08 May 2004
The Independent travel section
Guinness used to be good for you, you know, and you could smoke on the aeroplane. It's unlikely Guinness will ever become illegal in Ireland, but they have banned smoking. In 1990, when our friend Leo Finlay got married in Dublin, Blur played at the wedding. It was the first time we'd all been on a plane together. In that remote past, air travel was marketed rather differently. Getting on board a 737 was like backstage at the Brits. A parallel universe where everything was free and nice. Up through the clouds to a calm, sunshiney, champagney place. It all seemed miraculous, but the reality of air travel these days is a lot more about travel and a lot less airy.
Dublin, too, has changed beyond recognition since the early 1990s. In my opinion Ireland has always been an underrated destination. A nice place to drift around. Very warm and maternal with hidden depths and artsy bars you could spend days in. The non-menacing pub is something of an Irish masterpiece and a pinnacle of civilisation as a whole. I'm over pubs myself, they're so Nineties, but they are a great way to enjoy yourself. Although, if you can argue for a ban on smoking, a ban on drinking would make as much sense - it's just as bad for you and probably more anti-social. Perhaps, in another 15 years, we'll only be allowed to do things that are good for us, and people who break the rules will be sent to spas for 30 days for their own good. In fact, making spas mandatory might well be shown, statistically, to increase economic output.
Within 24 hours of arriving at the Park Hotel, in sleepy County Kerry, I had thought of three different ways of becoming a billionaire. That's what being on holiday is. Putting the mess of your life at arm's length while your mind ranges free dreaming of another life, being another person. Essential.
I've always lived in hotels. Grew up in one, then joined a band and been on tour ever since. I still find them glamorous places. From a two-star B&B in Liverpool to a run-of-the-mill chain hotel in Dresden, to the Savoy, they're always full of people living in the moment. There's a massive feeling of possibility in every hotel lobby in the world. People in hotels, they're up for it. As the weekend went on, it slowly began to dawn on my wife and I that this might actually be the best hotel in the world.
There are five-star hotels that are quite ghastly; put a chocolate on your pillow and one complimentary newspaper and call it luxury. There is, actually, a sixth star. I don't mean like those state-of-the-art seven-star joints in Mauritius and Dubai, I mean a special grade which no one ever attains. There should be no six-star hotels, because, like the speed of light, the sixth star should be something that can only be approached, and never actually achieved, a receding state of perfection which can only be chased and never caught. Unlike restaurants, which are so much a matter of taste, the handful of truly, truly great, grand hotels of the world: Claridge's, Villa Feltrinelli, Delano, Hôtel du Cap... they make everyone feel at home.
Kenmare is at the south-western end of Ireland. It even looks promising on a map, shaded emerald, to show it is part of a national park, and located on an estuary. The flora is vigorous and robust. We'd travelled from Oxfordshire, which was rendered slightly twee and over-manicured by comparison. As we trundled along towards County Kerry and Kenmare, King Arthur sprang to mind, and damsels in pointy hats; and I started to remember that life is a miracle and that magic definitely exists.
We arrived at the Park and there was a sensation of green and a comfy slippers, crackly logs feeling as we were shown to our room. The acid test which shows if a hotel is any good is whether you want to put your clothes in the wardrobe. Claire was unpacking just as soon as she'd got off the phone to room service. And by the way, what is it with women and room service? After years of wondering I've decided it's simply an easy way to make a girl feel special. Sticking with gender roles, I fiddled around with the CD player. I'm currently enjoying the great riffers of the classical canon. Why bother with The Darkness when you can have Tchaikovsky? He was doing all that tight-trouser stuff centuries ago. By the time tea arrived in silver pots with home-made biscuits, I was prancing around to Swan Lake.
The view from the window, even without the evocative music, was just epic. Un-mucked-around-with nature. Mountains and the sea, with a Scots pine topping. It was mesmerising. Even our eight-week-old baby liked the look of it. It was peaceful and we all fell asleep.
The hotel generously offered to serve us dinner in our room. All we'd really done so far was arrive and collapse, but we were starting to have good feelings about the Park. Luxury doesn't really hit you slap in the face, it's about details. Like the pictures in the room - I actually found myself looking at them, rather than just glancing - and like the way nothing seemed to be a problem. It was all adding up to a very nice feeling.
The menu read well, but so many second-rate provincial country house hotels have menus that promise everything and you'd really be much better off with a burger and fries. It's so often just poncey and pretentious. In fact there are very few places outside France that can carry off a meal of more than half-a-dozen courses. The old school, French-style, full-works, slap-up extravaganza, done real proper, is an unforgettable experience - and one enjoyed by all French people not just the rich. When you look at all the overheads the very best restaurants aren't bad value for money.
By the time we'd ooohed, ahhhed and wowed our way through the venison, which was perfection, we knew we would have to come back. It was so tender and rich and pink and juicy. Then there was a very creamy sorbet. Ice-cream, basically, between every course. Good idea. Sorbet is another thing that's easy to serve, but very hard to do well, in fact I've never seen it done properly before, with a little silver spoon, and a little silver dish and little poppy seeds. Just so dainty. It wasn't watery like it often can be. It was just right.
By the time the main courses arrived, the waiter was really enjoying himself. The thing with parsnips had a quite poetic title, which escapes me now, and the duchesse potatoes were fit for a queen. I had the pork, she had the lamb, she said "OH YUM!". And suddenly we were on holiday.
Next morning the hotel seamlessly organised a babysitter, Root. It's hard to hand over an eight-week-old baby to a stranger, but she was calm and I trusted her. We had adult things to do. In keeping with Ireland's new healthy regime, the Park Hotel, which dates from 1897, now has a spa, which dates from February. It was built from scratch in eight months and is very new and shiny. A flowing water cherry wood sci-fi environment. It was like being in Blake's Seven. I thought the walls might start talking to me.
Until now, all the British Isles seem to have contributed to the pampering industry is pan-pipe mood music. I am anti pan-pipe and pro-pamper. All other cultures have feel-good preening ceremonies and I've sampled most of them. Japan probably leads the world; you come out of a Japanese spa pummelled, plucked, scrubbed and shaved. You're ready for the five-hour drive home. There's the Moroccan hammam, which involves having your skin boiled and scraped off by ladies wearing tracksuits; highly invigorating. Even the nomadic tribes of the Sahara have managed to contrive a sand sauna process. Iceland? They put huts on top of geysers and see how long they can stay there before they jump through a hole in the ice (pretty macho). Saunas in Sweden. Birch bashing in Russia. It's all good. I'm all for a pedicure, manicure, get me eyebrows waxed too.
We were greeted at the health centre by someone so healthy looking she was utterly ageless. I was down for a massage and the nice lady asked how I would like to feel afterwards. This was a new one on me, and a pretty good service. I asked what the options were. I should point out that I was wearing a dressing-gown in a candle-lit stone chamber with my feet in a bowl of wet pebbles. There was water trickling and mistiness. It was like being a caveman in his cave. In a good way. It was pretty obvious I was going to be feeling just fine afterwards, so I let her do whatever she thought. She waved the smellies around and Clannad wafted out. It was a proper job. Had me groaning, pretty intense, she was strong. I floated out of there feeling better than anything I could have thought of beforehand.
I love rainy Saturdays, and that's what it was, so afterwards we sat in the bar eating something fresh and crispy and watching the rain. Cosy.
Just 24 hours of doing nothing and we were in a different world. Thinking about different things than the day before. When it stopped raining we strapped on the heir and walked towards the water. It was enough to do that. We studied the coppery bark of the Scots pine and looked for seals. It was the perfect antidote to the maelstrom of the first few weeks of parenthood. Brilliant.
Given the choice of being in a room full of smokers and a room full of people with babies, I'd take the smokers any day. Babies are like old slippers or farts in that your own are fine, but other people's... Root came back so we could dine in elegant splendour.
The dining-room is immaculate. Pressed white linen and gleaming silver. Primroses and lead crystal. What really set it off was the distinguished lady dining alone, two tables along. Wistful and content. So posh. Cheers mate. There were two pilots next to us, a couple, absorbed in conversations about flying as two pilots together always are. A happy family, teenage daughter and father so alike. A pair of smiley naughty weekend types; she probably didn't have any knickers on. An old buffer going "Whaaat?". All sorts really.
I had enough confidence in the chef to order lots of things I don't like, the true test of greatness. He didn't let me down. We knew by this point we'd have to come back every year. It's a jewel. The staff take great pride, they know how good it is here. Life without seams. Just charming.
Kenmare is 60 miles from Cork airport and 16 miles from Kerry airport in Farranfore. Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) flies from London Stansted to both airports for about £60. Aer Lingus (0845 084 4444, www.aerlingus.com) flies from London Heathrow to Cork with return fares starting from around £85.
Bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com) flies from London Gatwick, Cardiff, Manchester and Nottingham East Midlands, with return fares starting from around £72 from London Gatwick and Manchester. Air Wales (0870 777 3131, www.airwales.com) flies from Plymouth with fares starting from around £118 return. British Airways (0870 950 8 950, www.ba.com) flies from Manchester from around £100 and Glasgow (operated by Loganair) from around £120 return.
Swansea Cork Ferries (01792 456 116, www.swanseacorkferries.com) sails to Cork from Swansea and Pembroke. A return crossing for a car and up to four passengers costs from £169 from Monday to Thursday and £155 at weekends.
The Park Hotel Kenmare (00 353 64 41200, www.parkhotel.com) offers double rooms starting from ¤410 (£292) per night based on two sharing with breakfast.
A two-night lifestyle programme including two nights accommodation with breakfast and one dinner, a three-hour Samas experience, an activity of the day and "morning serenity" each morning costs from ¤639 (£456) per person based on two sharing. Private car transfers from Cork airport cost ¤165 (£117) each way.
WHAT TO DO
Dating from 1670, the town of Kenmare in County Kerry is one of south-west Ireland's most picturesque towns located on the estuary of the river Kenmare between the rugged Iveragh and Beara Peninsulas. The town is a convenient base for the Ring of Kerry, a 110-mile route skirting the Iveragh Peninsula; to the north is the stunning Killarney National Park, a designated Unesco Biosphere Reserve. Kenmare's annual walking festival takes place from 26 May until 6 June offering an array of walks in the area including the chance to climb Ireland's highest mountain, Carrantouhill.
Contact the Tourism Ireland information line on 0800 039 7000; see www.irelandholidays.co.uk; or contact Kenmare Tourism on 00 353 64 42615; www.kenmare.com.
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