Connemara, it is Blooming Beautiful!

John Trew pays a long-overdue visit to Connemara, taking in the Gardens of Connemara Trail and including a stay at Castle Leslie

In a lifetime of travel journalism, I have been to every one of the 32 counties of Ireland, even the smaller ones like Leitrim and Offaly where I have spent many a day fishing and cruising on their wondrous waterways.

I have always admired the way Tourism Departments of unlikely places such as Co Carlow fight hard to get a slice of the visitor action even though they don’t have much to offer. However, I feel that Carlow has gone somewhat overboard with its website’s TOP TEN hype (e.g. “No.2: CARLOW TOWN Visual Centre is one of the most impressive centres of Art in Europe”), alongside a photo of a wee gallery with all the artistic charm of a school gym, so the Louvre does not need to worry.

Anyway, all of the above is to put off for as long as possible the embarrassing confession that I had never, ever, been to CONNEMARA until a few weeks ago. Yes, that’s the same Connemara where seven million Japanese each take 122 million selfies annually of Connemara Ponies posing in front of mountain ranges made of green Connemara Marble. Worse still, I wasn’t too sure where it was until I checked the map and saw that it was the rugged north-westerly part of Co Galway above the big city of the same name. It is bordered by Mayo, a county our car already knows well, so that’s the direction in which we headed, to enjoy that lovely little window of an Indian Summer that the West of Ireland enjoyed in early autumn.

Our itinerary was loosely based on a GARDENS OF CONNEMARA TRAIL which we mostly made up as we merrily went along, studiously avoiding busy motorways and any other thoroughfares more than five yards wide, so as to enjoy the scenery and pick blackberries at the same time. This form of primitive travel slows you up, so we allowed for DB&B overnight stops in both directions, even though sane people like the readers of TREW’S TRAVELS could easily do Belfast-Galway in under five hours.

Castle Leslie is great but ‘regulars’ miss Captain Jack

Our first overnight sojourn was at CASTLE LESLIE, just five miles across the Monaghan Border, one of our favourites since the early days that our good friend NOEL McMEEL was Head Chef there. Since then, of course, he has been making an international reputation at Lough Erne Golf Resort near Enniskillen for many years, notably during the G8 World Leaders’ Summit five years ago when he cooked for the eight most important people on earth.

Regulars to Castle Leslie are still missing the jocular presence of the great storyteller host they knew as ‘Uncle Jack’ — owner Sir John Leslie, who died last year at 99. I once interviewed him while we fished for pike from a rowing boat on the lake in front of the original mansion where he had been born over ninety years before. Most of the hotel rooms are now in extensions to the Castle. Karen and I had a pleasant room with terrace overlooking the stables where we watched the morning “dunging out” before enjoying a world-class breakfast of Eggs Benedict and excellent coffee.

We also had a glimpse of the promising progress that is being made on the adjacent ‘LOST’ WALLED GARDEN OF GLASLOUGH. This is very much a work-in-progress but it deserves to be completed — for commercial as well as heritage motives, as illustrated by the success of the Bridal business alone of the LOUGH RYNN CASTLE & GARDENS re-development which we witnessed at first hand when we stayed there on the return journey. This visit delivered delights far beyond our expectations. What a place — and in little Leitrim, too!

On a more general point, it is truly heartening for garden-lovers like us who are starting to see the results of visionary undertakings of recent years, such as the refurbishment of Victorian Walled Gardens associated with castles and mansions, such as Antrim, Bangor and Glenarm. They draw THOUSANDS of high-spending visitors every year.

Kay McEvilly is the hostess with the mostest

AS A TRAVEL WRITER, I get to meet more resident/owner/hoteliers than most hotel guests and I relish my worldwide friendships with hotelier/families ranging from the Williamsons of Valley Hotel, Fivemiletown to the Xamenas of Hotel Bon Sol in Mallorca.

I have just added another family to my Christmas card List — KAY and her son FRANK McEVILLY. They run a truly legendary establishment in the heart of Connemara, CASHEL HOUSE HOTEL with famous colourful gardens tumbling down the hillside to a sheltered bay well-known for its sea-fishing’.

This is a true home-from home in an astonishingly beautiful setting just a half-hour along the coast from the increasingly vibrant city of Galway. I can think of no better hotel in which to enjoy traditional Irish hospitality amid the changing seasonal colours of the incomparable Connemara landscapes beloved by Northern Irish painters like PAUL HENRY and the BELFAST BOYS. Frosts are rare so close to the Atlantic, so assorted dahlias and the astonishingly long-flowering native fuchsias that merge with Kay’s secret little nooks full of wind-dancing seed-heads, prolong the life of the hotel’s multi-award winning gardens before the whole place shuts down for its annual holiday in the early weeks of the New Year following the hotel’s Festive Season.

We loved Cashel House so much that we are already thinking of taking another break next spring joined by family members who have already been motivated by our rave reviews on Face Time. We relished the great food, super service, breath-taking location, plus good old-fashioned comfort in an informal atmosphere during our long-anticipated stay in Co. Galway’s legendary home of hospitality.

The McEvillys make a point of visiting your table as your sumptuous dinner is finishing, to share the latest craic with every guest. Our chats with Kay McEvilly were among the highlights of our stay (along with the magnificent whole lobster served as one of the five courses on the locally harvested seafood dinner which was accompanied by a delightful harpist!). Kay shared with us some fascinating yarns about the passion for Connemara ponies and landscape gardening she shared with her late husband DERMOT.

She intrigued us with revelations about the ‘secret’ holiday of ex-President De Gaulle at Cashel House with only one local policeman guarding him; hosting other celebrities such as even Spielberg, Julia Roberts and Cecil Day-Lewis (who named his son Cashel); and how she still strives to make everyone’s stay memorable — a mission she developed with her much-missed husband Dermot and now she shares it with their son Frank. The McEvillys certainly succeed!

Please give my regards to Kay when you meet her — as I hope you surely will. She didn’t win Ireland’s Host of the Year Award by sitting in her wee office doing the accounts! She loves to help guests.

Connemara’s unbelievable combination of scenic splendours

Another family of hospitality experts, the Bauvets, are at the heart of the hotel that served as the next base for our eye-popping exploration of Connemara’s coastline and inland bogland where we were genuinely overawed by the unique combination of green mountains, inland fjords with curraghs, tame sheep with curling horns, thatched cottages and vast blazing sunsets.

The ARDAGH HOUSE HOTEL is a couple of miles from the centre of Clifden overlooking an inland lake with picturesque islands. Every night we were there, a golden sunset bathed our delicious dinner in a fierce glow, prompting our neighbouring table to ask for the blinds to be lowered “as their eyes were watering onto the food.” The Bauvets-Monique, Serge and their Irish-born son Stephane — obliged, as they do to every request by the cosmopolitan clientele. Monique’s international cuisine includes a very substantial Afrikaaner breakfast dish that must have been the secret weapon that almost secured victory by poorly-armed Boer farmers over the might of the British Army around 1900.

CLIFDEN is popularly known as Capital of Connemara and is a pleasant,busy market town in the main Galway-Westport Road. Historically it is best known as the landing area of Alcock and Brown’s first-ever non-stop transAtlantic Flight in 1919. Kay McEvilly’s father ran out of Mass as a wee boy to watch the former WW1 bomber crash land in a soft blanket bog which the British pilots mistook for a green field. A long wooden pathway floating on the bog leads to a cairn marking the spot but instead, we returned to town toe lift a celebratory cup of coffee in the lounge of the Alcock & Brown Hotel.

ROUNDSTONE is smaller but far prettier town with a picturesque old harbour framed by TheTwelve Pins, often painted by Northern Irish greats like Cecil Maguire, Paul Henry and young Rosie McGurran who has a gallery in the town. In fact, my most enjoyable visit there was to the heaped-high studio of two lovely ceramicists, Rosemarie O’Toole, who decorates the porcelain thrown by her husband Séamus Laffan. They operate in a little craft park close to the sea and we picked through their shelves of porcelain and stoneware creations for ages. (Oh dear;that reminds me — I must email the pic I took!).

Kay McEvilly warned us to get early to KYLEMORE ABBEY & GARDENS “before those giant German coaches make parking a pain”.It’s Connemara’s biggest attraction by far — a fairy-tale castle, magnificent gardens{ including a Walled Garden claimed to be Ireland’s finest refurb job) ,upmarket shops and packed eateries.

On the interior tour conducted by an American academic (the Abbey, a former fancy boarding school run by nuns, has a tie-in with the US University of Notre Dame) I was delighted to hear that this amazing Estate was created around his favourite trout lough by a wealthy Manchester businessman, Mitchell Henry MP as a £30million wedding gift to his Co.Down bride, Margaret Vaughan, of Quilly House, Lurgan Road, Dromore! When she died in the 1880s he was so heart-broken that he nearly bankrupted himself by building an ornate church/mausoleum now known as ‘Ireland’s Taj Mahal’. Surely this is the biggest-ever money story involving a Co.Down beauty!

Castles with unlikely stories (and secret TVs)

We sampled the hospitality of two more impressive loughside Castle hotels before heading home. BALLYNAHINCH CASTLE and its vast estate makes it one of the most impressive in Connemara. It has changed hands many times and was owned — almost unbelievably — not only by the Irish Tourist Board, but by a salmon-fishing maharaja, ‘Ranji, the Cricketing Prince’ who is commemorated by photos all over the fascinating interior. It is on the Gardens Trail because of the restoration of its Walled Garden and the way it has combined natural Irish woodlands with exotic shrubs. It looks like a very swanky place, but the staff welcome casual visitors and give them a lovely free map of woodland and riverside walks.

Our most eye-opening experience was our delightful DB&B stay at LOUGH RYNN CASTLE ESTATE and GARDENS near Mohill, Leitrim. We had a great laugh in the first five minutes; I was keen to see an Ulster Rugby game after dinner but could not find any sign of a TV in the room. Furnishings and fittings were in immaculate Victorian style, reflected in a gilt-framed mirror over the period fireplace — suddenly it dawned on us that the mirror was the TV screen.

This TV idea is typical of the whole re-development which is on a truly monumental scale, with terraces of self-catering houses and (yet again!) a VICTORIAN WALLED GARDEN renovation.

We explored this stunning lakeside garden the easy way, in a roomy golf cart more often used for transporting bridal parties mud-free from one scenic background to the other. The quality of the planting and manicured maintenance has been achieved through the employment of a half-dozen gardeners who are already busy planning their horticultural hot-spots for Springtime 2018. Blooming marvellous!