The entrance to the hotel at Carton House is calm, unfussy, even muted. I’m not talking about the driveway that weaves through the Montgomerie course, because that’s quite a daunting experience if you’re about to tee off on this links-like course. Neither am I referring to the stellar Palladian-style mansion (1739) you’ve just passed.
No, I’m talking about the glass doorways which lead into the main hotel reception. It seems almost too quiet and unostentatious for a five star resort. That right there is an incredibly calm and pleasing welcome. It sets the tone on a luxury stay that is as effortless as it is relaxing.
Believe you me, that takes a lot of hard work to achieve.
Carton House opened as a hotel in 2002 and, after being sold to the Mullen family in 2017, it has enjoyed both a multi-million euro refurbishment (over three years) and a rebranding as it becomes part of the worldwide Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Group.
Carton House is now the oldest property in the global Fairmont portfolio, and the first in Ireland. Many Irish people won’t instantly recognise the Fairmont name but it is one of the biggest luxury hotel brands in the world. It has two hotels in the UK – The Savoy in London and Fairmont St. Andrews in Scotland – and 81 hotels in all, across 30 countries. There is both a strong recognition for and a strong loyalty to a brand like Fairmont, and Carton House is enjoying a stratospheric rise in international traveller opinion. It is proving to be an international springboard for a resort the Irish have long regarded as one of the most opulent.
It is not often that I dwell on history but clearly with ‘The House’ – as it is known – dating back to 1739, there must be exceptions. The famous boathouse (between Montgomerie’s and O’Meara’s 18th greens) and a dedicated ground floor bedroom – the Chinese Boudoir – were added specifically for Queen Victoria, while Peter Sellers and Marianne Faithfull lived here for several years. And then there are the Fitzgeralds who lived here for some 200 years.
The reason for dwelling on the history is simple: now that Carton House is part of the Fairmont family – the official hotel name is ‘Carton House, a Fairmont Managed Hotel’ – The House has been opened up to guests. Your daily experiences will take you into the heart of the Palladian-style mansion, with breakfast served across the Morrison Room, Gold Salon and Drawing Room. It’s a taste of grandeur and the breakfast is every bit as exceptional as the location. There is much more to The House, however, and you can enjoy and explore much of it during your stay.
Historical Tours are now readily available for guests and after being under lock and key for many years, the Chinese Boudoir is now being showcased as part of the tour. The room was created on the ground floor for Queen Victoria, as she was terrified of fire. The House itself has 18 suites and state rooms on the upper floors – a hotel within a hotel, if you like – and groups of golfers (or families and friends etc.) can book these rooms and be looked after by a dedicated House Manager. Obviously we are talking high-end here, with each room individually decorated to match the history of The House, but there are groups of American golfers who will love this vibe. One suspects the Whiskey Library, with its book lines shelves, its cosy seating and its vast selection of ‘uisce beatha’ will prove just as appealing.
Elsewhere, the modern Garden Wing with its 151 luxury guest rooms has been built to be in harmony with the older structure. It is at the opposite end to The House and reached via a long glass-enshrined corridor that gives glimpses of the outside world and the beauty of the estate. These rooms are exceptionally comfortable and quiet, and come with all the modern touches.
The reach of the resort, thanks to the addition of the Fairmont brand, has already tapped into new markets and golf tour operators are taking a renewed interest as they will see this as a very special experience for their clients. What better base to explore the cream of Irish golf on the east coast.
Carton House is unashamedly looking at the luxury market with discerning couples seen as a key audience. It is little surprise given the age and history of The House that it is considered a national treasure. As you wander the halls, relax in the elegant rooms, climb the original stone stairs or stroll around the exterior and Carton House’s 1,100 acres, it is easy to see why. Now add in that effortless service and visitors will lap it up.
The hotel’s refurbishment is extensive. If you’ve stayed here before you will find much has changed. The restaurants are new and straddle a broad range of cuisines from the fine dining of The Morrison Room, to the Mediterranean vibe of Kathleen’s Kitchen, to the Carriage House (the refurbished clubhouse) where you’ll enjoy a gastro-pub dining experience.
Kathleen’s Kitchen is located in The House’s original kitchens and an outdoor terrace alongside makes it easy to eat, inside or out. That same terrace can be used by guests enjoying The Courtyard Bar, with an impressive wine and cocktail list.
The Morrison Room is something very special: located in The House it is a grand and imposing room, with the elegant interiors of the Georgian period. It is a spectacular and unique space which will lift fine dining to a whole new level. The room was designed by Richard Morrison, in 1815, and it still possesses the beauty that dates back over 200 years.
For breakfast you will enjoy the same space and there’s a very real anticipation as you are led towards the Georgian splendour, not knowing if you will be seated in The Morrison Room or the Gold Salon opposite. It matters not for these grand rooms and their décor are equally as impressive. You’ll even discover an organ in the Gold Salon, installed in 1857, which was hydraulically powered by a stream flowing under The House.
The Golf Courses
You see a lot more of a golf course when you’re photographing it at 5.30am: the low-lying mist ambles above the river, the sunrise catches the dark stones of the 500 year old Tyrconnell Tower, a black bird of prey perches on a hay bale as you walk by, and fingers of light slide through the trees. There’s a quiet and a peacefulness before the greenkeepers and golfers begin their day, and it makes a golf course look utterly beautiful.
That early morning light doesn’t hit the O’Meara’s most famous holes, down in the tree enshrined glen along the River Rye, but the sweet par-3 7th catches more than its fair share at this time of year. So too the excellent par-4 5th which starts the front nine’s best run of holes (5 to 8). At 366 yards from the white tees you can play this right to left dogleg in one of two ways: a big drive to the right of the fairway bunkers, which then leaves a pitch of no more than 100 yards to a green above you; or a shorter tee shot of 200-220 yards which takes the fairway bunkers out of play and leaves you with a 150-yard shot to a much more visible green.
It is, in my opinion, an under-appreciated hole. That’s not surprising given the acclaimed ‘Amen Corner’ holes and the two strong par-4s immediately before them. It makes holes 12-16 the highlight of the round… and if you avoid the water on 14, 15 and 16, you know you’ve played some great golf.
The following morning saw me trekking out at the same hour, this time heading for the Montgomerie. There’s no denying this links-like layout is a stern test of golf but with the mist laying low on the course and the sun coming up behind Tyrconnell Tower, it offered me the chance to show the course off in a gentler fashion. Those bunkers, after all, are feared by golfers of all abilities and some soft dawn light might, I hoped, remove their ferocity.
I have always found the Montgomerie to be a thrilling test of golf and one that follows an almost hypnotic rhythm from start to finish. The rolling landscape and glorious greens certainly help, and nearly every golfer will talk about the par-3, par-5 finish that takes you alongside the River Rye, all the way to the instantly recognisable boathouse.
If you stay here you’d be well advised to play both courses to enjoy two very different experiences. It is a stay that certainly won’t disappoint.
There are ambitions here to become the best luxury resort in Ireland. The Fairmont branding has added to the cachet of Carton House, and the multi-million euro investment – in all the right places – has ensured that it definitely has a foothold in that particular conversation.
The Carton House Golf Experience
As a golfer, I won’t deny that despite all of the luxury and beauty and history on show, I was still drawn towards The Carriage House. And, inevitably, the golf courses. The Carriage House was the first of the resort’s refurbishments to be completed. The old courtyard remains the same and it is an embracing and unique way to arrive as you walk between old stone walls that stand resolute and ageless.
There are dozens of buggies for golfers and they remain the most comfortable (and clean) buggies I have ever used. The layout of the facilities has changed slightly but everything has been upgraded, from the changing facilities to the Pro shop, where dark wooden alcoves are home to upmarket golf attire and a spacious air that oozes calm confidence.
The Carriage House offers a gastro-style pub with two options: on one side is the restaurant wrapped in dark walls, rich red leather chairs, comfortable banquettes and luxury flourishes of marble and brass. Old wooden beams stretch across the high vaulted ceiling and it feels like a step back in time. On the other side the bar has that cosy nook feel, an open fireplace and green leather chairs and sofas. It exudes sophistication.
This was once the Fitzgerald family’s carriage lodge. Seven carriages were housed here and while the horses and carriages are long gone, you only have to look around you to understand how history clings to the walls and why the original features are so cherished.
The leafy surroundings give the place a tranquil air… and one that is enjoyed all the more on a sunny day when you are out on the terrace.