I’ve been fortunate enough to have stayed in some of the top-rated hotels around Ireland and further afield, but the experience hasn’t always been what I’d hoped.
Of course the hotels themselves and the facilities were second to none, but some felt stuffy and pretentious, giving me an awkward, uncomfortable feeling that because I’d had to save up for the experience and didn’t have wads of cash to throw around that somehow I was a bit out of place - perhaps that someone like me should be staying somewhere a little less exclusive (and expensive).
Fearing that the award-winning Solis Lough Eske Castle - Donegal’s only five-star hotel and spa - could have a similar ‘adults with lots of money only please’ vibe, myself and my wife left our boisterous one-year-old daughter with her granny for the night (thanks June) and hit the road for the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Belfast to south Donegal.
Our journey took us through the stunning scenery of the Fermanagh lakelands and the rugged barren beauty of south Donegal to the bustling Donegal Town where we paused for lunch at The Olde Castle Bar before making the short 15-minute drive out the N15 to Lough Eske.
Turning off the main Donegal Town - Ballybofey road we were immediately struck by the resort’s picturesque setting on the shores of the lough, overlooked by green hills rolling back towards the Blue Stack Mountains.
Driving up to the historic building, which dates back to the 17th century but was rebuilt in 1861, you can’t but be impressed by its Elizabethan-style architecture and the way the modern accommodation and spa have been sympathetically sited within the walled garden so they don’t detract from the splendour of the castle itself.
The hotel, developed in the early 21st century after the castle lay in ruins for more than half a century, is a blend of softly-lit Edwardian country mansion-style interiors and bright, contemporary facilities, making it a tranquil haven for rest and relaxation.
It’s also the perfect base from which to explore the area’s many attractions such as the Slieve League Cliffs at Glencolumcille (the highest sea cliffs in Europe), the Wild Atlantic Way and Glenveagh National Park.
The red carpet had been rolled out for the imminent arrival of a wedding party, but from the outset it was clear that every guest at Lough Eske receives the ‘red carpet treatment’.
The welcome from the concierge was warm and genuine, the check-in at reception pleasant and efficient.
The friendly staff couldn’t have been more helpful or welcoming, making us feel relaxed and at home (we wish) immediately.
After leaving our bags in our deluxe room, complete with its king size four-poster bed, bespoke oak furniture and all the mod cons you’d expect from a five-star hotel, we decided to take a bike ride along the shores of Lough Eske, past nearby Harvey’s Point.
With bikes and safety helmets available to guests free of charge, pedal power is definitely a good way to explore the surrounding countryside.
In need of some post-cycle rest and recuperation, we donned our fluffy white bathrobes and slippers and made the short walk to the hotel’s stunning spa complex, with its fantastic pool, well equipped gym and thermal suite.
After a few quick medical questions and some welcome chill out time in the relaxation room, our massage therapists Haley and Orla took us to a couples’ suite for a hot stone massage.
Now the last time I had a massage a small Thai woman about half my size grappled me on the floor, putting me in a series of painful holds that a US college wrestling champion would have been proud of. I’m not sure what I had expected, but the experience was far from relaxing. I was in a constant state of anxiety and panic that at any moment this tiny masseuse/wrestler might snap my spine like a twig.
Thankfully my massage experience at Lough Eske Castle was totally different and far more pleasurable - 25 minutes of total relaxation and letting the stresses and strains of daily life just drift away.
As a bit of a cynic, I’m not sure about the whole ‘detox’ effects and health benefits of often-costly spa treatments, but having enjoyed my hot stone massage, and made use of the steam room, sauna and infinity pool, I came to the conclusion that there are definitely worse ways to spend an afternoon.
Having detoxed long enough it was back to our room for a quick change of clothes and off to the Gallery Bar for a drink before we headed for dinner in the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Cedars Grill.
While the food was incredible, once again it was the friendly, knowledgeable and attentive staff who made the experience all the more relaxed and enjoyable.
The menu features the very best local produce, skilfully prepared, and we thoroughly enjoyed our perfectly cooked steaks, generous side orders and selection of delicious mini desserts.
But for me the highlight was the organic goats cheese and beetroot starter, which was more like a very tasty piece of art than a plate of food - definitely recommended.
After checking out the live music in the Gallery Bar over a nightcap, it was off to that giant four-poster bed for some shut-eye.
Refreshed after a rare full night’s sleep uninterrupted by teething traumas, we took a stroll around the castle garden and grounds to work up an appetite for our return to Cedars.
Over a delicious breakfast that had all the variety and quality you’d expect from one of Ireland’s finest hotels, I overheard a man who’d been at the previous day’s wedding say: “You couldn’t fault it. From the minute we arrived the staff were just volunteering to help.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Yes Lough Eske Castle is located in a stunning setting, has beautifully appointed rooms and boasts fabulous facilities, but it’s the people that make it the incredible place it is.
The hotel’s 190 staff - more than 70 per cent locals - ensure guests have the best possible experience.
Every one we met was friendly, chatty, efficient, informative and helpful - nothing was too much trouble for them. They are what makes Lough Eske’s five-star experience truly memorable, and definitely worth a return trip - maybe even with a toddler in tow!
The Lough Eske experience certainly isn’t cheap. But if you’re after the very best, true five-star luxury, and you can afford it, it’s most definitely worth treating yourself.
• One-night breaks at the Solis Lough Eske Castle are priced from 265 euro (around £230) for bed and breakfast.
For more information log on to www.lougheskecastlehotel.com