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|Dromoland Castle welcomes guests with a five-star experience. (Brandon Tucker/TravelGolf)|
I've been fortunate enough to scour Ireland in hot pursuit of its best golf courses seven times in the past decade.
I'll never forget that first visit in 2003, when Ireland and its people stole my heart. I try to get back as often as possible.
I've stayed in five-star castles and tiny B&Bs. I've played some of the best links golf courses in the world, and a few parkland stinkers, too. I've drank Guinness and Irish whiskey at a pub or two (or 10), and guzzled water the next day to try and clear my head. This is my Ireland, a story dedicated to the best resorts, hotels, pubs and places I've seen during my travels to the Emerald Isle. I haven't seen it all yet, either. Someday soon the search will continue.
Doonbeg Resort: The stone-laden Lodge at Doonbeg, completed in 2007 and a half-hour's drive from Shannon Airport in County Clare, looks like it's been there for ages. The modern conveniences -- wireless Internet, elevators and a concierge -- suggest otherwise. A fireplace burning peat logs warms guests the old-fashioned way. Two- and three-story guest suites in the main lodge and surrounding courtyard are designed to be spacious and private. There are eight Links Cottages -- four-bedroom units lining the 17th fairway that are part of the Timbers Resorts Residence Club -- available for fractional ownership as well. The Greg Norman-designed golf course at Doonbeg might be one of the most scenic in all the land.
The Kildare Hotel, Spa & Country Club: There aren't many finer historic treasures than the Kildare Hotel, aka the K Club, the first place in Ireland to be named a Five Red Star Property by AA and the host of the 2006 Ryder Cup. The early origins of the Staffan House in County Kildare date to 550 A.D. The east wing of the hotel, built in 1832 and about a half-hour from Dublin proper, was inspired by a French chateau at Louveciennes west of Paris. The Italian tower was added later. The house, purchased in 1988 by the Jefferson Smurfit Group, opened as the 36-bedroom K Club in 1991. An additional 33 bedrooms, garden and courtyard suites, conference facilities and the K Spa were constructed later. I love how the hotel doubles as an art gallery. The Yeats room pays tribute to the work of Irish Expressionist J.B. Yeats. The River Room, one of several bars and restaurants on site, serves food good enough to match its three expensive oil paintings and decor. None of the guest rooms are the same. Besides K Club's Palmer Course and Smurfit Course, guests can go fly-fishing on the River Liffey or visit the 20,000-square-foot K Spa.
The Vaughan Lodge Hotel: This cozy family-owned hotel in Lahinch village in County Clare sits right around the corner from one of the world's great links, the Lahinch Golf Club and just a short drive away from the Cliffs of Moher. Its Seafood Restaurant is superb, and it's also just a short walk into town to find other pubs and eateries. Built in 2005, the lodge houses 22 rooms and suites, all comfortable enough for a two-day golf bender at Lahinch and nearby Doonbeg.
The Killeen House Hotel: I'll always have a soft spot for the five-star owners of this three-star accommodation in Killarney, County Kerry. Geraldine and Michael Rosney make everybody feel welcome. The 23 bedrooms are snug, but the place feels so intimate that it's easy to make friends. Every morning my group would gather for a fine Irish breakfast in Rozzers Restaurant, often served by Geraldine herself. At the end of a day touring or playing golf at the nearby Killarney Golf & Fishing Club, everybody would gather in the small bar to swap stories with strangers over pints. The walls of the bar are decorated with hundreds of golf balls and bag tags donated by guests. I've got a signed golf ball on a wall to the right of the bar. I hope to visit someday with my son, so he can hang one nearby.
Barberstown Castle: As good as the K Club is, I would probably choose staying at the luxury Barberstown Castle just down the road if I ever went back. Guitar legend Eric Clapton once owned the 13th century castle, but that little bit of trivia isn't why I find it so intriguing. I spent a restless night there in 2011, worrying that I might see a ghost. Dining alone in the small castle keep while a storm raged outside, I asked my waitress about any ghost stories surrounding the property. Her tales had me spooked by the time I got back to my room. I spent the night with the light on, a great way to keep an eye on all the incredible room furnishings, but a bad idea for sleeping. Medieval banquets offer guests the chance to meet the "ghost" of Nicholas Barby, who built the castle. I'd rather meet a "fake" ghost at a festival of drinking, dining and dancing than the real thing.
Dromoland Castle: I've never seen a more authentic castle than Dromoland Castle in County Clare. The castle dates to the fifth century, although the main building that is now the five-star Dromoland Castle Hotel was completed in 1835 and opened to guests in the 1960s. Dromoland will celebrate its 50th year of public hospitality in 2013 by brewing a celebratory lager, renovating the Presidential Suite, redesigning the Fig Tree Restaurant and launching the Shop at Dromoland that sells local goods. My favorite memories of my visit were listening to a harpist at dinner in the Earl of Thomond restaurant and trying my hand at falconry, one of the oldest forms of hunting, on the grounds of the estate. Rain washed away my round at the Dromoland Golf and Country Club, redesigned by Ron Kirby and Irish golf legend J.B. Carr in 2003, but that just gives me a good excuse to come back.
Temple Bar in Dublin: The Temple Bar isn't a singular pub, but a section of downtown Dublin lined with authentic bars and restaurants. The Temple Bar, situated on the south bank of the River Liffey, charms tourists with its narrow cobblestone streets that date back to medieval days. I witnessed sheer mayhem on the night I visited in 2011 when Dublin won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, the premier competition in Gaelic football at Croke Park. Dublin's dramatic comeback captured its first title since 1995, setting off an explosion of energy throughout the city. The Irish have always been able to throw a party, but this one featured thousands of rabid football fans.
Gibney's Pub: I've stayed at the four-star Grand Hotel Malahide more than any other Irish hotel for one reason: location, location, location. It's a nice place, for sure, but its location in County Dublin is ideal. It's just minutes from the airport and from three great links, Portmarnock Golf Links, the world-ranked Portmarnock Golf Club and The Island Golf Club. Every time I stay in Malahide, I walk down the street for a drink at Gibney's Pub, a popular watering hole dating to 1937. You're more likely to meet a local than a tourist and the place is always packed.
McGrorys of Culdaff: I've only had dinner and drinks in the Front Bar of McGrorys of Culdaff. A quick tour of Macs Backroom Bar, however, left a lasting impression. The 17-room hotel in Culdaff, a tiny village near Blue Flag beach in County Donegal, delivers an authentic Irish experience, hosting traditional Irish music regularly. Even world-class acts get booked now and then, although I'd rather hang out with the local bands and musicians.
Guinness Storehouse: I hated dark beers and lagers until that day in 2003 when I toured the Guinness Storehouse in downtown Dublin. The free pint of Guinness in the Gravity Bar at the end of the tour changed my drinking habits forever. It went down so smooth. Guinness in America just doesn't compare to the real thing in Ireland, especially when drinking a pure pour inside the "head" of the pint-shaped building, overlooking panoramic views of the city.
Giant's Causeway: An ancient eruption formed the Giant's Causeway, a natural wonder set along the rugged coast of Country Antrim in Northern Ireland. The 40,000-plus interlocking basalt columns look like hexagonal steps that lead to the sea. They must be seen to be believed. A half-day spent at the Causeway, followed by dinner and drinks at the famed Bushmills Inn, would rank among the best of days anywhere.
Cliffs of Moher: The cliffs, a designated UNESCO Geo Park, are a dizzying site to behold, spread across eight kilometers along the Atlantic Ocean in County Clare. The 700-foot drop to the ocean waves is sheer terror for those who are afraid of heights. It would be fun to hit a golf ball off of one, just to see how long it would take before the splash. Even when confronted with such natural beauty, golf writers are so predictable, always daydreaming about when and where they will tee it up again.
March 25, 2013
Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 600 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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