Keeping up with The Kingdom: Emily Hourican checks into Sheen Falls
Short breaks in Ireland
By the time I arrived at Sheen Falls Lodge, it was evening.
The sky was darkening the way it does when there are no orange street lights to infect it, and the hotel was bright and welcoming. Inside, wood fires crackled away, cosy as can be; it may have been summer, but this was still Kerry.
My children had been there several hours by the time I got in; they drove down with my husband earlier.
"What are the rooms like?" I asked the eldest by phone.
"They're fine," he said casually, which surprised me a little. On previous visits to Sheen Falls every brick and stone, ever tuft of grass, has had him exclaiming with excitement.
Then I arrive, and I get it. This time, our rooms are so amazing, he was trying to play it cool; a double-bluff, if you will. We've been given something called The Lansdowne Suite, which comprises two vast bedrooms, each with its own gorgeous bathroom, which I suppose you might just about expect - except that added to that, down a broad flight of stairs, is a sitting room, dining room and kitchen, with their very own front door, distinct from the official hotel entrance. It is basically an entire apartment within the hotel, one softly carpeted in moss green and beautifully full of everything you might need: books, magazines, a couple of cosy rugs, Nespresso machine, fruit, chocolate, and a very fine cheese plate.
In keeping with the size of the bedrooms, beds are enormous, and that perfect papa-bear-mama-bear combination of not-too-hard and not-too-soft. My mother stayed here nearly four years ago, and has been raving about the beds ever since; when I mention this to deputy manager Ciaran Murphy (a man who seems able to combine being a machine for efficiency, with a marvel of conversation), he tells me they have recently been upgraded and are now even better. In fact, considerable money has clearly been spent all over since my last visit, and spent well.
The children are so excited by their new lives as proto-Kardashians that they would probably have been quite happy to simply stay put. But we have things to do.
They say you never forget the first time you ride a bike without help, swim by yourself, or the first time a bird of prey lands on your arm. Certainly the thump - much heavier than expected - of a full-grown Harris's hawk, named Michaelangelo, is pretty memorable. Up close, the amber eyes and curved beak are far more menacing than you might expect. This is so clearly a wild animal, one that is here because it suits him, and that cannot be taken for granted.
This one was hand-reared by Geoff and the team at Killarney Falconry from the very moment of hatching. Leave it any later, and they cannot be trained apparently. Born wild, they stay wild.
We all have a go, standing side on, arm outstretched with a heavy leather glove on, while Michaelangelo deigns to light and accept his reward. The youngest is a little frightened at first, then gets the hang of it, while the older two look like something out of King Arthur from the start.
After hawks, come owls. We get an owl each, of different types - an Irish barn owl, a tawny owl, one with amazing tufty ears and a tiny little grey, fluffy one, just eight weeks old, for my daughter, called The Professor. The owls sit calmly on our arms, looking around with huge eyes that are the most remarkable colours: bright yellow, amber, orange, flame-coloured. They are mesmerising, and just as soft as you would imagine, but more buoyant, with many layers of feathers lightly overlaying each other. Being so close to them is magical.
From there, we hit the pool for a whole lot of swimming and splashing, followed by a drive over the Healy Pass, which has an extraordinary desolate beauty, and a wander around Glengarriff. We bring togs in case another swim - in the sea this time - suggests itself, but we wimp out. It's chilly, and while I would normally insist on swimming every day no matter what the weather, there is something about staying at Sheen Falls that is pushing me into comfort-mode.
Back at the hotel, we are booked into spacious The Falls restaurant for dinner. Usually, the sight of a 'kids menu' makes my heart sink, because so often these seem to be limited to the contents of someone's deep-freeze. Not here. Fantastic burgers and homemade chips keep the kids happy, while we grown-ups go for an unashamedly gluttonous meal of smoked salmon with horseradish sorbet, grilled oysters, Hereford beef, roast turbot, Parmesan and truffle fries, and buttered greens.
We accompany that with several glasses of pinot noir, from an excellent wine list that offers a selection of over 800 labels, and follow it with several servings of the chocolate demi-sphere, which is chocolate mousse with salted caramel ice-cream, praline and chocolate tuile.
After dinner, we wander round the hotel, exploring cosy sitting-rooms with roaring fires and comfortable chairs, and the library with its beautifully-bound editions of Irish and children's classic books.
We go to sleep with the sound of the waterfall - the Sheen Falls themselves - dancing in our ears.
Breakfast at Sheen Falls is a delight. The Sun Lounge is bright and busy. We eat buttermilk pancakes with stewed fruit, poached eggs with Hollandaise sauce, full Irish fry-ups, as well as fruit, cereal and plenty of good coffee. And then we go.
I love Kerry, even the bits of it that are almost Cork (a joke, of course...).
Every year I go and spend a week or so with my children doing the exact things I did as a child: swimming, climbing mountains, shivering on beaches and eating crisps in pubs.
It is a rugged, outdoors kind of holiday, not a glamorous one. I pack fleeces and many pairs of shoes, not bikinis and sarongs. And it's perfect.
But, every once in a while, it is very enjoyable to begin with a false dawn - two days of luxury and elegance, just to lull the little ones into a false sense of security.
Sheen Falls did that job just beautifully.
Enjoy a luxurious stay at the award-winning Sheen Falls Lodge in Kenmare. Its one or two-night Autumn Midweek Escape packages include a full Irish breakfast each morning, one dinner for two in the 2AA Rosette restaurant, The Falls, and afternoon tea for two in the newly-renovated Sun Lounge.
The package also includes €50 credit per person towards an Elemis or Voya treatment at The Easanna Health Club. Rates from €499 in total for a two-night stay based on two people sharing in a Classic Room, or from €380 for a one-night stay.
The Falls Gourmet experience offers a two-night stay with dinner on one evening in the The Falls and Prosecco, and is priced from €470. sheenfallslodge.ie