Apart from the crowds – but reassuringly close to five-star facilities – luxe hideaways have become the main attraction, says PENNY McCORMICK …
The lure of rural escapism has never been stronger, it seems. Glamping or “glamorous camping” which embraces everything from tepees to yurts to cabins and cottages is officially the most popular accommodation search for the curious, aesthetic conscious traveller right now (Canopy & Stars said 40 per cent of its bookings last year were for cabins). And it’s time to banish notions of draughty huts, dampened spirits and chemical toilets (or worse). Whether your ideal cabin is a Scandi-style timber hut, or more of an Americana backcountry vibe (with a hot tub maybe), a homemade shed with a sheepskin rug, or a pretty coastal cottage with a rocking chair on the verandah, then it’s never been easier to feed your fix, especially in Ireland.
The glamping trend emerged in the late 1990s – coincidentally the last time when global travel was not accessible to many. Typical glampers are baby boomers and millennials in search of alternative experiences. What unites them is their urban lifestyle and desire to have weekend trips within driving distance. Celebrity advocates include Kate Bosworth and Gwyneth Paltrow (both favour the RANCH AT ROCK CREEK‘s cabins, Montana), Jennifer Garner (who starred in HBO’s Camping) Carly Simon, (who lives full-time in a cabin) and most recently Taylor Swift whose Folkore album seamlessly blends with the thriving #cabincore contingent.
Chic cabins present a business opportunity for hoteliers seeking to augment or upgrade their accommodation. Take for instance the posh new PONDSUITES at Marlfield House, Gorey. “It was never about adding a block of rooms to the main house, rather it was about using the garden and offering another experience for new or returning guests,” explains co-owner Laura Bowe. The five Pond Suites are named after wildlife on the estate, from hares to herons, including the Peacock suite, named after George, Marlfield’s resident peacock (it includes a five foot mural by up-and-coming Dungarvan artist Ciara Gormley). This is tiny house living at its best, all served with large patio terraces facing onto the pond which is surrounded by lush planting and ancient oaks. There’s a gated entrance overlooking the duck pond and a running track which weaves through the meadow. “Guests take all of their meals at the main house, bar those who prefer to enjoy breakfast in bed.” Room service is also available throughout the day. Should it rain there is a buggy to take guests the short distance to their suites.
Marlfield House, Gorey
It’s clear that Bowe, a former film set and interior designer, had fun creating these rather special rural retreats. She describes the dêcor as eclectic with accessories and furniture from Irish and international designers such as Andrew Martin and From Jaipur With Love. Striking murals and Crittal-style patio doors (made in Dublin by Lambstongue) and impeccable sustainable credentials are key features. There’s underfloor heating so no need to pack thermals for an overnight stay. So cosy are they, says Bowe, a candle would be sufficient to heat them. Add complimentary homemade cookies, generous mini bar, snacks and Voya bath products, plus large roll-top baths and heated towel rails and this haute country living is catnip for couples looking for a romantic break.
Ornithologists will enjoy spotting the resident kingfisher and other species, while botanists have acres of garden to admire. Bowe tells me, “We plant 8,000 bulbs annually in the entire garden, 2,000 of which have just gone into the new landscaping around the suites.”
These alternative hospitality options are popping up across the country, reassuringly close to five-star facilities, they appeal to those who were previously put off by the thought of roughing it, but have read Cabin Porn (the now iconic coffee table book published in 2015 aimed at “lumbersexuals”) and want to try it out for both size and authenticity. A cabin stay allows guests to immerse themselves in nature without making compromises with comfort. Take CABÜ BY THE LAKES, a hideaway which opened last summer, poised on the lakes of Lough Oughter in Killykeen Forest Park, Co Cavan. The 28 design-led one-to-three-bed cabins are perfectly styled with wood-burning stoves, Loaf furnishings and smart TVs. Onsite facilities include a restaurant, an essentials shop, a spa-like retreat, plus fishing and water sports from The Jetty. It’s perfect for some forest bathing.
Irish hotelier Catherine Dundon, who spent time in Canada and the US where a Little House in the Big Woods is a familiar offering, not just a book, wanted to replicate the idea at DUNBRODY HOUSE, Co Wexford, which she owns with husband Kevin. In addition to a gate lodge and 1830s Steward’s House on the grounds, there’s now a Cosy Cabin in the woods, with plans to add several more. “Guests who booked last year came in search of a digital detox. They really needed to get back in touch with nature in a peaceful place.” Typical guests have been families and couples in search of old-fashioned family time. “Jigsaws and board games are a lovely way to reconnect,” says Dundon, though the view of the Hook Peninsula is equally absorbing. “The desire to snuggle up with a book, soft blanket and scented candles is overwhelming. At home it’s difficult to do this as there’s always something that needs doing.” While the cabin at Dunbrody has no kitchen, room service is offered. “Most guests love to come to the big house for dining but they always rush back to the cabin afterwards.”
Helping to drive the trend was undoubtedly the opening of SOHO FARMHOUSE in the Cotswolds by Nick Jones in 2015. The reveal of this “farmlite” experience saw Alexa Chung, Eddie Redmayne, Liv Tyler, Stanley Tucci, Roland Mouret and Laura Bailey rubbing shoulders with minor royals. Soon every influencer was checking into the 100-acre retreat (renamed “Center Parcs for Toffs”) which has 40 purpose-built cabins, cottages and a honeystone barn. It was of course the venue for Meghan Markle’s hen party. Quirks include a retro milkvan which delivers lattes and breakfast boxes, and when dining at the main house there’s a stringent “no tie” rule – the rural equivalent of the “no news, no shoes” beach holiday mantra.
It seems popular culture and Instagram (check #cottagecore) reflect our collective rustic aspirations. The Cabins, a new dating show on Virgin Media Two, which follows a group of singletons hoping to find their soulmates in several log cabins in Cumbria, comes hot on the heels of the news that Wham’s Last Christmas, filmed in a snowbound Alpine chalet, was No 1 in the charts in January, 37 years after it was first released. And who doesn’t believe that by far the most interesting and sexiest character in the second season of The Affair, was Noah and Alison’s wooden lakeside retreat complete with mezzanine sleeping quarters, (with beautiful quilts) and a diving jetty?
Let’s not forget the Covid-19 effect; nostalgia for a simpler and safer time may account for the success of the twelve beautifully designed WOODLAND HUTS at Virginia Park Lodge, Co Cavan. They were created by chef patron Richard Corrigan, not only to augment the guest accommodation but to maintain the integrity of the 18th-century hunting estate. Deirdre Corrigan, sales and events manager, explains: “The woodlands were always such an inherent part of the Lodge’s history: Lady Taylor had a cottage in the woodlands, a one-room stone building, where she would escape to write and draw, and Richard drew inspiration from this with the addition of the design-led Woodland Huts, which are reached by a path connecting the Lodge deep into Deerpark forest.” These proved extremely popular from October to December last year, with an added bonus the option of dining at the main house and sampling Corrigan’s cuisine of course.
Similar gourmet getaways are found at CLIFF AT LYONS (where the Michelin-starred Aimsir is close to the exquisite cottages) and further afield at Inver in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, where you’ll find four modernist “bothies” on the banks of Loch Fyne, a short distance from the acclaimed restaurant of Pamela Brunton (an alumna of Noma and Faviken). Interiors are simple and stylish with cushions made from hand-dyed Hebridean wool and a complimentary decanter of sloe gin on arrival.
Details matter. Check in to LETTERY LODGE, on the grounds of Ballynahinch Castle, for instance and you will receive not only a welcome hamper but also a breakfast hamper delivered to the doorstep every morning that includes fresh juice, scones, homemade bread and pastries. There is also the option of having Ballynahinch chefs cook for you and your guests in the cottage kitchen.
“The urge to completely escape and unplug from everyday life is driving the trend for chic hideaway holidays,” believes Liz Simpson co-founder with Sarah de Vere-Drummond of KIP HIDEAWAYS – a portfolio of picture perfect affordable rentals across the UK for its members. “The cabins we feature are as spoiling as a hotel stay, but with the independence and total privacy of self-catering. Plus, you get more space for your money. This completely resonates with the aftermath of 2020: wanting to reconnect with people, nature and go somewhere special and memorable.”
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