Unexpected Luxury: A Resort Spa in Ireland
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I did not plan to visit the Delphi Mountain Resort and Spa. My wife, Lisa, and I were looking for another hotel with a similar name, described by our guidebook as the 19th-century fly-fishing estate of the Marquis of Sligo. And after getting lost three times, we assumed we had found our lodgings when we saw a sign for Delphi resort.

I’m not sure why we thought the Marquis might have erected a 20th-century ski lodge way back in 1830. But after driving all day, the last six miles along a treacherously narrow ridge, with the setting September sun piercing our eyes as we dodged wayward sheep dozing along the road wherever they pleased, we didn’t care. By the time we realized our mistake, we were already luxuriating in the hot tub, mesmerized by the vista of the Mweelrea Mountain Range.

Perhaps it’s fitting that we ended up staying in the wrong hotel, for it was just the first of many times caprice smiled on us. For years, Irish spas were places where certain ladies went for pedicures, facials, and cucumber sandwiches. But to our delight, resort-style spas like Delphi have revolutionized Ireland’s landscape in the past few years, introducing surfing classes, shiatsu massages, and kayaking expeditions to the concept of a spa vacation.

“Ireland has become a spa destination,” says Pat Shaughnessy, one of Delphi’s owners. When people return home from Ireland, they rave about two things: the pristine beauty of the country and the delightful people they met. Those two qualities make Ireland ideal for a spa vacation, Shaughnessy says.

Built in 2001 by architect Frank Ennis, Delphi Resort would seem to belong in Aspen or Jackson Hole, not the land of steak and kidney pie. It looks like a large thatched cottage on acid, with a weathered copper roof that undulates across the length of the building at odd angles meant to evoke the mountains beyond.

The walls are constructed of the same kind of stone used by local farmers to divide their fields. Storm-felled ash and oak timbers frame a panoply of picture windows that capture majestic views. And a river literally runs through it: a tributary of the Bundorragha River flows right through the building, separating the 22 guest rooms from the lobby, dining room, and spa treatment rooms. A glass-bottomed bridge over the stream invites you to walk on water as you head to your room.

Incorporating the landscape into the core of the building is intentional. “We didn’t want people to just look out at nature,” says Shaughnessy. “We wanted nature to come in the window.”

After our soak, we headed to the bar for a cocktail before dinner. I’m normally a bourbon drinker, while Lisa is a Johnnie Walker kind of gal. But the bartender persuaded us both to try Bushmill’s 10-year-old Irish whiskey, a blend not widely available in the U.S. And again the fates were kind to us. The whiskey had the bite of a single malt Scotch, but also the caramel glow of a small-batch bourbon. It went down as smoothly as the sun setting behind the mountains.

The food at Delphi was another shocker. We sat down expecting some incarnation of fish & chips or lamb stew. But we were pleasantly surprised to find a menu as with nary a potato in sight. Sundried tomato, basil, and bufala mozzarella napoleon came flavored with herbs and vegetables from the resort’s organic garden. Oyster fricassee with rock crab cake and Sevruga caviar was something you might expect at a sophisticated San Francisco seafood restaurant, but not in the remote Irish countryside.

It would border on sacrilege to land within an hour from Croagh Patrick, the legendary mountain where Ireland’s patron saint fasted for 40 days in 441 AD, and not climb to the summit. On the last Sunday in July, more than 25,000 religious pilgrims come from far and wide to make the 762-meter ascent, but the rest of the year, hardy tourists have it to themselves. On this partly cloudy day, only a handful of other hikers joined us along the trail.

After sliding a few times on loose rocks, Lisa balked at going past the halfway point. But when I reminded her that many pilgrims make the journey barefoot, she pressed on to the top. There, we were blessed with a birds-eye view of Ireland’s entire west coast, dotted with islands and fringed by peninsulas. A light fog prevented the day from being postcard-worthy, but on a vacation to Ireland, any day without rain must be considered a glass half full.

On our way back to Delphi, we picked up a hitchhiker, who turned out to be a surfing instructor at the Delphi Resort. Surfing in Ireland?  Yes, ‘tis true. Wet suits are a necessity, and Hawaiians would sneer, but why shouldn’t an island with 900 miles of coastline have at least one spot where the waves are big enough for riding?

In the end, we decided against hanging ten in favor of hanging out at the spa. After wading through the long menu of seaweed baths, mud wraps, and 30-some other treatments, Lisa settled on a Swedish massage. I, on the other hand, chose a yoga class from a list that included step aerobics, tai chi, weight training, and something called boxercise. ...

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Croagh Patrick climbers, photo by Tom Szustek.jpg
Croagh Patrick climbers, photo by Tom Szustek.jpg