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Irish Spas and Health Farms

Cutting-edge retreats

Park Hotel Kenmare

Oh, for the luck of the Irish. They joke that it only rained twice last month, once for three weeks and then for one. But when the skies close down and the fog and wind recede the citizenry enjoys the good fortune of the moment. The Irish Tourist Board, which arranged our spa trip in the Southwest part of country and several other 7-day themed jaunts, possibly appealed to a sympathetic saint who answered the plea for sunshine and mild temperatures during the second week in October. Nothing from any of the itineraries was scrapped. The biking, hiking and boating went on as planned. To imagine how perfect were the outdoors, think Indian summer in New England.

The junket started in style. We were whisked away from Shannon Airport in a Mercedes limo and driven through the lyrically named counties, Limerick and Kerry to the fashionable Park Hotel Kenmare perched majestically at the head of Kenmare Bay and encased by woods and gardens. To capture the essence of the hotel, envision the quintessential British country house. Grand, yet comfortable. Exquisitely decorated, but not ornate. Secluded, and private, but hardly isolated. Walk out the front door and down the driveway and you reach Kenmare, the perfect embodiment of a small Gaelic village but one that does not lack the attractions of pubs, restaurants and shops. It is the first anointed Heritage Town in Kerry and received the accolade of tidiest town in Ireland two years running.

Bar at the Park Hotel Kenmare

Of the 50 accommodations, each with its own sitting area, the ones that overlook the water are, of course, the most desirable. When possible, guests are upgraded to a room with a view. Because of the oxygen in the air, management claims that occupants sleep very well. I did.

After arriving in Ireland, you discover how fresh, tasty and beautifully prepared the food is. Why the cuisine’s reputation belies the reality is a mystery. Out of all of our meals, I can criticize only one. More about that later. Park Hotel Kenmare’s dining room serves the same wonderful salmon, lamb, vegetables, breads and desserts that are found in other stellar eateries around the British Isles. Before dinner enjoy a drink in the lounge and the pianist’s tuneful music. The hotel’s second restaurant, Limetree, is on the grounds away from the main building. Although informal, it offers a fine menu, too, and a pleasant ambience.

Owner/manger brothers John and Francis Brennan unveiled a destination spa in a separate building on November 7, 2003 and named it Samas, an Irish word meaning indulgence of the senses. The facility was under construction when I visited. The description of the 5 million euros project has several design elements that I have not encountered elsewhere— indoor shower gardens, three levels of heat on the floors and light moving across the glass ceiling in the relaxation room -- as well as the requisite exercise studio and pool.

Park Hotel Kenmare

The spas we visited gave a new twist to the term. Europeans typically sought out the cure (reduce blood pressure, lose weight, and stop smoking.) To attract younger patrons, the sanitarium theme is being replaced by a focus on holistic treatments and organic products. The trinity of water, mud and algae is being augmented by aromatherapy, reiki and ayurvedic massage.

Hotel guests make up 99% of Samas’s clients, who "embark on a journey." The "lifestyle programmes" are blocks of treatment times lasting from two to six hours and offering 70 choices, all charged by the hour. Meditation, tai-chi, walks and yoga take place before breakfast. The program also includes outdoor activities—horse trekking, fishing, golf and pleasure boating.

Lighter dishes will be available in the dining room. But who knows? The South Beach Diet is not likely to appear on the menu at a spa that emphasizes indulgence.

Park Hotel Kenmare, Kenmare, County Kerry. Tel. 353-64-41200. www.parkkenmare.com

The stone foundation for Sheen Falls Lodge, mere minutes from Kenmare and just off the famously scenic Ring of Kerry, was built in 1691. Lodge is too modest an appellation for such a stately resort. Surrounded by 300 acres of pristine woodlands, crystal blue waterfalls and purple heathered mountains, the property whispers history, tradition and good breeding.

Aroma Stone Massage, Sheen Falls Lodge

Here again the Irish approach to health and well being veers from the American model. It is leisure-based, the well-equipped gym not withstanding. Estate activities—walking, tennis, fishing, clay pigeon shooting and touring by bike and vintage cars—along with pampering take center stage.

The treatment list has the most delicious, seductive names—la grande classique, plaisir d’aromas, éclat contour, escale beaute, soins alors, secret de beaute. French, ah oui! The exclusive Parisian Yon Ka crèmes, lotions and oils are blended with lavender, cypress, rosemary, thyme, geranium and other plant extracts. Sheen Falls Health Spa is loyal to just one beauty line because the company offers support and training to the aestheticians.

I was lucky enough to be assigned a 90-minute aroma stone massage, a procedure with which I am familiar and knew I would relish. Patricia, my therapist, had me lie on a row of heated smoothly-shaped basal lava stones, which stretched down my spine. Before rubbing my entire body with more warm stones and oil, she cleansed my face with a crème that was redolent of lavender. I can’t identify the essence used for the aroma therapy aspect of the treatment, but I do know that it made the room smell like a garden. When I reversed positions Patricia placed a frozen marble in the middle of my forehead calling it the third eye. I mentioned that my neck and shoulders felt stiff and she massaged them Swedish style. When I emerged from the room, my travel mates remarked that my face was glowing. I felt as though I was glowing inside, too.

Jim Allman, clay pigeon shooting instructor,
Sheen Falls Lodge

Off I went to the clay pigeon shooting range for a lesson with instructor Jim Allman. I had never held a gun, but I took to it like it was a sport that was meant for me. Never mind that I almost shot a few and never really hit one. At the end of the lesson we discovered that the site was off. When I join my husband and son on their Sunday morning shooting sessions, I wonder whether they will be as patient as my first teacher.

Our private lunch of creamed carrot and orange soup, a variety of sandwiches and cookies and tarts was tasty and satisfying, but hardly what the nutritionist ordered. I perused the menus in the Oscar’s Bar & Bistro and La Cascade restaurants and recognized that dining here has to be an exquisite experience. Those who are, however, weight conscious would be hard pressed to make appropriate choices.

Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare, County Kerry. Tel. 353-64-41600. www.sheenfallslodge.ie

The eight members of the Health Farms of Ireland are destination centers, retreats and spas that are not attached to hotels. We visited two; one, Galway Bay Health Farm for an afternoon tour and meal. Housed in a Georgian residence with pleasant rooms, the farm is in the process of expanding. For now much of the program takes place in trailer-like quarters. Guests sign up for pamper days, weekends and three- four- and six-day packages. Gym instruction, swimming and massage appear on the daily schedule. Staff is on call and there are lectures by a dietician, image consultant and psychotherapist. Margaret McNulty, owner, comes from a nursing background and is completely dedicated to her facility as well as to the goals of the consortium.

The brochure states, "The scrumptious food is highly nutritious, low in fat…" We were fed too salty soup, the base having been prepared with bouillon cubes, and processed ham with our salad. Good bread accompanied the first two courses. Serving scones (more carbohydrates) for dessert did not make for a balanced meal. .Mrs. McNulty said that spinach is bad for you because it contains unhealthy elements. Did Popeye get it wrong? Galway Bay is a simple facility and priced accordingly.

Galway Bay Health Farm & Relaxation Centre, Oranmore, County Galway. Tel. 353-91-790606. www.galwaybayhealthfarm.ie

Whirlpool tub, Spirit One Spa, Radisson Hotel Galway

Tinkling sounds caused me to open my eyes. Gillian was gentling shaking a bell over my prone body. It signaled the finish of an exotic 70-minute steam serail. Since I never met a treatment, familiar or not, that didn’t fire me up, this Arabian cleansing ritual administered in a specially designed suite, an herbal steam temple with a ceiling of 1000 "stars," was no exception. The ritual started with the "welcome touch," a hot lime foot cleansing followed by the application of hot compresses soaked in lime essential oil. Next, my body was exfoliated with a cactus bristle brush and I was covered with warm mud. I sat awhile in the steam chamber, inhaled aromatic vapors and then washed off the mud with warm tropical rain that flowed from the dome of the serail. Back on the table, Gillian drizzled warm hydrating oils over me.

The ringing of the bell was a ceremony I knew for all Elemis beauty therapies end with those pleasant sounds. At Spirit One, the recently opened facility in the Radisson Hotel Galway other new relaxation therapies, including several that cocoon you in a weightless dry float water bed, are also being offered.

But the most unique feature at Spirit One is the thermal suite with nine wet and dry heat treatments in separate chambers. To finish the circuit and properly enjoy everything takes at least one and one-half hours. I had never been through anything quite like it and was particularly surprised to find the suite in a city day spa. My favorite spot was the sabia med or beach. You lie on a towel on warm white sand while UV and colored lights take you through a simulated dawn to dusk light cycle in 30 to 40 minutes. It is recommended that you take a cold fog shower as you move among the lemon- and orange-scented laconium, the aroma grotto and the hamman.

Level 5 suite, Radisson Hotel Galway

Radisson Hotel Galway and Spirit One are a good match. Both are exceedingly well appointed and up-to-the-minute, although the spa does need some tweaking. There ought to be an attendant in the thermal suite and the signs directing guests along the corridors to the spa building are inadequate. Confused, I gave up and walked through the lobby and outdoors to reach the building.

The concierge floor, Level 5, on which I stayed had every amenity and fine service, too. Beyond oversized, the rooms include terraces, large picture windows, huge bathrooms, plasma screens, pants pressers, complimentary liqueur and very attractive furniture. A free conference room to host four people is available, but the guest rooms are large and comfortable enough to use for business purposes.

The menu in the hotel’s dining room, Marinas, celebrates the bounty of the sea, much of it locally caught. The food is beautifully executed both in taste and presentation. The chef said he aims for "moderation, balance and variety" in the Spirit One dishes. Why bother with spa choices when they include pasta, potatoes and rich desserts? As far as I could tell there was nothing "moderate" about the spa dishes. A very fresh prawn appetizer and tender, flavorful loin of veal were better choices for careful eating. On the other hand, maybe those "light" designations do serve a purpose for I finished off the dinner with one of them, gratinated forest berries with champagne sabayon and pistachio ice cream. Chef Buckley said I could.

Radisson Hotel Galway, Lough Atalia Road, Galway, Tel. 800-333-3333. www.radissonhotelgalway.com

Health Suite and Jaccuzi, Delphi Mountain Resort

To give our group of six an opportunity to sample something different and to offer variety, Julie, head of the Health Suite at Delphi Resort and Spa, asked the other directors what treatments our group of six had had earlier in the week. That is why the second day of my stay at Delphi began with a plain vanilla full body massage. Am I complaining? Absolutely not. It was a great introduction to a full regimen of pampering. For every one of my aches, Julie had a solution and that is how I came to have five body treatments. Six days in Ireland hadn’t completely dissipated a headache caused by too many hours at the computer. Julie arranged for Kim to give me an Indian head massage, a treatment I hadn’t known existed, which relieves migraines and lesser headaches and ameliorates tension in the neck and shoulders. While applying pressure to the soles of my feet during reflexology, Irene discovered other body pains and problems and helped alleviate them. Karen applied seaweed and bundled me in a warm blanket during a marine algae body wrap, which also included exfoliation and moisturization.

"You must try the sound waves," said Ruth. And so I did. When I finished I thought to myself, I’d like to have a chair like this at home. Contoured for maximum unwinding, it vibrates for 20 minutes. Simultaneously you listen to guided meditation in a darkened room and envision whatever beautiful vistas you wish. As for the thermo-auricular therapy (Hopi ear candles) I’ll try it at another time in another place.

On a par with Miraval, Miamo or Canyon Ranch, the Irish version of the ultimate upscale destination spa is Delphi Mountain Resort & Spa. In the words of management, "If you love the outdoors, activity and wildlife, but appreciate comfort and luxury," Delphi Valley fits the picture. The center started as an outward bound-type retreat where nature is at the doorstep. Connemara National Park, Killarey Harbour (Ireland’s only fjord) and Mweelrea, Maumturk and The Twelve Bens Mountains provide a scenic backdrop and the playgrounds for part of the program. Trained staff lead 30 outdoor activities ranging from soft--canoeing and dolphin watching--to highly adventurous—exploring sea caves in kayaks and mountain climbing.

Main Entrance, Delphi Mountain Resort

A separate health spa program now complements the great outdoors option. The active, fit and fun schedule includes aerobics, strength training and circuit weight classes as well as many of the activities in the outdoor program. Mind/body appeals to those who prefer a less energetic roster and includes yoga, stretching, tai chi and walking.

To house the new program a spectacular building was constructed with local stone and a variety of timbers--oak, ash and elm--on the 300-acre forested property. My Scots Pine Suite had a downstairs living area and a loft bedroom.

The relaxation room where you rest following your treatments overlooks the hills and a brook. At dusk you can watch the colors change and also enjoy the twinkling lights on the Jacuzzi’s blue ceiling.

The Peregrine restaurant serves first-class food and wines. One evening we dined on an over the top 7-course tasting dinner matched with appropriate superb wines. Mark, the 32-year old very creative chef, explained his philosophy in designing the menu. "On this type of vac ation you should treat your tummy as well as your body," he said. The dishes that were starred as healthy options were, to my way of thinking, anything but. One was cured beef brasaola, potato and fennel salad, crisp potato and apple-béarnaise sauce. Mark added that you can order low-cal, vegan and vegetarian food.

Then I realized that healthy food means different things to different people. To Mark it means not using any prepared foods, starting everything from scratch like stock, butchering lamb in-house, growing the organic herbs and vegetables and buying free-range chickens from a farmer.

Before leaving I gave Julie a hug that was meant not only for her, but for all the helpful and healing aestheticians who worked on me. "Harpers & Queen" editors agree. In their "Guide to the World’s Best Destinations" Delphi was the winner for best staff.

Delphi Mountain Resort & Spa, Leenane, County Galway. Tel. 353-95-42987/42208. www.delphiescape.com

Dromoland Castle

The Irish Tourist Board arranged a last night stay at Dromoland Castle. Situated on 375 acres of forest and parkland, the Rine River meanders through fields where wild life roams. The estate was once the stronghold of the Ireland’s High King Brian Boru and the ancestral home of the O’Brien clan. A history lesson hangs on the corridor walls and in the public rooms. Hundreds of portraits of the nobility who resided here are on display along with Irish antiques, wood and stone carvings and fabric designed in the 17th century. A formal walled rose garden is based on plans drawn up for Versailles. New accommodations were recently unveiled in a separate wing. Although an attempt was made to copy the original architecture and furnishings, the latest lodgings seems hotel-like. Guest rooms in the main building are the real McCoy.

Dinner in the Earl of Thomond Dining Room is a grand affair. Food, service and table appointments could not be faulted.

Leisure Activities, Dromoland Castle

The stop at Dromoland was not spa-based. However, a health clinic with treatment rooms, a gym, swimming pool, steam and sauna is housed in the golf and country club. Plans are underway to increase the number of treatment rooms. Also, sporting opportunities are plentiful—trout fishing, archery, boating, shooting and clay pigeon shooting, tennis, mountain biking and golf on an 18-hole private course.

Dromoland Castle, Newmarket-on-Fergus, Country Clare. Tel. 353-61-368144. www.dromoland.ie

Our week of criss-crossing Southwest Ireland on narrow roads crowded with sheep hogging the space drew to a close. As we drove to Shannon Airport we had a last look at the grassy mountain slopes studded with wildflowers and marked by ancient stone walls. We said slan to a land of odd and ferocious beauty. Ireland is all pleasure. It never disappoints.

Winter 2003-04