Travel review: Slieve Russell Hotel, Cavan, Ireland
Perhaps a pint of Guinness for the first meal of the day ahead of 18 holes on a championship-standard golf course wasn’t the best pre-tee time preparation.
It had been an early start with a 6am flight from Birmingham followed by a couple of hours’ drive from Dublin. But hell, when in Rome. . . or in this case Ireland, eh? We’d just hopped off the bus at the enigmatically entitled Concra Wood Golf Club.
But this wasn’t your everyday golf trip. . . you know the type – four or five blokes off the leash and on the lash for a long weekend with a few token holes thrown in to justify it as a healthy leisure pursuit to the wives back home.
No, this time it was very much a couples’ affair. And as the blokes teed up, the women – none in the main particularly interested in smacking a small white ball around a field for a few hours – departed to find their own entertainment. Let’s be frank, like me with a three-wood, a golf trip with the missus had the potential to go spectacularly off course. But more of this on the right of this feature as my wife will explain . . . However, for now let’s stick to the blokey, golfy bit. Concra Wood can be found up near the border with Northern Ireland in County Monaghan. And believe me, it’s well worth looking for.
Designed by two proper Irish golfing legends Christy O’Connor Senior and Junior, the course is a test for the best, never mind a weekend hacker like me who, by mid-March, had not picked up a set of clubs in anger for months. (When I do pick up my clubs there usually follows a fair deal of anger, but that’s by the by.)
Here though it’s almost sacrilege not to warm up for a round with a pint of porter. Or two. And a very hearty steak sandwich as well in the club’s beautifully appointed restaurant. It was almost a shame to go out into the cold but this was a golf trip after all so togged up and braced against the March winds, off we set.
Predictably, after months away from a course, my golf was poor. But the course was anything but. The odd decent connection reminded me I had actually played the game before but I have to admit, never on a course like this. It was a delight, such a delight in fact that even my appalling form couldn’t ruin the day. Sorry Mark Twain, you were wrong – this wasn’t a good walk spoiled, this was a bad golfer delighted. To play on a course like this, I was the one being spoiled. The course wends its way up and down and around the edges of Lough Muckno near Castleblaney. And it is breathtaking. Mountains in the distance, water alongside almost every hole, a wind that seems to change direction and strength at every tee. It’s a little slice of golfing heaven. And despite its myriad challenges, it is genuinely a fun course to play. Who can’t resist taking on a big drive over the corner of a lake? And, occasionally, it comes off. Let’s not mention the score here eh? It seems a little coarse to talk about counting shots on a course like this. By the time we had completed the 18 holes we were a little windswept and ready for a rest. So it was back on the bus to meet the wives and girlfriends (well, it’s almost time for the World Cup) and off to the Slieve Russell Hotel, where we were to stay the next couple of nights.
Now if you are to travel to this part of Ireland to take on a few golf courses of your own – and I heartily recommend you do – I cannot think of a better place to stay. Slieve Russell is a luxury hotel just outside Cavan, so handily placed for a day at the races too if that’s your thing.
Every one of its four stars is merited. We stayed in a suite. It was jaw-droppingly gorgeous with a four-poster bed, separate lounge and a bathroom set up to soothe every aching joint in a spa bath the size of a small swimming pool. Indeed it was only the lure of the restaurant and another couple of pints that could tempt me out of this cosseted corner of heaven.
We ate, drank and became fairly merry throughout the evening, slept like logs and then breakfasted like kings ahead of golf expedition two; Farnham Estate in nearby Drumbar.
A sweeping driveway led us through parts of the course and whetted the appetite for the 18 holes ahead. There were hills aplenty and numerous water hazards to negotiate. The clubhouse wasn’t much to speak of – as it hasn’t been erected yet and changing facilities were in a portable building. But, please don’t let this put you off, there has been no expense spared in creating a superb course here and the adjacent hotel spa is a delight.
In fact, this was more two courses than one. The front nine holes were opened in 2008, winding their way through beautiful parkland. The back nine were completed a year later plotting a path through woodland. The first nine holes bring into play a meandering stream and a number of lakes. The wet stuff is everywhere and a test to avoid.
The back nine has some stunning tree-lined holes to negotiate. It was another tough course but, playing my second 18 holes in successive days, the signs of improvement were there. The driver was working and the odd chip almost troubled the cup.
That’s the thing about golf though, one good shot can make you forget the 80-plus hacks that preceded it. It has an addictive edge; the more the play, the more you want to play.
The course eventually led us up towards the impressive Farnham Estate Spa Resort, where we again met up with the ladies for lunch. And a couple of Guinnesses. Just to be social you understand.
The hotel is plush and the restaurant has that special something, relaxed yet classy. An understated feel that oozes quality but without a hint of stuffiness. And the food was top notch too. Top marks here.
Back on the bus, we had a couple of hours off at the hotel before it was time to eat again. This time at the Olde Post Inn. More of this from the missus, but a cracking meal of superb traditional Irish fair. A couple of nice glasses of wine and a couple of pints of the black stuff. Superb.
It was back to Slieve Russell for our second and final night at our top-notch hotel. Things were hotting up too as guests were pouring in ahead of the next day’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations. It would have been rude not to join the spirit, so I chanced a couple of Guinnesses before bedtime. Within hours we were togged up again and back on the tee. A shorter trip this time – all the way from our room to Slieve Russell’s own golf course.
It was three out of three – another stunner of a course, and like Concra Wood and the Farnham Estate, none too busy. No frustrating hanging around on tees waiting for a group in front to finish up.
And the practice of the two previous rounds at last seemed to be paying some kind of dividends.The ball was travelling in more or less the direction intended and there was even the odd gem of a strike. Modesty prevents me from regaling everyone with the full details but it would be a crime not to mention my stunning seven-iron off the tee over water to within eight feet at the 17th. It justly got a ripple of applause from a group watching from the next tee.
I was in danger of looking like I knew what I was doing here. The tee shot at the 18th put that notion quickly to bed as my trademark slice kicked in. But that and my next hack straight into the greenside bunker couldn’t overshadow my glow from the previous hole.
Packed up and back on the bus our last night was at the stunning Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links just outside Dublin and more than handy for our flight back.
Cool and elegant, it was over a superb meal in the hotel’s restaurant that we celebrated St Patrick’s Day. Maybe not with the shenanigans that were taking place a few miles up the road in Dublin city centre but we had our share of good times. And yes, one or two more pints of Guinness in the bar with a back drop of Irish folk music.
Our room overlooked the golf links and the Irish sea. Though the course was tempting, the weather was not as a fierce gale blew snow in from over the water. We had to rise too early to fly home to play another round but my appetite for golf had already been truly whetted.
Practice may not have made perfect by a long shot for me on this trip but it did reignite my love for the game after a long winter away from the fairways.
Moreover, it brought home the beauty of some of the courses on offer in this too-often overlooked corner of Ireland. This was a golfing trip to remember – not just for the courses but because it brought a different dynamic to the usual lads-away-from-home weekend. The nights out were better, more fun even, with the other halves around. The jokes were different, the stories had a different lilt. The laughter more genuine. We learned of the ladies’ days out and the women smiled and put up with some golfing chat.
We ate and drank well, probably a little too well. And we enjoyed one another’s company. Isn’t that what a weekend away should be all about?
And here’s the acid test. Would I do it again? I’d tee it up tomorrow. . .
More to Ireland than golf, boys!
When it comes to golf, I’m with Mark Twain, who supposedly summed it up as a good walk spoiled. So when it was suggested that I join the other half on a golfing trip a reluctant agreement only followed the assurance that there would be plenty of activities for the non-golfers.
Our first stop while the golfers made their way round a soggy course (it was what the Irish refer to as a ‘soft day’) was the medieval town of Carlingford. We took in the glorious view of the Carlingford Lough and the Mountains of Mourne before tucking into a delicious lunch at the historic PJ O’Hare’s, which still retains its original frontage and shop fittings. Then we treated to a tour round the town by one of the local guides whose enthusiasm brought the old tales to life as we explored the old town gate and abbey.
The lunch walked off, it was off to the magnificent Slieve Russell hotel and spa, whose grand, imposing appearance belies the warm welcoming ambience inside.
The following day, we headed for Strokestown House, former home of the first landlord to be assasinated during the great famine of Ireland and now also home to the National Famine Museum.
Inside, our guide described it perfectly as though the occupant had popped to the shops and we had called in for a nose around.
Untouched bedrooms had clothes and magazine from decades past and the children’s toy room was packed with relics. Later we headed to the Olde Post Inn in Cloverhill, Co Cavan. Here again, you feel like you’re round at a friend’s house, sitting by the open fire. The only giveaway is that the food being served could only have come from a top notch chef.
The following morning it was time for a relaxing facial at Slieve Russell then off to enjoy the jacuzzi and steam room, with not a thought for the poor golfers outside in the drizzle and wind.
A special mention has to go to our driver Dermot who kept us entertained as he ferried us around with tales of Irish life.
A fantastic weekend; and the golf didn’t spoil it at all.