Weekend Away: Gregans Castle Hotel, Co Clare
The steel-blue waters of the Atlantic shimmer in the distance as we wind along the country road that weaves through the Burren from Ennistymon.
Near the village of Ballyvaughan, where Steven Spielberg and Brendan Gleeson have been 'hanging' this summer, a pretty valley appears to the south like a lush oasis in this stark, rocky landscape. Then, across the sheep-dotted fields, the ivy-clad façade of Gregans Castle comes into view.
In the past couple of years, this romantic country house, which many travel gurus swear is Ireland's best hotel, has scooped almost every award going. A fortnight ago, it picked up 'restaurant of the year' at the 'Food and Wine' magazine awards, beating Michelin-star dazzlers such as Dublin's Chapter One and The Cliff House in Waterford.
If you need an excuse to go to Clare for an autumn break, the wonders conjured up in owners Simon and Freddie Haden's kitchen should be top of your list.
Room to book
A long, hushed corridor takes us to the Martyn suite, past a crackling turf fire, old family portraits and cosy corners perfect for reading on lazy afternoons.
There are 21 rooms in all, each packed with character and classic country chic, but this is our favourite. A four-poster bed, huge carved stone fireplace and antique pieces create a sense of history in this spacious suite, but 21st-century comforts are generously catered for too.
Thoughtful touches such as nightly turndown mean towels are refreshed twice a day if required; mineral water is left by your bedside at night and a bowl of fresh fruit looks after any hungers pangs.
Our suite had its own library with floral sofa, Bose music system and a private garden bursting with shrubs.
Don't bother looking for the remote, though -- this is a TV-free zone.
Travel writers tend to run out of superlatives when it comes to describing Mickael Viljanen's food. Gregans' Finnish chef has just been voted Ireland's best. He's certainly one of our most innovative, with a menu so inventive, technically brilliant and downright delicious it attracts visitors from all over the world.
A combination of the very best local meat, fish and vegetables mixed with exotic touches, it's the sort of food you want to linger over, concentrate on and talk about.
If that all sounds too cheffy, don't worry. The bottom line is that you'd need to have a will of steel not to rub your finger round the plate when you've finished to lick up every last, lingering flavour.
I started with an exquisite foie gras, served with honeycomb, apricots, chamomile, pain d'epices, celery and walnut. A succulent rump of lamb with rissole of shoulder followed a refreshing sorbet.
For pudding, the passion-fruit soufflé was warm and perfect. As the lights of Galway city twinkled in the distance, we decided it was probably the best dessert we had ever eaten in one of the nicest settings.
Breakfast, served until 10am, is a more traditional affair with gorgeous breads, sweet jars of yogurt and raspberries, creamy porridge and the full Irish done to perfection.
What to do
Gregans is right in the heart of the Burren and a perfect base for exploring the extraordinary array of flora and fauna in this limestone wilderness.
After breakfast, head for the look-out point on Corkscrew Hill, a short spin if you turn left out of the hotel. On a clear day, the view is one of the best on the island, encapsulating the stark grey moonscape of the Burren, Galway Bay and the hills of Connemara.
We spent a fascinating morning with local farmer and walking expert Shane Connolly, who knows every rock and crevice in the Burren and can find a bloody cranesbill or spotted orchid a mile off. At this time of year, when the bushes are laden with blackberries, the pinks and blues of summer are slowly being replaced by September golds and reds.
Autumn is a great time to watch seabirds such as kittiwakes and gannet leaving to winter on the Atlantic as brent and white-fronted geese flock back in their hundreds.
From September 23-25, the Burren Peaks Walking Festival (burrenpeaks walkingfestival. com; from Â¤20) has rambles for all ages and levels.
The Burren Ecotourism Network website (burreneco tourism.com) is a treasure trove of quirky things to do in the region, such as having tea in Father Ted's house and taking a farm heritage tour.
You could be picky and argue with the name. Gregans is not a castle. That's across the road, owned by someone else and out of sight.
From September 25, a two-night midweek stay with breakfast and one six-course dinner starts at Â¤229pps. This includes a half-day guided walk on the Burren with Shane Connolly. At weekends, add about Â¤30 to the price.
The same package in the Martyn suite costs from Â¤309pp. The hotel closes on November 12 and reopens February 10.
Gregans Castle Hotel, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare. Tel: 065 707 7005; gregans.ie. Gregans is a member of the Blue Book (01-676 9914; Irelands-blue-book.ie), a handpicked collection of Irish country houses.