Noel Baker samples the laid-back atmosphere in Skibbereen’s luxury haunt for visiting celebrities. Even Luke Skywalker has been a guest...
If you can judge a lodging by the calibre of its guests, then the Liss Ard Estate has some serious pedigree.
Let’s start with the would-be saviour of the world, and then the actual saviour of the galaxy.
Bono (the former), alongside his wife Ali Hewson and U2 bandmate Adam Clayton spent a weekend in the West Cork hideaway in April, and were pictured alongside close friends sitting in and then planting trees.
Just a matter of weeks later actor Mark Hamill — aka Jedi knight Luke Skywalker — spent a few nights in Liss Ard as filming continued for the next Star Wars epic down the coast on Brow Head.
And in between, er, there was my wife and I.
It’s fair to say the star wattage dimmed a little during our one- night stay to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, but the appeal of the house and gardens located just outside Skibbereen in West Cork proved just why this little corner of the world is such a draw.
Celebrity sightings in the estate, first established by the O’Donovan clan more than 150 years ago, are nothing new.
When Oasis played two nights at Pairc Ui Chaoimh in the mid-nineties, the Gallagher brothers trekked up to Cork city from Liss Ard; presumably the setting had a calming effect on the warring siblings.
A few years later the teenage me was gawping with bewilderment at a photograph in the Southern Star at the incongruous sight of REM singer Michael Stipe and supermodel Helena Christiansen planting a tree on the Liss Ard grounds.
This was at a time when the Liss Ard Festival laid claim to hosting the country’s first genuinely ‘boutique’ music bash, with Patti Smith, Nick Cave and Lou Reed popping up on a seemingly annual basis.
There have been a few changes over the years, including in ownership, but the appeal endures and it’s easy to see why.
There are 163 acres of forest, gardens, ponds and streams, a Victorian Country House, a Garden Mews, a Lake Lodge, and even legitimate-sounding claims of a micro-climate.
All that before you talk about the food, the activities and the inescapable appeal of doing nothing in a beautiful place.
We arrived on a sunny Friday afternoon having exercised military levels of planning to ensure the children were cared for in our absence.
The gently rising driveway took us up to the main house, which offers a beautiful view of the hills and fields out towards Castletownshend.
Our room was called Ash Meadow and looked out onto the countryside panorama.
A bottle of prosecco and a bowl of fruit awaited us on arrival, a lovely and welcome touch, and then it was off to a get a massage.
I am not an expert at these, so anything that makes me feel like both relaxed and invigorated and not beaten to a pulp gets the thumbs up; this one certainly ticked the right box.
I took a mini-tour of the house and settled down for a coffee in one of the main sitting rooms.
You could happily lose a few hours in here, the light piling in the large windows, plenty of reading material at hand and a CD player at your disposal as well as racks of discs.
I found three copies of ‘Ocean Songs’ by Dirty Three - just another display of immaculate taste.
Then it was on to dinner.
The kitchen runs under the guidance of Head Chef Pamela Kelleher, and as you’d expect, the food on offer is sourced locally wherever possible, including from Liss Ard’s own salad and vegetable gardens.
The end result is a small but perfectly formed menu.
As soon as I spotted pork belly as a starter option, my mind was made up, mostly for the idiotic reason that it always reminds me of an amusing but throwaway line from film classic ‘Trading Places’ (Woodthorpe: “Pork bellies! I knew it!”).
This iteration was melt-in-the-mouth perfection. I also sampled my wife’s chilled pea soup with crab meat starter, which was lovely, before the main courses arrived.
I went for the Beef Wellington, not something I can ever remember having eaten previously, but this was the real deal, accompanied by incredibly tasty vegetables.
My wife’s monkfish was a delicious surf to my wellington turf, and we split our desserts — a sticky toffee pudding that would turn anyone to goo, and a lovely cheese selection.
A few G&Ts later and the cleave and clangour of the working week had never seemed so far away.
The foodlove continued the following morning with a fantastic eggs benedict, and then we had a tour of the famous Liss Ard Sky Garden (below).
This is a story in itself: James Turrell, now in his 70s, is a California-born artist who began studying maths and psychology before switching his attention to the visual world and someone who, at one point, found himself spending almost a year in prison after coaching young men how to avoid the draft for the Vietnam war.
The Sky Garden he created for Liss Ard is land art, a green crater that, if viewed from above, seems extraterrestrial. It is the centrepiece of the landscaped area around it.
At one point you walk through a narrow tunnel and then you find yourself in the giant, grassy oval, so on a clear day it’s a colour combination of green and blue.
In the centre is a stone plinth designed so two people can recline on it and stare upwards for an immersive experience.
From this vantage point you can just imagine how spectacular a night sky would look.
The Sky Garden was just one stop, however, on a walking tour of the estate led by coordinator Ann Collins, who knows every nook and cranny of these parts.
It’s easy to be beguiled by the shaded woods, the calm of Lough Abisdealy, the apple trees and ponds, all with their own histories and characteristics.
By the end we happily slumped into two garden seats designed by local wood artist Nathan Solomon, in which two barked chunks of a tree bisect each other.
I posted a photograph of it afterwards and a friend of mine remarked how well I’d prepared for the fifth wedding anniversary — the ‘wooden anniversary’.
Pure serendipity, I have to admit, but then again, out here things tend to come together as if by magic.
See www.lissardestate.com for bookings and special offers. Prices start from €155 per room including breakfast.
How to get there: Driving from Cork taken the R595 through Skibbereen before turning onto the R596 aiming for Tragumna.
The entrance is just two minutes outside Skibbereen.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved