view: The Falls Hotel and Spa has a spectacular location

Gemma Fullam

The 140-bed Falls Hotel and Spa, beside the waterfalls at Ennistymon, Co. Clare, is a gateway to the best County Clare has to offer says Gemma Fullam.

I'd lately noticed a distinctive tall, pinky-purple plant in a backroad hedgerow I pass daily in rural north Kilkenny. There was just one patch, but it was making enough of a splash to be spotted. I'd been meaning to discover its name but kept forgetting to ask the homestead's resident nature nut.

On a recent trip to Clare, however, my memory was well and truly jogged, as pinky-purple swathes of it decorated the roadside. The hedgerows aren't something I normally take notice of, because in my native county they're generally green and that's it, but it's a different story altogether in the Banner, where they're a riot of colour. White meadowsweet, pink dog roses, yellow primroses, purple grasses, red poppies: everywhere you look there's a rainbow growing under your nose.

Having taken the motorway from Dublin on a Saturday evening after work, it was only a hop, skip and jump from Limerick to the Falls Hotel and Spa in the quaint little town of Ennistymon. Arriving at night doesn't do the Falls's spectacular location justice; it's on a height overlooking the town, the river Inagh, and the star attraction, the 'Cascades' as they are known locally. It's a great spot from which to explore the county, as Lahinch, Lisdoonvarna , Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher are all within spitting distance, as is the aforementioned Burren.

Hilltop view: The Falls Hotel and Spa has a spectacular location

The Falls Hotel, Ennistymon

It was Saturday night, and a well-earned tipple was calling, so we hit downtown Ennistymon for last orders. The town is very proud of its shopfronts, many of which date from the 19th Century, and great efforts have been made down through the years to preserve the historical facades. There's much to admire as you walk along the streets: beautiful mosaic and encaustic-tile thresholds, massive display windows with gently curving glass, elegant painted signage and decorative carving.

We eschewed the ceili music emanating from several hostelries for the quiet peace of diminutive Davorens, where the landlord dispensed Taytos, tumblers of red wine and considered advice as to where we might go wandering the next day.

As it turned out, we had a very lazy start to our Sunday. After a feed of full Irish and strong tea, we took ourselves down to the Falls's River Spa for a massage. Liz, from nearby Lahinch, expertly kneaded and pummelled my knotty muscles into a zen-like state, while the other half got similarly blissed out next door. We met up in the relaxation room, which has panoramic windows displaying the lush green grounds that encircle the hotel. We snuggled deeper into the peachy cotton of our robes, sipped our herbal teas and watched the river flow past and the old oaks outside rustle and sway in the summer breeze. Heaven.

The nature nut was so relaxed he fell asleep, but after an invigorating swim in the leisure centre's pool and a sojourn in the outdoor hot tub, we were raring to go exploring.

First stop was An Teach Bia on Main St for some lunch. The elegant interior provided a restful backdrop to two superb veggie risottos, a shared apple tart and a cheeky glass of white for the designated passenger (moi).

Having all the time in the world, we took a meandering route to the Burren, passing through Lisdoonvarna, a pretty little town famous for its healing sulphuric waters and its matchmaking festival, which will be in full swing next month; Kilfenora, of Ceili band fame; and on to Corofin. The Burren would have to wait, though; Tipp were playing Galway for a place in the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny, and when you're a Cat, hurling takes priority. So it was into Bofey Quinns in Corofin to watch what proved to be a magnificent clash of the ash, from which Galway emerged victorious, much to the chagrin of the barmaid, who had Tipp connections.

Then, it was back to the car for the post-mortem and the Burren Perfumery ( The Burren is home to 70pc of Irish wildflower species and the Perfumery - Ireland's oldest - was founded 40 years ago, and its hand-made, sustainable products reflect the scents and rich beauty of its location. The Perfumery buildings have wisteria blooming around the window frames and an abundance of roses wafting their scent over the curved drystone walls; it's chocolate-box stuff.

The Perfumery sells scent, soaps, oils, balms and candles; perfect present fare. I bought a gorgeous borage balm and some delicious honey and beeswax lip balm. There's a delightful tea rooms, and we couldn't resist coffee and cake, which went down a treat in the afternoon sunshine.

Possibly the best thing about the Perfumery, though, is the herb garden. Situated behind the main buildings, it's pretty as a picture, with serpentine stone walls enclosing beds containing every herb imaginable, from arnica and borage through lemon balm and lovage to selfheal and yarrow, each one accompanied by a slate inscribed with the plant's name and properties. Magic.

Gemma Fullam on Lahinch prom

Gemma in the Burren

We lingered awhile in the Burren to take in the views and the crickets and sheer beauty of it all. Then it was back to the Falls with a detour to nearby Lahinch for a stroll on the prom. The promenade has been completely rebuilt since Storm Christine hit in January 2014, when gigantic waves destroyed the sea defences in the surfers' Mecca.

It wasn't surf I had on my mind, though, it was dinner. We sat down to a feast in the Cascades restaurant at the Falls, which has fabulous views of the river and the rapids below.

The property has an interesting literary link; Ennistymon House (the original incarnation of the hotel) was owned by Francis MacNamara. He was father to Caitlin, who was wife of Welsh poet and writer, Dylan Thomas. The McCarthy family, who now own the Falls, have delightful photos of the literary legend and his free-spirited wife hanging in the hotel lobby; the bar is also named after the Under Milk Wood author and that's where we finished our night; he would have approved, no doubt.

Next morning, with a swim and some excellent eggs under our belt, we were waved off by the genial Operations Manager, Patrick Kilbane, who, like all the staff at the Falls, has that lovely old-fashioned Irish friendliness that I didn't think existed any more. It does in Clare, it seems.

As we bade farewell to the byroads of the Banner, a flash of pinky-purple caught my eye. "What is that stuff called?" I asked himself. "Ah, that's purple loosestrife," the nature nut responded. "In ancient times they used it to calm nervy cows."

Reader, I was horizontal.

Getting there

The McCarthy family have hosted many memorable conferences, weddings and soirees at the Falls Hotel & Spa (065 707-1004; catering for up to 350 guests as if they were 'their own'.

With excellent restaurant and bar facilities serving the best of food from local artisan food producers, this lovely hotel is spacious, characterful and, above all, homely. Add spectacular luxury rooms and practical family rooms, and an outstanding 12-treatment-room Spa, and you've got it all.

An impressive swimming pool, outdoor hot tub overlooking the river, sauna, Aqua & Fitness Club, games room and tennis court completes this perfect Clare picture. The Falls is a popular and central location for walking and cycling tours, bridge clubs and bowling clubs, golfers (Lahinch and Spanish Point are close by) and lovers of good company in a great county.

Visitors can choose from the following packages: 2 Bed & Breakfast & 1 Dinner from €105pps; 3 Bed & Breakfast & 1 Dinner from €145pps. Spa breaks and Group rate also available.

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