Liss Ard was “love at first sight,” new owner Michael Johnston told me when I visited in February. Back then, the place was full of snowdrops and construction workers were busy renovating.
It’s not hard to feel this love. A stroll across West Cork’s 183-acre estate took us from rolling vistas to heavenly forests, a reed-fringed lake and James Turrell’s ‘Sky Garden’ – a 25-metre-high oval crater where you can lie on pedestals to gaze at the sky to look. Liss Ard is also full of stories – owners have ranged from the O’Donovan clan to a Swiss spy; The 1990s festivals hosted Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and others. Bono also celebrated a milestone birthday here.
Johnston and his business partner Colin Best bagged all of this for a cool €3.5m in 2021, turning Liss Ard – whose former interiors he described as “simply tragic” – into a Blue Book bolthole in Skibbereen.
“I want people to feel like they’re in their best friend’s mansion or mansion,” he says. Now it’s reopened, I’ve returned for a proper stay.
Arrival & location
A Victorian mansion on a hilltop in West Cork… Liss Ard has all the character and drama it suggests. Located just outside of Skibbereen, the gates of the estate lead to a one kilometer drive along a winding, well maintained road through beautiful grounds before you reach the 19th century retreat.
The house looks freshly painted, with fresh planting and blue tits nesting in old stone walls. However, a sparse drop-off area could be softened with smarter planting. Service trolleys use the same space.
Inside, there’s a friendly welcome at a desk under a large window, and help with luggage transfer to our suite, one of five upstairs rooms. Incidentally, if you’re using Google Maps, plan a course through Skibbereen to avoid a maze of country roads for the final leg of the journey. 7/10
service & style
Liss Ard reopened in April and highlights include an elegant bar framed by woodland paintings, a lounge with an open fire and shelves stocked with books, games and vinyl, and stunning artwork by Donagh Carey. It’s an airy, non-stuffy vibe; the kind of place you would love to book for a party.
But right now it doesn’t feel finished. Bare hallways and console tables call out for a few plants and objets d’art, and two parlors down the hall seem as if their uses haven’t been figured out yet (the baby grand piano notwithstanding). They should be inviting for a read or a drink, but the various furnishings have little feng shui. With no carpets or fabrics, the restored hardwood floors also carry a lot of sound throughout the home. “It’s a work in progress,” GM Shelley Steadman tells me – additions are on the way.
Outside, the Sky Garden (which you can book for 20-minute slots), 12km of hiking trails, and Scandi-style wooden saunas and a lakeside workout studio are world-class. Steaming in the sauna, with scenic views of a lake before we plunge into it, is a brilliant blend of luxury and nature, and a moment where Johnston’s vision makes perfect sense.
The staff is nice and friendly, but operations can take a little time to meet the expectations of Blue Book guests. We’re seeing some long waits for breakfast and some confusion over whether or not the first few weeks have been a ‘soft opening’. 6/10
The 26 rooms include historic manor house suites and ‘Cosy’ or ‘King’ Mews stays furnished in contemporary country luxe style. Some of them have ground floor access with terraces on the walled garden; four are pet friendly. Separate rooms in the Lake House are scheduled to open in June.
We stayed in a Manor Suite with a bird’s eye view of the estate. It’s a beautiful space with a modern, sleek desk with a four-poster bed that opens into a vanity, and a large, blissful bathroom with a free-standing bath, walk-in shower, and gold detailing on the faucets, towel rails, and shower glass rims.
However, I think it needs more layers. There are no bathrobes or a turndown table, a small kettle, and a Nespresso machine feels like an afterthought in a wardrobe with UHT milk and no snacks (a missed opportunity for fresh West Cork goodies), and I spend some time to rearrange the furniture. It’s great to see refillable dispensers on the shower wall, but there aren’t any on the bathtub. 6.5/10
Garden is Liss Ard’s basement restaurant, focusing on local, seasonal produce. This is West Cork, so lip service won’t do, and chef Alex Petit’s menus are worthy of his two AA Rosettes.
The space needs an overhaul in terms of sound and decor, but that’s yet to come, and the service is warm and informed. An amuse-bouche of Union Hall salmon on a house-made crisp sets a delicious tone, and the presentation of dishes such as scallops with asparagus, nettles and coco de paimpol beans, St. Tola goat’s cheese with a flake of beetroot and Meringue or cod de Provence is artful without feeling precious.
There’s a tasty side of smoky potatoes with sour cream (don’t miss it), and the chef’s appearance to introduce our entrees is a nice touch. Celiac needs are well catered for which is reassuring and you can also book lunches, afternoon tea or picnics. 7.5/10
Longer stays are possible in the low season; Check the work remote tab on the website.
On a second night, dine at The Church, a popular Skibbereen restaurant rebuilt after a fire in 2006. The monkfish scampi (€22.90) are perfection.
The final result
The gardens, walks and lakeside saunas at Liss Ard are superb and the food worthy of West Cork. But its design, service and experience still have a long way to go before reaching the heights of grand, immersive Irish estates like Marlfield House, Ballymaloe or Tankardstown. I’m more excited for the potential than the present, but when the interiors are finished, the service is refined, and the Lake House opens this summer, it should be a great place to indulge yourself.
B&B from €179 to €329 in Mews Rooms and €249 to €495 for Manor Suites. Pól was a guest of the hotel. lissardestate.ie
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/reviews/hotel-reviews/hotel-review-liss-ard-springs-back-to-life-with-sky-garden-and-lakeside-saunas-41614794.html Hotel Rating: Liss Ard comes alive with Sky Garden and lakeside saunas