It must be one of Ireland’s best kept secrets.
Two carriages from the Orient Express on the lawn of a five-star hotel in Galway, both of them transformed into a restaurant.
The Pullman is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. You walk down the steps, enter the carriage – and you are swept away to a different era.
There’s the faint soundtrack of a moving train, a noise that sometimes surges, convincing you this stationary vehicle is on the move.
There are two carriages, Leona and Linda. Leona was built in 1927 and was used in Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express (you sit there and wonder, did Ingrid Bergman actually sit on these seats).
The carriages transported first class passengers through Europe to Istanbul and later took the elite, including Laurence Olivier, from London to Brighton.
One was part of Winston Churchill’s funeral cortege. The history is fascinating, all-consuming.
There’s a little bar, art deco and straight from Downton, as you enter. Sinatra provided the soundtrack for the evening, sealing the old world illusion. It made the bold and brave menu all the more exciting.
Glenlo Abbey Hotel has made quite the coup in securing award winning Head Chef, Alan McArdle.
One of the (many) lovely managers tells us Alan worked in Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen at one point.
He made his name in some of Ireland’s top hotels and restaurants including, Moy House Lahinch, The G Hotel, Harvey Nichols, Bijou Restaurant Dublin, La Mere Zou and L’Ecrivain.
Alan’s cooking style has been described as classic in origin with modern nuisances.
It’s an apt description.
To begin, I had Liscannor Crab and Connemara Smoked Salmon. Probably the best starter I have ever eaten.
The seafood theme continued with the divine Wild Halibut with Jerusalem Artichoke Puree, Haricot Beans, Samphire and Smoked Oyster Bisque Foam.
But it was the dessert that really stole the show: a dark chocolate sphere with raspberry and truffled honey popcorn.
Brought to my table, the waitress (more on the staff later) poured the sauce on to the dish – and the fireworks began. Sprinkled with popping candy, it created quite the effect. Mr Blumenthal would be proud.
And for all that, dinner at the Pullman is good value – three courses for €59.
The key to Glenlo’s success really lies in its staff.
The new owners struck gold in employing Rory O’Sullivan from the Park Hotel in Kenmare as general manager. One of the finest in the industry, he strikes just the right balance between amiable yet utterly professional.
The hotel is in the safest hands. He has quite the team around him. Genuine, sincere, delighted to help with the smallest detail, it’s that unique five star intimacy that so many hotels struggle to attain.
The focus is all on the guest experience.
The Glenlo has perhaps one of the nicest reception areas I’ve ever seen, with an enormous Christmas tree and wide open fire to welcome us.
Check in was a dream with the lovely Fiona. She brought us to our room, with its period décor and stunning four poster bed. We even had our very own Christmas tree.
We left the room, reluctantly (why would anyone want to walk away from such comfort), and had a pre dinner drinks in the Kentfield Lounge.
A 6pm glass of wine – utter indulgence.
Again, trees were decorated throughout the hotel (the owner herself decorates each one staff told us; we counted at least 10, I’m sure there were many more).
Elsewhere in the hotel afternoon tea is served in the magnificent Ffrench Room (the name of one of the original owners of the hotel) from 12 to 6.
We were headed outside to the Pullman but there’s a more relaxed option downstairs in the Oak Cellar Bar where food is served from 12pm to 9.30pm.
Breakfast was served the next morning in the beautiful River Room from 7.30am.
There’s a buffet of cereals, fresh fruit and pastries. Hot breakfasts are served only from a menu.
No buffet options (and soggy eggs) here.
Sitting on 134 acres overlooking Lake Corrib (Connemara National Park is one hour away), the Glenlo is a popular wedding venue.
It’s no surprise; the abbey itself, built in 1790 but never consecrated, is the perfect location for civil ceremonies.
It’s been carefully renovated with modern touches that complement the gothic style windows and natural wooden beams.
Glenlo opened as a five star destination in 1992.
The hotel went into receivership and in 2013 was bought by the Lally family.
There was a two year renewal and refurbishment plan, including the Corrib Banqueting Suite, and a €2m re-development of the main house and bedrooms. It’s finally been completed.
Each of the 50 bedrooms and suites has been completely transformed.
The Oak Cellar Bar also includes a new lounge (think old style men’s club), with mahogany panelling, tartan upholstered chairs and aged leather sofas.
An ideal hideaway, just off what was the original parlour of the house.
There’s also a new south-facing terrace to the rear of the Abbey, overlooking the walled garden, made for BBQs or just a quiet lunch in the sunshine. The 9-hole golf course has also been redesigned.
Staying outside, it’s the Pullman that’s the real star.
Something tells me the country’s best kept secret is about to go global.