Good enough for a queen is fine by me

Muckross Park Hotel

Susan O’Shea sets up base camp at Muckross Park Hotel and comes away as liberated as a former guest, The Liberator.

Choosing a hotel for a weekend stay in Killarney can be harder than picking a rose in Tralee. As Ireland’s official tourist mecca, and boasting more hotels per sq mile than anywhere else in the country, everything is on offer for the weekend visitor, from the most basic B&B — where ensuite is still touted as a selling point — to unadulterated luxury.

Always a girl fond of a bit of luxury, I chose the latter, and selected the five-star Muckross Park Hotel as ‘base camp’ from which to explore Killarney’s famed National Park.

The hotel’s history dates back to 1795 and its guest list includes such diverse historical characters as Queen Victoria; George Bernard Shaw, who spent the summer in the hotel in 1912 while writing Pygmalion; the Great Liberator Daniel O’Connell and Michael Collins.

In more recent times the hotel was the pride and joy of celebrity couple Bill Cullen and Jackie Lavin, who bought it in 1990, and lavished money and love on it, but ultimately lost ownership last year in a high-profile High Court battle.

Billed as being nestled in the ‘heart of the park’ the hotel is located on the busy Killarney-Kenmare road. However noise traffic isn’t audible in the hotel and once you head through the gates of the park you do feel like you have left it all behind.

Muckross can be explored on foot (slowly by me) or at a much faster pace by those who fancy breaking a sweat (ie, the hubby), by bike, which can be hired from the hotel for free or for a charge from various rental outlets in Killarney, or even by jaunting car, which is probably best left to those in search of their roots.

The routes are well-signposted with all the distances recorded, so you can reward yourself with a smug smile, safe in the knowledge of how far you walked, ran or cycled. Maps and booklets are available at the park information centres at Muckross House and at the Gate Lodge of Killarney House.

Inside the National Park there are no shortage of attractions to explore, with Muckross Abbey, Muckross House, and acres of splendid woodland set along the shores of Lough Lein.

Muckross House, a 19th-century Victorian abode near the shores of Muckross Lake, is definitely worth a visit. In July and August the house is open from 9am to 7pm, and until 5.30pm the rest of the year, and costs €7.50 for an adult or €22 for a family ticket. The house also has a busy programme of events for the year, see muckross-house.ie.

Follow the house visit with a relaxing stroll in the gardens or stop for a coffee or even a spot of light lunch in the Garden Restaurant, again open all year.

For those energetic souls amongst us, and who had the foresight to pack their hiking boots, a hike up Torc or Mangerton will get the legs pumping and promise delightful views from the top, provided the weather is on your side.

After a few enjoyable hours spent in the tranquility of the park, we headed back to the Belfry Suite, with all its creature comforts, including a four-poster bed.

A junior suite at the hotel costs from €279 per night with breakfast, while a deluxe double room costs from €179, with free access to the spa when you book online.

After working up an appetite in the park we headed to the hotel’s Yew Tree Restaurant, where dinner is served nightly. The four course table d’hote costs from €45, and for those early birders there are two courses with Tea & Coffee from €35 per person (before 7pm).

I opted for Pan Seared Dingle Scallops with Carrot & Liquorice, buttermilk, fennel, a beautifully presented affair which didn’t disappoint. The scallops were perfectly cooked and worked well with the fennel, while the liquorice didn’t overpower. I followed it up with Halibut, a fish I hadn’t eaten before, and delighted in its meaty texture.

The other half, true to this carnivore tendencies, opted for the Confit Pork Cheek & Ham Hock Bon Bon, and fillet of beef for mains. The beef was not quite medium-rare as ordered but managed to maintain its tenderness and the whole thing packed a powerful punch. The “Baked Alaska” was a bit of a disappointment, maybe I was chasing that whole ’80s vibe, but the petit fours quickly put the smile back on my face. Top marks to the staff, fine dining can all-too-often be a stuffy, overdone affair but we thought it was precise and charming in the right measure.

Though I swore I would never touch another morsel, I was back up for breakfast at a respectable 9am, served in the same venue and is an equally weighty affair, with the pancakes and maple syrup deserving a special mention.

Part of Bill and Jackie’s legacy is the Spa at Muckross Park Hotel, an uber luxurious affair, with a clutch of awards, and offering a wide range of treatments incorporating the Pevonia and Germaine de Capuccini brands.

We opted for the Wilderness Therapy Ritual, a 1 hour and 50 minute experience (€185 per person) that includes a full body exfoliation, soothing body butter application, and a full body hot stone massage.

The hubby said he would have been happy to have just gone fishing but once he got over his initial misgivings about having to don a white robe and ‘girlie’ slippers, he enjoyed the whole experience though I don’t think I could call him a life-long convert.

The following morning, before checkout, I managed to squeeze in the hydracure facial 50 mins (€85) And while it didn’t roll back the years, my skin did appear more radiant and was much softer to the touch.

The spa also has a vitality pool, jacuzzi, cool water plunge pool, outdoor hot tub, salt grotto, ice fountain and tropical shower, to help in the whole ‘relaxation’ process, and the staff are ultra professional and were great at putting the hubby at ease.

To round off our afternoon of pampering we opted to have afternoon tea served in the Monk’s bar a truly glutinous affair, €35 for two persons sharing a selection of savoury treats, pastries and cakes. We struggled to finish it but our waiter kindly packaged it up and we polished it off later on with a glass of vino in our room.

A trip to the hotel wouldn’t be complete without calling into its traditional Irish pub, The Jarvey’s Rest. The pub is a tourist haven, offering entertainment nightly from 7pm to 9.30. While the music is the usual mix of lonesome ballads and songs of emigration, interspersed with dancers doing their Riverdance imitation, the food is of a very high order, with ‘traditional’ Irish fare such as Killorglin honey-glazed loin of bacon, Kerry lamb stew and Irish potato boxty.

I have largely avoided Killarney in the past as a weekend-break option, fearing it would be overpriced and utterly twee. And while it is still very twee, it has also become a lot more competitive, and has some top-quality accommodation on offer to convert even the most cynical.

There’s a Friday Gourmet Package offer at the moment, one night B&B with dinner and use of the Vitality Suite for €110 per person sharing. www.muckrosspark.com  or (064) 6623400.


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