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TAKING HIGH ROADS AND LOW ROADS THROUGH IRELAND : In County Kildare, cocooned in baronial bliss among the horsy set at the superposh Kildare Hotel and Country Club

July 10, 1994|LISA MARLOWE | Marlowe is a Malibu-based free-lance writer

TRAFFAN, Ireland — At the risk of sounding snobbish, I am not a bed and breakfast type person. I do not like my morning tea with strangers seated around a sturdy pine table, slurped from thick, hand-thrown mugs. Let it arrive on a tray, poured from a Limoges pot, toast standing like soldiers in a silver rack, a red rosebud for a splash of color. I like crumbs in the bed when I leave it for the day, and I've left them in some lovely establishments.

This bank-breaking habit has taken us to hotels such as the Gritti Palace and the Cipriani in Venice, Im Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna and Hong Kong's breathtaking Regent.

And now, Ireland's newish Kildare Hotel, an ordered little dominion that takes your pleasure very seriously, as my mate and I discovered on a visit late last August.

Hotels themselves are a relatively new enterprise in Ireland where, until the mid-1800s, tiny wayside inns were the order of the day, offering little more than a stable for the stallions, a pub for a pint and a soft place to lay your head.

Today's travelers to these gentle shores, however, include a sophisticated set seeking gourmet repasts, genteel sports and elegant swaddling. There has been a vast chasm between what they sought and what they got. Then along came the Kildare Hotel and Country Club, a Relais & Chateaux and Exclusive Hotels member, with a standard so lavish nothing in Ireland can quite compare with it.

The challenge, say the owners, the Smurfit Group Corp., run by Michael Smurfit (whose family is Ireland's answer to the Rockefellers), was to create a world-class hotel with a uniquely Gaelic atmosphere. True, the countryside hereabouts is dotted with Georgian- and Regency-style inns, comfy and sweet, but far from grand. You could not compare the very best of them to Scotland's Inverlochy Castle, or England's Cliveden Hotel, Sharrow Bay Country House, or Chewton Glen, all paragons of virtue in which we have stayed and that never fail to impress.

Surprisingly, though, after my husband and I stayed there, we decided the Kildare may be the closest to perfection we've ever experienced. Its staff and managers appear to stick to their own golden rule: High-paying guests should arrive armed with lofty expectations and prepare to have them met, not with a curt smile or deferential nod but with an almost ennobling reverence.

Located 30 minutes and 17 miles from Dublin and sprawled on 330 acres, the Kildare boasts an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, sybaritic health spa and the country's only Michelin-starred restaurant, the Byerley Turk. Opened in 1991, the "K Club," as it's locally known, is a sensual feast for eye, ear, taste, touch and smell. Everything looks bucolically beautiful; peace reigns throughout. It is, in fact, confoundingly hard to pick the bones out of the place.

A genuinely warm spirit of hospitality is what sets the Irish country house hotel apart from its British or French cousins, an ardor that welcomes the stranger without question. And even within the Kildare's sumptuous environs, that quality is present.

Unlike drafty stone castles and ancient rambling manors that have been merely half converted to accommodate overnight guests, Straffan House, the Kildare's centuries-old historical setting, was entirely re-made and added-to in a resoundingly successful architectural style that defies you to guess where the old manor ends and the new wing begins.

The main building, where the majority of guest rooms and suites are located, is an edifice rex resembling a French chateau more reminiscent of the Loire Valley than an Irish county. But the classic grand theme frees the guest rather than confines. You want to ramble through these halls and are encouraged to do so. You can walk to the very end of a corridor to examine one of the splendid Russian oil portraits on display, or climb to the third floor to admire the view from bow windows of the sculptured gardens below, the River Liffey and legendary Hill of Allen in the distance beyond.

Be aware, however, that your fellow guests are of the Hermes golf bag and cashmere pullover ilk, a preppyish club of East Coast Americans, English lords and Irish bankers. (Their royal guest just last weekend was Monaco's Prince Albert.) Venturing out in the early morning air for a quick run when everyone seemed fast asleep in their linen sheets, I hastily threw on a pair of old bicycle shorts and faded sweat shirt. Much to my chagrin, I returned to find a lobby full of the country club set, decked out in their softest flannels and silks. I bet the staff at the desk had never seen anyone bolt up that sweeping center staircase so fast.

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