How far would you travel for a really properly good loaf of bread? Much to even my surprise my answer has turned out to be in the region of four hours. That’s roughly how long it takes to get from my corner of London to Ireland’s glorious County Donegal, its Lough Eske Castle Hotel, and their bread which is almost certainly the finest I’ve ever slathered butter onto. In the unlikely event that alone isn’t enough to tempt you there, Lough Eske’s alchemy of beauty, luxury and great local produce has plenty more to impress with.
The hotel is a beautifully restored Gaelic castle. Restored from the ashes and ensuing dereliction of a fire that swept through one wing of it in 1939. The story goes that a curtain blew in from the wind, caught a candle and that was that. (Lesson duly learnt re candles by open windows.) At that point in the Castle’s history it was operating as hotel. Its earlier history is a fascinating story of clan power and names being changed for inheritance purposes.
Scroll on a few hundred years to the hotel’s modern management who are justifiably proud of the heritage of the Castle and also the wider Lough Eske area it sits within. You can see around the place the coat of arms for the Brooke family who were the estate owners at one point, and much of the original architecture that has survived. Quite how it survived is a mystery given that by the time the new owners took it over for renovation it had been left to such ruin that there were big trees growing up actually inside the castle.
A lot of money, time, thought, care, and yet more money has gone into achieving the Lough Eske Castle of today. As you come up its long sweeping drive through woodlands and see ahead its imposing four-storey tower it is hard to believe that it hasn’t always been in such good nick. Around the side are the more modern buildings which give a clue as to what has had to go on. And all around you as you look around you are the magnificently imposing Bluestack Mountains.
Inside is a ballroom, log-fires, beautifully decorated lounges and 95 guest rooms. The suites are so huge and luxurious they make the idea of going for a hike across those fabled mountains become a little less likely of happening. It is very tempting not to leave them at all. Actually it is pretty tempting to just stay in the bathroom and enjoy its flattering lighting and underfloor heating. (On the lighting front I bet these rooms were designed by a woman. Mine was one of the few I’ve ever stayed in anywhere where the symbiosis of lighting – mirrors – make-up had been properly thought through.)
There is plenty to do if you do venture out. Beaches, water-sports, hiking, golf, horse riding, fishing, sailing and scuba diving are all no more than a half-hour drive away from the hotel and several of them can be got to in 5 or 10 minutes. There are very helpful guides of walks and runs that can be done from the hotel, from 3-15km. I went for a gentle-ish walk by the lake on a beautiful morning with the kinds of light, air and views I more readily associate with the Lake District.
That walk set me up well for a breakfast indulging in that bread I mentioned. It is made by Franck Pasquier – a Frenchman with a jaunty hat and a bakery in Donegal town. From there he sells terrific breads, pastries and all the boulangeric treats you would expect. It’s just that Franck is doing them better than most. He is one of the excellent local suppliers Lough Eske Hotel is so proud of that in October last year they held an event at the hotel to celebrate all the great produce of the region. That is where I met Franck and fell for his loaves.
La Rousse Foods were there too, showing off the excellent Irish cheeses they supply. I’m going to be on the lookout now for ‘Young Buck’, a raw milk cheese by Michael Thomson of County Down. He collects milk from a local farmer in Craiganlet and has created this mellow blue cheese with the complex flavour that raw milk gives. ‘Brewers Gold’ from the Little Milk Company in Dungarvan also impressed. That is a semi-soft cow’s cheese made from organic milk and washed in beers and ales from Irish Craft Brewers. Having tried at the hotel bar the pale ale by Kinnegar Brewing I can vouch for the flavour such locally produced ales offer.
A half (or two) of pale ale or porter is just the ticket after a bracing trip on the Donegal Waterbus. 75 inspiring minutes of beauty. I stayed on the Waterbus’ top deck as long as I could bear the wind and rain which were adding extra drama to the coastline. There are some great sights on that stretch – seals too, if you’re lucky. I suggest you stay up there long enough to reach the point where just a small detour would take you onto the Atlantic and on your way to America. Then retreat to the relative warmth of the enclosed lower deck where you can enjoy the views with an Irish Coffee and some (surprisingly good) live, traditional music.
Such outstanding fresh air, food and drink make tumbling into one of Lough Eske’s sumptuous beds a guarantee of a great night’s sleep. Just the thing to wake up bright and perky and ready for yet more of Franck’s bread at breakfast.
For more information about staying at Lough Eske Castle, visit www.solishotels.com.
For more information about north west Ireland and the Donegal region, visit www.ireland.com.