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A Night at Ardtara House Hotel

A Night at Ardtara House Hotel

Happy Sunday friends! I hope you’re feeling restful and indulging yourself in some final weekend treats. I’m currently parked on the couch in a onesie cramming as much chocolate as possible in to my gob, a real sight for the eyes I assure you. Only a mere 48 hours ago I was arriving at Ardtara House Hotel, ready for a night of food and wine amidst Victorian luxury – oh, how the mighty have fallen!

I have to confess that when Ireland’s Blue Book invited us to stay at Ardtara I had to do a quick google search because I hadn’t a notion where it was. I’m guilty of being a lover of the coast so I’m fairly unfamiliar with the countryside of Co. Derry but one look at the pictures convinced me that this was a retreat worth leaving the coast for! Open fireplaces in every bedroom, an award-winning restaurant, a huge bath to soak in – I practically Flinstoned my way there!

After a week of feeling pretty miserable I was craving a bit of pampering and when we pulled in to the drive of Ardtara I was giddy to know how much of a treat we were in for. The hotel is small with only 9 rooms so there’s a real intimacy as soon as you walk through the door with the staff treating us as if, much like the vintage furniture, we’d always been there.

We were shown to our room by Valerie, a local who was full of knowledge about the manor which had been built by the Clark family in 1895 and had made their fortune in the linen industry. The room itself was huge with beautiful big windows overlooking the gardens at the front, a fireplace I couldn’t wait to light and a bathroom that was about the size of our wee house in Belfast. We hadn’t too long to enjoy the room though as we were starving and dinner was about to be served downstairs – an event I had been looking forward to all week.

The patron chef of Ardtara is the same chef of the infamous Brown’s in Derry and all the hotel reviews I had read were outpourings of love for the food. Expectations were high and thankfully completely exceeded as we dined on some of the best food I have ever eaten – no lie my friends. We began our feast in one of the drawing rooms (fancy, I know) nibbling on homemade pork crisps with apple & pear sauce along with crispy cod and kimchi (divine!) on a cosy couch by the fireplace. We were then brought in to the dining room with our wine glasses politely topped up and the next dish promptly placed before our eyes – carrot & fennel soup accompanied by homemade breads which lasted about 0.2 seconds before being polished off.

What followed after was a gastronomic whirlwind of delight – lamb samosas, breaded roast chicken bites and a fillet steak that I am still thinking about and no doubt will forever. Needless to say my belly was fighting for space in my skirt but the real shame was that I had zero room for dessert – the first time this has happened to me in me entire life. I have never not had room for a wee slither of cake but I couldn’t swallow another bite without inducing the rest of the food to return back with it. The desserts looked incredible though as I spied other guests receiving theirs with barely contained envy.

After all that food I barely made it to the room but when I did I had just enough energy to finish my wine in front of the fire in my dressing gown. As much as I have loved the summer, it was a joy to be sitting next to a fire again to keep my toes warm and I can only imagine how lovely the hotel would be as an escape during the colder months (the hotel was recently voted as the most romantic hotel in Ireland too!)

The next morning I woke after sleeping for 9 hours, the most I had slept in weeks and surprisingly with a real hunger despite the feast we had the night before. As always we just about made breakfast and luckily for us we were spoiled again with another delicious menu full of local dishes. Andrew opted for Eggs Benedict while I being the forever sugar fiend opted for French toast and maple syrup – yum!

We were sad to pack our things after only arriving what felt like a few hours before but I made sure to get a quick morning soak in the bath before we said our goodbyes to the room and the staff at Ardtara (who were busy preparing for a wedding party with arms full of roses). We could have easily have stayed on but we had tickets for the Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace, a museum dedicated to the most loved poet of Ireland that’s only 15 minutes away in Bellaghy.

Ardtara is a small but completely charming retreat that many return to again and again (Bill Murray being one of them and that guys knows what’s what) and I could understand why. You may come for the food at Ardtara but you’ll stay for the warmth of the staff and the welcoming grandeur of its rooms. It’s a perfect base for either exploring the area or for just curling up by the fire in your room with a wee glass of wine and a full belly to comfort you.

 

 

Summer at Helen’s Tower

Summer at Helen’s Tower

It took me a few wrong turns and nearly becoming a trespasser before I finally found this place. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had one of those mad impulses to take my camera out on my own and explore but not really having any particular destination in mind. I get like this sometimes; restless to explore a place I haven’t found yet with an impatience that’s hard to contain. I poured over the map on my phone while I sat in the front seat of my car, my foot on the pedal ready for adventure. I didn’t have to search for long until I saw a pin for Helen’s Tower, a Victorian piece of history only a few miles away that I’d amazingly not hunted down yet. It was perfect! So off I went, tripod in the backseat just in case I got lucky.

Google maps took me in the direction of Newtownards and then up a tiny country road that I knew instantly I didn’t belong on; the big red letters saying “Private Road” being enough of a warning. But oh my the views! I could see right over Strangford Lough and hills that rolled for miles, peppered with the bright yellow gorse bushes that take over this time of year. I even came across deer roaming between fields and rolled down the window holding my breath to get a better look.

Realising that I’d have to find an alternative route to the tower without having an angry farmer chasing me down the lane, I took a few random turns before finally noticing a tiny, completely missable entrance on Crawfordsburn Road with two or three cars parked beside it. Swinging the tripod over my shoulder like Huckleberry Finn I optimistically made my way up the windy path, hoping I was heading in the right direction (there was no real sign letting me know I was in the right place!).

A few minutes in to the walk I was smitten. The path shone gold ahead of me with the summer afternoon light speckling through the leaves above me. Every now and again the trees would give way to something new; a meadow full of wildflowers or a lake full of nosey swans with a path cutting across the middle. The further I walked the more lost I felt in this new Narnia land that I had all to myself.

Eventually the path turned in to a hill and I knew I was coming close to the tower. Panting and cursing the tripod that was now burrowing a hole in my shoulder, I climbed over root-covered paths that threatened to trip me if I wasn’t careful. Rhododendrons seemed to spring up out of nowhere and bluebells were out in full force. Sweating like pig I wasn’t exactly feeling princess-y but I could see the roof of the tower between the trees! It was beautiful and I gazed up at it while I splayed out on the grass recovering from the unexpected hike.

This place is a true gem and each time I’ve been it’s been practically deserted of people. An even bigger surprise was learning that you can actually rent this spot out via the Irish Landmark Trust – can you imagine?!! It would be the perfect romantic getaway for two with the rooftop providing the perfect spot to survey “your” land while sipping on a few glasses of wine. While I was forced to make do with being a lowly civilian I could still see why there were numerous poems written about this place (Tennyson himself penned one in honour of the tower); the woodlands surrounding it are full of magic and even today it feels like you’re a million miles away from anyone else.

I started to make my way back to the car when the sun started to fall low and I remembered with a panic that I was all by myself in a place devoid of people. I half-ran half-skipped back to the car and promised myself that this would be my secret space this summer (a secret that I definitely couldn’t not share it seems!) and that I would be back to explore more. But maybe with Andrew next time as my Tower bodyguard/photographer…

P.S. The Irish Landmark Trust have a tonne of properties you should have a look at if staying in a ridiculously romantic location is your thing! It’s not an ad but just a vital piece of information I’ve newly learned!