Catskills cosiness meets Nordic sophistication at the dreamy Cabü by the Lakes in Co Cavan

Escaping Dublin for the first time since February, Lucy White discovers the staycation of dreams in Killykeen Forest. With Harry Styles. Sort of


Cabü by the Lakes is living proof that hygge isn’t just a buzzword liberally lobbied by book publishers, editors and influencers a few years ago. 

It is right there, living and breathing in the wood burning stoves, Killarney Woolen Mills bed throws, Cavallini Papers & Co botanical illustrations, copper Vogue saucepans, matte black Viner’s knives and more; a multicultural, though largely transatlantic-facing, melange of handsome, high-spec, investable lifestyle products that you can purchase in its on site retail unit Cabü Corner.

It’s as if the Catskills, Puget Sound, Ozarks and Body & Soul festival have all been transplanted 10km west of Cavan town, with a bit of Nordic sophistication, LA hipsterdom, British engineering and – spoiler alert – Irish hospitality thrown in. And I liked it, very much.

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The Sitooterie, a cosy communal area for sips, snacks and siestas

 

Considered design

Cabü by the Lakes is the brainchild of Irish property developers Olivia Hutchinson and JP Ledwidge, and his London-based interior designer/restaurateur siblings Johanna and Aoife (J&C Studios, J&C Café). The sisters studied design at Chelsea College of Design and Central St Martins, which shines throughout this car-free, 100-acre arboreal site: each textile, surface and wall hanging has been carefully considered and curated.

Cabü is a new entry to Ireland, but is already established as a holiday village, aka Cabü by the Sea, on the UK’s Kent coast. Modular woodland cabins, in which we stayed, are spaced out enough to feel you’re not encroaching on anyone’s privacy yet close enough to keep horror-film flashbacks at bay. 

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Inside, natural materials and a woodland-referencing colour palette are juxtaposed with industrial elements more akin to the Ace hotel group – black brushed metal pendant lamps, cabinets, mirror and clothes hangers on a rail in lieu of a wardrobe – which creates a pleasing frisson, while lakeside cabins have a lighter, more Scandinavian feel and palette.

 

A woodland cabin exterior, one of six such lodges

 

Remarkably, even though they resemble contemporary hickster-hipster barn conversions around Hudson Valley NY, these lakeside cabins date back to the 1980s, when they provided popular holiday park accommodation until the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2002 decimated State forests and all whom vacationed in them. This four-years-in-the-making, multi-million revamp is nothing short of a revelation. 

Supermarket sweep

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And you couldn’t want for more stylish, or more plentiful, homewares either; there’s even a cocktail shaker and weighty martini glasses. Ecover washing up liquid, Dr Bronner’s hand wash and all-in-one hair and body shampoo, dish cloths and tea towels are all accounted for (though do bring a robe and slippers, if you’re that way inclined), while a handy welcome pack keeps the munchies at bay: ours included McCloskey’s bread, homemade granola, four packets of crisps, crackers in cellophane, individual pats of Kerrygold butter – and only a handful of teabags, so if you’re a Mrs Doyle, like me, you’ll need to bring considerably more. Like a hamper of Barry’s. 

That’s the rub. It had been so long since “doing” self-catering, we’d forgotten to stuff the car with a feast fit for a king and queen than suffer onsite-store pricing. Without the bar and restaurant having opened during our stay, dropping €9 a piece on brown and beige ready-meals, or the choice of two frozen pizzas, in Cabü Corner wasn’t any more appetising that it was economical. We consoled ourselves with the nightly barbecue laid on for media liggers instead.

 

A beautiful bedroom in a woodland cabin

 

If I return – sorry, when I return – I’ll be loading the car boot with animals, vegetables, minerals, condiments, seasoning, dressing, beers and wine, and spend the entire drive deliberating if to spend €27 on barbecue hire at the cabin or not. You’ll want to bring your own firewood, too: €16 for a log burner pack is quite the spend, ditto €10 on a high chair or €122 on a cot. Cycling families may even consider bringing their own: adult hire costs €20 per day, kids’ €10.

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Throw in kayak and rowing-boat hire (€20 and €40 respectively) and you could end up spending a fortune on add-ons. But there’s so much to enjoy that money just can’t buy.

Wood-fired hot tubs and saunas don’t come as standard in your average Irish holiday park and yet, there they are, bubbling away, luring guests with their billowing steam and tiresome selfie opportunities of holding a champagne flute aloft while giving it the full Blue Steel.

I sank into the vaporous vessel where resinous scents and meandering thoughts filled my head beneath a twitching, increasingly damp canopy

Hot tubs, and saunas, must be booked in advance at Cabü Club, to allow for coronavirus-standard sanitation in between each wallow. I took social distancing to the max and opted for the “Forest Bathing” experience: a Japanese hot bath for one, hidden in a thicket and beside a cylindrical sauna that looks like Hobbits might, perhaps, live in.

Defying the drizzle and lacklustre July air temperature, I stripped down to my one-piece and sank into the vaporous vessel where resinous scents and meandering thoughts filled my head beneath a twitching, increasingly damp canopy. It was one of those typically Irish all-seasons-in-one-day evenings: torrential rain and grubby skies one minute, glistening sunlight and brilliant blue the next. 

Squirrels and sunbursts

Somehow, I was in that bathtub for nearly two hours; navel-gazing par excellence, while watching Mother Nature’s ever-changing light show: direct sunlight hitting what I assumed was a wet leaf that now resembled a tiny, flickering flame, and the occasional ecclesiastical sunburst through a clearing. I also – thrillingly – spotted a rare red squirrel, swinging through the treetops.

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Forest bathing, as per the Japanese notion of mindfully engaging all the senses while immersed in woodland – shinrin-yoku – was never intended to be literal. But, there, sat soup-hot in a cloud of hot steam and enveloped by mature trees peppered with woodland birds (and one red squirrel) my experience couldn’t have been bettered.

 

The "Forest Bathing" experience – the Japanese bath

 

Another bone-idle treat, but that you don’t need to prebook, is kicking back at the Sitooterie, which is a Scottish colloquialism for gazebo. I’m not generally a fan of rain, but while observed from the fireside sanctuary of this large communal living room studded with comfy armchairs – and giant Connect 4 – the experience was enhancing.

Busy blue damselflies and pond skaters danced over a millpond-calm surface that was a joy to cut through

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A meander along Lake Oughter is a highlight too. One small part of a 22,000-acre network of waterways that feed into the River Erne, it’s ripe with trout, pike, bream and perch, making it a hit with anglers – and also kayakers, which is what we did during one rare break in the weather.

Busy blue damselflies and pond skaters danced over a millpond-calm surface that was a joy to cut through, a ballet of swans in the middle distance and cows mooing over yonder. I have no idea how long we were out there, our kayaks hugging an island’s shoreline, but it was well worth the sopping-wet kecks from our dripping paddles.

Nature immersion can be at once revitalising and exhausting, a sudden lack of domestic drudgery – amplified by the stresses of lockdown – permitting us to do less, not more. Add frequent downpours into the mix and there were opportunities aplenty to hunker down at the cabin and, appropriately enough, sleep like a log. 

Sleeping in style

Until Harry Styles made an entrance, that is. On my last day at Cabü by the Lakes, two people – my sister and my boss – tagged me on the Calm app’s Instagram post promoting the singer’s “sleep story” narration. Fireside and supine, the heat of a whiskey nightcap in my throat, I was already dozy, but curiosity got the better of me, so I registered for Calm’s free seven-day trial and retired to bed… 

Forests, gleaming lakes, an island, sheltering beneath porches to watch the rain pour down… Style’s dulcet, Cheshire tones had practically described the last 24 hours, well, apart from the bits about he and I holding hands in sunflower fields and “snuggling” on rafts, sadly. “Somehow now, we're in a cabin, taking in this view, as a fire crackles in the corner, just for me and you…”

While his somnambular scenarios were certainly enjoyable, they were more stimulating than sleep-inducing. Guided scene-setting meditations have always had the opposite of the desired effect in me, lighting up a part of my brain that should probably be winding down, although, in this instance, coaxing deep sleep was never really the intention. Coaxing lusty, impressionable fans to subscribe to an app on the other hand… Pure genius.

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All cabins have a porch or terrace area, with the option of a barbecue

 

Waking the next morning – for I eventually nodded off – I noticed that the forest green velvet curtains look dark red when drawn. Now, I’m pretty sure there’s science behind this but I’m sticking with woodland magic since I was still in the esoteric zone after Harry’s lullaby. As Stephen Sondheim said, there’s something about the woods…

That my Cabü by the Lakes weekend climaxed – figuratively speaking – with Wizard Styles was the cherry on top of a memorable weekend that is really nothing like anything else in Ireland right now and well worth filling up the car for.

Three nights’ minimum stay from €175 per night. Changeover days every Monday and Friday.

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Read more: Five minutes with... the Irish sisters behind the interior selections at Cabü cabins in Cavan

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