And in terms of the latter, committing comes down to rates and reason, price and purpose.
The five-star K Club in Kildare is, in many respects, the definitive case study. Comfortingly stylish, it provides a pretty reliable barometer of the nation’s fears and fortunes. Excesses of the past have been eliminated without relinquishment of its sense of self-worth. Unlike Ireland Inc, though, it has remained in full indigenous ownership, a point it the hotel is thankful to Dr Michael Smurfit for.
But how much does it cost for a short stay and is it worth it? We can cut through the suspense on its worthiness. It is. The art, . The bedrooms, and bathrooms, . The grounds, .The golf courses and . The food. It is a sumptuous experience. Never have I been in such a rush to be done with the golf and move into the lodgings. The foyer, now ready for Christmas, is stunning.
The hotel itself is set in the elegantly-restored 19th Century Georgian mansion estate modeled modelled in 1832, on a French chateau, by Hugh Barton in 1832, the grandson of legendary winemaker Thomas Barton. Each of its 69 rooms —- superior, deluxe and suites, are individually designed, meaning no two rooms are alike. The small touches sets this five-star apart. The chef will cook your catch from the River Liffey that runs through its 550 acres of parkland and mature grounds.
Of course it’s worth it.
But how does one justify the weeping credit card, where afternoon tea comes at a hefty €29 euros, where the set menu for dinner in the sumptious sumptuous River Room is €55 — - and that’s without the supplements?
This depends on another post-recession bedrock: what now constitutes value for money. Meeting the hotel’s general manager Michael Davern as we stroke our chins over afternoon tea brings the debate to a head. In bald print, €29 euros appears expensive, but there is the alternative perspective. Afternoon tTea is served in the hotel’s beautiful Chinese Drawing Room, where guests feast on a three-tiered silver stand which consists of freshly-baked scones with jam and cream, exquisite pastries and finger sandwiches. Would a carvery for two in the lunchtime local cost that anyway?
Our arrival for two nights — accommodation free, everything else we pay for — is notable for the difficulty in finding a car space, such is the number of northern-registered cars already booked in. As Mr Davern is happy to confirm, the hotel is busy going about ensuring its future is a vibrant one by pitching itself properly. With Dr Smurfit resuming 100% ownership, and wiping over-hanging debts, it has removed two years of uncertainty. “We are fully identifiably Irish-owned,” beams its manager.
The 2006 Ryder Cup, arguably the most -emotionally-charged in the history of the event, saw the K Club trending like an iconic global brand. It still does in the world’s elite country clubs. But while the Straffan super-rich wallowed in the afterglow, bed nights at the K Club slumped like the economy. Uncompetitive green fees on both the Palmer (Ryder Cup) and Smurfit courses turned the clubhouses into virtual prairies.
Like Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption, the K Club, with its 200 staff, had a stark choice: get busy living or get busy dying. “Only 15-20% of our sleepers are golfers,” Michael Davern confirms.
“A number of years ago, we realised that the family market was incredibly important. In recessionary times, people bring their kids with them.”
The Government decision to commit to 9% VAT rates on tourism has helped drive business, and 2013 bookings and enquiries, fuelled by overseas interest in The Gathering, has given K Club staff a sense that a corner’s been turned.
Only this week, the America-Ireland Fund committed their 2013 dinner to Straffan (it brought Bill Clinton and valuable business to Castlemartyr and Ballymaloe this year).
Of course, the shift to a more price-conscious business model induced sniggering from the begrudgeratti. “Price adjustments” triggered a wave of schadefreude from gate-watchers delighting in the elite getting their comeuppance.
Mr Davern explained that prices are based on retaining the sense of exclusivity, while retaining competitiveness against hotels in Nama that have brought about a downward pull on pricing. Primarily, though, they’re focused on the service.
“People are about value-for-money, and that means service. We have a very strong product for Christmas, with children’s programmes, a visit from Santa, Christmas trees in every room,” said the manager.
He is not wrong. During our too-brief getaway, we sampled food in the Palmer clubhouse (a decent Irish stew at €16.50), dinner in the River Room (for two, €130, euros excluding wine) and the Kwam Suk Thai restaurant in the Smurfit clubhouse (unexpectedly good, and only €70 for two).
Our favourite retreat was the Vintage Crop cocktail bar, an oasis of calm and class. But nothing intrigued us more than the red-carpet roll-out for the under aged — right down to the Kkids club, bike and buggy rides.
For around €1,300 you will get an impossibly atmospheric festive treat for two (all-in), with kids under six staying and eating for free. It’s not cheap (see panel), but three nights at €1,500 for an unfortgettable family treat is in the realms of rates v versus reason, price v versus purpose. Most of the 69 rooms are gone; its renters believe the roaring fires, afternoon teas, delectable cuisine and luxurious facilities are worth it.
For €650 per person sharing, two-night stay includes a full Irish breakfast with champagne each morning, a table d’hôte meal on Christmas Eve and a traditional Christmas lunch or dinner on Christmas Day.
Traditional carol singers will take centre stage in the magnificent Old Entrance Hall for a mulled wine and mince pies reception on Christmas Eve. There is also entertainment and live music every evening with dinner. Children under 6 sharing with their parents stay for free and all children under 6 years of age eat for free. Kids under 16 are charged at €100 for B&B in their own room.
There are also two and three night New Year’s experiences available from €650 per person sharing. On arrival, guests will be greeted with a festive glass of mulled wine, before checking into one of the luxurious rooms. On the 30th guests can enjoy a meal in The River Room Restaurant prepared by executive chef Finbar Higgins and his talented team. On Then on New Year’s Eve there’s a gala ball will take place with an evening meal and live entertainment. Just before midnight guests will go be invited outside to the magnificent gardens to ring in the New Year while the skies above the 550 acres of grounds are brought to life with a n exceptional fireworks display.
For a club where pricing has often been criticised, the K Club is offering super value for membership of its Smurfit Course — not least if you’re an up and comer.
* Individual male: €1,900
* Individual female: €1,290
* Family (2 children under 17): €3,150
* Couple/spouse: €2,850
* Graduated junior (23-25): €950
* Student (18-23): €500
* Junior (12-17): €350
NOTE: A €500 once-off joining fee per person applies on top of membership fee.
* www.kclub.ie, 01-6017200.