The Independent - June 2004
Once upon a time (well it reads like a bit of a fairy-tale), there were three Irish brothers, Bernard, Eoin and Evan Doyle. The first was a chartered surveyor, the second a publisher and the third owned the fashionable Strawberry Tree Restaurant in Killarney. However, Evan was not your average restaurateur. He was a man with a vision. In 1982, his restaurant, or so he told me, became the first in Ireland to serve only wild, free-range and organic produce, and by 1998he was dreaming of pedestrianising the area around it so that in summer the bustling street could become an open-air market. Families with rosy-cheeked children would mingle with cheery stall-holders and wander around in the sum, eating fresh, wholesome Irish fare. However the local council said no. So he packed up his belongings and with the help of his brothers, went in search of a land of organic mild and honey where he could turn his dream into a reality.
What the Brothers Doyle were looking for was an abandoned village that they could rescue and rebuild. They started their search in County Wexford, but unfortunately all the local hamlets had no need of a saviour with bundles of cash and desire to create an Irish utopia. Then the trio stumbled upon an isolated valley in, rather fittingly, Country Wicklow, the self-styled 'garden of Ireland'. The site of a 127-acre far, the big empty field was the perfect canvas on which to paint their village. And so was born, four years ago, Evan's World.
Brooklodge, the elegant cream hotel, and the purpose-built Macreddin Village today sit snugly in the bottom of the valley, surrounded by smooth lawns rolling down to a burbling brook and cluster of pine trees. The village comprises a street of low-slung traditional buildings painted in moreish pastels (think Ballykissangel hues). There's a bakery, brewery, pub, shop, stables and even a chapel. It's still a work in progress, however. A spa opened this year and a golf course is in the offing. Surrounded by brooding mountains and with chickens clucking across the village green, it could have become a sort of Irish theme park. But there's no touch of Disney here.
Arriving late on Friday night we were met in the stone-flagged lobby by Rudy the golden retriever. A sleepy welcome from the receptionist and a sizzling fire in the grate added to the warm atmosphere. Our room was all buttercup tones with a French country-style bed; the bathroom a sea of Victoriana - freestanding bath with rain shower head, marble-topped vanity unit and black-and-white floor. We were in the original part of the hotel - the latest additions include a new wing housing a clutch of contemporary mezzanine suites.
Our room faced the tiny chapel over the stream on a wooded bank and, after breakfast, we wandered off to explore the grounds. The chapel looks and feels a lot older than its four years, but then the floorboards and windows are originals from an old consecrated church. The décor is simple - whitewashed walls and bare pews. You can get married here but it's a case of BYO (priest or vicar that is). The ex-Radio 1 DJ Sara Cox timed the knot here, while Hazel O'Connor, who lives nearby, played a gig in the chapel recently, as did Fatboy Slim. As well as the riding stables, there's a book of walks at reception, some of which can start at the door. The hotel can also arrange 4x4 excursions in Macreddin Woods, along with falconry and clay pigeon shooting. And then there's the new spa.
The Wells opened at the beginning of the year. The state-of-the-art design is not exactly Irish in style but there is more than a nod to the "organic" ethos of BrookLodge. Mud and water feature in many of the treatments, from the "serial mud chamber" (where you're lathered in a gooey mix of mud, chalk, salt and mineral oils then cooked for a while in the sauna) to the flotation tank. An hour spent suspended in a foot of salt water in a dimly lit cocoon is supposed to induce total relaxation, but in my case all I felt was claustrophobia and boredom. I was floating, however, after the "healing hammam" massage, an aromatic oil and water rub down on a heated mosaic plinth. Disappointingly, the "hay bath" - an intriguing treatment for stressed out city dwellers in which dried flowers re sprinkled over the body - has been scrapped because too many of us suffer allergies. All the water used in the spa is taken from Macreddin's own wells and there's also an indoor-to-outdoor swimming pool and outdoor hot tub. After a morning of pampering we set off for the nearby coast and a walk along the wild, dun-backed beach of Brittas Bay, a two-mile sweep of powdery sand. If you can bear to tear yourself away from the valley, on the doorstop there are picture-perfect villages such as Avoca, where the TV series Ballykissangel is filmed, the Wicklow Mountains National Park, and Glendalough, or the "glen of two lakes". The lakes sit beneath sheer cliffs carved out by glaciers during eh Ice Age. A monastery was founded here in the sixth century by St. Kevin and today the site, with its religious remains and magnificent setting, is a popular visitor attraction.
Windswept and invigorated, we'd more than worked up an appetite for dinner that evening in the award-winning Strawberry Tree Restaurant. Evan moved the Strawberry Tree to Brooklodge, determined that it would retain is individual character rather than simply becoming a hotel dining room. AS with everything else he seems to have succeeded. The hotel is a comfortable four-star establishment, but the restaurant feels every inch the five-star gourmet experience. On the Saturday night it was packed. The food is all grown locally and is therefore also seasonal. Unsurprisingly, the menu was printed on recycled paper.
For starters we sampled a delicious pheasant rilette with corn salad and red onion compote, and home-smoked salmon with ginger and lemon salsa. Main courses included braised widgeon with shallots, roast parsnips and blood orange sauce, and pan-fried venison with cabbage, date and almond chutney and game jus. After cheese and dessert, we retired to WM Acton's pub for a nightcap. Every Saturday night there's live jazz in the conservatory. The Orchard, attached to the atmospheric bar with its old wooden booths and snugs. The perfect end to a perfect day.
All in all, BrookLodge feels like a bit of a one-stop holiday shop. One man's dream has become many people's ideal break. You can have a copy of days packed with healthy outdoor activities or total indulgence in the spa - or over-indulgence in the restaurant and bar. And of course in the summer there are organic food markets in Macreddin Village. On the first Sunday of every month, families with rosy-cheeked children mingle with cheery stall holders, spilling onto the rolling lawns, picnicking in the sun and eating fresh, wholesome Irish fare.