Eat, sleep, drink, repeat Sarah Brophy and friends swap Madrid for Monaghan for their 40th birthdays
Girly weekends away do not have to involve early-morning airport drinks, cheap flights and muggy taxis to a hotel. Of course, I'd be lying if I said we wouldn't take that right now, but with Covid-19 restrictions in place and not going anywhere soon, myself and two pals, Sinead and Hazel, swapped Madrid for Monaghan last month - and we had an absolute ball.
It wasn't the joint 40th we had planned for a year, but in the current climate, it was just the tonic. In fact, our first port of call on our 48 hours away from our families was Andy's bar and restaurant in the heart of Monaghan town, which prides itself on its array of gins and tonics.
We love our families very much, but after the last seven months of homeschooling, social distancing and cocooning, we were ready for a well-earned breather. We are two teachers and a nurse and between us, we have eight kids (aged three to 11), so spending 48 hours in 'The Farney' away from them was pure bliss.
Our base for the weekend was the four-star Hillgrove Hotel, which ticked every box possible: luxurious without being expensive, a room for all three of us, a pool, a spa and a state-of-the-art gym. Truth be told, though, we were far more interested in gin than gym, so when we heard about Andy's, and that it was only five minutes away, we jumped in a taxi and started our holiday in style.
Andy's is far more than a local restaurant and far exceeds the description of a 'cosy town-centre pub'. It is a family-run business that has survived two fires and a pandemic and has come out on top.
Run by dapper Kevin Redmond, his brother Eddie and their sister Aisling, they have followed their parents' tradition in the catering trade. The food was a delight and the menu caters for all tastes, with options such as steaks, burgers, vegetarian options, salmon and a range of starters and desserts to make us drool.
We had a secluded table in the restaurant upstairs and couldn't help but notice that the design of both the restaurant and bar was divided into many snugs to allow for social distancing.
But the gin. Oh my, the gin. When I say Kevin is an expert, I mean the dapper three-piece-suit-wearing man could write a PhD on the topic. We were treated to a whole host of gins and their complementing tonics. We were schooled in the importance of a good tonic water, the best pairings, and how to maximise the flavours with unusual options. The sense of theatre was spectacular, involving bubbles and steam, ice and even fire. We will never just order a 'G&T' ever again.
His pride and enthusiasm for the cocktail and its many variants was contagious as myself and the girls were hanging on his every word. Time restrictions meant we couldn't stay as long as we wanted - we had an early start the next morning, so we hit the hay dreaming of quirky Irish distilleries and waterfalls of elderflower tonic water.
A light brekkie (which the hotel go to great lengths to ensure is catered for while adhering to all Covid-19 regulations) set us up for a day of experiencing what Monaghan is all about.
The beautifully kept village of Inniskeen plays host to the Patrick Kavanagh Centre. The famous poet hails from the village and the Kavanagh family continue to be well known in the area. A beautifully restored, deconsecrated church has been developed into this interactive museum and arts space. Patrick Kavanagh was baptised here, attended mass, and served as an altar boy in his youth within these walls.
Locals who knew the family give tours of the exhibition. We were lucky enough to meet Art, a Monaghan man with Kavanagh connections. He was a wealth of knowledge about the poet, his life and legacy, the Kavanagh family and the poems themselves.
We were brought back to our youth when Kavanagh's poetry was something to be crammed for the Leaving Cert. However, listening to them again as adults, we were struck by their beauty and poignancy. So, even if you're like us, having not considered a Kavanagh poem since you handed up English Paper 2 on a sunny June day in the late 90s, give it a go, you'll have your eyes opened to the rich history of the arts in Ulster, and be struck by the beauty of these poems with an adult ear.
Nestled next to the centre is a beautiful little coffee shop called the Raglan Road Café. In a traditional cottage with beautiful flowers, we were made feel right at home by owner Linda. Known for its amazing cakes, friendly atmosphere, and comfy setting, we were not disappointed.
Linda has done a super job of setting up for the perfect socially distant lunch by erecting screens between all of the tables, which really made us feel relaxed over our lunch. We could have had anything from brunch to soup or salads to sandwiches, but we were on holidays and there were no kids around to ruin the moment, so we went straight for the cakes! Homemade and fresh, the carrot cake, lemon meringue pie or devil's food cake are not to be missed.
After stuffing ourselves on delicious treats, we decided to blow off a few gin-induced cobwebs by taking a brisk walk around the trails and lakeviews of Lough Muckno. The weather was beautiful, which only added to the gorgeous County Monaghan landscape. It would have been a super spot for our children to have fun in the playground and enjoy some fresh air… we might just have to plan a return visit. And a jaunt to Castleblaney wouldn't be the same without catching up with the main man - Big Tom! The country music star hails from the town and is a local celebrity. We were not the only tourists hopping in next to his statue for a selfie, although perhaps we brought the age profile down a little and it all served as the perfect build up to Saturday's main event…
In the sumptuous surrounds of the Hunting Lodge at Castle Leslie, we were utterly spoiled over afternoon tea. Think Downton Abbey with less drama and notions. The elegance was highlighted by open fires, a grand piano, high ceilings and historic art. We were catered for in a well-distanced tearoom, where all patrons were given plenty of private space away from other customers. It really was a great excuse to get all dolled up!
So we put on out fancy gúnas and off we went. The food was mouth-watering with all palates being catered for: scones with lemon curd or jam, turkey and ham crustless sandwiches, mini cheesecakes and chocolate petit fours were all washed down with a glass of bubbles. Needless to say, a range of tea and coffee were flowing too.
That evening, we had planned to try out the popular Streat Yard just outside the town, but we were full to the gills and the weather was not on our side for an outdoor festival vibe. Instead, later that evening when we got back to the Hillgrove Hotel, we were restricted to our room (we had no restaurant booking made), so we ordered drinks and nibbles on room service and continued the holiday in our dressing gowns. A far cry from the opulence and dresses that afternoon, but we simply didn't care.
The next morning, we got up and went for a swim (which we booked in for on check-in), had another delicious breakfast and made our way back home.
There may not have been jugs of sangria, a warm outdoor pool and fresh paella for dinner like we had originally planned for our joint 40th, but we had an absolute ball in the Ulster county and can't wait to take our families back soon.
● Prices for the 'Eat, Sleep and Re-Treat' package at the four-star Hillgrove Hotel, which includes overnight stay, a la carte breakfast and 50-minute spa treatment, starts from €225 based on two sharing. hillgrovehotel.com
● Afternoon tea at Castle Leslie is served from 1pm-4pm daily and costs from €25pp; book in advance at Castleleslie.com
● The Patrick Kavanagh Centre opens Mon-Sat 10am-4.30pm (opens 11am on Saturdays and bank holidays. Closed Sundays). Tickets cost €10 (children six and under free). Book in advance at patrickkavanaghcentre.com
● The Raglan Road Tea Room is open Mon-Sat, 9.30am-4.30pm. Check the Streat-Yard Facebook page for the latest events and opening times.