Travel: Lough Eske Castle, Ireland

NESTLED between the Bluestack Mountains and Donegal Town in northwest Ireland, Lough Eske Castle Hotel is a rural retreat for foodies, golfers and spa lovers.

Winner of the World’s Best Luxury Country Hotel two years in a row and featuring the only Aromatherapy Associates spa in Ireland, the owners, Solis Hotels, invested around ¤40 million overhauling the site in 2007. The rain fell steadily during my visit, but who needs the sunshine when you can get such a warm glow inside?

Wining and dining? Guests should book at least one evening meal in Cedars Restaurant, with its velvet-padded booths and floor-to-ceiling windows. The daily rotating menus focus on contemporary cuisine inspired by fresh local produce, with a wine list that has a strong ‘new world’ influence alongside familiar mainstays. The eye-popping buffet-style breakfast offers a wide choice including a typical Irish breakfast and a white-hatted chef on hand to cook omelettes, pancakes or eggs to guests’ specific tastes. The Oak and Gallery bars offer cocktails, aperitifs and Irish coffees as well as over 60 fine whiskies and European wines, which hungry guests can accompany with Donegal Bay Oysters or beef burgers with triple-cooked chips.

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Room service? Behind the original castle walls the large refurbished rooms are decorated in muted colours and smartly furnished, while the spacious garden suites have been constructed from the original stone sheds and stables. Our chalet had a solid oak four-poster king-size bed, with plenty of space left over for a sofa and a dining area, plus marble-tiled bathroom.

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Worth getting out of bed for? Donegal boasts numerous picturesque walks, ranging from short trips along riverside paths to more challenging treks through the mountains where the highest cliffs in Europe combine with some of the longest beaches and prettiest villages. We grabbed our raincoats and set off for a sightseeing car ride with Patsy McNulty of the Donegal Walkers Welcome and, after a stop-off at the quiet Ardnamora Wood nature reserve, drove deep into the wilderness of the Bluestack, whose remote moorland is occasionally punctuated by lonely farmhouses. The mountains, which take their name from the blue haze that rises off them, provide the setting for the adventures of Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn McCool), the mythical Irish hunter and warrior, whose battles, according to legend, resulted in the creation of the Giant’s Causeway. For those lucky enough to stay during a temperate spell, the hotel offers easy access to golf courses, fishing, horseback-riding on the beaches and even whale and shark-watching in the North Atlantic.

Budget or boutique? A welcome by-product of the republic’s financial gloom has been a drop in prices. It is definitely not a budget destination but rooms are competitively priced.

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Little extras? On arrival, expect to find a generous tasting plate of cakes, pastries and desserts, including rich brownies and cheesecake. Luxury bathrobes and slippers are provided as standard. The main hotel also features some nice decorative touches, including works on the walls by Father Francis Browne, the prolific photographer, Jesuit priest and Titanic survivor, while the traditional elegance is further enhanced by a billiard room-cum-library stocked with vintage books. Stands filled with umbrellas are located at every entrance.

Guestbook comments? The smart accommodation and wonderful restaurant are a major draw, while the spa is the perfect place for a swim, trip to the thermal suite and a relaxing treatment. The castle’s proximity to three airports places it within easy reach of Scots in search of a relaxing mini-break.

ALLAN RADCLIFFE

Rooms from €185 B&B. Solis Lough Eske Castle, Donegal Town, County Donegal, Ireland (+ 353 (0) 74 97 25100, www.solishotels.com)