Weekend away: Ballyvolane House, Castlelyons, Fermoy, Co Cork
As you drive down the elegant driveway of this heavenly hideaway, there's a small herd of cattle grazing in the field, and a glimpse of some intriguing little lakes beyond. Nearby, rambling rhododendron bushes lie amid soaring oaks and ashes, some 300 years old. Behind an ancient limestone wall hides the secret of one of the great delights of Ballyvolane -- its fabulous homegrown vegetables, fruit and herbs.
Then, the 300-year-old house itself appears; smart but discreet and understated, a home that seems not to want to dominate the landscape.
But lo! Yonder youth doesn't look dressed from these parts, or indeed this century. Why, it's Romeo -- preparing to go on stage for an open-air show by a travelling theatre company on one of the few summer evenings that isn't monsooning down.
Room to book
I was there to cast a fly, so it was appropriate to land up in Roland's Room. Roland de Solage was a French Marquis and an angler who loved Ballyvolane and the River Blackwater so much that he spent four months there every summer in the 80s for the last 10 years of his life.
As you expect, it has high ceilings, bay windows overlooking sweeping lawns, crisp linen and an antique, mahogany-clad bath that is deeper than some of the rivers I wade.
What to do
Three of us went on one of the regular Blackwater salmon fly-fishing courses run by Ballyvolane's legendary ghillie Norman Gillett. A former international oilman, natty Norman looked the epitome of a country gentleman in his tweed plus-fours. And, by golly, he is a wizard with the rod. Patience personified, he did everything but dive into the river to get us fish.
For hikers, there are guided walks in the Knockmealdown and Galtee Mountains, and in recent months Ballyvolane has also hosted courses on cooking, wine appreciation, gardening and yoga.
Ballyvolane has only six guest bedrooms, so there's never really a crowd. What you will find are four generations of the Green family. The current hosts are the rather glamorous young couple Justin and Jenny Green, who met through the hotel trade in Hong Kong.
Justin's father, Jeremy, now in his 70s, previously ran it as a working farm and guest-house, and is still the full-time gardener. He's also the breakfast maitre d'. Then there is Jeremy's mum, Joyce, still sprightly at 99, and Justin and Jenny's three children, Toby, Jamie and Fleur. Add in the terriers and spaniel, who will be seriously sulky if you don't give them a tickle, plus Archie, said to be the biggest cat in Munster, and you have a pretty eclectic family.
The Ballyvolane experience is a curious mixture. It's like being invited to stay with some grand friends in their country pile. You bump into the family all the time and share their enormous dinner table, retiring with them to the baronial drawing room for drinks afterwards. But, behind the scenes, you know that two vastly experienced hotel pros are at work. Like all class acts, they make it seem effortless. It's little wonder the British Good Hotel Guide voted the property Irish Heritage Home of the Year 2009.
There's a set four-course dinner menu for €55. Nothing fancy or cheffy -- just quality local beef, lamb and pork, and freshly caught Blackwater salmon, of course. Vegetables such as sea kale, chard, asparagus and courgettes will inevitably have been picked hours earlier from the garden. One evening, we had globe artichoke, which I'd never eaten before. I had to ask what to do with it. Then I went to see them growing in the garden and wondered how such a big globe could be held aloft by such a slender stem. Breakfast is cooked to order; none of your rubbery eggs wilting under the arc-light, even if you stroll in at five to noon.
I suppose some people might wish for a wider choice on the dinner menu, but I wouldn't be one of them.
A three-night stay, including breakfast each morning and two four-course dinners, starts at €330pp. Salmon fishing courses, which begin again in March, cost €855 per person, which includes two days' tuition, three nights' accommodation, breakfasts, dinners and two picnic lunches, as well as use of tackle and waders, and a salmon licence. The perfect Christmas present for the angler in your life.
Ballyvolane House & Blackwater Salmon Fishery, Castlelyons, Fermoy, Co Cork. Tel: 025 36349; ballyvolanehouse.ie.