"Is that the American flag?” I said, pulling up to the fortress-like Bushmills Inn, one of Northern Ireland’s Blue Book hotels.
It sure was. The flag was flying in my honor. They’d brought the star-spangled banner out of a turreted flag room where they keep over 100 different flags for honoring guests. Experiencing something normally reserved for a royal? Just one fabulous detail to chalk up bunking down in a coaching inn dating back to the 1600s along with stables-turned-restaurant, inglenook turf fires, a gas-lit bar and private movie theater. A “Best Hotel in Ireland” award arrived in the lobby as we checked in. This was obviously a special place.
Ireland’s Blue Book counts country houses, historic hotels, castles and restaurants among its members. We’d planned to check out two in Northern Ireland and two in the republic, close by. Historically, these territories have had their troubles, but they’re peaceful now.
We’d flown into Belfast, through London, booked a Hertz rental car and drove to Bushmills in under two hours. It’s just a few miles from the Coastal Causeway and home to the world’s oldest whiskey distillery – where a tour is a must – which has been cranking out whiskey since 1608.
“We’ve stepped into another era,” I said, stepping from a steamy bath in the claw-foot tub to soak off the jet lag. Come morning, we enjoyed the first of many delicious Irish locavore breakfasts: homemade breads, farm preserves, compotes, oatmeal, eggs, black puddings, smoked fish, truly everything. Instantly addicted to the buttered artisanal wheaten loaves and soda breads, every slice I reckoned would cost two Hunter-Smuggler loops in calorie burn at home.
“Whoa!” we cried out loud in the car, weaving past multiple Game of Thrones filming locations to arrive at Giant’s Causeway. This epic UNESCO World Heritage Site with 40,000 interlocking basalt columns from 60 million years ago is hugged by a crashing sea.
Ardtara Country House, a Romantic Hotel of the Year award winner, is a stunning restored 19th-century mansion with just nine rooms. It belonged to the Clark Irish Linen family; the mill still works nearby, hydroelectrically efficient, perfect for the new world.
Blue Book houses are all unique, yet all produce magic. You decompress, unplug, gawp at captivating décor, enjoy old-world hospitality and splurge on lovingly prepped local food.
Up in County Donegal, we experienced Rathmullan House, a gorgeous country family seat favored by multi-generational groups. The cozy lounges, alabaster moldings, marble mantels and colonial accents lit by roaring fires create timeless ambiance. The views of the waters of Lough Swilly add calm. Again, outstanding food, like the local roast rump of lamb and fish landed nearby at Greencastle. After breakfast, we slipped through the hedgerows and rhododendrons two steps to the beach.
With patrons like Winston Churchill and Irish American connections, family portraits in stairwells, artifacts and period finishes everywhere make Castle Leslie in County Monaghan magnificent. Lovingly restored with a colorful past, and Paul McCartney’s wedding venue(!), the estate has remained in the Leslie family since the 1600s. Horse lovers stay in their lodge accommodations connected to the revered equestrian center, restaurant and spa, and there are cottages for families and expansion underway.
We rode past the mirrored lake with the castle’s back view and hot-tubbed under an inky Irish sky. The farm table at breakfast heaved with rustic bowls spilling fruit compotes and grains. In the restaurant was a craft gin display larger than you’ll ever experience at Food and Wine.
It was hard to leave.