Saturday 16 December 2017

Magical in the midlands

A family stay in the Hodson Bay Hotel in Athlone was truly a revelation

The picturesque marina
The picturesque marina
Charlie, Millie and Harry visit Athlone Castle
The children enjoy the hotel swimming pool
Ian Mallon

Ian Mallon

ONE of the by-products of Ireland's plastic age, a time in which we credit-crunched our way into catastrophe, is the plethora of largely empty five-star hotels left behind.

This was a country where not too long ago the closest most people got to luxury accommodation was when they drove by the old Green Isle Hotel on Newlands Cross.

The Hudson Bay Hotel
The Hudson Bay Hotel

Ruddy cheeked children up from the country would press their freckly faces against the windows as Daddy drove by in the Hillman Hunter on the way into Dublin, and the whole family would romanticise about what lay behind those landmark white walls.

The best most folk could aspire to was a weekend away in some godforsaken B&B, conveniently located in a house that was nearly always surrounded by a farmyard, loud animals and a tractor that seemed set to go off at 5am every morning.

Then, all of a sudden, we emerged from our post-famine poverty into what we now know to have been a punch drunk, pretend-wealth economy, all based on money that didn't really exist and credit which we never thought would run out.

Our nouveau 90s riche metamorphosed, not into Celtic Tiger cubs, but Prada pouting pups.

We demanded fine dining by the silver platter-full; we became five-star dwelling deviants and a nation who believed that a property bubble, built on foundations of straw, would last forever.

We were Premiership footballers, straight out of the ghettos and straight into 'executive' suites, where we gorged ourselves sick on the mini-bars.

Sure we made absolute shows of ourselves, while our Mammies tutted from the sidelines and warned that this new-found need for everything, as long as it came in an ice bucket, wouldn't last.

But hey, it was fun.

The main upside to all this, is that our fast returning sense of sobriety means we are learning to understand what truly matters; we are returning to our roots and starting to appreciate things again.

Things that are genuine, wholesome and real, where we're not met by painted ladies at reception with smiles drawn under their brows.

One hotel destination that signals a return to real and genuine is the Hodson Bay Hotel which, I didn't realise until I visited it, is in Athlone.

More through my own ignorance than through any great fault of the noble folk of Westmeath, I had never really considered Athlone one of the great Irish holiday destinations.

For me, the places to visit on this beautiful island were always on the coast, or up a mountain, but not in the midlands.

But isn't that the great joy of travel, of finding out unexpected treasures where you expected very little? And there is always the flip side of that, where you anticipate great things, only to find it was nothing like you expected.

I once went to Phuket expecting a Thai paradise straight off 'The Beach', only to find that Leonardo DiCaprio had been replaced by a ladyboy, and the golden sands and green ocean had been overrun with grubby little sex tourists.

So, with very little by way of expectations, I decided to uplift the family to find out more of what lay ahead in the area that they call the Lakelands.

I had been to Athlone once before, but that was a stag weekend of a chap whose name I cannot even remember, and there certainly was no evidence of lakes, or bays or any beauty spots, just a pub and a nightclub and a chipper.

Happily, as with most things in life, I was completely wrong in my assumption and what awaited us was by far one of the great family weekends we've had together.

The Hodson Bay Hotel is on a lake, a great lake in fact, placed gently on the shores of Lough Ree. It is not a sumptuous five-star new build.

Unlike the Celtic Tiger warehouses, it is a homely, atmospheric, enchanting kind of place, where a genuine warmth and attention to detail exudes from all the staff.

You immediately get a feeling for a place when you walk through the doors for the first time – and I knew instantly there would be no squeaky and disinterested, frigid welcomes here.

The Hodson Bay possesses a charm and warmth that doesn't assault you for your credit card when you check in. It wants you to immediately know that you are genuinely welcome and here's how.

The homely feel prevails throughout the hotel, from the restaurants to the kids' club, to the breakfast lounge – an atmosphere I haven't felt in an Irish hotel for quite some time.

The rooms were warm and welcoming, comfortable and homely, and without any air of pretension, but also with a strong desire to please.

The food too was genuine and comforting, and that's not to downplay the quality of fare, which certainly wasn't Michelin star foam food, it was more honest than that.

L'Escale Restaurant was unpretentious and wholesome, as was the food – lovely without being nauseatingly spectacular.

There is a carvery available in the Waterfront Bar – one of the nicest, snuggest hotel watering holes in the country.

The bar staff were, like the waiters, receptionists and hotel staff, super-efficient, and soon the magic of the Hodson Bay became clear. This is a place where you will not want for long.

So with the full knowledge that everything was being taken care of at the hotel, I and my trusted band of munchkins set off to find out what you can get up to in the locality. Well, not one hundred yards from the hotel and on the shore of the magnificent lake is a pier, and beside that the fabulous Baysports run by Richie and his team.

The children jumped off piers, bounced off lake rafts and swam in the natural beauty of the Ree – and we were taken right across the lake in one of the Baysports ribs.

There is also the Viking Ship which leaves Hodson Bay for return journeys across the lake to Athlone every day.

And another great discovery was the town itself, a beautiful, atmospheric kind of place, with friendly people and the newly restored Athlone Castle, with its interactive tours – a real must for the entire family.

On the second day of our trip, we visited Thyme restaurant, which possesses a beautiful blend of traditional and contemporary cooking, based on fresh, seasonal, local produce – a real culinary treat.

There was nothing left to chance on this trip to the Lakelands. It not only opened the eyes, but restored the senses.

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