Cliff House Hotel, Ardmore, Co Waterford, Ireland
It's pitch dark, and we're driving through a tiny Irish village best known for its ancient Christian heritage and fishing - not for luxury spa hotels. And yet as our friendly chauffeur, Sean, turns past the beach, windswept and foreboding on a dark January night, we approach the Cliff House Hotel, one of Ireland's finest five-star properties, complete with a Michelin-starred restaurant and beautiful spa. We come in from the chilly night and are welcomed into a traditional but sleek, luxe but homely reception area, complete with fire burning and comfy tweed and leather chairs.
The Cliff House Hotel bears its name truthfully: it really is built into the cliff at the small village of Ardmore. It has beautiful views across the bay, made all the better by the floor to ceiling glass frontage.
Service is nothing short of brilliant. Staff are there when you want them - to provide toast and tea top-ups at breakfast, for example - but are not overbearing. The other guests were couples, perhaps from Cork, a 55-minute drive away, or like us, from across the Irish Sea.
The hotel's location might at first seem incongruous, but for peace, sea air, and real "stay factor" - I didn't want to leave - this is the perfect place to come.
All the rooms have sea views - we woke to a beautiful panorama across Ardmore Bay. Our Cliff Veranda Suite had pink tweed upholstery and dark wood antique furniture, which made a pleasant change from the "bought from a catalogue" style interiors one so often gets in hotels. An exposed stone wall, slim lamps and black staircase meant there was a slightly 1960s, cool feel about the suite too. Then there was the veranda - an enormous private space with sunloungers. And the bathroom - what a bathroom. Pink mosaic tiles, Anne Semonin products, an egg-shaped bath...it was among the coolest, and largest, bathrooms I've ever used.
"The Well" spa has small changing rooms, but that's a small disadvantage when you see the 15-metre indoor infinity edge swimming pool, with floor-to-ceiling windows for (more) views of that beautiful bay, the outdoor heated Jacuzzi, and the sauna, steam room and four treatment rooms.
Treatments use Anne Semonin and Voya products, and there is an excellent range, spanning everything from hot stone massages to bathing therapies in two outdoor bath tubs.
I had the 75-minute Voya Dry Body Brush and Massage. Using the dry brush, my therapist took the time to really work at the dead skin build-up on my back, and used long strokes on arms and legs to not only smooth the skin, but improve circulation too. The following massage was an excellent combination of deep tissue work on my knotted shoulders, and lighter strokes on arms and lower back. I felt like I had a whole new skin, and because of the nourishing massage oil I did not see any adverse drying or sensitising effects from the vigorous scrub.
The House, the hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant, is headed by Martijn Kajuiter, who sources as much produce as possible from local suppliers. A la carte dishes include McGrath's Black Angus Beef and 80 per cent dark chocolate mousse; dinner only. Lunch in The Bar included a delicious and beautifully presented starter of beetroot and goat's cheese salad, and fromage frais panna cotta with blackberries and honeycomb.
The House Restaurant is closed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday in winter and Sunday and Monday nights in summer, with the exception of bank holiday weekends. For those that stay when The House Restaurant is closed, the Bar is open seven days a week for lunch, dinner and afternoon tea.
Borrowing some of the hotel's wellies and striding out along the Cliff Walk trail (take a map from the hotel).
Rooms from £180 per room per night for a Deluxe Seaview room, including breakfast.
Castlemartyr Resort, Co Cork, Ireland
Guests arriving at Castlemartyr resort, a 40-minute drive from Cork airport, in Ireland, are greeted by an imposing 18th-century manor house and the 800-year-old ruins of a castle built by the Knights Templar under Richard Earl de Clare. It's an impressive start: there are well-pruned hedges and alleyways, and an imposing entrance beyond which lies a classically-styled hall, decorated with luxurious rugs, cream furniture and arched doorways. The 220 acres of grounds are there for guests to enjoy: they may stop to admire the horses in the field opposite the hotel, take one of the three mapped walking routes, play a round of golf on the 18-hole course, or pass down by the lake and river.
Although luxurious, the hotel is family-friendly, offering a children's play area, toys for sale in the gift shop, high chairs, cots and swimming nappies. Babysitters are also available for when mum and dad want a couple of hours of peace and quiet. Families can also rent a self-catering property in the grounds. Those travelling without children will be pleased to hear that under-16s only have restricted access to the spa swimming pool, and we weren't disturbed by children at dinner.
The public spaces, including the Knight's Bar, and the afternoon tea lounge, might be slightly too small to accommodate all the guests wishing to use them, particularly when there is a weekend event on. That said, there is a pleasant bustle to the bar on Saturday nights, when a live Irish violin group plays and the atmosphere is cheery.
The style of our Junior Suite echoed the classic furnishings in the public spaces - think luxurious chenille poufs, an enormous dark wood wardrobe with robes and slippers, and thick curtains with jacquard patterns. In the morning, we opened them to reveal a large balcony with pleasant views over the mature trees in the grounds. The marble bathroom was full of gleaming mirrors, products from The White Company - and plenty of space.
The first thing you realise about Castlemartyr's ESPA-appointed spa is its size: it's big. The 20-metre pool on the ground level is in a room with floor-to-ceiling windows; I swam and admired the grounds. Upstairs, there are large treatment rooms, two couples' suites, a steam room, sauna and jet pool, and male and female relaxation spaces (the women's one had supremely comfortable beds and stools laden with glossy magazines).
Although my Lift & Firm Hip & Thigh treatment was not for those seeking a relaxing experience, it was very effective. Dry body brushing was followed by scrub exfoliation and towelling mitts drenched in ice applied to the hips and thighs. Lymphatic drainage massage came next, with varying levels of pressure to ease fluid retention and improve uneven skin tone. I came out with a spring in my step, the lower half of my body feeling lighter, slimmer and more toned. I was then led to the relaxation space, where I was served smoothie, a fruit skewer, and flapjack, and helped myself to a selection of herbal teas.
The elegant Bell Tower restaurant serves fine cuisine in a room overlooking the formal gardens. Service was slow on our visit, but we enjoyed our starters of perfectly cooked scallops and Ballycotton smoked salmon. The Irish cheeses at dessert were also very good. The resort's Italian restaurant, Franchini's, is open for dinner; dishes include pumpkin ravioli and buffalo mozzarella pizza. Guests can order light meals from the Knight's Bar and the Club House in the golf club.
The spa pool. An early morning swim watching the sun come up through the windows is really pleasant.
Double rooms from €165 (£135), including breakfast.
For more information on visiting Ireland, see www.ireland.com
Words: Lizzie Porter