Friday 19 April 2019

Donegal: A 5-Star view of the solar eclipse

Solis Lough Eske Castle

Lake water lapping: This part of Donegal, around Lough Eske, has a breathtaking beauty in early spring
Lake water lapping: This part of Donegal, around Lough Eske, has a breathtaking beauty in early spring
Splendour falls on castle walls: Lough Eske Castle, nestles beside the lake and the Bluestack Mountains in Co Donegal
Boating on Lough Eske in Co Donegal
Lough Eske Castle, Donegal
Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly checks into Solis Lough Eske Castle, Donegal's only five-star, with low hopes of catching the solar eclipse.

We had no high hopes of seeing the partial solar eclipse.

Met Eireann had been confidently pessimistic - predicting a blanket of cloud wrapped over Ireland like a goose down duvet. But eclipses don't come around too often, even the partial variety, and next year's total eclipse will require a trip to Borneo or Australia by stargazers.

So we dragged ourselves out of the four poster, and out of Lough Eske Castle, found a vantage point on the lake shore, perched ourselves on a rock and flapped our arms to keep warm, like cormorants hanging their wings out to dry. We waited.

The silence was almost complete, broken only by the lapping of water on the shore and the flirtatious quacks of a trio of drakes trying to woo a single female. Frankly she looked a little harassed.

Even the nearby Bluestack Mountains were obscured so we had pretty much given up on seeing anything and simply enjoyed the tranquil scene.

Lough Eske castle

Solis Lough Eske Castle, Co. Donegal

Then it got darker and colder too, the light over the lake taking on a rather spooky greenish hue. And did the birds stop singing for a few moments?

The breeze, rather slack anyway, eased to complete stillness. Almost miraculously the clouds parted like theatre curtains and the eclipse showed itself for a few moments.

In Cornwall they talked about the "sun smiling" - with the corona forming a goofy grin as it peaked beneath the moon.

This far to the north and west, the sun was more like a scimitar-thin but brilliant crescent moon. For a few brief moments it was probably one of the best views of the partial eclipse seen from Ireland before the curtains in the sky closed once again.

The wild duck got busy falling in love again and we walked back to the castle, famished. This star-gazing malarkey is hungry work.

We put a bit of pep in our step to warm up looking forward to the repast. A big breakfast taken at leisure is one of the great pleasures of a mid-week getaway and at the Solis Lough Eske Castle resort, Donegal's only five star hotel, breakfast is a feast.

Fresh fruits, home-made breads and a bewildering array of cold meats and cheese laid down a foundation. I had the kippers swimming in beurre noisette with a perfectly poached egg and wholemeal toast.

The resort was built to the highest standards by Pat Doherty, chairman of Harcourt Developments.

Doherty, a ball of entrepreneurial energy, was a man of big ideas. He was painted by Lucien Freud, oil on canvas, in a work entitled "Donegal Man." It captured a man whose face might have been hewn from Bluestack rock. A copy of the painting hangs in one of the elegant reception rooms, many with open fires, dotted around the hotel.

Lough Eske Castle, Donegal

A bedroom at Solis Lough Eske

There's another portrait of original board member, Andrew Parker Bowles (Camilla's first husband) also hanging in the hotel. The scarlet tunic of the Household Cavalry is opened to the waist as Parker Bowles lounges in a leather chair.

As it happens, International operators Solis run the hotel with military precision but this is no anonymous luxury hotel. This kind of high end operation where people pay top dollar is hugely dependent on the quality of its staff.

The natural hospitality of Donegal is very much to the fore. Staff know what they are doing but there is a relaxed feel, and a genuine effort to please the paying customer.

Recent times has seen a larger number of northern and UK visitors who are bagging a real bargain because of the strength of sterling.

But the hotel also attracts large numbers of North American and European clients who want to experience the Wild Atlantic Way in five star luxury.

My partner in crime rushed to the opulent spa, that offers a bewildering array of treatments and pampering. Not being a hot stone massage type of guy I fled for the solitude of the library, picked up a vintage copy of short stories by Dashiell Hammett and found a spot in a deep leather chair beside the fire.

Though the hotel was heavily booked, I had the drawing room to myself and happily passed a couple of hours lost in the adventures of the anonymous narrator from the Continental Detective Agency.

Dinner at the Cedars Grill was, as late food critic Michael Winner used to put it, historic. A wonderful Caesar salad with hot char-grilled prawns shouldn't have worked but was a glorious treat.

Boating on Lough Eske in Co Donegal

Boating on Lough Eske

During the afternoon, we had taken the short drive out to Rossnowlagh Strand and spent an hour or so walking that wonderful beach. It was the kind of bracing walk that required something substantial as a main - an aged Hereford rib-eye cooked to charred perfection, washed down with a doughty Argentinian Malbec.

It was an old school choice when there was more exotic fare on offer like Fillet of Stone Bass, but sometimes only a big juicy steak hits the spot.

This part of Donegal has a breathtaking beauty in early spring with the daffodils bobbing in the morning breeze but we tore ourselves away from the castle and went into nearby Donegal town for a bit of window shopping.

The Diamond was abuzz and after years of difficult times in the retail sector nationally there were heartening signs of life. There was a steady stream of coach tours making a beeline for Magee's shop, augmented by mothers-of-the-bride trying to pick that elusive wedding day outfit. Portly American golfers were trying out those patchwork Donegal tweed caps that only look good on a links.

All in all a wonderful place and a wonderful hotel - a haven of peace and tranquillity that should be on the bucket list of those who want a little pampering.

Getting there

Solis Lough Eske Castle offers rooms from €230 per room B&B. There is a current midweek offer with three nights for the price of two, from €460 per couple. It includes two nights in a luxurious Deluxe Room with a complimentary third night with full Irish breakfast each morning in Cedars Restaurant, full access to the swimming pool, fitness room and thermal suite at Spa Solís.

See or call 074 972-5100 for more.

Read more:

Ireland’s 100 Best Places to Stay – and they're surprisingly affordable TRAVEL TV: The secret to a great hotel stay - and it's not the star rating Review: Lough Eske Castle, Donegal

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