Fit for a king

HELEN and Brian Heaton must have been as surprised as anyone when Castlewood House, their 12-bed guesthouse in Dingle, was last week named the sixth best hotel in the world by TripAdvisor.

The 2012 Travellers’ Choice Awards, based on travellers’ ratings of thousands of properties on the TripAdvisor website, ranked Castlewood ahead of resorts in Morocco and Zermatt, brands like Orient Express, the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur and Chicago’s luxury Elysian Hotel.

“Halfway through my whirlwind tour of Ireland and this was the first place I actually relaxed and took a deep breath,” gushed the latest reviewer as we went to press, a visitor from Colorado.

Of 346 reviews on TripAdvisor, 327 give Castlewood the top rating of ‘excellent’. But are user reviews really enough to rate a west Kerry guesthouse amongst the finest hotels on the planet?

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The first thing to say about Castlewood, and I’m sure Brian and Helen would agree, is that it isn’t a hotel. Pulling into the driveway outside Dingle, the property in front of me looks like a B&B on steroids, and the whiff of boom-time bling has me a little worried about what lies within.

I needn’t be. The Heatons may have opened in 2005, but they are smart enough to know that no matter how flashy the digs, every good guesthouse needs hospitable human beings. Helen greets me at the door. Brian cooks my breakfast. Their hearts are clearly in it.

THE ROOM

There are 12 rooms at Castlewood, ranging from classic through superior, deluxe and a large junior suite overlooking Dingle Bay. All are slickly laid out, spotlessly clean, and individually furnished — French, oriental and plantation are just some of the styles on offer.

I stayed in the junior suite, with a super-king-size wooden-framed bed spilling over with cushions and throws, a brace of Lily O’Brien chocolates on the dresser, and a marble-tiled bathroom containing both a Jacuzzi bath and walk-in shower. Filtered water, a flatscreen TV and thick curtains conducive to long and luxurious lie-ins all combine in a spec worthy of a boutique hotel.

THE FOOD

Breakfast is king at Castlewood. Arriving downstairs in the morning, guests make their way into a bright room splashed with white linen, chirpy paintings and red, green and gold fabric chairs. Views over Dingle Bay add to the sense of a B&B punching above its weight.

First up is the buffet, which you could be forgiven for loitering at for the entire morning. In addition to fresh juices, homemade breads and cereals, there are stewed and poached fruits (try the oranges in caramel, or plums in star anise syrup), a spread of salamis and cheeses, granola, yoghurt, several varieties of seeds, and a tempting bread and butter pudding, also homemade.

Next comes the hot food, which Brian cooks to order in his chef whites. You’d expect the Full Irish, but eggs Florentine, or a selection of omelettes, including mushroom and chorizo frittata, or baby rocket and blue cheese? Not a bad spread, given that B&B rates start from just €43pp.

THE AMENITIES

Castlewood House doesn’t have the pools, spas or Broadway shows, but it does have something no other property on the TripAdvisor list can offer: a location on Dingle’s doorstep.

There are little luxuries, too. Some guests may find the faux-classical touches over-the-top, but there’s no arguing with the Jacuzzi baths, and a classy little drawing room off the hallway makes for a grand spot to kick back with a cuppa and enjoy the crackling fire. You could also browse the art collection — it’s painted by Helen’s mum, Irene Woods, an artist based in Carlingford.

WHAT TO DO

On a good day the Dingle Peninsula can be breathtaking. On a bad day it can feel like an evil meteorological experiment. The last time but one that I visited, it rained so hard that a mudslide careered down cliffs onto the road near Inch beach. That was in July.

Not that you can tell what you’re in for, of course. The trick with Dingle is to fly in the face of the weather, and one way of doing that could be the Dingle Walking Festival (dinglewalkingfestival.com; Feb 18/19). Guided walks range from an easygoing spin up Cnoc an Chairn to a five-hour calf-buster on Mount Brandon, and they cost €15 a pop.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Castlewood House has a two-night midweek offer for Feb, including two nights’ B&B with a full breakfast, from €85pp. Contact 066-9152788; castlewooddingle.com.

ANYTHING TO ADD

TripAdvisor ranking you sixth best hotel is undoubtedly a boon, but potential visitors should understand exactly what that award says about Castlewood House.

For starters, scotch the notion that it’s comparable to the top resorts around the globe. It isn’t — but nor does it pretend to be. What it does offer is accommodation, food and service that an astonishing 94.5% of the guests reviewing it on TripAdvisor rate as “excellent”.

The next stop on those guests’ itineraries may not be Chicago’s Elysian, or the Phoenix Resort in Belize, but you can be sure their sense of a good guesthouse will never be the same.

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