It's rare that we review three-star hotels. Staying at The Connacht, set just outside Galway City, I ask myself why.
Three-stars are often unflashy workhorses, keeping prices keen but seldom catching the eye as innovators or tastemakers. Well, here's one that not only ticks those boxes, but could give most Irish four-stars a run for their money, too.
Stepping through the front door, a 'living wall' crawling with greenery extends to my right. There's a swish new "library" space to my left and, beyond the hand-sanitisation station and clear social-distancing decals, a barista bar brewing up fresh coffees. In the corridor, an artwork celebrates local street theatre heroes, Macnas.
Parked outside is 'The Connacht Cruiser', a US-style motorhome-on-steroids that sleeps eight as a self-catering option. It's hard to believe the hotel has been on the Old Dublin Road for over 50 years.
The Connacht began life in 1969 as the Galway Ryan Hotel. Since then, it's been a Days Inn, a Carlton, and received its latest, €1.3m makeover from current owners the Fitzgerald family (who have several hospitality businesses in the city).
Shaped around a stack of modernist-style 'wings', it does up to 1,000 breakfasts a day in normal times, but is clearly quieter today. The lobby reboot creates a smart, roomy area that feels luxe without over-egging things in the way hotels can - avoiding "feature" carpets or Insta-friendly fountains and the like. There's a welcome focus on sustainability, too, with waste last year reduced by 40pc, furniture reclaimed and refillable bathroom dispensers rather than single-use items.
Guests are about 2.5km from Eyre Square, so you won't be moseying into the city in minutes, but the location provides ample parking and room for a spacious 20m pool with high ceilings and lots of light. I enjoy a morning swim, though spots of fading varnish and peeling paint do jar a little given the investment elsewhere... I'm told this is next on the list for a little TLC. The leisure centre is well-used by locals, and you may spot the odd Pro-14 star too - the hotel is a partner of Connacht Rugby. 7/10
Ruth at check-in offers a warm, natural welcome - a tonic in these guarded times. She's behind a Plexiglass screen, but that doesn't take from the personal touch. It feels like she enjoys her job - always a good sign - and I'm soon booked in for breakfast and pool slots (everything needs to be booked ahead these days). The open Wi-Fi in C Wing spends a lot of time buffering, so I switch to the corporate channel (needing a password), but it all goes fairly smoothly. At dinner, too, there's no problem with my request to have a starter from the lunch menu. It's sad to see some of the older staff faces regulars may recognise haven't returned yet due to an abundance of Covid-19 caution, but their spirit of hospitality is intact. 7.5/10
A surprising 358 rooms are housed in the slightly clinical-sounding 'A', 'B', 'C' and 'D' wings. Many have gotten soft refurbs, all come with blackout curtains and, though design is fairly generic, the range of configurations is brilliant. The Connacht gets lots of repeat business from families - with doubles, triples, 'quads' and bunk rooms (a godsend for those with the temerity to have more than two children), as well as small apartments and that Connacht Cruiser. The gigantic RV (basically a beast of a bus) was designed to be rented with a driver, but the pandemic put those plans on hold, and it's now booked as a stationary stay. It has its own BBQ deck, too. 8/10
Reuben's restaurant and Bar Solo were refurbed in the nick of time (the new, open space "gave us a fighting chance" at dealing with Covid-19 restrictions, says Sales & Marketing Manager, Eveanna Ryan). I like the bar, with its botanical wallpapers, smart dividing shelves lined with white pots of spider ferns, and a green palette that lightens as the room moves towards Reuben's (where breakfast is served). It all feels cosmopolitan, but fresh and natural, too.
My Tuesday evening visit finds the place busy with a mix of families, couples and after-work eats. There's a healthy nod to local producers on the menu, and a lightly spiced mackerel starter punches above its weight, while a cod main course is fairly standard - no zingers, but good value for the star rating, and there's a smart selection of pizzas too. For now, bar and restaurant use the same menu.
Breakfast brings good gluten-free options (including sausages and pudding), though the buffet's off due to Covid, and the choice of cooked options is limited to a full or mini-Irish, a veggie option or pancakes. 7/10
The hotel has a 'Dine Around' package, which for €40pp buys you a course in each of three sister venues in the city (gin bar HYDE, 1520 and An Púcan).
There's no spa, but the five-star g Hotel is just a short drive (or 10-minute walk) down the road at Wellpark. A 'Make a Break for Galway' campaign is running for autumn. Find the special offers at thisisgalway.ie.
Here's a breath of fresh air - a hotel where staff seem like they genuinely want to work, where innovation and sustainability are encouraged, social media is savvy, and the attitude is to add value (with a free kids' club, for example) rather than chopping prices and lowering the bar for quality in the process. That fourth star is there for the taking.
B&B starts from €99 in a double this autumn, with family bunk rooms from €149 midweek, and The 'Connacht Cruiser' from €700 for two nights. Pól stayed as a guest of the hotel. 091 381200; theconnacht.ie
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