SLIGO, County Sligo, Ireland -- I've had almost as much fun exploring the hotels of northwest Ireland as I have playing its links.
I've stayed in so many different types of accommodations in this less-traveled region, from a luxury lodge to a hip surfer's retreat, a traditional golf resort and even a chic modern European hotel.
Since a golf trip to northwest Ireland requires a fair bit of driving, choosing the right hotel makes all the difference in the success of the vacation. Although there are dozens more hotels perfectly acceptable for golf groups, I can only vouch for personal experiences at these fine places.
The Glasshouse, County Sligo
Positives: This 116-room modern hotel overlooks the rushing waters of the Garravogue River in downtown Sligo. Its location is ideal to walking about town, investigating the shops, pubs, restaurants and a museum dedicated to W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet. The Kitchen Restaurant and two bars are available inside the trendy hotel, which is wildly decorated and very interesting.
Negative: It feels more like a business or holiday haven, but they make golfers feel welcome by storing clubs.
Links nearby: It's a 15-minute drive to County Sligo Golf Club (Rosses Point). It is also equidistant between Enniscrone Golf Club (about 45 minutes to the west) and Donegal Golf Club (45 minutes to the north).
The Sandhouse Hotel & Marine Spa, County Donegal
Positives: This well recognized surfer's haunt on Rossnowlagh Beach serves as a great home base for golfers, too. Old-world charms -- antique furniture, creaky wooden staircases, ornate carpet, cute but cramped bedrooms -- complement the scenic setting outdoors. Chillin' in the Surfer's Bar after dining in the Seashell Restaurant is a must.
Negative: It is more than three hours from Dublin airport.
Links nearby: Nearest is the Donegal Golf Club. Two shorter links that I've yet to play, the par-70 Bundoran Golf Club and the par-69 Narin & Portnoo Golf Club, are within reach as well.
Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort, County Donegal
Positives: This four-star retreat -- one of the oldest golf resorts in the world circa 1893 -- boasts plenty of creature comforts. The Vardon Restaurant serves wonderful meals overlooking Sheephaven Bay. Hang out at the cozy bar for craic after dinner. There's even a warming room, where golfers put their wet gear to dry. Sadly, I've had to use this room before, but at least it works. The 15-meter pool, hot tub, steam room and sauna are rare spoils.
Negative: Although I haven't played it, the front nine of the Old Tom Morris Course got bad reviews during a visit by Golfweek raters.
Links nearby: The Sandy Hills Course and the back nine of the Old Tom Morris links are superb, as are the practice facilities. An underrated links, Portsalon Golf Club, is just minutes away, surrounded by a beautiful beach. Golfers regard the second hole as one of the best par 4s in all of Ireland.
The Ballyliffin Lodge & Spa, County Donegal
Positives: Perched on a hill at the northern tip of the Inishowen Peninsula, this four-star lodge offers nice panoramic views. The food and drinks in the restaurant and the bar are all fine, but it's the leisure center downstairs that I found most charming. Locals use the 15-person hot tub and large pool and fitness center in the basement as a sports club. I remember soaking away aches and pains in the hot tub after 36 punishing holes in the wind and rain at Ballyliffin Golf Club, while chatting up new friends sitting next to me.
Negative: It's too bad the lodge is not close enough to the golf club to walk.
McGrorys of Culdaff, County Donegal
Positives: I haven't stayed at this cozy 17-room hotel in a tiny village near Blue Flag beach, but one dinner in the Front Bar has convinced me I should. If you want an authentic Irish experience, this is the place. Macs Backroom Bar rocks with traditional Irish music and even hosts world-class acts.
Negative: There's not much here besides the hotel.
Links nearby: Ballyliffin is very close.
Redcastle Oceanfront, Golf & Spa Hotel, County Donegal
Positives: The fresh sea air and waterfront view from your breakfast table make waking up here a real treat. The dinner menu at the Edge Restaurant is excellent. Navigating the quirky hotel interior can be tricky with heavy luggage, but the rooms are spacious.
Negative: The parkland course on site isn't much.
Links nearby: It's just a short ferry ride from nearby Greencastle to the links treasures of Portstewart Golf Club, Castlerock Golf Club and Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland. Driving the opposite direction, Ballyliffin is less than an hour away.