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Breaking the ice: The Ice House, Ballina

IT'S a hard task to keep up with the standards of such a nice hotel as Westmeath's Wineport Lodge, setting for RTE's The Restaurant, but the Ice House Hotel certainly doesn't let down its sister hotel in the Midlands, and boasts a similarly stunning location.

Like Wineport, it commands a view over the waterside, in Wineport's case a lake, here it's the lovely River Moy estuary leading to the Atlantic Ocean outside Ballina.

SO WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT IT? Who are we to argue with Conde Nast Traveller, which named it as one of their top new places to stay.

It was also voted Best Newcomer in the Restaurant Association of Ireland Awards, so they're getting things right, as you'll find.

This boutique hotel is intimate yet has all the mod cons you'd expect at this level. It has just 27 bedrooms and five suites, so it's a great place to unwind before venturing into the stunning scenery of Mayo.

WHAT ARE THE ROOMS LIKE? Really swish, even better than you'd expect for a four-star.

Rooms feature deep-pile carpets, super-king sized beds with goose-down duvets and pillows.

The bespoke rooms give an olde worlde feel (think Ashford Castle and the like) to a modern hotel with all the facilities you'd want or expect.

So, among the antique-look furniture, you get the very latest flat-screen TVs and, like Wineport, floor-to-ceiling windows to maximise the exceptional views.

Bathrooms have underfloor heating, extra-soft towels and bathroom products by one of my personal favourites, L'Occitane en Provence.

For a special occasion opt for the spa-level suites with stunning views over the Moy.

IS IT WORTH EATING IN? This is where the Ice House sweeps ahead of its rivals.

The Pier Restaurant & Cocktail Bar served up some of the best fish dishes I have had in recent times.

General manager Dara assures me only the freshest local produce is used and I certainly believe him.

The restaurant has a glass-box design and overlooks the lovely River Moy.

You could splurge on the celebrated tasting menu, a hefty eight courses accompanied by selected wines.

What's nice is that the restaurant is cleverly designed so, even if you're away from the main window, you don't go without a view as the back area is raised to give a great vista.

And it's put Ballina -- which not so long ago was seen as a sleepy market town -- on the culinary map as the restaurant is run by Gavin O'Rourke, once head chef at Dublin's fondly remembered Peacock Alley.

AND HOW ABOUT LEISURE TIME? Spa treatments are good value at the Chill Spa, complete with its own waterside garden, and one absolute must (for me) in any good hotel -- an outdoor hot tub.

The West has certainly changed over the years and now the lads aren't left out at Chill with a wide range of massages and treatments aimed specifically at the fellas.

But, as with many rural retreat hotels, the surrounding countryside is just crying out to be explored. The River Moy is rightly regarded as one of Ireland's (and Europe's) top salmon fishing areas, while cruises along the waterway can also be arranged.

Sleepy Enniscrone is only a few miles away, and has a beautiful beach and an indoor pool adventure centre.

The windswept area is also a mecca for surfers, and a beginners' school in Enniscrone, or further on in Strandhill.

And the nicest part? Whatever the weather, it's great to get back after an exhausting day out and chill in the old house's Parlour with a newspaper and a snack.

COSTS/BOOKING Check the website for the latest deals.

At the moment its affordable luxury deal gets you two nights b&b and one table d'hote-menu dinner with the bonus of a third night free from €189 per person.

You will also be treated to a mini spa treatment with all spa treatments booked, and complimentary use of the thermal area in the Chill Spa which includes a steam room, laconium and two outdoor hot tubs.

Offer valid until April 30.

For more information about the Ice House Hotel call 096 23 500 or see www.icehousehotel.ie