Cooler than cool

WE arrive at the Ice House in Co Mayo to a welcome so warm it belies the name, and not one, but two glasses of bubbly. This, actually, is an oversight — the better half had ordered tea (of which a selection is brought) — but it’s my kind of oversight. I happily compare and contrast the white and rosé as we sit in one of the signature river-facing rooms: A great glass extension to the old Victorian house which forms a core around which the hotel’s spa and guest rooms have been added in such a way as they all face the river. The original building is built over three cellars, which give the place its name.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

We Irish have a habit of turning our backs to rivers architecturally, but the Ice House shows how wrong we are. It’s a great place to appreciate the slow-flowing River Moy as it winds its way through Ballina.

You expect attention to detail and good taste in an independent hotel listed in the Blue Book. We notice straight away several works by Charlie Tyrrell, and, later on, we find pieces by the painters Martin Gale and John Devlin also gracing the hotel’s public areas.

To walk only a few yards in the Ice House is to pass through two centuries.

THE ROOM

The Ice House offers old-world charm in its heritage suites, but it is the new rooms that truly make a virtue of the setting. We slide back the floor-to-ceiling window and take in the view: The water sparkling in the sun, the woods of Belleek Castle on the far bank, a couple of anglers. Swans pass by serenely as herons stalk their supper, cormorants and ducks dive and dabble, and early swallows dart and dive.

THE FOOD

The dining room here is the Pier House Restaurant. It matches the rest of the Ice House in its chic design and marriage of old and new. Our table is under the vaulted stone of the ice cellar, but it gives out on to the river via another glass extension with a terrace.

The wine list is at once inspired and disappointing. Inspired in its inclusion of a list of 50cl bottles (why can’t more restaurants do this?), but sadly disappointing in the dull choice of a South African shiraz, Chilean cab sav, and a VDP merlot. We settle on a passable Bordeaux Supérieur.

We both start with scallops. In this part of the world, you are entitled to set the bar high, and expect a sweet, tender, fresh hit. On this scale, these are a little underwhelming, slightly overdone for our taste, and too much in thrall with the seasoning. That said, the Jerusalem artichoke and truffle purée is a delight. The mains are a meat-lover’s dream. Mine is a medley of beef: A fat fillet with just enough chew, some braised oxtail, and, the highlight, braised beef cheek. On Sorcha’s lamb plate comes braised shoulder, rack, and sweet breads.

This was good food, but just that. It wasn’t destination food, which, on rare weekends away from the little one, is what we try to find.

WHAT TO DO

There’s a touch of the Hotel California about the Ice House. Sure, you could go out anytime, but it’s hard to leave. There’s a simple reason for this: The Chill Spa. I opt for a manly facial. I’m expecting a bit of dabbing and rubbing, but what I get is 60 blissed-out minutes. Do all facials involve massages? They should. I reluctantly rouse myself and head for the laconium, the steam room, and, finally, the outdoor, riverside hot tubs. Mum-to-be Sorcha goes for the maternity package: I don’t see her for hours, but she returns effusive in her praise.

If this sounds like too much relaxation, then the Ice House can arrange any number of activities locally. You can cruise the Moy, go salmon fishing, or cycle in Belleek Woods or further afield: the hotel will sort out bikes — and even pack a lunch.

ANYTHING TO ADD

Everybody, it seems, falls over themselves to call the Ice House cool. Certainly, it is an architectural gem in its beautiful marriage of old and new, form and function. But the very height of its stylish vision means any fraying edges are all the more apparent. Provincial touches like a sign asking guests to “please be careful on the stairs” strike a dissonant chord — evoking memories of drab chain hotels. The same goes for the music in the restaurant: A little too loud and not cool enough for such a supposedly chic destination. It doesn’t get a lot wrong, the Ice House, but perhaps, five years after its opening, it needs to refocus slightly.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Ice House offers weekend breaks from €140 per person, dinner included. Chill Spa breaks start at €199 per person, including bar menu and treatments; midweek breaks start at €199. Contact the Ice House at chill@theicehouse.ie or 096 23500; www.icehousehotel.ie.


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