There’s something otherworldly about Gregans Castle, the gorgeous country house overlooking the beautiful Burren region on the Atlantic Coast of Co. Clare. It’s why down through the years it has attracted guests such as fantasy writer JRR Tolkien, Narnia creator CS Lewis and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.
But while there’s more than a little poetry to the place, it took more than a magical location to enable the hotel to come through the recent recession with aplomb, as owner Simon Haden explained.
“We’re seeing double-digit growth thanks to some of the changes we made, luckily, just before the downturn hit,” he said.
Gregans Castle, near the quiet village of Ballyvaughan overlooking Galway Bay, dates to 1750 and has been in the Haden family since 1976. Simon and his wife Freddy – short for Frederieke - took over from his parents in 2003, cultivating its reputation as a relaxed but luxurious country house hotel.
It was decisions they made in 2007 however that really took the property to another level. “For starters, we decided to put an enormous emphasis on food,” said Simon.
The result was the creation of a wonderfully modern European style of cuisine, focused on fresh, locally sourced and in-season ingredients.
This led to a slew of awards, including Restaurant of the Year, Chef of the Year and Country House of the Year, pushing Gregans Castle into the national spotlight.
The pair also invested heavily in decor and here too they had a natural asset to draw on – Freddy. “Freddy has a huge flair for interior design, a talent she inherited from her family, which lives locally and whose background is in textile design,” he said.
The couple handpicked each individual piece of furniture for their 21 bedrooms and suites. Many are antiques, often brought home from their travels around the world. The result is an interior aesthetic that is every bit as stunning as the views outdoor – no mean feat in a property where some of the suites have their own private gardens and all have views of either garden, mountains or sea.
“We can’t say that we deliberately raised our restaurant or interior design standards as a way of combating the recession, because to be honest, like everybody else, we didn’t see it coming,” admitted Haden.
“We just happened to have made the strategic decision to invest both before the recession had hit. Subsequently, we counted ourselves very lucky indeed to have done so, because they have been a huge draw for us, especially within the home market, during some very difficult years for the industry here has a whole.”
Overseas visitors to Ireland typically choose The Burren as their destination and then think of where to stay almost as an afterthought, he pointed out. “By contrast, for Irish visitors, Gregans Castle became a destination in itself, which is fantastic.”
The downturn also prompted the local tourism community in the area to rethink how it positioned itself.
“For too long we had allowed this pristine natural environment, The Burren, to be seen almost like a place you go through on your way to either Kerry or Connemara when it is an area of outstanding natural beauty in itself.”
As a result of this realisation, tourism providers in the area worked together to highlight the vast array of travel experiences available in this unique, limestone landscape - from themed walking tours to food trails , from birds of prey centres to natural perfumeries, and from the magnificent Cliffs of Moher to the lively music sessions of Doolin.
And not alone does the newly launched Wild Atlantic Way pass by the front door of Gregans Castle, but The Burren Food Trail has recently been honoured as Irish winner of the 2015 EDEN (European Destination of Excellence) awards, for developing a tourism offering based on its local gastronomy.
One thing’s for sure – by taking the premium ingredient of a stunning location and adding beautiful food and gorgeous interiors to the mix, Gregans Castle hit on a true recipe for success.
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