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Ireland's Country House Hotels

An hour from Kenmare, in what connoisseurs of the Ring consider the prettiest pocket of the Iveragh Peninsula, Iskeroon was built in 1936 to accommodate overflow guests of the Earl of Dunraven and his American wife, Nancy, who summered in a 19th-century house a few hundred yards up the shore. (Yes, these are the same Dunravens whose family owned Adare Manor in County Limerick, before it was sold to Floridians from Palm Beach and became a luxury resort.) Nancy Yuille, as she was known before she married, put her famously green thumb to work at Iskeroon, where foxgloves and the rare Kerry lily grow wild and in abundance. The nearly four-acre subtropical garden of tree ferns, palms, hydrangeas, and arbutus she bravely planted among the husky limestone outcroppings terminates in a private jetty, where you can help push off David O'Hare as he heads out to trap lobsters in Derrynane Bay.

O'Hare, a television producer who takes a briskly laissez-faire approach to running Iskeroon with his equally unbothered wife, Geraldine, has known the property intimately for years, having spent all of his boyhood summers at his grandfather's place up the road. Today he turns out the scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, silky as charmeuse, and meltingly good banana-walnut bread that make breakfast and afternoon tea before a peat fire such long, lazy affairs. The O'Hares' management mode, by the way, is completely welcome. Their B&B is the opposite of those life-sucking ones where you feel as if you're always being spied on, and you worry that a few crumbs on the floor or mud on the mat might get you thrown out.

The house the earl built is a modest, low-slung, single-story cottage clad in stucco. The current color is a warm face-powder pink, which gives it a slightly Caribbean allure, set off rather daringly but winningly, I think, by navy trim. The blessedly un-twee interiors are done in what might be called the International Beach House Style, which is to say colorful, casual, comfy, and forgiving. The breakfast room, three guest rooms, and sitting room march along in single file on the seaward side of the cottage, with the result that they all have sensational water views. The Irish are exceptionally well traveled in their own country, and everyone I talked to who knew Iskeroon said it has the best views their land has to offer. (A fourth accommodation, an airy open-plan apartment for two with kitchenette in a renovated shed, is great for longer stays but does not face the bay.)

All guest rooms have dedicated baths. Beguilingly adorned with seashells, paper lanterns, and jagged-tiled mosaics, they're two paces across the hall that slices through the body of the house. Did the words across the hall just give you the shivers?Well, if you're the type of person whose modesty does not permit being seen in public in a bathrobe for even a second, then I'm afraid this B&B is not for you. Iskeroon is not luxurious, it's not perfect, and it's not meant to be. What it is is romantic, an elemental wind-tossed place that makes it easy to fall in love with nature, the sea, someone, yourself.
Caherdaniel; 353-66/947-5119; www.iskeroon.com; doubles from $173.

Moy House, County Clare
Irish country-house hotels do not all come in the same flavor. Those who find the Ballyvolane model a bit too intimate and lacking in infrastructure thank heaven for Moy House, which is run more like a traditional, nearly full-service hotel. Guest rooms are visited twice daily by housekeepers who know their business. Meals are served by earnest young waiters from the neighboring town, not, as elsewhere, by the poor overtaxed mistress of the house, who squeezes putting her children to bed between the savory and the pudding. And it is possible for two sets of guests to take tea in the drawing room without having to greet each other—and without seeming rude for not greeting each other.

After the stimulating but exhausting social obligations of Ballyvolane, and the toxically stultifying atmosphere of even the bar at the $500-a-night Park Hotel Kenmare in Kenmare, I have to say I was ready for Moy House, which exudes a light, professional air of detachment. I'm not saying detachment is what you want in every hotel everywhere all the time. But if that is what you're in the mood for, it can be a wonderful thing. As general manager Bernie Merry puts it: "At Moy House we don't ignore you—but we don't fuss over you, either."

While a lot of stately homes in Ireland overlook lakes or inlets, this one sits bang on the Atlantic in Lahinch, on a 15-acre expanse of open rippling pasture and mature woodland. (Forgetting your mac, wellies, and walking stick will not get you out of a long, damp trudge: there's a supply of them in the entrance hall.) Only 300 feet stands between the hotel and Liscannor Bay, which wraps north to the historic Lahinch Golf Links—the St. Andrews of Ireland—and the Cliffs of Moher. The Aran Islands are just over the promontory, with ferries shuttling day-trippers between Doolin on the mainland and Inis Mor and Inis Oirr. Moy House is also just 45 minutes from Shannon Airport, making it a perfect place for beginning or ending a trip. Oh, to wake up on the last day of vacation, not have to drive 150 miles, and not have to throw the car keys at the rental agent in a photo finish!

Built in the 18th century by a minor nobleman, Moy House may not be the loveliest house in County Clare from an architectural point of view, though you may find it impressive in a fort-like, defensive, Wuthering Heights sort of way. Six of the nine accommodations give directly onto the water and are the ones you want. Carrowgar has not one but two deep, cushioned window seats; beautifully worn original wide-plank floors; and a sumptuously curtained mahogany canopy bed. It will make you feel grand, if not like a grandee. The same cheerful ignorance of contemporary design extends to the drawing room, which is decorated with waffled chenille upholstery, a pair of dainty Waterford chandeliers, and orchids in footed brass cachepots. Sound grannyish?It's not. The effect is fresh and relevant. Moy House is not a museum piece.

The newly arrived Philipe Farineau presides with promise over a kitchen that is more ambitious than you might expect for an establishment this size. He offers a $61 four-course menu, featuring four well-judged choices for each course, including soup, even in summer, when guests start the day with porridge, vanilla cream, and berry compote and finish it with lobster bisque, or prawn consommé, or a nice old-fashioned cup of cream of celery, brightened with curry. Anyone who thinks all that hot food is crazy has never been to Ireland in July.
Lahinch; 353-65/708-2800; www.moyhouse.com; doubles from $309.

Creagh House, County Cork
This is one for lovers of distinguished houses with multiple literary pedigrees and triumphant restoration sagas. In Bowen's Court, the chronicle of her nearby family estate, the formidable Elizabeth Bowen quotes from her great-aunt Sarah's diary of 1876: "Miss Evans was married in Doneraile Church to Captain Anderson. There were six bridesmaids. The dejeuner was at Mrs. Creagh's. There were over 200 guests." A granddaughter of the man who built Creagh House married William Makepeace Thackeray and cited the place in her letters. And as Doneraile's parish priest, Canon Patrick Augustine Sheehan tended a garden that bordered Creagh and now belongs to it. Sheehan—famous for his tediously sermonic novels and improbable published correspondence with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.—called the garden his "grove of academe." Travelers who know what they're looking for can still detect an air of bookish devotion.

In acquiring Creagh as a home for themselves—and from the beginning earmarking three of the largest and finest bedrooms for paying guests—Laura O'Mahony and Michael O'Sullivan did more than save a literary landmark; they rescued an 1837 Regency building celebrated for having perhaps the largest, most elaborately embellished reception rooms of any town house in Ireland outside Dublin. The previous owners had been virtually living in one room. Does that say to you that the place was falling apart?It was. The walls wept with humidity. Hundreds of bird's nests clogged the chimneys. The plasterwork in the drawing and dining rooms—each measuring 20 by 30 feet —was crumbling.

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