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From castles to lighthouses

Steer your way through Ireland to experience authentic stays

Becca Hensley Special to the American-Statesman
Park Hotel Kenmare occupies a hill overlooking the sea in one of Ireland's most characteristic towns. [Contributed by Park Hotel Kenmare]

It seemed like a good idea at the time. We would rent a car in Ireland and drive from one characteristic inn to another, stopping at monuments, quaint tea shops, hiking trails and pubs, as required. The first day, jet-lagged, we nabbed our rental car from the parking lot at Shannon Airport, only to find out that the SUV we had ordered was as small as my thumb. Somehow the three of us wedged our suitcases into a semblance of order, but I’d be lying if I told you that our friend Denise, relegated to the back seat, was not packed in like an anchovy in a tin.

Headed to a tiny village called Ballingarry, to a former convent-turned-inn called the Mustard Seed, part of Ireland’s Blue Book’s collection of (mostly) family-owned, unique hotels, we put the pedal to the metal — on the wrong side of the road. My job, in the front seat, was that of navigator. My friend Carlyle — ever-confident — would drive. We, the riders, breathed a sigh of relief to be free of the responsibility. It was like having a mom on board.

After some issues (the bags fell into a heap, almost suffocating Denise in the back; the key didn’t work, so the car wouldn’t start; I lost my sunglasses; we didn’t know how to get out of the parking lot; we drove the wrong way; we were hungry, thirsty and sleepy), we hit the road. Our destination for the day was proclaimed to be less than an hour from the airport, so my friends indulged me: They promised that we could stop at the Great Stone Circle, an ancient henge located near Croom, a little village we had never heard of before. As it turns out, we would get to know Croom very well.

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It wasn’t long before we came to the village of Croom without incident. But what happened next will go into the annals of why one travels, why it makes you stronger. (Repeat after me: Travel’s maladies make you laugh, ensure you meet unexpected people, teach you to overcome hardships, ease you to flexibility and force you to rearrange your expectations so that you adjust your goals — all skill sets necessary for life.) I had been pronounced navigator, but as we drew near to the location of the stone circle, I fell deeply asleep. Somehow nobody noticed. That meant that our car, its occupants trancelike, passed cleanly by the turn-off for the stone circle; in fact, later we realized we had driven right next to the monument without a glance. With me dozing, with my friends waiting for me to direct them, the car was steered straight on for miles amid the most bucolic countryside you’ve ever seen — though I never saw it. When I awoke, the GPS was on, spouting directions in an Irish accent. All was confusion.

“We’re lost,” said Carlyle. And then, with some hostility, “You fell asleep.”

We drove down what must have been every single country road in County Limerick. Every time the GPS (or old-fashioned map) told us to turn on a new route, it somehow led us right back to Croom. This was uncanny — not to mention frustrating, even surreal. At one point, a man had seen us pass so many times he insisted on getting into the car with us so he could show us the way. Things got a little creepy when he told us about the ancient sword a ghost had gifted him, one he said we could see, too, at the bottom of a lake. It was only when we surrendered, only when Carlyle said something like “it will be a cold day in hell before you ever see that stone circle,” that we actually did. It was suddenly there in front of us — as if we had driven straight to it. Like a mirage come to life, it unfolded before us — an expanse of emerald meadow, dotted with sheep, cows and ancient standing stones. This was the mystical sight I’d been seeking. This was Ireland.

Driving along the hedgerows, through the cobblestoned, tiny hamlets, beside the rocky coastal shores, through the gardens of Ireland is a treat that can only be matched by the hotels that travelers choose for their stay. Wanting to immerse in what feels like the “real” Ireland, we opted only for independent hotels and inns that belonged to Ireland’s Blue Book. This 45-year-old organization includes 56 like-minded properties and restaurants located across the island nation. A lighthouse, castles, an abbey, country manors, a luxury barge, lakeside, seaside, city-sited and designer lodges — plus a few Michelin-starred restaurants — compose the compendium. Known for local flair, intimate digs, knowledgeable concierge services and stellar culinary amenities, each inn stands out as a destination itself. Each has a story. Perhaps that’s the best part.

We took advantage of the organization’s willingness to map out routes (they’ll even do themed trips, from gourmet to romance). At every inn where we stopped, they knew where we were headed next, calling to their counterparts, as family might prepare the next clan for the arrival of visitors. Helpfully, they also gave us suggestions and tips: lesser-known touristic stops, shortcuts, eateries, not-to-be-missed shops, natural wonders, waterfalls and more to enhance our adventures along the way.

Ready to explore? Here are some of my favorite stays with Ireland’s Blue Book.

The Mustard Seed, County Limerick

Croom notwithstanding, we finally arrived at this gem of a small hotel to discover its 16 rooms awash with Chinese lacquer, sumptuous fabrics and rooms with garden views. An acclaimed restaurant, produce grown on-site and proximity to attractions such as the Cliffs of Moher sweeten the deal. irelands-blue-book.ie/houses.html/mustard-seed

Carrig Country House, County Kerry

Set on a lake just off the busy Ring of Kerry, this Victorian hunting lodge, surrounded by playful gardens, lessens stress at first glance. Meant to make you feel you’ve gone back in time, the 17-room lodge feels like a private home stay with coddling relatives. irelands-blue-book.ie/houses.html/carrig-house

Longueville House, County Cork

The apples don’t fall far from the tree — literally — at this three-century-old great house 30 minutes from the hip city of Cork. Stunningly surrounded by apple orchards and woods, the hotel makes an award-winning cider and calvados-style brandy. With pigs, sheep, dogs and exquisite antiques, this stunning stay also offers falconry and archery. irelands-blue-book.ie/houses.html/longueville

Park Hotel Kenmare, County Kerry

Overlooking the Bay of Kenmare, in a heritage city with its own standing stone circle, Park Hotel Kenmare is considered one of Ireland’s top hotels. Castlelike and five-star, it lies in terraced gardens. Its Sama Spa references the waters/sea that it overlooks. irelands-blue-book.ie/houses.html/park-hotel

Ballyfin Demesne, County Laois

Once one of Ireland’s best-known country houses, Ballyfin lies in the Irish Midlands. Restored to its former grandeur, it meticulously evokes its era as a getaway for Irish bluebloods who sought repose in rural climes. irelands-blue-book.ie/houses.html/ballyfin-demesne-2

Hayfield Manor, County Cork

This sophisticated yet welcoming city hotel has regal flair and a contemporary outlook — ideal for the university-charged city of Cork. Located just steps from downtown in its own haven, Hayfield Manor exudes family-owned hospitality. irelands-blue-book.ie/houses.html/hayfield

Clare Island Lighthouse, County Mayo

How often do you get the chance to stay in a real lighthouse? Seize the day and tuck into this bonafide gatekeeper of the night. The listed building has just five rooms, each a play on those who occupied this waterside home in the past. irelands-blue-book.ie/houses.html/clare-island

Glenlo Abbey, County Galway

This re-imagined 18th-century abbey is an immersion in Ireland. Its grounds stretch 138 acres along the nation’s largest lake, ensuring a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. One highlight, its Pullman Restaurant, set in two retired Orient Express cars, won’t be forgotten. irelands-blue-book.ie/houses.html/glenlo

For more information, visit Ireland’s Blue Book: irelands-blue-book.ie.