They look after us all year — so where do Ireland’s top hoteliers take time out? Tony Clayton-Lea talks holidays of a lifetime with Francis Brennan, Kevin Dundon and more.
Owner, Park Hotel, Kenmare, Co Kerry
Now that I’m, ahem, almost famous, I look for somewhere that I mightn’t meet a lot of people.
As an example, in January of this year, after a very busy two months before with publicizing my book and talking for ages, I went to a German hotel in Marrakesh.
I just wanted to go away somewhere for a week and not talk unless I initiated the conversation, and that’s exactly what I got.
The television things I do have impacted hugely on what I can do and where I can go – I’ve been stopped in Addis Ababa, Los Angeles, and loads of times in New York.
For the past 35 years I’ve been organising annual holidays for about 20 people. We go to SKAL (International Association of Travel and Tourism Professionals) conferences every year, and each year it’s a different country. Wherever it is, however, we always hang a holiday onto it before or after.
As a group we have been to amazing places – St Petersburg, Nordic countries, South America, pretty much everywhere. Over the past couple of years we’ve moved on to cruises, simply because some of the group are in their 70s and 80s.
They’re all personal friends, and they call me ‘the kid’ – when they’re ordering drinks they always ask for a Coke for ‘the kid’, because I don’t drink alcohol!
Because I don’t like to waste time, I like to research before I go anywhere. I know that when you’re on holiday, time is there to be wasted, but that said when I go away I never phone home – they phone me as and if required.
Best holiday experience? The Amazon, which we went to about 15 years ago. Where we stayed was completely basic, no running water, no electricity, and we lived with pygmies for three days; they brought us fishing for piranhas, we learned about medicinal plants, their culture – it was out of this world.
The worst? About 12 years ago, we went to Vanuatu, which is an island nation off the northeast coast of Australia.
The hotel was a Meridian but it was in bad shape, the weather was ferociously humid, damp, and the whole experience was depressing.
My next holiday? I have a place in Majorca, and I’m heading over there soon.
Some people have the wrong idea about Majorca, but it’s actually a beautiful island. And the best thing is that I don’t shave for three days!
Manager, Kelly’s Resort Hotel, Rosslare, Co Wexford
I’d usually be impulsive when it comes to thinking about where to go. This year, for example, I told my sister in Vancouver that I was planning to head over there — about three days before. That was a bit last minute, I admit.
On the other hand, I also have a bucket list of places that I’d really like to see. Once a year I like to go to a place that I’ve never been to before, so these trips would be planned. But generally I’m more easygoing, and tend to take things day by day.
I’ve ticked off quite a lot of places on the bucket list. About four years ago, I backpacked my way through Central America — Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala.
You could say I like a bit of adventure! I’ve also been to New York, London, Madrid, but as a family — what with my mother being French — we spend every Christmas in France.
It’s a tradition we’ve had from when we were growing up, and it’s great to have family time. What more could you want?
It’s interesting, but as a hotelier — especially when I’m travelling and staying in a hotel — it’s difficult to totally switch off. My friends get a bit embarrassed with me when I go travelling with them because I’m forever taking pictures.
Not only that, but I have a drawer full of menus that I’ve taken from bars and restaurants! You see, as much as I enjoy travel on a personal level, as a hotelier there are always ideas you see in different places. It’s normal, I think, to be inspired by other businesses.
Expectations? Well, I might not go back to a particular country, but I feel that even by being there I learn so much about the people, the culture, the place itself — and I like to speak to the locals, get a sense of what they think I should do.
It might not necessarily be something you yourself can relate to, or that you like, but it’s still a learning experience, and for me that’s what travel is all about — it opens eyes and minds.
There has never been a place I’ve been that I would never want to go back to; I really feel I’ve learned something from everywhere I’ve visited.
Dunbrody Country House Hotel, Arthurstown, Co Wexford;
Planning a holiday is easier these days with all the online avenues at our disposal, but sometimes you need to make sure to cross reference what you find on the net.
We would never follow TripAdvisor, but would definitely respect the authenticated reviews on booking.com, as well as via the likes of Ireland’s Blue Book, Tablet Hotels, Chic Retreats, and so on.
With regard to where we go to on holidays, we love the familiarity of favourite destinations but we also very much enjoy new places, especially for short breaks in Ireland and Europe.
With three kids of varying ages we have to take into account all preferences and school holidays, so we try to take our family holiday during the February school mid-term.
The most popular option is skiing — we like Austria as the kids are as well catered for as we are. We go to the same small hotel in Sankt Anton, and it now feels like a home from home.
The hotel owners have come to us, too, for golfing and walking holidays, and their kids have come to Dunbrody for summer jobs, so it works really well both ways.
Being so busy here at Dunbrody means anything longer than a few days is out of the question, so we’d take short breaks around Ireland as often as possible — both with and without the kids.
We’ve had some amazing trips to the Aran Islands, Donegal and Northern Ireland, and we’ve plans later this summer to get to West Cork and the Wicklow mountains.
Our worst holiday experience? Cancun about 15 years ago — it was so bad I seem to have wiped out as much of the memory of it from my brain! The best was the Maldives — it was by a mile the best destination we have ever been to. Their holiday mantra is ‘no shoes/no news’, and that is so true to the way they do things over there.
Because of what I do, I am more fussy when I check into a hotel with regards to quality of service, food, rooms, and so on.
We know the level of standards that are expected of Dunbrody, so if we are paying similar rates and experiencing poky rooms, sloppy service or bad food, it definitely annoys us.
However, we would always try to make sure the hotel has a chance to fix a problem on the spot, rather than give out about it after the fact.
GM, Aghadoe Heights, Killarney, Co Kerry
Going on holidays for me is always last minute because with a job like mine you never know what’s going to happen from week to week.
I’ve had the pleasure of working overseas quite a lot — the Middle East, Russia, for example — so what I would do is take long weekend breaks.
I was based in St Petersburg for a while, so it was easy for me to visit Moscow for several days; when I was in Dubai I’d take off for a few days and go out into the desert or experience the safari.
Traditionally, I’m not a person who plans weeks in advance, and to be honest I far prefer long weekends. In fact, I know I couldn’t go away for two weeks — it would bore me to tears.
I’m a very active person, I like to challenge myself, and so going away for three or four days is long enough. I also get withdrawal symptoms from work, and I get a little bit concerned about what’s happening back at work.
Being a GM, I feel that it’s my job to make sure that all is going well. Also, I find it very reassuring when I’m on holidays that I can access emails on my phone, if only to keep in touch with the hotel.
I’m not one to leave my mobile phone at home before I take off — I have to stay in touch.
Going on holiday breaks is all about release. Visiting Adelaide and experiencing the wine tasting and the sight seeing; doing part of the Camino and enjoying the countryside and getting the physical exercise, meeting people along the way.
The purpose of each trip is different, and I tend to vary them from cultural to educational to physical, but also to always experience the local culture.
I tend to always stay in four or five star hotels — I like comfort, luxury, good accommodation, and if it’s a city trip I like to be close to everything so that I don’t have to waste time getting here and there.
And I like really good service — but I think that’s simply part of being in the hotel business.
Places I haven’t been to? South America and Canada — but as I only like relatively short holidays I’m not so sure I’ll ever get to these places!
GM, Ashford Castle, Cong, Connemara, Co Mayo
As our kids have become older, of course we have to take into consideration what they like and where they might like to go.
That said, family holidays are usually taken in mid-term, October or February.
We choose destinations to suit the kids as much as ourselves, but we also spend time in Lahinch with relatives a few times a year; Lahinch is a bolt-hole to completely switch off in.
Where we go to needs to have good hospitality, good food, and no fuss. It can be difficult to switch off — in truth, you do, although it’s impossible not to notice things.
I prefer to go away and not have that impacting on free time. Sometimes, we’d choose an apartment to stay in rather than a hotel, and then head every evening out to eat in local restaurants.
Some of our best memories on holiday as a family are going to the simplest of restaurants in Spain or Portugal, where you’re eating fish with your hands, there’s a paper napkin on your lap, and you’re looking out to the sea.
That’s quite far away from the lavish experience people receive in Ashford Castle, but those are the times when I can switch off and interact with my kids and family.
Best and worst holidays? The culture of the food and wine in Italy is amazing, so holidays there have been good.
And last September there was a multi-generational trip — my father, my two boys, and me — to London to see an Arsenal match. That was unbelievably special.
Worst? I’d need to think about that…
To be honest, we’ve really been very lucky. We haven’t had any disasters in terms of location, and we’ve never had cancelled flights.
I suppose the perception of hoteliers such as myself is that my expectations may be higher just because I work in the hospitality industry, but I think I’m more forgiving because I understand the pressure that hotels and restaurants are under.
You know very quickly whether a restaurant is under pressure and are trying to do their very best — that I will always forgive.
What I cannot and will never forgive is rudeness, or people who don’t care enough.
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