Sheen Falls Lodge Rating: 4.5 Pearls
Sheen Falls Lodge is arguably the top hotel in County Kerry. The 300-acre estate belonged to the Marquess of Landsowne in the 18th century, and the hotel -- opened in 1991 -- feels like a country manor house. It has a stunning setting on both Kenmare Bay and Sheen River, which has, as the name suggests, gentle tumbling waterfalls. The 66 rooms have classic country decor -- crown molding, cheerful prints (plaids and florals among them, in moderation), and soft yellow walls; all but one have water views. Estate activities range from clay pigeon shooting to fishing to tennis, and more traditional luxury hotel features include a lovely indoor pool, spa, and small fitness center. Formal fine dining is offered at La Cascade restaurant, while (slightly) less expensive dishes are served at the classy Restaurant Lounge. The sommelier hosts daily tastings in the wine cellar.
Dylan Hotel Rating: 4.5 Pearls
The Dylan Hotel is a stylish 44-room boutique with a quiet and safe location in Dublin 4, an upscale neighborhood a short walk from the city center. Each room has been individually styled with a mix of whimsical decor -- artistic headboards, intricate mirrors, and statement chairs -- and classic pieces. Amenities are fantastic for such a small property. In the room, there are flat-screen TVs, iPod docks (with iPods loaded with historical Dublin walking tours), stocked minibars, and bathrooms with underfloor heating. Some bathrooms also have big, luxurious soaking tubs with small flat-screen TVs. Amenities in the hotel include a fitness room, cozy bar, heated outdoor terrace, solid restaurant, and 24-hour room service. In addition to its character and sleek style, the Dylan is known for excellent service.
Ashford Castle Rating: 4.5 Pearls
Ashford Castle embodies the fantasy of the Irish castle hotel, featuring a massive historic stone facade, complete with towers and turrets; gorgeous, manicured grounds; a stunning setting on a huge lake; and common spaces that are truly grand, with rich wood paneling, chandeliers, and antique furniture. But there are only 83 rooms, so guests get a surprisingly intimate experience (though the rooms themselves could use a renovation). George V Dining Room offers excellent, formal fine dining (jackets are required in the evening), and drinks and tea can be enjoyed in the graceful drawing room with lake views. The wide range of estate activities includes falconry lessons, boat tours on the lake, golf on the 9-hole course, clay shooting, and archery.
Ballynahinch Castle Hotel Rating: 4.0 Pearls
The 40-room Ballynahinch Castle Hotel is a less formal, more accessible alternative to the more famous Ashford Castle to the east. It has a riverfront location amid the wild, unspoiled beauty of Connemara and decor that's alternately homey and elegant. It's more of a manor house than a castle, but the main structure dates to the 18th century and both the building and the estate are steeped in history. The 450-acre grounds offer a range of activities, including beautiful hikes, woodcock shooting, and fishing. Both restaurants serve terrific gourmet cuisine using fish, game, and mushrooms from the surrounding region.
The House Hotel Rating: 4.0 Pearls
This intimate, 40-room boutique is one of Galway's best upscale options, and has charm to spare, with a historic stone exterior and bold, quirky interior. There are few features to speak of -- no fitness center, spa services, or dedicated meeting rooms -- but the convenient location near the Spanish Arch and the heart of the Latin Quarter is ideal for sightseeing. Rooms have bright, stylish contemporary decor and upscale bathrooms with towel warmers and rainfall showerheads. The restaurant, The House Cocktail Bar & Bistro, is a local hot spot and serves modern Irish cuisine.
Bushmills Inn Rating: 4.0 Pearls
The quaint Bushmills Inn in Antrim is quintessentially Irish in every respect: There are fireplaces burning peat or wood throughout the property, a fantastic restaurant serving locally sourced cuisine, Irish music performed certain nights at the Gas Bar, which is lit by traditional gaslight, and 41 cozy, cottage-style rooms. The inn has a rich history dating back to 1608, when a coach house and stables stood here, and the actual main inn building dates to the 1820s; the historic character has been carefully and thoughtfully preserved throughout. Views of the river are marred by the parking lot sitting right in front of it, but most guests are impressed enough by the inn's warmth and coziness that they find little to complain about.
La Stampa Hotel & Spa Rating: 4.0 Pearls
The La Stampa Hotel & Spa is a 28-room boutique option in the center of Dublin. Eastern and Moroccan themes dominate the decor, and rooms have comfortable beds, flat-screen TVs, and stocked minibars. All rooms have free Wi-Fi and some have luxurious soaking tubs. The on-site Mandala Spa continues the Moroccan theme and offers a long list of treatments, along with cozy seating. Restaurants and bars are a draw at this hotel, including the upscale Pink Supper Club and Sam Sara, home to a great late-night scene. The location on Dawson Street is easy walking distance from shopping on Grafton Street and St. Stephen's Green, but the hotel is on the pricey side.
The Beacon Hotel Rating: 4.0 Pearls
The Beacon Hotel is a trendy 88-room boutique that is a breath of hip, fresh air in the Dublin hotel scene. All-white rooms have fun design features including pops of color, bamboo shoots, and ornate headboards. Bathrooms are equally chic with modern fixtures, gray tiles, and walk-in showers; some rooms have sexy freestanding soaking tubs in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. The location is far from Dublin's tourist spots -- but close the tram (LUAS) for reaching the city center -- and parking is free. Hotel features include the Crystal Bar for cocktails, My Thai restaurant, a beer garden, and free Wi-Fi.
Schoolhouse Hotel Rating: 4.0 Pearls
The Schoolhouse is a charming, historic hotel located in the leafy Ballsbridge neighborhood. The building housed a school from 1859 through 1969, and underwent a restoration in 1997 that preserved its historic character. The result is a traditional, cozy boutique hotel unlike any other in Dublin. All rooms are named after a famous Irish writer and have classic decor including floral prints and antiques. Rooms do have modern touches as well, including flat-screen TVs, free Wi-Fi, and fluffy duvets. Bathrooms have historic charm, but are a little snug. The architecture of the hotel is most striking in Olivier's Restaurant and the Schoolhouse Bar, which share a beamed cathedral ceiling. The vibrant neighborhood bar has a fireplace, outdoor seating, and screens to show all the big sports matches. The quiet location, excellent food, and history of this hotel make it one of Dublin's best affordable picks.