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When Irish Eyes are Smiling

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1 April 2008 by Duncan Mills

It’s a quiet Sunday in County Cork and I’m being treated to a horse and carriage ride around the grounds of the recently opened Capella Castlemartyr hotel. Roy Daley, the groundsman, is in the driving seat but, up front, Bonnie the horse needs little encouragement as she gently plods along the tarmac driveway that leads in and out of Castelmartyr’s extensive grounds - leaving me to enjoy the ride and the company of Roy, who is both charming and chatty in the best Irish tradition.

It’s a lovely way to see the estate, at a fittingly gentle pace. The little village of Castlemartyr lies outside the hotel grounds, and as we head that way Roy smiles and tips the rim of his bowler hat towards a local priest enjoying an afternoon stroll. "That’s Father Jack," he tells me. I suspect everyone knows everyone around here. To the south of the hotel and the village, a few miles of winding lanes and green fields fringed with hedgerows separate us from the coast, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the rugged shoreline at Ballycotton Bay and fills the air with a salty freshness far removed from the exhaust-clogged city air I’m more used to in London.

Roy is the fourth generation of his family to work on the estate and there’s not a great deal about the place that he doesn’t know. The seventeenth-century manor house, which forms the main hotel building, was, he says, a boarding school for 70 years - and several Carmelite monks lived there as recently as 2004. These days, however, Castlemartyr belongs to the Capella hotel group - and they’ve invested heavily. In total a hefty 90 million euros has been spent on the development of the five-star hotel and the surrounding estate - the major projects being the construction of an ultramodern spa, Auriga, housed in a shiny glass extension to the original manor house, as well as a first-class golf course.

"It costs 25,000 euros for membership, and then you pay 1,500 euros per year in green fees, or 130 euros on a pay-per-play basis, "Roy reveals. Quality doesn’t come cheap, it seems. Roy, Bonnie and I skirt the edge of the 18-hole golf course on our tour, the impeccable fairways clad in dew. It was designed by Ron Kirby, who also designed Gleneagles. There’s no one on it during my stay, but this will soon change when the links style course officially opens this April, complete with a spanking new clubhouse. It’s a major project, but clearly this is where Capella sees their new hotel going - catering for golf and spa guests.

It might not yet have the reputation of the K Club, which hosted the 2006 Ryder Cup for the first time in Ireland: but there’s a great deal of potential and a long-term strategy. And they’ve managed to build the new facilities without losing the charm of the older buildings. After a half-hour trot around the 220- acre estate, we pull up outside the old manor house. We are watched by Maple and Syrup, two donkeys in the big pasture opposite. Some guests are taking two other local residents - the hotel’s Irish setters Earl and Duchess - for a walk down towards the lake, where swans glide across sparkling water. The extensive grounds are a bright expanse of Irish emerald green, said to have been laid out by Capability Brown. But the history of Castlemartyr goes back much farther than that. Beside the manor house stand the ruins of a castle, from which the village takes its name. It was built in 1210 by knights under the leadership of Richard Earl de Clare, or Strongbow, as he was more commonly known.

The original castle and lands belonged to the Knights Templar, a fact alluded to in Knights Bar, the hotel’s social focal point - a room distinguished by a high rococo ceiling, a roaring fire and a grand piano. Sir Walter Raleigh owned these lands, before a fall from grace led him to sell them on to Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork. Castlemartyr remained in the hands of the Boyle family for more than 300 years, during which time they commissioned the construction of the manor house. There remains a distinct homely feel to the hotel - albeit a rather grand country home - from the hearty Irish breakfasts to the warm welcome from the reception staff, to the simple decor in the 109 snug guestrooms and suites. Attention to detail is a noticeable part of the Castlemartyr experience, and the hotel’s helpful Private Assistants are on hand to organise activities for guests.

Possibilities include boating with a local fisherman or taking a walk around the castle ruins with a local archaeologist. They can book treatment sessions in the spa and reserve tables for dinner in the hotel’s Bell Tower restaurant - although it was fully booked when I tried: it’s a popular choice, even at this early stage, among hotel guests and locals going out for a celebratory meal. The PAs will also lend a hand in organizing a visit to the nearby market town of Midleton, or any other local attractions that you might wish to see. But you could be forgiven for just staying on site, playing a round or two of golf, or settling into the back seat of a carriage and letting Roy and Bonnie give you the grand tour.

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