BY TIM HEDGLEY, GROUP TRAVEL EDITOR
AS one walks along the beach at Rathmullan strand you can hardly notice the grandeur of the former bishops palace that sits a hundred yards from the trees.
At dusk a warm yellow light shines out of shutter bedecked sash windows, like a lighthouse advising of warmth and comfort. Inside and well away from the howl of Lough Silly, you are cossetted in a warm feeling like vanilla custard or porridge and honey on a Sunday morning.
This is no ordinary hotel, it’s Rathmullan House Hotel in Donegal. A beautiful home of considerable size where the owners let you use it as it were you own property. Built in 1820 as a summer house for the family of Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Knox, Rathmullan House has a long and fascinating history.
It was soon bought by a branch of the Batt family founders of the Belfast Bank, who lived here for over a century. Having then been used by a group who organised walking tours it was bought by Bob and Robin Wheeler, parents of Mark and William, in 1962. Along with the house came Seamus the donkey, who stayed on to carry visitor’s luggage from the pier when Bob and Robin renovated the house to become a 21-bed hotel. Lovingly cared for by all its owners the house has undergone several sensitive expansions since 1820, the most recent being a stylish extension in 2004, which saw the addition of ten bedrooms in a new wing and a room for conferences and private dining.
For it was the last stop before the Flight of the Earls in 1607, when as we all know Ulster’s noble men and women fled to France, following their defeat by England. Nearly 200 years later, Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish Republicanism and a leader of the 1798 Rising was captured there and taken to Dublin where he cut his own throat rather than be hanged by the British. So a weekend at Rathmullan will give you a great history lesson if nothing else.
The hotel is a 4 Star Luxury Hotel. Set in idyllic wooded grounds overlooking Lough Swilly and just a few steps from a two-mile long golden beach, this amazing hotel and restaurant is the perfect place to unwind and enjoy the good things in life. I shall start with my bedroom, number 38 a walk along a spotless windy corridor and a short flight of stairs brings you to no 38, bit of a coincidence that my own bedroom is at no 38 too. But they do say at Rathmullan House it’s a home from home and its true.
Quality fabrics, carpets, linens and antique furnishings all go to make this a truly special place, a little anti room before the bathroom is a great place to get your freshly baked cookies from the jar along with your tea and coffee. Its as well they don’t fill that jar because once you try one there is no going back, you have got to have them. The bath was a roll top of exquisite quality and a walkin shower that could have handled a few of the Ulster team. My night’s sleep was silent and the bed divinely comfortable, a choice of 4 pillow types was elegantly sufficient; well this was a Georgian mansion after all.
Rathmullan has been renowned for many years for their award-winning food, which is all locally sourced and expertly cooked. It used to have a very fine dining feel about the place with inch perfect cutlery, starched linen tablecloths and napkins and an air of exclusivity. But that was a mistake and Rathmullan knew it, they took a brave decision and did away with the formal dining rules and opened the restaurants to everyone in Donegal and beyond.
The hotel did not diminish their standards of quality and service; they just made it less informal and more inviting. Fewer airs and more graces if you like. The elite in the community protested a little, with their feathers ruffled and withdrew their custom for a while, however the rest of the community have embraced the idea and now they have a beautiful local hotel serving everyone, world class food.
My dinner was served in the beautiful Cook & Gardener restaurant, with its wooden floors, tented and sparkling ceiling and views of Lough Swilly why would you want to go anywhere else? Their award-winning food is sourced from Ireland’s finest producers (as well as fresh from their own Walled Garden). And boy do their chefs know how to cook. I dined beside a party of 8 in black tie attire, to my left, a young couple in jeans to my right a family party in lounge suites, so it does and did work well. The dining rooms is what you make it, you can dress up dress down but whatever way you dress the food is still the same AMAZING.
My sumptuous repast of perfectly cooked (to the second) Maurice Kettle’s fillet steak and expertly roasted vegetables and potatoes. And then came desert. This restaurant provided the best treacle tart I have ever had the privilege of eating. It was simply perfect. Coffee and home made mince pies were served in the parents only room, beside the fire on sofas that behaved like Venus fly traps, you have been warned!
The following morning we came down to breakfast and found it to be world beating. Now we have all been there come down to breakfast in a hotel only to find grumpy looking guests searching for the one piece of none stale bread that is going to fit through that small pizza oven like machine with out setting the hotel on fire. You slip it on the conveyer belt and wave goodbye, hoping you will get something out on the other side that you can eat, because the yoghurt was warm the bacon burnt and and swimming in a bowl of fat, yep we have all done it.
Well at Rathmullan you may forget that thought. The breakfast is so good here you would think they invented the thing themselves.
Freshly squeezed orange juice, McCann apple juice, a selection of cereals and dried fruit. Local carrageen moss (seaweed) its actually quite nice, freshly prepared garden fruits from the walled garden, home made muesli and local Glenvar honey.
Also on the table was a whole honey glazed baked ham and a wheel of Mossfield organic cheddar. In my 25 years of travelling to some of the finest hotels around the world, I have never ever seen a breakfast like this and I’m not even a third of the way through!
Rathmullan house freshly baked wheaten bread, banana bread, coffee walnut and hazelnut cake. Now if that does not inspire you enough then maybe perhaps you would like to try?
Flahavan’s organic porridge followed by grilled cured back bacon and sausage with Black and white pudding, grilled tomato, grilled flat mushroom, homemade potato bread and free range eggs of your choice, or Burren smokehouse organic smoked salmon with free range eggs, or grilled smoked kippers or maybe smoked haddock with lemon. And if you didn’t like that lot, try the fluffy homemade pancakes with syrup chocolate or jams? What is on offer on any day for breakfast is truly breath taking and it’s worth every penny or cent!
All in all, Rathmullan house hotel is the Kohinoor in Donegal’s richly deserved tourism and hospitality crown. It provides outstanding food and accommodation in the most beautiful of surroundings. Georgian extravagance, sumptuous, surroundings and wonderful service have always been the recipe for success, and this hotel does not disappoint. There are family areas, quiet areas and a a dining room that is just right for a mix of formal and informal dining. Their beautifully furnished bedrooms are what brings it all together.
There is truly a genuine family warmth of the welcome you receive here. And its clear the owners and staff love what they do.
If you only ever have one chance to stay in a hotel then spend a night or two here because they is the benchmark against all other places that you might stay.
I am going to be lynched if I don’t mention the inside pool, the super cookery demonstration by the chefs, croquet on the lawn, boule, walks on the beach, pony trekking close by and the other amazing events that the hotel puts on.
Oh believe me just go its great and judging by the full carpark booking is indeed essential as many others are enjoying this superb hospitality.