The big news in Ireland today is hotels that reject the past and embrace the modern, modish—and mediocre. I think it was the fifth time I banged my shin on some overdesigned, underthought bed that turned me against the "hot new crop of hip Irish hotels," as they are creatively marketed. Though crazy/sexy/cool was what I had come to Ireland in search of, with all due respect to Bono, I had to recognize that it is not where the country excels.
Changing gears allowed my black-and-blues to fade to gray and me to discover what Ireland does best: tradition, as these joyously entrenched places—country houses in County Cork and on the Atlantic, a Ring of Kerry cottage, and a town house in the heart of Elizabeth Bowen country —attest. All are highly personalized, one-of-a-kind properties offering great value and an authentic Irish experience, including armfuls of hospitality. The smart money's on Ireland as you've always loved it.
Ballyvolane House, County Cork
If you spend enough time trying to picture a place, even if you are not sure that the place exists, you eventually progress from a broad fuzzy sketch to an almost frighteningly explicit portrait. I know, because for more than two decades I patiently built, in my head, room by room, the Irish country-house hotel I vaguely hoped to one day stay in.
As the years went by and the house filled up with furniture and memories, and the furniture collected ring marks, I was able to conjure, with the mere flick of a mental switch, the most insanely precise details. These included the books on the drawing-room bookshelves, the front-hall flowers, and the fish supplied to the lakes. Yes, my imagined hotel had its own lakes, and why not?My dreamscape was Ireland, wasn't it?
If you have gotten this far without turning the page or going to the refrigerator for some ice cream, I am sure you can guess where this is going: to paraphrase composer Richard Rodgers's wife, Dorothy, one of the great, early domestic-arts celebrators, Ballyvolane House is the hotel in my head, rendered in bricks and mortar. Within easy reach of capacious armchairs that might be considered late for their appointment with the upholsterer (needlepoint cushions ease the hollows), there are enough Maeve Binchy titles to take you through to Saint Patrick's Day, 2008. Set out on a Blüthner baby grand, the flowers are an eccentric mingling of cloth (cloth!) and dried that only a nation of true flower connoisseurs could get away with. Rolling lawns tumble down to two lakes stocked with rainbow trout and surrounded by weeping ash trees, sycamores, cedars, and Scotch pines. Given another 10 years I might have also envisioned the laburnum arbor, the fantail doves, the bluebell walk in May, the walled kitchen garden lush with peas, loganberries, and espaliered trees bearing prized old varieties of Irish apples. Such is the house-party atmosphere that guests think nothing of pitching in and helping shell those peas...in their pajamas.
Built in 1728 in the classic Georgian style, with three stories and an elegant rectangular vestibule centered on a seven-bay façade, Ballyvolane is among the best-preserved 18th-century estate houses in northern Cork. Twenty-six miles northeast of Cork City, it was commissioned by Sir Richard Pyne, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, using stone from a medieval structure on the grounds, only to be given an Italianate makeover in 1847. A descendant of the judge succumbed then to the demands of Victorian fashion by shaving off the top level and reroofing the place, adding corner pilasters, bold stringcoursing, oak-leaf brackets under the eaves, and a west wing.
The "improvements" have been judged an aesthetic affront since at least 1953. That year, Cyril Hall Green acquired Ballyvolane from Betty Pyne on his return to Ireland from Malaya, where he managed rubber plantations. (Four generations of Greens live on the property today.) Cyril's 36-year-old grandson, Justin, who runs the six-room hotel with his wife, Jenny, harbors an indignation over the alterations that he could only have learned from Grandfather and that is a little difficult to understand for those Ballyvolane guests for whom home is a 325-square-foot broom closet in a vanilla-brick Manhattan high-rise.
"But it was so beautiful before!" Justin told me. Over tea he softened and admitted that Ballyvolane is still very beautiful and that the untutored in any case find it hard to see how the place could be yet more so.
Drawing on his experience as general manager of Babington House, one of the new wave of loosened-up English country-house hotels, Justin is gently taking Ballyvolane to the next level. He is planning on adding a cricket pitch (there's already a croquet lawn), a swimming pool, and a tennis court. Bathrooms will be fitted with antique cast-iron rolltop soaking tubs. One thing he knows enough never to change are the guest rooms, which have the loveliest, most peaceful garden views and are enduringly furnished with an organic assortment of wing chairs, alabaster lamps, sofas that are models of shabby chic, and Turkish rugs layered over fitted carpets. It's a look you've seen a thousand times in those wonderful books on Ireland's great country houses by Desmond Guinness, founder of the Irish Georgian Society.
Dinner is a communal affair, served at a double-pedestal table in mirror-finish mahogany, with saltcellars and pepper mills at each place setting and, at the center, a silver trophy cup and candelabra attended by crystal elephants and horses. The food is as true to place as the floppy sofas: Ballycotton Bay crab with grapefruit, roast pork loin with apples and buttered cabbage, rhubarb bread-and-butter pudding. The table talk is of fishing, fishing, and fishing. Many guests are impassioned anglers, there to cast their luck on the Blackwater, the finest salmon river in Ireland and one of the best in Europe. Like their pal the Duke of Devonshire, the Greens manage some of the river's most populous stretches, which by dessert you will be calling "beats."
Castlelyons; 353-25/36349; www.ballyvolanehouse.com; doubles from $168.
Iskeroon, County Kerry
You can "do" the Ring of Kerry a thousand times and Iskeroon will never reveal itself. Hidden 2 1/2 miles below the coastal road at the bottom of a steep, skinny lane bedeviled with switchbacks, the most adorable B&B in Ireland does not believe in signs, and why should it?Iskeroon's worldly (not sugary) brand of adorableness and utterly secluded seafront location ensure that it never wants for business. It's the kind of place where people have standing reservations for the same room for the same dates year after year. What that means for you if you've never stayed there is that your only hope of getting in is if...somebody dies.