Several new country-house hotels and private rentals have popped up in scenic locations off Ireland's beaten paths. There's news as well in Northern Ireland—since the peace accords, it's easier to get to (there are no longer any border controls) and generally tranquil, with some of the island's most pristine scenery.
MOY HOUSE On a wild sweep of rocky Atlantic coast overlooking County Clare's Lahinch Bay is Moy House. From a distance, the whitewashed 19th-century house looks austere, almost like a schoolhouse, but inside it's more like a family home (albeit a family with a penchant for silk fabrics and extremely good antiques). It's run like a family home, too: Guests are allowed to wander into the kitchen at any hour to forage, and manager Bernie Merry, like a favorite aunt, keeps a conscientious but low-key watch on events. Best of the nine rooms: Moymore, with a canopy bed, a fireplace, and views out to the waves. Rooms, $230. Lahinch, Co. Clare; 353-65-708-2800; fax 353-65-708-2500; www.moyhouse.com.
Another advantage of staying at Moy House is its proximity to Lahinch, one of the great Irish golf courses. It's also a 30-minute drive from Doonbeg, the newest of the great courses, which opened in June. Designed by Greg Norman ("When I first looked at this site, I thought I was the luckiest designer in the world"), Doonbeg is a natural links course that rivals Pebble Beach for drama in its rugged oceanside location and its layout, which includes only two manmade holes, sculptured drops between tee and green, and dunes 100 feet high. Some nonmember tee times are available (greens fees: $170), though members get preference. Membership, $22,500 (refundable on cancellation), plus $750 annual dues for those living outside Ireland. Doonbeg, Co. Clare; 866-366-6234, 353-65-905-5246; www.doonbeggolfclub.com.
DUNBRODY COUNTRY HOUSE HOTEL & RESTAURANT Two hours south of Dublin, on County Wexford's unusually sunny Hook Peninsula, Dunbrody is heaven for epicureans: Chef and co-owner Kevin Dundon adds a modern but not outlandish spin to such classics as rack of lamb—utterly delicious, with a whiskey-marmalade crust and caramelized kumquat jus. The 22 rooms in this rambling, mainly 1830 Georgian estate were given a relaxed, informal look by Kevin's wife, Catherine, with rustic-print wallpaper, bold colors, and antique-wood bed frames. (My favorite: 303, a corner room with a small crystal chandelier and garden views on two sides.) You can ride horseback on the 200-acre estate's trails, visit the nearby towns of Waterford and Kilkenny, or try out the famed golf course at Mount Juliet (play golf there, but don't stay; the hotel has just undergone a dreary renovation). Rooms, $225-$360. Dinner, $100. Arthurstown, Co. Wexford; 800-525-4800, 353-51-389-600; fax 353-51-389-601; www.dunbrodyhouse.com.
BUTLERSTOWN HOUSE Ireland has grander homes, but it would be hard to find one as beautiful and comfortable as this five-bedroom Georgian on ten acres in West Cork—a region known for its unspoiled rolling hills and farmland, as well as wonderful cheeses and other locally made foods. Renovated in 1997, the 200-year-old house was converted from a B&B to a private rental this year. The antiques—some Georgian, some Regency—belong to Welsh owners Roger Owen and Elisabeth Jones. Despite architectural details like intricately carved plaster moldings, there's an ease about the place, particularly in the large stone-walled country kitchen. A chef is available for hire, and there's a helipad on the grounds. $ Weekly rental, $5,340. Butlerstown, Bandon, Co. Clare; tel/fax 353-23-40137; www.butlerstownhouse.com. Book through Elegant Ireland; 353-1-475-1632; fax 353-1-475-1012; www.elegant.ie.
Butlerstown House is a mile from the Atlantic coast and a 20-minute drive from the brightly painted seacoast town of Kinsale, which, despite looking a bit touristy, has a high concentration of good restaurants and artisans' shops. Don't miss Granny's Bottom Drawer. Owners Linda Jermyn and Clodagh Murray have a keen eye for selecting fine Irish linen, from the children's dresses by Donegal designer Patricia Gallagher ($45) to double damask tablecloths ($300) and silk bed throws ($1,000). At 53 Main St., Kinsale, Co. Cork; 353-21-477-4839. For simple preparations of the freshest fish, try Fishy Fishy Café at The Gourmet Store, a stripped-down fish store and café with no view, just great food (try the huge, sweet prawns in lemon, garlic, and chili sauce). $ Lunch, $50; no dinner. Guardwell, Kinsale; 353-21-477-4453.
SHEEN FALLS LODGE Just off the Ring of Kerry, Sheen Falls Lodge is spectacularly located, overlooking Kenmare Bay and the eponymous falls. But despite the hotel's vaunted reputation, the decor is surprisingly dull and dated; the sparsely furnished bedrooms seem more chain hotel than luxury resort. What is gorgeous, though, is owner Bent Hoyer's secluded Little Hay Cottage, a thatched two-story with two bedrooms, a well-equipped kitchen with French oak table and handmade La Cornue stove, and Hoyer's Danish modern furniture, nautical paintings, and Vietnamese and Chinese jade collection. The two-bedroom Garden Cottage was built next door last fall, convenient for families or couples traveling together. Little Hay: $1,135 per night (minimum three-night stay), $7,665 per week. Both cottages: $10,220 per week. Kenmare, Co. Kerry; 800-735-2478, 353-64-41600; fax 353-64-41386; www.sheenfallslodge.ie.
In town, at the Kenmare Art Gallery, you'll find works by local artists, many capturing scenes of the Beara Peninsula, an equally beautiful, much less crowded alternative to the Ring. Bridge St., Kenmare; 353-64-42999.
ST. CLERANS Most unexpected feature of an Irish country-house hotel: Japanese cuisine at St. Clerans, outside Galway. The 18th-century Relais & Châteaux manor, formerly home to John Huston and still one of the most beautiful houses in Ireland (Departures, May/June 2000), serves Japanese dinners by request—impeccable salmon, turbot, and Dublin Bay prawn sashimi, or baked rainbow trout with pickled ginger and shiso—to showcase the native cuisine of chef Hisashi Kumagai. Managing director Elizabeth O'Mahony can arrange a Japanese dinner—open to both guests and nonguests—with 48 hours' notice. Rooms, $420-$500. Dinner, from $115. Craughwell, Co. Galway; 800-735-2478, 353-91-846-555; fax 353-91-846-600; www.merv.com.
GLENARM CASTLE This 17th-century castle, turned by successive embellishments into the current turreted fairy-tale version, is the best base for viewing Northern Ireland's rugged Antrim Coast or playing the famous Royal Portrush golf course. The ancestral home of the earls of Antrim, it was just renovated without disturbing any of the history it preserves—chests from Spanish Armada ships, 11th-century books with gold-leaf bindings, a carved-beech fourposter from 1754—and can be rented in its entirety (there are 10 bedrooms) when the present earl, Lord Dunluce, isn't in residence. The location is exceptional: on 1,300 acres with a salmon river and views over the coast. $ Rental, $390 per person per night. Glenarm, Co. Antrim; 44-28-2884-1203; fax 44-28-2884-1305; www.glenarmcastle.com. Book directly or through Elegant Ireland, 353-1-475-1632; fax 353-1-475-1012; www.elegant.ie.
TENSQ Opened last year in Belfast's Victorian former post office building is this Asian-inspired hotel. The sleek rooms feature dark wood headboards with blood-red velour inserts, spare platform beds with plush duvets, gray velour chairs, and pots of bamboo stalks. (Best rooms: 210 and 211.) Though the city is surprisingly cosmopolitan, with a vibrant cultural scene, TENsq's restaurant, Porcelain, offers something quite new: creative, high-quality Asian-fusion cuisine. Dishes include beef toban, cooked and served in an earthenware dish, with broccoli, enoki and shiitake mushrooms in a soy-and-sake sauce, and monkfish tempura with bok choy. Rooms, $250-$315. Dinner, $95. At 10 Donegal Sq. S., Belfast, Co. Antrim; 44-28-90-24-1001; fax 44-28-90-24-3210; www.ten-sq.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.