Life in the ivy league

IT’S one of the most magical hotel arrivals in Ireland. There you are, driving across the country with the weight of the world on your shoulders, when all of a sudden, you pull up at a little slipway dipping into the River Suir.

Life in the ivy league

A small ferry awaits. From his cabin, a ferryman waves you onto the boat, and you begin the short crossing to an island in the river. The journey takes barely a couple of minutes, but it seems like a much more significant passage — a clean break between the real world and a wooded island hideaway.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Waterford Castle has harboured a four-star hotel since the 1980s, and it announces itself subtly, through a thatch of rhododendron. Mullioned windows, heritage colours and clutter-free rooms follow through on the first impression.

It’s small but perfectly formed, with just 19 rooms tucked away off a 19th century lobby. We’ve booked into one of the self-catering lodges on the island, and for a moment, collecting our key next to the oak wainscoting and enormous sandstone fireplace, feel envious of the guests who’ve beaten us to the castle.

THE ROOMS

Waterford Castle hosts 40 or so three-bedroomed holiday homes on the 310-acre island resort, and they’re available to rent by the night or week.

The lodges are grouped together in terraces, and as relatively new-builds, nothing like as atmospheric as the castle. Swiping a key card to open the front door, we step into a slick space finished with oak furniture and white walls. A gas fire burns behind glass, casting a cosy glow over the contemporary-styled sitting room.

There are some nice little touches — four fresh Waterford blaas are left as part of a starter pack on the counter, there are DVDs and toys for the kids, and the kitchen is well-stocked with shiny pots, glassware and plates. It’s a treat to find four bathrooms in a three-bed house too, and the showers carry a hefty blast.

Overall, I’d pitch the lodges as high spec, a slight notch below those at Fota or Castlemartyr, but a significant one above the older holiday homes at Faithlegg Hotel & Golf Resort, probably Waterford Castle’s closest competitor.

THE AMENITIES

Potential guests may be surprised to discover in Waterford Castle a four rather than a five-star hotel. Its interiors and rooms certainly have the feel of the latter, and the quality of the golf course, driving range and lodges is top-end.

There is no pool, leisure centre or spa, however (though guests can take the ferry to use the facilities at the Woodlands Hotel nearby). What you will find, apart from the golf, are some lovely nature trails — as well as the option of archery and clay pigeon shooting — braided through the woods.

WHAT TO DO

West Waterford’s Festival of Food is in full flow this weekend, and you’ll find plenty of free and ticketed activities at waterfordfestivaloffood.com.

The programme continues through to tomorrow evening, with a jam-packed schedule of talks, trails, films, wine tastings, seaweed seminars, picnics, classes, and mouth-watering headline events.

One Sunday highlight is ‘Lunch with the Chefs’, scheduled for Lismore Castle’s Banqueting Hall. Also tomorrow, you can catch a farmer’s market in Dungarvan.&

There’s lots else to do beyond food, of course. Reginald’s Tower and the Waterford Museum of Treasures are both highlights of the developing Viking Triangle, Dunmore East is a peachy stop for seafood, and the Waterford & Suir Valley Railway has just started its summer schedule (wsvrailway.ie; €8.50/€4).

THE FOOD

Waterford Castle’s Mike Quinn is one of the chefs participating in this year’s West Waterford Festival of Food, and his menus at the Munster Room have for years been channelling local foods into a mantelpiece full of awards. A table d’hôte menu at €40pp is an enticing prospect in a two-AA Rosette restaurant, but the a la carte will set you back considerably more… with mains starting at €28.

Unfortunately for us, the casual dining options at Waterford Castle didn’t match the higher end. With a wedding underway at the castle, we ate at the clubhouse, where an adult burger served in a blaa was good value at €10.50, but the kids’ equivalent was a tough old piece of wood served in a forgettable bap.

We hit it at a busy time, I reckon, but uncleared tables and poor quality condiments in sachets were at odds with the classy-looking Des Smyth-designed course outside. Based on our experience, an upgrade is in order here.

Breakfast restored our faith. Enjoying it in the castle was a treat. Residents in the lodges can also have pizza, beers and spirits delivered.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Waterford Castle has two nights’ B&B plus one dinner on select nights in April and May from €189pp. Going to press, lodges were available from €350 for three nights, €475 for five, and €550 for a week, sleeping up to six people.

Contact 051 878203 or waterfordcastle.com.

ANYTHING TO ADD

One blip in the lodges is the lack of an internet hook-up, further exacerbated by a poor 3G connection. Lord knows, I appreciate being removed from the real world. But I’d prefer to make that choice myself.

A connection is a no-brainer, in my opinion.

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