Weekend Away: County Kerry, Ireland

Weekend Away: County Kerry, Ireland
Deep in the southwest of Ireland, the emerald isle is at its most brilliant in this corner of County Kerry. In a region rich with lakes and landscapes dramatically sculpted by glaciers, there is a luxury hideaway nestled into over 300 of its own acres. As I open the curtains, the water flows under an arched bridge and tumbles down rocks, foaming white beneath me. Sheen Falls Lodge was exactly the country escape I'd been craving.

A privately owned luxury hotel since 1991, Sheen Falls was once the summer residence of the Marquis of Lansdowne. Understated luxury is evident at the Lodge, from furnishings, to classic European touches, to vintage cars and activities on the grounds. Sheen Falls boasts a library with 1,500 volumes for borrowing, an indoor heated pool and Jacuzzi with pampering spa treatments. Over the weekend I discovered the ability of the Sheen Falls staff to tailor an individual combination of all these options, along with their variety of outdoor activities.

The tranquility of my country escape began before my arrival to Sheen Falls. Driving through Killarney, tall pines lined the roads, and through branches a wide lake was shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. This unspoiled environment has long drawn travelers to the region. Continuing along the mountain pass towards Kenmare, sweeping views around each bend of the mountain encouraged me to take the journey slowly. The crisp, clean air began to relax me before I even reached the gates of my 5 star hideaway.

Crossing a suspension bridge where Swans were gracefully swimming below, a modest sign guided me on to the estate of Sheen Falls Lodge. The tennis court, Croquet lawn, and first spring daffodils lined the winding road. A subtle fountain trickled in the center of the entrance drive, and a small Relais and Chateaux symbol was displayed proudly at the door. Greeted by a cheerful Irish accent, our bags were whisked away, and seated at reception, the smell of lilies combined with the smoky sweet scent of a wood-burning fire.

A country house style hotel, Sheen Falls is designed with elements of old-world elegance. A restaurant lounge with fireplace and views of the river serves as a comfortable meeting place, and a freshly poured pint of Guinness is never too far away at the bar, to be enjoyed in the sun lounge. As reception kindly showed us to our room, we passed the entrance to La Cascade, the renowned restaurant of Sheen Falls. With a new menu just updated for spring, we had many culinary pleasures to anticipate beyond its doors.

Sheen Falls commitment to relaxation is reflected in the generous size of every room. The rooms begin at 500 sq ft (ranging to 1,350 sq ft for the presidential suite) and each has a stunning view. My junior suite had touches of luxury everywhere, from the practical consideration of coat hooks in the entrance hall, to comfortable lounge chairs by the windows. The design of the hotel is to focus the guest in on nature, and the beauty of the river. Its steady flow was the accompaniment to dining, sleep, and an afternoon by the fire.

Leaving behind the sanctuary of our room we descended into the cool wine cellar for the nightly 6:00 tour with the in-house Sommelier, Mathieu Schmutz. Born in the Alsace region of France, Mathieu began his love affair with wine at a young age. His passion for wine-making and the pleasure of pairing it with exquisite food was evident in the way he carefully cradled the bottles like a child. With over 10,000 bottles and 950 labels, Sheen Falls has an option for every palate and price bracket.

For the wine connoisseur, Mathieu is a source of endless knowledge. Welcoming questions both general and specific, he can arrange individual wine tastings to accommodate the queries of his guests. After spending an hour in the dimly lit wine cellar discussing his range of wines, we made an appointment for a personal tasting the next afternoon. As we climbed the stairs, Matheiu carefully began to examine his rows of options, already concocting our experience.

La Cascade isn't the only restaurant in the area known for excellence. The village of Kenmare has earned a reputation of being a culinary capital in Country Kerry. It is wise to book reservations ahead, especially for the weekend. The concierge suggested a popular choice in town, and made all of the arrangements. A quick five-minute taxi trip brought us to the door of Mulcahy's.

The executive chef has earned praise for infusing Asian flavors into his Irish cooking. A delicate pickled ginger salad accompanied my sashimi and sushi appetizer and generous portions of side dishes were served with the fresh seafood entrees. A candelit ambiance maintained the relaxation provided by Sheen Falls. After dinner, the Lodge glowed through the trees as we approached. A smiling staff wished us a pleasant sleep, and the fire still burned lowly in wide hearth.

Relaxation is a serious matter at Sheen Falls. The scene is set each morning as tables are carefully set with white linen and engraved silverware. The atmosphere for an exquisite breakfast service was enhanced by the great space between tables, each with a lovely view of the river. A full Irish breakfast was on offer, alongside dishes featuring in-house smoked salmon, omelettes, and pancakes with fresh berries.

While the chef makes each breakfast to order, a carefully chosen buffet was on offer, with options from fresh fruit to mini pan au chocolate and homemade breads. Individual pots of coffee and tea were suggestive for having another cup, and when the Irish Times was delivered to the table, I sank back in my comfortable chair, wishing all Saturdays could be so carefree. Friendly staff in Louis Vuitton scarves worked quietly around us, never for a moment disturbing our reverie.

As I finished up the Saturday paper, I was greeted by Charl, the senior assistant manager. Dressed in a crisp suit, he led me on a tour of the country cottages and contemporary villas. It is easy to see how Travel and Leisure magazine placed Sheen Falls in the top 100 hotels in the world, and the designation of best hotel in Ireland. With self-catering options from 2 bedroom cottages to 4 bedroom villas, the Lodge has the capability to accommodate any type of family gathering.

Fireplaces were often the focal point of a room, and while self-catering, Sheen Falls staff is available to maintain them if requested. On the day of my tour, a group of women celebrating an engagement were due in. Bouquets of fresh flowers and a welcome package of groceries were arranged for them. A long wooden dining table was the centerpiece of the floorplan, with cathedral ceilings and views looking out through multiple French doors to the bay. A private patio was the finishing touch to these villas. The group of women had arranged for a private dinner and cocktail party that evening to fully take advantage of the intimate space.

In the late afternoon, we once again descended the stairs to the wine cellar for our private wine tasting. Mathieu was waiting in his tuxedo, with wines and a range of glasses elegantly on display. We began in France, and continued with a refreshing rosé from Italy, a tasty Hungarian white, and finished with a 1998 Côtes du Rhône that from the moment the bouquet hit my nose, was magnifique. Mathieu explained thoroughly why these wines matched our menu for the evening. We left the cellar eager with anticipation for our dining experience at La Cascade.

A chat with the chef only increased my expectations for the meal. He spoke sincerely about teamwork in his kitchen, and the shared influences of his Italian and German colleagues. A hands-on type chef who takes pride in each plate from conception to finish, Philip Brazil described his modern Irish cuisine as having worldwide influences. Experienced in kitchens from Dublin to England, the executive chef believes in extensive staff training. From designing a menu for a Vegan wedding to infusing intrigue in his dining room with tableside service, Philip welcomes challenges and nightly keeps Irish culinary traditions alive.

Glowing candelabras and live piano music welcomed us to a full dining room. Seated at the most dramatic drop in the cascading rocks outside, servers seamlessly poured sparkling water, described various items on the menu, and gave us the space and time to choose each of our 7 courses ahead. Known for an on-premises smokery, I opted for the trio of smoked salmon. An artistic masterpiece, it was bright in color and flavor. The salmon tar-tar, delicate slices of smoked salmon and salmon mousse between layers of pastry each impressed. The first of our wines was the perfect accompaniment to the oily fish.

The evening continued with a bit of theater, as black sole was served from the bone. The server expertly removed the generous flesh, retaining the beauty of the filet for the plate. Seared scallops were my favorite of the evening, served over dragonfruit, with the slightest touch of a sweet dipping sauce. Venison was seared to medium-rare perfection for the meat course, and a balsamic reduction was carefully drizzled on the plate. Guinea Fowl was served with grapes, roasted chestnuts and potato cakes, a delightful mix of textures. Each course was portioned and timed for maximum enjoyment, displaying the experience of both the chef and his kitchen.

When the savory dishes were complete, a mixed berry mousse was presented to cleanse the palate for the big finish. An elegantly plated chocolate fondant, with forest berry coulis and a single scoop of vanilla gelato almost looked too picturesque to disturb. Molten inside, the chocolate blended with berry and vanilla, truly a dessert sensation. With a spicy dessert wine to sip on between bites, the symphony of the evening concluded without a flaw.

The aristocracy long ago decided of the value of the estate of Sheen Falls. What was once a location to summer and escape the city with fishing, hunting and sport, is now a year-round retreat that is ideal in any weather. I found myself almost hoping for a bit of rain, as an excuse to curl up next to the fire, with an arrangement of afternoon tea and sandwiches.

Closed only in January, the location of the Lodge provides many reasons to return. In the summer, let the chef prepare you a gourmet picnic lunch, and hire one of the vintage cars to whisk you away to a private location. In winter, try and get a reservation for their Christmas package, and join the families who for over 15 years have spent their holiday with the hospitality of the Sheen Falls Staff.

In the Library I got to see just how extensively Sheen Falls cares for their customers. A book modestly displayed letters of condolence that Sheen Falls had sent every American guest who had stayed with them in the 2 years previous to 9/11. A copy of each letter and the heartfelt thanks was available for perusal. A symbol of a true five star hotel is efforts such as this, where a customer once is a customer for life.

While the friendly porter loaded our bags, we took one last stroll along the river walk before departing. A spacious patio faces the falls, and as the light chill of spring found its way through our coats, we commented on how nice it would be to spend an afternoon there, into the long evenings of summer. A final goodbye wave left me with the feeling of leaving behind good friends at their majestic country estate, vowing to return as soon as possible. This Relais and Chateux property has earned a repeat customer, and I already have my favorite room.

Getting There:
• Sheen Falls is an easy drive from Shannon, Cork or Kerry airports. Some direct flights from the US will go to Shannon, or small inter-island flights are available from Dublin to all three options.
• A car rental is advised, as many off-premises excursions are worth a visit.

Where to Eat:
• La Cascade: Sheen Falls acclaimed restaurant with beautiful views of the River Sheen.
• Mulcahy's: Popular restaurant in Kenmare, the town 5 minutes from Sheen Falls.
• The Lime Tree: Recommended by Food and Wine Magazine, the building of this acclaimed restaurant dates back to 1832.

What to Do:
• The Ring of Kerry: Scenic 175 km drive around the Iveragh Peninsula, long famous for its views.
• The Ring of Beara: The rugged, less populated neighbor of the Ring of Kerry. Windy roads reveal further scenic delights.
• The Dingle Peninsula: Another area known for cuisine, this peninsula also offers spectacular beaches and a rich heritage of early Christian sites.
• Killarney National Park: A landscape rich with mountains and lakes, this national park can be explored by bike, boat, or on foot.

Estate Activities at Sheen Falls:
• Fishing: Wild-salmon fishing in-season is available at the Lodge. All equipment available for hire.
• Clay Pigeon Shooting: The civilized reincarnation of an old-world favorite summer activity.
• Walking and Hiking: Personal tour guides and maps of the 300 acre estate make an invigorating walk or hike a great sunny day option.
• Tennis: It is easy to get distracted by the beautiful bay as you play tennis on the Lodge's own court.
• Vintage Cars: For hire to whisk you away to a private picnic.
• Horse Riding: The ultimate country activity, a great way to see the Irish landscape.
• Scenic Bike Tours: Bicycle rentals are available free of charge.