A €20m makeover is bringing Dromoland Castle into the 21st century. Travel Editor Pól Ó Conghaile checks in.
It's one of Ireland's iconic arrivals.
Passing stately gates, gliding through a golf course so perfect it looks Photoshopped, trying not to veer into the scenery as the towers of Dromoland come into view.
Phew. It's been a few years, and I've forgotten the 'whoa' factor of a resort arguably more appreciated in the US than its homeland (60pc of its revenue comes from North America).
But this castle ain't just for coffee-table books. As we check in beside stern-looking suits of armour, a chirpy porter unpacks and parks our car. A €20m refurbishment is sprucing up everything from stonework to set-piece rooms, but the staff remain Dromoland's heart and soul. From the maître d' who organises an off-menu breakfast to the archery instructor who waits an hour for rain to pass, they make it a five-star with feeling.
The fusty luxury of hotels like Dromoland and Ashford Castle isn't for everyone (not to mention the price), but Dromoland's Gallery, lounges and restaurant are breathtaking spaces. A mix of historic rooms and features like oak wainscoting and stained glass have been tastefully lifted by the refurb - warm new tartan fabrics and embossed velvets, for example, tie together castle charm and contemporary chic.
Dining at the Earl of Thomond is full of formal theatre (dishes delivered under silver cloches; jackets required for gents) but the menu is rooted locally - try a citrus-cured Irish salmon, or a cutlet and braised shoulder of Burren lamb served with veg and herbed St Tola cheese (left, five courses for €75pp).
Golf tourism is front and centre in its business plan, but there's more to Dromoland's 330-acre estate than 18 holes. Spare a half hour for the exquisite walled gardens, where Instagrams-in- waiting include a pear-tree tunnel, brightly coloured fairy doors and frisky wire sculptures. Bring boots for a woodland walk, ask at reception for tennis rackets, or eat casually with the Gallery menu or a clubhouse dinner at The Fig Tree (the lime and chilli-infused prawn salad is a tangy treat at €12/18).
Wanna be royals? We took a short 'n' sweet archery lesson (from €30pp) and a 'hawk walk' with Harris hawk Anthony and handler Caroline (above, from €50pp).
Facts flew as the bird swooped around, plucking nibbles from our gauntlets. So sharp is its eyesight, a Harris hawk could read newspaper headlines from the end of a football pitch...
Five-star hotels all over Ireland have been splashing the cash - from Ashford Castle ($75m) to The K Club (€20m) and the hotly anticipated overhaul of Adare Manor (just 47km from Dromoland), set to reopen this autumn. With North American visitors to Ireland up 21pc this year and luxury hospitality in a boom cycle, five-stars have to spend just to stand still.
Dromoland's feng shui is disrupted by a dull, meandering hallway connecting reception to the Gallery. There are no plans to upgrade the pool (a short spin away in the clubhouse) either - a dated feel and details like tile grouting could do with a refresh to keep up with competing facilities at Ashford Castle or Castlemartyr, for example.
With celeb guests ranging from Jamie Dornan to Brooke Shields and George W Bush, Dromoland doesn't come cheap. Summer rates start from €550 per room, B&B. That's before any activities or meals and drinks (which carry a service charge of 15pc).
Winter is another story, when rooms start at €252 a night between November and March - and it's worth noting that up to two kids under 12 can share with parents (they'll get jelly babies and teddies at turndown service, too). Special occasion? 061 368144; dromoland.ie.