When Hotel is Nicer Than Home

How does an ultra-special hotel become a CHRISTMAS TRADITION for life? We look at the pros, the perks and the personalities …

Ashford Castle Cong, Co Mayo

Ashford has been welcoming guests for Christmas for nearly 50 years. And, as general manager Niall Rochford points out, “Who wouldn’t want to be in a castle in the west of Ireland for Christmas?”

THE PROS: “We don’t fill the hotel at Christmas, so that it’s an intimate experience and staff have time to sit and chat,” says Rochford. Even your dog is welcome: a special package welcomes dogs to The Lodge, with menus and a “personal grooming session”. 

THE PERKS: Walk in the forest each morning with the gargantuan resident Irish wolfhounds, then eat breakfast (the best you’ll ever eat) in the wonderfully grand, oak-panelled George V Dining Room. Less sociable family members can hole up in the velvet-seated cinema with limitless popcorn.

THE PERSONALITY: “There are traditions here that I couldn’t change if I wanted to,” laughs Rochford: guests adore the Christmas pudding parade, complete with bagpiper, and the chilly Christmas morning boat trip on Lough Corrib with hot whiskeys and music. Paddy the porter always takes the Santa role. With families travelling from the US, Australia and the UK over the past decades, there’s a real connection and friendship between the guests and with the staff, many of whom have been here for decades (maître d’ Martin Gibbons’ grandfather and father worked here, and now his son does too). Beyond the luxury and trappings, people return for the warm family atmosphere built up over many years. Rochford is clear: “There’s simply no better place to be at this time of year.” www.ashfordcastle.com

The Merrion Merrion Street Upper, Dublin 2

The Merrion, celebrating its 21st birthday this year, is unique in that it’s actually four Georgian townhouses. “People have been celebrating Christmas as a family event in these houses since the 1760s, and so it has a natural family atmosphere,” notes general manager Peter MacCann. 

THE PROS: It’s a uniquely peaceful experience being in the heart of a city when all is quiet. And tea by the turf fires in the elegant Drawing Rooms is one of Dublin’s great pleasures, all year round. The hotel is kept purely for residents at Christmas. 

THE PERKS: “There’s no pressure, and no bad moods at Christmas, just a natural spirit of goodwill,” describes MacCann. On Christmas Eve, a visit from Santa is followed by a choir singing carols around the tree. It’s not all frenetic activity: “Christmas Day has a calmness akin to walking in snow,” he says. Try to stay beyond the day itself; post-Christmas stays can include tickets for racing at Leopardstown with transfers, or you can hit the sales.

THE PERSONALITY: “The majority of our guests now are families – nearly all Irish families – and it’s like staying in someone’s house,” says MacCann. One family, originally from Meath, returns from the US each year and their extended family pop in to join them at different times; staff know all the various cousins by now. In fact, most of the families now know each other – it’s a collegiate group of people, and this is the one time they all meet up. “It’s like a Merrion family, something that has really evolved over the years. It’s just magic.” www.merrionhotel.com

Park Hotel Kenmare Kenmare, Co Kerry

This Victorian house overlooking Kenmare Bay has oodles of character and is “made for a party,” declares Francis Brennan. The Brennans welcome all guests, and describe Christmas as a three-day house party where every detail has been looked after: worry about the temperature of the pool rather than the turkey. 

THE PROS: An epic programme of festivities includes a plunge into Kenmare Bay (for charity, in festive fancy dress) to hikes – all optional, of course. We love the contrast between the deluxe modern spa and the old-school candlelit dinners with pianist. 

THE PERKS: The hotel closes on December 10 for the team to prepare, from gathering holly and ivy to making wreaths and gingerbread houses. There are trees in many of the bedrooms and suites. 

THE PERSONALITY: “This year we are pleased to welcome the fourth generation, at ten months old, of one family from the US. The great-grandfather is now deceased, but the family have maintained the annual tradition and regard the hotel as a second home,” says Brennan. “Many guests are busy right up to Christmas Eve – then they jump in the car and don’t have to worry about another thing.” Bar manager/local expert John Moriarty leads a popular Kerry Way hike on Stephen’s Day to blow away the cobwebs. www.parkkenmare.com

Dromoland Castle Dromoland, Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare

A 16th-century castle on a lake is the dream, particularly if it snows …

THE PROS: This is a five-star with a heart. “We’re very conscious of people who are here without company and we do everything to make it a home away from home for them,” says general manager Mark Nolan, “This can be a lonely as well as special time.” So each stay is personalised and considered.

THE PERKS: It’s very chilled, with kids wandering around and nothing too regimented, notes Nolan. Think real log fires, a warm relaxed atmosphere and endless ways to divert your family across 450 acres, from the spa (with outdoor jacuzzi) to endless activities, including cooking with the hotel’s chefs or learning to handle hawks. Make the most of the golfing academy; family lessons could be a good bonding experience. And on New Year’s Eve, fireworks explode across the lake at midnight to the sounds of a piper, with dancing until 3am followed by a Bloody Mary brunch – sounds like perfection.

THE PERSONALITY: Many guests fly into Shannon from North America: they are picked up from the airport “and minded from start to finish”. And even the staff sit down for a five-course lunch at Christmas Day (with consideration for all different nationalities working there); again, Nolan is conscious of young staff being away from home. He notices a flurry of last-minute bookings between Christmas and New Year from people (usually males) atoning for disappointing Christmas presents … www.dromoland.ie

Adare Manor Adare, Co Limerick

This is the first Christmas at the newly-minted Adare and it’s been months in the planning, general manager Paul Heery explains. The aim is to “recapture childhood experiences as you’d have at home”. With 800 acres, an 18-hole golf course and a La Mer spa, it is rather different from most homes …

THE PROS: From the moment you turn off the road and through the gate, up the lit tree-lined drive, you’re going to feel thrilled you chose to be away from home. The hotel won’t be filled to capacity, so there’s plenty of space to relax. The main suites all have their own Christmas trees.

THE PERKS: You’ll get goosebumps on Christmas Eve as the 16-strong Shannon Gospel Choir perform in the Grand Hall; Santa arrives by horse and carriage soon after. Many walk to mass in the village the next morning, and Christmas lunch is in the ballrooom overlooking the river. On Stephen’s Day there’s clay pigeon shooting, falconry, cycling, a jazz brunch and plenty of music around the place. There’s also golf, luxury facials and a cinema.

THE PERSONALITY: Visitors are due to fly in from all over the world, including a multi-generational family from New York. With all manner of thoughtful touches, the hotel’s first Christmas is set to be something special. www.adaremanor.com

Ballynahinch Castle

Recess, Connemara, Co Galway

A luxury castle on 700 acres with views across the lake, Ballynahinch is picture-perfect. The mood here is an intimate and traditional family affair – a return to the Christmases of your childhood.

THE PROS: “The nature of the house really lends itself to Christmas,” says general manager Patrick Flaherty. “It’s all about spending time together, away from screens, taking people back to what’s important at this time of year.” It’s a sensory experience, with wafts of cinammon and hot wine and a living fir tree in each bedroom. Cosy evenings by open log fires are balanced with beach strolls, clay pigeon shooting and woodland walks. You might spot beautiful red stags with huge antlers strolling across the avenue, or salmon leaping in the lake.

THE PERKS: The hotel only started opening for Christmas four years ago, and was immediately fully booked with regular guests: “It’s lovely as they are all friends of the house.” Every traditional touch is thought of, from sherry trifle and individual Christmas puddings to a book chosen specially for each child. Custom-made stockings are hung on each door on Christmas Eve and filled with special gifts, from chocolate coins to Connemara whiskey. 

THE PERSONALITY: One member of the team, John Lane, has an encyclopedic knowledge of Irish theatre, art and writing: after dinner he performs A Christmas Carol, doing all the voices, a hugely popular tradition. Local musicians will drop by, too. www.ballynahinch-castle.com

Sheen Falls Lodge

Kenmare, Co Kerry

“There’s a cosy, relaxed, very informal atmosphere here at Christmas,” says general manager Seamus Crotty. The hotel, with its views over the waterfall, is reserved purely for residents.

THE PROS: This is a family affair: several families have been coming each year for some 25 years. “Originally they’d take one or two rooms – now it can be up to six, as they bring their children and grandchildren,” says Crotty. “It’s like home for them, and there are lots of nice traditions.” For Crotty, meeting these regulars when he joined as GM three and a half years ago “was a bit like meeting the in-laws!”

THE PERKS: Santa arrives in a 1946 Buick on Christmas morning, and children (even stroppy teens) receive gifts, following a champagne breakfast. Established families are very welcoming to new guests, says Crotty, and there are lots of card games going on later in the day. Stephen’s Day is more active: there are bracing hikes with a local guide, falconry or the annual clay pigeon shooting competition “that becomes very competitive”, with a prize-giving at dinner that evening. There’s also a treasure hunt around Kenmare, and guests have been known to borrow the hotel’s cars to get around. Later, a black tie dinner is followed by a band in the bar.

THE PERSONALITY: Pianist Jim Kiely has been with the hotel since it opened 26 years ago; “many guests come back purely to see him,” admits Crotty. There are certainly some late-night singsongs … www.sheenfallslodge.ie

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