DURING the height of Cold War paranoia in the 1970s, one of Europe’s most infamous spymasters arrived on these shores with a secret
mission in mind. Colonel Albert Bachmann, a high-ranking officer in the Swiss military intelligence, took it upon himself to acquire a country manor
in west Cork, where his government could rule in exile. Such was his fear of a Soviet invasion, Colonel Bachmann purchased Liss Ard Estate near
Skibbereen, where he planned to move Switzerland’s ruling class, along with his country’s fabled gold reserves. The super-spook even went as far as
kitting out the basement of the old country house with state-of-the-art computer systems, at a time when the average Irish home hadn’t even got a
colour TV. Unfortunately for Bachmann, whose top-secret operation hadn’t been Liss Ard Estate’s veil of secrecy has somehow been perfectly
preserved officially authorised, the plan ended in great embarrassment for the famously neutral Swiss government, which eventually sold off the estate
in the 1980s. These days, Liss Ard is a 25-bedroom luxury hotel — no longer a safe haven from the threat of a nuclear war, but a sanctuary from the
fallout of modern-day living. Its veil of secrecy has somehow been perfectly preserved, and down through the years, the solitude of the estate’s
163-wooded acres has enticed notoriously private celebs like Bono, Adam Clayton,Van Morrison and Gabriel Byrne.
The property is perched on the shores of Lake Absidealy and is comprised of three separate dwellings — the main house, the lake lodge and the garden mews. The main Georgian mansion was built by the local O’Donovan chieftain in 1850, who later added the lake retreat
as a summer refuge for his family from where they could enjoy the stunning views of the lough. My wife and I arrive during the Easter
break, expecting to find a hotel packed with bank holidaymakers and their chocolate-fuelled children. Instead, we’re greeted by silence — total silence. At first glance, we seem to be the only guests on the estate — the empty car park, the hushed gardens, the eerie stillness of the
main house. That’s when we meet Aidan. They say that almost everyone makes a good first impression, but very few make a good lasting impression — well Aidan Shannon, the general manager of Liss Ard, did just that. His warmest of welcomes set the tone for the whole weekend and if there were
a handbook for Irish hospitality, then Aidan would be its author. He shows us to our room — ‘The Cedar’ — which has a living-room space, a
walk-in wardrobe, walk-in shower room and separate bathroom, and five huge Georgian windows with views over the lake and the 100-year-old Lebanese pine tree, after which the suite is named. The decor is modern, yet tasteful, and blends easily with the original features of the historic
old house. And the result is a room that exudes elegance, calmness and relaxation. Liss Ard may not have the luxury spa or the bells and whistles
of a swanky hotel, but its old-world charm allows guests to decompress as mother nature intended.
In keeping with that ethos, facial reflexologist Catherine Clooney has set up a clinic at the estate’s old gate lodge.
Unlike the ‘traditional’ beauty therapies available in most resorts, Catherine’s treatments are more about wellness and mindfulness, promising
to help rid the body of the stresses and strains of modern life and leave you “looking beautifully relaxed, radiant and glowing”. My wife books in for an hour-long session at Catherine’s healing hands, while I seize the opportunity to wander through the picture-postcard streets of nearby Skibbereen.
When she picks me up a little over an hour later, we’re both positively glowing — her from the treatment, me from the creamy pints of Murphy’s stout
I’ve sampled with a few of the friendly locals. That evening, we’re booked for dinner at Liss Ard’s in-house restaurant which, under the expert command of head chef Danny Barter, has just been awarded two AA rosettes. The philosophy of the restaurant is to use only the finest of
local ingredients — promising that all the ‘land and sea’ produce comes from within a 50km radius, and the veg, when in-season, from within 40 metres of the hotel’s front door, where it is grown expertly by resident horticulturist Sally Ann Lenehan.
“Sally’s Garden”, as it is affectionately known, provides the restaurant with an array of produce that you would not normally associate with west Cork —she currently has Jerusalem artichokes in the grow beds — and Sally herself meets weekly with the chefs to keep them abreast of Liss Ard’s plot-to-plate promise. The result is a menu that’s sublime in its simplicity — Irish beef fillet with foraged wild mushrooms, rump of lamb with treacle parsnip puree, or the locally caught monkfish, which is roasted on the bone and served with grilled organic asparagus.During our two-night stay, we sampled
the lot, each dish better than the next and cooked to absolute perfection (particularly the accompanying roasted potatoes and veg, for which I’d travel the length and breadth of the country). Our servers too, in particular Cathy, Demelza, Ryan and Dylan, also leave a great impression and you can sense the manager’s influence once again. The following morning after hearty breakfast, we meet the ubiquitous Aidan, who, this time, is helping to organise the Easter egg hunt for the resident children. He tells us he has arranged for us to meet the green-figured lady of the manor, Sally Ann, for a tour and quick history of the estate. So much of the charm surrounding Liss Ard is connected to its gardens and meandering wooded paths, and at its centre, is a creation like no other in Ireland. When we team up with Sally Ann, the weather has taken a slight turn.
While the rest of the country basked in the warm bank holiday sunshine, a cold mist had rolled in from the rugged Cork coastline — but it could do
little to dampen our guide’s infectious enthusiasm. She, much like every other staff member we had met, speaks with such great passion about Liss Ard that you’d think she owned the place. That honour, ironically, goes to the Stern family from Switzerland, who have been involved in the estate in one form or other since the late 1980s and who were involved in the restoration of the property and its surrounding acreage.
Sally Ann walks us through her famed vegetable plot, where she schools us on the various edible plants — I never knew you could eat the flower from the gorse bush and that it was “great with steamed his wife Sharon rice”, or that the purple flower from the poncy gin and tonics that have become
commonplace in Ireland, is from the Borage plant. She takes us deep into the forest and through the winding pathways, proudly showing off the exotic plants which thrive in west Cork’s Gulf Stream, and down towards the lake lodge where Bono et al have sought refuge. Sally Ann also tells us of a secret little tradition which the estate has introduced over the past few years — where visiting celebs plant a tree to commemorate their
stay. She proudly takes us to the spot where Bono and Adam have planted cherry trees, where Gabriel Byrne has famously turned the sod and where
two master Jedis, Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Daisy Ridley (Rey), secretly swapped their light sabres for a spade. Visiting celebs
plant a tree to commemorate their stay It is then we arrive at the estate’s crowning glory — an installation created by famed American artist James Turrell, known as the ‘Irish Sky Garden’. The garden, which is one of only two similar installations in the world, is a crater-like structure that is entered through a narrow limestone tunnel — more akin to a neolithic tomb.
At the end of the opening is a steep set of steps that lead to a crater with high grassy banks, at the centre of which there’s a stone plinth made for two. Lie there and you’ll be shut off from the outside world — the silence is eerie and the passing sky, which is framed by the crater’s steep banks, is like a slow-motion video. The whole experience encapsulates the very essence of Liss Ard: peace, tranquillity and a return to mother nature.
As we reluctantly pack for home, we spy Aidan laughing with several of the guests and we finally realise what’s so special about this place: you’re not just a guest here, you’re family, a friend for life and you’ll be back again and again.
STAYING AT LISS ARD:
The four-star Liss Ard Estate is situated just outside Skibbereen. The estate has 25 bedrooms — six in the main country house, nine in the garden
mews and 10 in the lake lodge. Rooms are available on a bed-and-breakfast basis from €72.50 per person sharing. Dinner and B&B packages are also available from just €112.50pps. The estate — which is a proud member of Ireland’s Blue Book — is open year-round for weddings, while the lake lodge is also available for private functions. The Sky Garden is open to non-residents from May 20, noon-5pm, €5 per person. Check lissardestate.ie (028 40000).
WHAT TO DO:
Liss Ard is the perfect base from where to explore the stunning west Cork coastline. It is just a 15-minute drive to the picturesque fishing village of Baltimore. Climb the hill to the white-painted Baltimore Beacon for the best views of Sherkin and Cape Clear Islands. In the opposite direction,
and again, only a short hop from the estate, are the beautiful coastal villages of Tragumna, Castletownshend, Union Hall and Glandore. Be
sure to stop at the Glandore Inn or Hayes’ Bar to take in the views.
Catherine Clooney offers a ‘beauty’ treatment with a difference at the gate lodge at Liss Ard. Working on the same healing principles as foot reflexol-
ogy, her hour-long facial reflexology session will leave you feeling relaxed and radiant. See catherine-clooney.com or call 086 7246677.