Wild terrain and a warm welcome in Ireland's Connemara
The Owenmore River is so wide and flat that it looks more like a lake. Its waters are moving so slowly there's barely a ripple on the surface, bar those made from the occasional hop of a dragonfly or a fish swimming upstream. All around the riverbanks the mountains, dubbed the Twelve Bens, rise towards the sky, perfectly reflected in the still waters.
And in the middle of it all sits Ballynahinch Castle. With its crenellated walls, tiered gardens and thick chimney stacks, this 18th-century pile is the kind of fortress you could imagine royalty calling home - and in fact it was, when Indian state ruler Maharaja Ranjitsinhji bought the estate after visiting for just a fortnight in 1923. I' m only staying for a few nights, but I can see how he was so easily charmed.
There's still a bit of light in the sky when I arrive and head down to the river to watch the sunset. The view of the castle from this riverside spot is instantly beguiling, as the evening draws in and the lights in the castle are switched on, casting an orangey glow on the surface of the river.
Ballynahinch Castle is the kind of place where you're secretly happy if there's a bit of a chill in the air. Wherever you turn, there's a cosy armchair and a fireplace filled with smouldering turf, luring you to sit down with the paper and order a cheeky afternoon whiskey. Even though it's a large enough property, with 48 rooms and suites as well as two self-catering cottages, you could go about your business and barely bump into another guest.
That's probably down to the fact that the rooms are so comfy, it's a physical strain to leave them. With giant fourposter beds, big squishy mattresses and kitten-soft linens, it's all I can do to get out of bed in the morning. The view helps, though - when I draw the curtains of the full-length heritage window, all I can see is river and mountains.
So, while it would be tempting to hole up by the fire (or in bed) it would be a crime to ignore the countryside that's right on my doorstep. Ballynahinch is set within a 700-acre estate, filled with forests, rivers and meandering footpaths that weave through the trees and over the water.
The trails around the estate are that perfect blend of proper country paths and rickety bridges - there are twisted tree trunks that intermingle around the track, and giant roots covered in moss and lichen. In fact, you can tell how clean the air is by the amount of lichen dangling from the tree branches - the more you see, the cleaner the air. And at Ballynahinch, there's loads of the stuff.
Bring an appetite
All that fresh air gives me a hearty appetite, which is just as well. There are a few different options at Ballynahinch - there's the more casual, wood-panelled Fisherman's Pub, where you can get a creamy pint of Guinness and a bowl of venison stew. But the more formal Owenmore Restaurant is the real showstopper.
Pretty plates appear from the kitchen with the best produce this corner of the world has to offer, from home-cured local mackerel to juicy, pink smoked lamb. Even the desserts are inventive, like the baked sheep's yoghurt gently spiked with saffron and cardamom.
It's in this room where you eat breakfast in the morning, preferably on a window table overlooking the river. And while the legendary buffet is on pause due to Covid, everything that you would have formerly found on the table of bounty is on offer from the kitchen, whether that's thick slabs of the Ballynahinch baked ham or a stack of freshly made fluffy pancakes.
This is a place suited to special occasions, which is why the team is keen to know if a celebration is afoot with your client. While they always provide VIP gifts and amenities on behalf of the travel agent, they also want to know if there's a birthday or anniversary to mark. Here, it's all about the little touches, be it a glass of champagne before dinner or a box of chocolates upon arrival.
There's nothing quite like the Connemara landscape. It's a strange combination of wide, other-worldly plains of flat rock, combined with dense forests and beaches with sand so blindingly white you could be in the Caribbean. Glance in one direction, and you can be looking out at a soaring, bulbous mountain swathed in orange bracken.
In another, you'll be met with dazzling turquoise ocean, with cows trampling along the seagrass that lines the beach.
In the summer months, the main beaches of Connemara can be clogged with visitors. But when September comes, the crowds dissipate and you can enjoy the whole lot without another soul in sight.
When I arrive in Dog's Bay, the horseshoe-shaped beach is empty. The white, powder-soft sand is trailed with bundles of seaweed that leave a mark like a tree branch. Giant boulders fringe a beach dotted with rock pools and bright green grass, while the omnipresent mountain range frames the horizon. When I dip my toes in the water, the ocean is so clear that my gaze penetrates all the way to the seabed - not just where I stand, but as far out as I can see.
Just a five-minute drive away is Roundstone, a pretty town that sits farther back along the headland towards Ballynahinch. Life in Connemara moves at a fairly slow pace, but the pubs are anything but peaceful. O'Dowd's Seafood Bar is a picturesque little pub along the shore that has a fair buzz in the evening, but is a cosy little haven during the day.
When I start to feel a chill, its hearth is calling me, so I order a pint of Guinness and half a dozen oysters, to enjoy by the roaring fire. If you've never tried it before, this is a match made in heaven - the salinity of the plump local oysters marries perfectly with the chocolatey stout.
While Connemara has long been renowned for its food, it's been stuck in a fairly traditional rut for a few years. But all that changed with the opening of Misunderstood Heron, a food truck that's parked in Killary Fjord. Here, you can enjoy incredible views with equally impressive food - think smoked haddock pastries, fragrant Killary mussels and Connemara lamb samosas.
The drive to get there weaves through the Connemara National Park, which brings you in from the coast and alongside Toblerone-shaped mountains and perfectly still lakes. Everywhere you look, there's a view so captivating that you can't help but pull over to take endless photographs.
I chose to drive around the area, but clients can opt for a private tour, which is particularly handy if they're anxious about driving on the region's narrow, winding roads.
And this is a place that's just begging to be explored, whether you're taking a dip in empty secret bays, or hiking up a mountain to drink in the views. In Connemara, there's a treat to be found around every corner.
Book it: Adams & Butler has a three-night package at Ballynahinch Castle, including breakfast, two dinners, a guided estate walk and car rental from €1,503 (£1,280) for two people, commissionable at 10% to travel agents. Flights can be added from £110 per person. adamsandbutler.com
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Credits: Tourism lreland/Chris Hill, David
Sciora/Big Smoke Studio; Barry Murphy Photography; MacMonagle;
Shutterstock/Alexandru Nika; Jack Hardy; James Fennel