Isabel Conway explores Killarney, staying at Ireland’s answer to Downton Abbey.
Look one way in Killarney, Co Kerry and there may be enough shamrock festooned souvenirs, harps and tin whistles on streets packed with live Irish music sessions and craft shops in Ireland’s favourite tourism centre to stretch all the way westwards across the Atlantic to America.
Turn towards sublime lake views, framed by smoky purple, blue and grey tinged mountains, and you soon realize what the fuss is all about. The landscapes around the lakes of Killarney, imposing mountain passes and the remote valleys beyond, are among the most beautiful anywhere.
Queen Victoria, with a good eye for scenic gems, is credited with putting Killarney on the map as a tourism destination, the place to see and be seen. The Monarch of Great Britain and Ireland was advised by her veteran playboy son Bertie, Prince of Wales, to visit. Captivated by the place, he seriously overstayed his own visit because he was having such a good time, fishing, dining, socializing, relaxing and….oh yes…. admiring Killarney’s magnificent lakes and mountains scenery!
He urged his mother to come and enjoy it for herself and she did so – at a more sedate pace – a few years later. Her visit transformed the humble town’s fortunes, turning it into a westerly Capri, an unmissable place of pilgrimage for Victorian moneyed classes of the day.
I almost expect Downton Abbey’s Lady Violet Crawley, 8th Dowager Countess of Grantham to sweep past in her carriage as we turn into the long avenue, shaded by a stately canopy of trees on our approach to the imposing stately Victorian Manor, Cahernane House Hotel.
Five generations of the Herbert family, whose origins in Ireland stretch back to the Wars of the Roses, maintained this large estate from the mid-1600s until the 1930s. On the fringes of Killarney that has a dizzying array of neon-lit bed and breakfasts, guest houses and hotel sprawls of dubious architectural merit, Cahernane House Hotel is tucked away in another world.
Guests easily feel they are in the middle of nowhere, instead of close to one of Ireland’s busiest tourism hubs, a 20-minute long stroll in either direction from the town centre and Muckross House and Gardens, one of Ireland’s finest demesnes.
Cahernane House hotel is surrounded by over six acres of verdant grounds on the borders of Killarney National Park, with native red deer and miles of walks. As if stepping inside a pastoral landscape painting, we watch cattle and sheep dotted behind ancient stone ditches. The mountains form a dramatic backdrop.
High sashed windows in the elegant dining room, resplendent with starched snowy white tablecloths and highly polished sideboards, are lifted a little and fresh early autumnal air wafts indoors. That’s one of the special features here – the feeling we are welcome house guests rather than hotel visitors.
We choose a full Irish breakfast of free-range eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomato and more, to fortify ourselves for an hour in the great outdoors. I savour the best Irish soda bread I’ve ever tasted and home-made raspberry jam to remember forever. The hotel may have a 4-star classification but you can look forward to a 5-star experience here from high-end gastronomy to the last word in luxury in bedrooms and bathrooms, plus outstanding service.
That extra star would appear, no doubts, were a swimming pool and a fitness area added on. Instead, the hotel’ s owners internationally known PREM Hotels Group, who have key properties abroad as well as leading hotel addresses in Ireland, spent over €7,8 million on Cahernane House hotel’s stylish renovation. That included transforming the dilapidated old stone cut Coach House into eight new luxurious bedrooms surrounded by gorgeous gardens.
Cahernane’s strength lies in taking an elegant country house atmosphere to a really high standard with friendliness and personal attention, complimented in its guestbook by satisfied guests from all over the world, who’ve greatly enjoyed their stay. “We’re not missing a dip in any swimming pool or a tough work out on a treadmill here” say the Australian couple we meet in the cosy Cellar Bar. “We got our exercise with all the walks and we had a day out pedalling around on bikes touring the national park”.
The hotel is featured in Ireland’s prestigious Blue Book of special accommodation, from stylish country house hotels to castles, to Michelin-Starred restaurants to five-star hotels exclusive to properties with a strong style and character. Also included in Conde Nast Johannsen’s Traveller Guide it says those who visit Cahernane House Hotel “find themselves reliving the aristo lifestyle of yesteryear”.
Many of the original pieces from the house when it was owned by Henry Herbert and his wife Catherine remain in Cahernane House Hotel today, including the wooden staircase, the Killarney Davenport table in the foyer and the pillar caps in the lobby, which feature the first letters of each of Henry’s first four children’s names. His fifth child Gwendolyn was born the same year the house was built (August 1877) and the story goes that Gwendolyn’s ghost still roams the house on occasion!
When she visited Killarney with great fanfare in 1861 Queen Victoria spent two nights at the nearby larger and flashier Muckross House with Henry Herbert’s brother. Months of elaborate preparations preceding the Royal visit saw the arrival of specially commissioned tapestries, mirrors, silverware, musical instruments and all manner of extravagance. A fire escape was also constructed outside Queen Victoria’s bedroom because of her Majesty’s phobia in relation to house fires.
So lavish was the hospitality offered by the Herbert family of Muckross (who had hoped for titles in gratitude) to the Royal party that afterwards they were saddled with enough debt to bankrupt them.
The year after Victoria’s visit to Killarney, which had been an outstanding success and “she would cherish the memory for years to come” the monarch’s beloved husband Albert died. During a long period of mourning the Herbert’s titles were forgotten.
Grand enough to receive any of the Downton Abbey set, the Herberts of Cahernane must have been thanking their lucky stars that their magnificent mansion was less prestigious than Muckross, avoiding the financial ruin which was a hazard of a Royal visit.
Tell me more about Cahernane House Hotel
Cahernane House Hotel, Muckross Road, Killarney, Co Kerry T: +353.646631895.
A two-night stay with breakfast and a two-course dinner from €159 per person sharing.
The hotel has a Hike & Heritage package from €270 per person sharing, including a history tour, packed lunch for a walking tour of Killarney National Park, complimentary bicycle hire, a two-course informal meal in the Cellar Bar and on the second evening a gourmet dinner in the multi-award-winning Herbert restaurant.