A right royal destination

by Stephen Findlater

NESTLED deep in O’Donnell country against the backdrop of the Bluestack Mountains, Lough Eske Castle’s history dates back to the 1400s, one that was almost lost forever until its dramatic and beautifully conceived reinvention in the past seven years, creating Donegal’s only five-star hotel.
Twice a victim of fires, once in 1939 and then again in the 1950s, the castle was just a facade as trees grew up through the remaining walls after almost 50 years of abandonment. But €42m worth of development from Pat Doherty – whose other recent projects include the Titanic quarter – has rescued one of Ireland’s most idyllic, secluded settings, one scarcely visible down the back roads a few kilometres from the county town.
It is a creation that retains much of the history of the region, deftly combined with modern amenities. Large rooms with four-poster beds, marble bathrooms and wooden desks abound while the stone used in the foyer’s flooring coming from Frosses’ quarry from whence the original building materials were drawn.
The tower remains in tact, providing a delightfully unique setting for young lovers nowadays to propose to wed. The Elizabethan walled garden surrounds what was originally a glass house, the design of which has been used to cocoon the hotel’s elegant spa, offering an oasis of relaxation in keeping with the surrounds – 40 acres of woodland encircling 3.6 square kilometres of the lake from which the hotel takes its name.
Such surrounds offer serenity with minimal unnatural sounds making it through to the rooms either in the old house, the garden suites or stable rooms barring the morning song of the plentiful birds.
Despite the sleek exterior, there is a sense of devilment that seeps through. Alastair, the hotel’s in-house story-teller, suggests there are rumours of a ghost in the basement which could hail from many of the castle’s different owners. Indeed, peaking through the trees that line the lakeside, an island on the Lough that used to be a holding base for prisoners of rival clans of the O’Donnells.
Halfway along the main driveway entrance, a giant Celtic cross can be found set 20 metres back from the path amid a forest, marking the grave of Major General Henry White. It’s part of a secret history that provides a fascinating background to the county’s only five-star hotel.
It serves as a gateway for the wild Atlantic way with Slieve League – the highest sea cliffs in Europe – within an hour’s drive but there is enough activities within a stone’s throw of the castle to keep either sportsman or wedding party fully entertained.
Fishing boats and a gillie are available to rent out by day or half-day with the added delight of being able to prepare any of your catch – most likely Arctic char or brown trout – in the chef’s personalised smokehouse and eat for your dinner the following day. A half-dozen walking and cycle tracks emanate from the grounds (you can borrow bikes from the hotel) while Murvagh’s championship golf course is a mere chip and a putt away.
The fare is distinctly local in the Cedars Grill restaurant. Wild duck is brought across the border from Fermanagh while the menu has a strongly rural and rustic feel to it with the waiting staff keen on foraging the grounds, matching perfectly with the extensive list of whiskeys.
As such, it is well heeled to host weddings of up to 280 people while companies have been using the venue as a corporate retreat. But the venue comes alive for Dubliners as a getaway venue, far from the madding crowds.
With recent road improvements, no traffic light interrupts the route out the N3 and takes less than three hours from the M50, making it much more accessible than the final frontier Donegal is often viewed as. Immaculate in both setting and appointment, Lough Eske is a must stay for any visitor keen on the finer things.
Lough Eske Castle is currently offering three nights for the price of two midweek for €490; rooms are available from €219.

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