Staycation: I did not know the word until a couple of weeks ago, when my wife and I were obliged to cancel our trip abroad and we decided to spend a luxurious holiday on the west coast of Ireland.
We treated ourselves to a menu of three nights in each of three different five-star hotels; in Donegal, Galway and Kerry. The Irish weather might be terrible, but at least we'd be in great hotels. We could be sure these top-of-the-range establishments would respect meticulously the Covid-19 guidelines. Wouldn't they?
We soon realised Irish rules are interpreted in an Irish way by Irish hotels.
Do people in such hotels wear face masks? Well, sometimes … but it's unclear what the rules are. Perhaps this reflects what was, until recently, mixed messages about face masks in the public health guidance.
At Sheen Falls Lodge in Kenmare, Co Kerry, probably one of the best hotels in this country, there was a clear visible policy: every member of staff at the reception, in the restaurant and at the bar was wearing a plastic protective face shield at all times of the day and night.
The restaurant staff had clearly been trained: after uncorking a bottle of wine and serving guests the first glass, the bottle was carefully wiped down and left on the table. The bill arrived with a specially cleaned pen in a box. No, the face shields do not look very friendly and, yes, you do feel rather like you've been admitted to a hospital, but at least it gives the guest of feeling of security.
The new normal in Covid-19 times, we thought. But, for some restaurants, the old normal is just the new normal.
The Glenlo Abbey Hotel in Galway, cherished by golfers, is very proud of its unique restaurant - and rightly so. Parked just behind the hotel is the Pullman restaurant, located in two carriages from the original Orient Express. In these splendid carriages Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was filmed. One of them carried the casket with the remains of Winston Churchill to his last resting place. Now they form one of the most special places to dine in Ireland.
And yet, inside this restricted space, it seemed as if Covid-19 didn't exist. No face masks and no special precautions were visible. The waiters were welcoming and friendly, but they served food and wine without any face coverings. We were fortunate not to have any other guests sitting across from our table, but other diners did. The two-metre role was clearly not being respected.
By the way: while the elegant setting of the train conjured up dreams of 'Golden Age' adventures, the food was far from sumptuous. For my vegetarian partner, the chef made a special salad: it turned out to be some green leaves tossed on a plate without vinaigrette or inspiration. And my non-vegetarian food was also not worth the voyage. How different to the exquisite food in Kenmare, where we had excellent foie gras, perfect sole, great pasta and plenty of vegetarian options.
If the PPE code in Kenmare was strict, and non-existent at the Glenlo Abbey, the situation at the Lough Eske Castle Hotel in Donegal was, to say the least, confusing.
Certainly, there were lots of hand-sanitiser stations. The hotel had placed an extra table in the reception area to create some space between arriving guests and the staff. And, yes, there was a tape on the door declaring 'your room has been sealed after cleaning'.
But in the restaurant (with decent food), staff were not wearing face masks, and in the bar, where food also was being served, most were. Some staff members were wearing plastic face shields, some had disposable face masks, while others did not have any protection at all.
(As an aside: the nicest anecdote in Lough Eske had nothing to do with Covid-19. When we complained that, for two days in a row, our internet connection wasn't working and we needed it to catch up with some work, the staff member told us it had been raining, which wasn't good for our wi-fi reception. Ireland!)
So, there was no clear face-mask policy that we could see. There was no clear policy regarding use of spas either. In Donegal, the spa was open for massages and facials by appointment, but (because of Covid-19), not for smaller treatments like manicures.
In Kenmare, the swimming pool and gym were open (after reservation) but, because of Covid-19, the spa was closed.
In Donegal, the guestrooms were 'sealed'; in Galway and Kenmare they were not. Lough Eske Castle had a special breakfast bar, but people got dangerously close when queuing up in front of it and began serving themselves when things didn't move quickly enough; Glenlo Abbey had a continental breakfast which only the staff could serve. The wine list at the Sheen Falls Lodge was accessed via a QR-code, so you could read it by phone; at the Glenlo Abbey it was the usual big album.
At Lough Eske, we were informed that hotel had "removed all non-essential items such as newspapers, magazines and books", but guests were given a QR-code to download them.
At Glenlo Abbey, printed newspapers were provided, nicely and individually sealed in plastic bags. At Sheen Falls, the receptionist erroneously told us that it was against Covid regulations to provide guests with newspapers (while in every room there were books available).
And at the Lyrath Estate in Kilkenny, where we stayed a last night on our way back to Dublin, there was a large stack of printed newspapers in the reception area. Not sealed this time.
On the plus side, reception staff at the Lyrath worked behind a glass screen, the rooms were sealed and the breakfast took place in the ballroom, where we were sitting at least three metres from our neighbours. However, on the night before we didn't dare to sit in a bar packed solid and where I saw only one staff member wearing a face mask. The other five or six had none.
Our most worrying experience was outside the hotel. For dinner we went to Ristorante Rinuccini, recommended by the Michelin guide and located opposite the splendid Kilkenny Castle.
If the Pullman train experience had been a bit unsettling, the dining here was almost absurd. No Covid-19 precautions were visible at all. The restaurant was full, with tables close to each other.
Masks? Not one to be seen. Parmesan with your pasta? The server used his hands to shave the block of cheese, going from table to table. Bottles or glasses being cleaned before or after serving? Not seen once.
The day after this dubious experience, I read in this newspaper the story of a publican, Pat McGrath, from the village of Kilfinane in Co Limerick.
He expressed anger that he is not allowed to open his pub at the same time as the two hairdressers, the butcher, the grocers, the post office and the service station.
He felt "degraded that we're the only sector that isn't open", he said.
Having visited hotels, restaurants and associated bars around Ireland during the last week, where the rules clearly were not respected, I could only sympathise with this man.
We should either ensure that hotels and restaurants must all follow the same rules, or allow pubs to open their doors.
Peter Vandermeersch is publisher at Independent News and Media
Its cliffs are Ireland’s cover star. The hero image that, no matter how ubiquitous, still leaves you reeling — from the raw power of nature to the surprising emotional connection. Like all cover stars, however, their brightness can blind you to the surrounding beauty.
At the start of this year, my wife and I booked a holiday to Asia, but it was cancelled and we got a refund. In February, blissfully unaware of what was to come, we booked a holiday in Italy, and it got cancelled too. After months of waiting, I finally got a refund this week.