Glenlo Abbey Hotel in Galway pulls out all the stops and Niamh Mac Sweeney gets on board for a weekend of fine luxury and old-world charm.
Ever wanted to journey on the Orient Express, but can’t justify the price tag? Do you watch Downton Abbey and wish you could escape to a similarly stylish Georgian country house and be waited on, hand and foot? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to try your hand (literally) at falconry? If you answer yes to one or all of these questions then Galway’s charming Glenlo Abbey Hotel is the place for you.
Ideally situated a mere 4km from Galway city on the N59 to Clifden, Glenlo Abbey Hotel effortlessly emanates authentic old-world charm. And well it might, given its history and pedigree. In 1484, King Richard III empowered Galwegians to elect their own mayor and bailiffs – which released Galway from the grip of the De Burghs, and cleared the way for the rise to power of the ‘Tribes of Galway’. Over time, many of these families established country houses outside of the old town, and Glenlo Abbey House was one such home.
The name Glenlo comes from the Irish ‘Glean Lacha’, meaning Glen of the Lake, and describes the gently sloping lands north and south of Lough Corrib. The original 140-acre estate of Glenlo was built in 1740 in the style typical of families of social standing and wealth, and included farming land, a walled orchard and kitchen and flower gardens, with ownership of part of the River Corrib and its natural wetlands.
When the Bourke family purchased Glenlo Abbey in 1984 a major restoration project was undertaken: the main house was in need of repair and the abbey was in total ruin. They brought the buildings back to its former grandeur with new and interconnecting buildings that went on to form the five-star hotel, and the farmland became a nine-hole parkland golf course and driving range.
In 2013, the Lally family took over Glenlo Abbey Hotel. Drawing on their expertise in the hotel and hospitality industry and their passion for excellence, the family has invested heavily to create an opulent country house hotel that has secured its reputation as a luxurious country retreat within Galway city.
As you drive into the estate it’s impossible not to be taken with the dramatic views down the low hills of Bushy Park as they slope to Lough Corrib, and out across the river to the ancient villages of Menlo and Anglinham.
It’s not everywhere that you get the opportunity to try falconry
Stepping into the warm reception area, complete with turf-burning fires, one is immediately assured that retreating into this charming hotel will not be a problem as you are instantly enveloped in its warmth and traditional luxury and charm.
When it comes to wining and dining at Glenlo Abbey there are plenty of options. On our first night we decide to dine in the Oak Cellar Bar, which would have originally been the kitchen of the main house. Warm and full of character and intrigue, the underground cellar bar harks back to a previous era.
After a hearty feed, and in keeping with tradition, we take ourselves up the stairs to the Palmer Bar for an indulgent nightcap. The quaint bar’s interior and design is akin to that of a gentleman’s club lounge and choosing from the bar’s extensive range of whiskey, cocktails and champagne proved difficult given the many delectable drinks to choose from. Tough decisions made, we retreated to enjoy our tipple in the elegant surroundings of the Victorian-inspired Ffrench Room – named after the Ffrench family, who built Glenlo Abbey in 1740.
Just as we are about to recline by the one of the open fires we spot a sign that says there is a cinema in the hotel and that Bridget Jones’s Diary is showing at 10pm – easily persuaded, our evening’s entertainment was sorted.
Sinking into the big armchairs, our feet resting on the soft foot stools and cosy blankets at the ready, we are in our element as the movie starts. With a G&T in one hand and a bowl of freshly made popcorn on our laps, we submerge ourselves in comfort and agree we could easily could get used to this kind of cinema experience – the pure decadence of it all!
After a most peaceful night’s sleep, breakfast was served in the River Room – a breathtakingly beautiful spot that exudes character and grandeur in equal measure. With so much to do and see on the estate, there really is no reason to venture far from this five-star haven.
Lough Corrib, which locals say has 365 islands – one for every day of the year – in truth has more than 1,000 islands. Given Glenlo Abbey’s location on the shores of the lake, it is the perfect base for a fishing trip. For those who prefer an activity on drier land, the hotel provides plenty of options for the novice or pro golfer. With rolling hills and a stunning lake backdrop, the nine-hole course was originally designed by Christy O’Connor Jnr and with its many lakes, trees and large greens it can be as challenging as any golfer could hope for.
The 21-bay driving range is the perfect place to warm up and practice your swing, and the facilities are top of the range. Private, group and corporate tuition is available and provided for by Gary Madden, a PGA professional coach, so there is no excuse not to perfect your game.
FLIGHT OF FANCY
It’s not everywhere that you get the opportunity to try falconry – the sport of kings, or in our case the sport of queens. Falconry really should be up there on everyone’s bucket list.
It’s surprising to learn how long the two original carriages from the Orient Express have been on the grounds
Skeptical at first, especially being in such close contact with birds of prey, Jurgen Hick’s passion, enthusiasm and expert knowledge are palpable and he puts even the most nervous at ease. His command of the birds is inspiring, and as he places each of the six birds on our leather-gloved hands we are intrigued as he explains the workings of these rare and magnificent animals.
Hailing from far-flung places such as South America and Alaska, these owls, hawks and eagles are amazing creatures, and to be up close and personal with these birds is an unforgettable experience. When Jurgen suggests we release the hawk (or the Beast, as he is fondly called) and wait for it to swoop down onto our hand, we have no time to back out, nor do we want to. After hearing that this bird can catch a fox or rabbit at speeds of 300km per hour, I half expect it to take a finger or two as it sweeps down, but in fact it lands as light as a feather on my arm and off it goes again, soaring into the sky. This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to marvel at these beautiful birds.
One would think that the falconry was enough excitement for one weekend – but not so, as we venture to the Pullman Restaurant. This is an experience I have been looking forward to for quite some time. And given that the chances of journeying on the Orient Express are slim, this unique dining experience comes a close second to the real deal!
It’s surprising to learn how long the two original carriages from the Orient Express have been on the grounds of Glenlo Abbey Estate given that they were purchased for the hotel in the 1990s. One of Galway’s best-kept secrets, these carriages, from 1927, served on the Paris to Istanbul to St. Petersburg route. Today, this piece of history and intrigue serves as the Pullman Restaurant, and the carriages, if they could talk, would offer as much today as the dining experience does.
The original Orient Express was always, and is to this day, associated with style, luxury, culinary excellence and romance. Throughout its history it was renowned for carrying the rich and famous (the legendary Sir Laurence Olivier among one of the many famous passengers), and as we are shown to our private carriage we feel very privileged indeed.
Car number 208, where we are dining for the evening, is called Leona and is steeped in history, owing to its last and most historic journey when it was used as part of Winston Churchill’s funeral cortège in 1965. Photos of the day show Sir Winston Churchill’s coffin being carried aboard the train at Waterloo Station bound for Handborough Station, before its final movement to Balydon Cemetery.
Although Leona was then retired from service, this is not where her story ends. In 1974, Leona, along with other carriages of the original Orient Express, were used in Sidney Lumet’s classic film Murder on the Orient Express, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name. The film starred great stars of the silver screen including Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery. Glenlo Abbey Hotel had the foresight and imagination to purchase this nugget of history and Hollywood in 1997, and since then has been providing a similar service of style and substance ever since.
Dinner on board The Pullman is a delectable and fine dining experience worth waiting for. And it comes as no surprise that the restaurant has recently been awarded an AA Rosette for 2014/2015. Aside from the setting and service – which is second to none – the food is a mouth-watering affair, and head chef Alan McArdle and his culinary team have pulled out all the stops. The Caherciveen crab and Connemara smoked salmon with green apple, yogurt, radish and wasabi, prepare the palate for the main course of wild halibut, asparagus, broad beans, morelles, sea herbs and smoked oyster bisque.
The proof is in the pudding as they say, and at The Pullman this is certainly the case
My companion goes for a meat feast – starting with the duck foie gras with rhubarb and pecan and finishing with the Tipperary beef fillet with Ballyhoura mushrooms, beef dripping fondant potato and red wine jus – all of which are gushed with mountains of compliments.
The proof is in the pudding as they say, and at The Pullman this is certainly the case. The Arctic Roll is a real sensation for the senses with ginger, vanilla and damson jam aptly offset against the gin and winter berry granite, while my poached pineapple parfait with toasted coconut marshmallow and tropical sorbet provides the sweetest end to a perfect evening aboard the stylish and utterly romantic Pullman Restaurant.
With so much to do encased in this country retreat – whether it’s golf, fishing, falconry, or just sitting back by an open fire and taking in the stunning surroundings – Glenlo Abbey Hotel has much to offer. From activities and adventure to relaxing and fine dinning, it is easy to see why this romantic hotel, so steeped in history, has established itself as a stylish sanctuary, and why its luxurious legacy will live on.
AND ALL THAT JAZZ
Glenlo Abbey Hotel is renowned throughout Galway for its Sunday Jazz Brunch. Set in lavish surroundings, diners can enjoy a buffet of home-baked pastries and fresh fruits or eggs Benedict, pancakes or the signature Sunday roast burger.
Guests can also indulge with a glass of champagne or a bellini while listening to live jazz. Sunday brunch is served from 1.30-3.30pm every Sunday.
Relax by turf-burning fire and enjoy panoramic views over the estate grounds and onto Lough Corrib while sampling sweet treats and refreshing teas. The Victorian-inspired Ffrench Room sets an intimate space in which to linger over a delicious afternoon tea.
Served daily, from 2-6pm, afternoon tea in these elegant surroundings provides the perfect setting from which to enjoy an assortment of freshly baked scones, seasonal sandwiches and decadent pastries, while sampling a vast array of teas or freshly brewed coffee.