Golf can get in the way among the luxury, writes John Borthwick.
IN ANY sport that involves the word "green", Ireland has a head start. Since golfing was introduced in the 17th century, the Emerald Isle has sprouted an astounding number of courses some 400. One of the great joys of golfing here is that after playing you can retire to the manor (or castle) to which you wish you'd been born.
The fabled K Club in County Kildare, not far from Dublin, is not quite a castle but far more than a chalet. Set among 550 green-on-green acres (that's 223 hectares; the Republic of Golf is still resolutely imperial), this elegantly restored chateau opened in 1991 as a luxury hotel, with an adjacent US-style country club.
The accommodation is exceptional, but first things first at least for golfers. The K Club has two championship courses, both designed by Arnold Palmer, that are recognised as among the best in Europe. The first is a scenic parklands course that will host the US versus Europe classic, the Ryder Cup, in 2006. The second, the newer Smurfit Course, has a far more exposed layout. Paul Crowe, the club's golf manager, describes it to me as "primal a battle with the elements and natural roughs".
By way of contrast, the River Liffey flows through the K Club grounds like a poem, beside formal gardens and lawns (that look like something out of the movie The Draughtsman's Contract) then on towards the golf courses' manicured greens and pedicured fairways.
K Club guests can enjoy lessons with the club professional, with the front desk booking tee times, lessons and caddies. If you like trout fishing, ask the staff for a few tips. They even taught Tiger Woods how to hook the rainbow trout that the river and lakes are stocked with.
The K Club's great attraction for golfers and non-golfers alike is its accommodation, in a historic chateau that boasts the very rare (in Ireland) Automobile Association hotel rating of five red stars. The origins of the building, Straffan House, go back to the year AD550, after which its long history involved players such as King John of England (of Magna Carta fame) and various 16th and 17th century owners who backed losing rebellions and forfeited the lands.
One Hugh Barton, forced out of France in 1831 during the Reign of Terror, settled here and built a grand new house for his family; it is still the basis of the hotel, complete with an Italian-style campanile. Straffan House was owned by the Bartons until 1949 and then had a string of "colourful" owners, including a movie producer and an Iranian general. The Irish packaging giant the Jefferson Smurfit Group has owned it since 1988.
All guestrooms and suites overlook either the gardens and river or the golf course. The 69 rooms, each with handpainted bathroom decor, are configured as superior, deluxe and river rooms; in addition there are 10 two-bedroom suites suitable for families. Each room or suite is individually appointed. The window of my spacious superior room has a view that must run all the way to Galway. The only lapse in taste is a large mirror framed by kitsch seashells.
THERE is so much antiquity and art, birdsong and oxygen to appreciate here that for non-golfing guests (such as myself) playing golf might actually get in the way. You may try fly fishing, clay pigeon shooting, horse riding and other genteel pursuits. There's a gym and a turquoise-tiled indoor pool.
Or you may just wander the halls, considering the K Club's formidable collection of art works. Amid the tapestries, oriental carpets and statuary, I spot a famous oil painting, a Modigliani nude. It hangs in a hall not far from the bar and, for a painting that should be worth many millions of dollars, it seems spectacularly unprotected. Curious, I examine closely its caption: the painting is dated 1922. Only on closer inspection do I see that the caption also notes that Modigliani died in 1920.
There's nothing fake about the two Melbourne Cups that sit proudly in the K Club bar. They were won by Vintage Crop in 1993 and Media Puzzle in 2002, both horses owned by Michael Smurfit, chairman of the Jefferson Smurfit Group. The cups are a reminder that this area of Kildare is so famed for its horse bloodstock industry that it is known as the "Kentucky of Ireland".
Nourishing as it might be, bluegrass isn't served in the K Club's two restaurants, the Byerley Turk and Legends. In the former I dine on an appetiser of caviar with oyster sauce followed by an entree of black Perigord truffles with asparagus risotto. The main is a copper-roasted chicken breast, chased deliciously by creme brulee with kirsch pineapple carpaccio. A half-bottle of Sancerre aids and abets matters while homemade chocolate petit fours complete the rich pickings. Dinner for one comes to EUR123 ($204).
Chandeliers and a grand stairway, metre-thick walls, liveried staff, crystal and silver . . .
I can't stay forever, I know. But I hope that tearing myself away from the K Club's opulence is, at least, character building.
The K Club
· Address: Straffan, County Kildare, Ireland.
· Email: email@example.com.
· Australia contacts: None.
· Website: http://www.kclub.ie.
· Rates: Superior rooms start at EUR395 ($653) a night. The aptly named viceroy imperial suite will set you back a spectacular EUR3800 a night. A round of golf costs EUR95 for guests, EUR165 for non-guests.