I must admit, a block of cheddar cheese embedded with dried cranberries would not normally get a second glance on my weekly grocery shop.

But as it was part of the complimentary Natural Retreats welcome hamper on arrival at The Heritage Resort, and was accompanied by a bottle of wine, I felt obliged to indulge.

Natural Retreats offer a range of self-catering breaks in some great locations throughout Ireland, including the historic Castlemartyr in Cork, the stunning Adare Manor in Limerick or the scenic The Hollies, located close to the Ring of Kerry.

My Natural Retreats visit was just a short-hop down the road from Dublin to the family-friendly residences at The Heritage, nestled in the charming village of Killenard.

The wine and cheese were put on hold as I took a stroll around the sprawling resort to check out the facilities on offer at the five-star Heritage.

The five-kilometre walking trail takes you around the grounds of the hotel and while neither the most scenic nor challenging of walks, it gives you a good perspective of the area, and some great views of the championship golf course.

Access to the Heritage Health Club is included in your stay and while outdoor running and circuit training classes with an army of fitness instructor are on offer, I chose a more holiday-friendly approach by taking a dip in the 15-metre heated swimming pool, followed by an invigorating Jacuzzi, sauna and steam room to set me up for the evening's entertainment.

A dedicated fitness studio with top-of-the range techno gym exercise equipment is also on site.

Night-time options are plentiful at The Heritage. The hotel offers fine dining in The Arlington Room, while the main bar serves a decent menu in a more casual, yet still classy environment throughout the evening.

Sol Orien's Italian Restaurant & Steakhouse is located just outside the main hotel on the resort grounds and proved very popular. One of the staff appeared quite proud in informing us that the restaurant was completely booked out. Always a good sign.

Green's pop-up restaurant in the golf club was Plan B, which proved a very adequate alternative, and while not the most authentic of Mexican cuisine, as advertised, the food was tasty and enjoyed in good company.

The hotel's Slieve Bloom Bar proved a tad too sedate for a weekend nightcap so a short stroll of no more than two minutes was undertaken to the resort's very own local, The Thatch.

The live music was in full flow on one side of the bar, while the lounge area was full of locals and tourists enjoying the final hours of Saturday night.

One thing you will certainly miss when staying in the five-star hotel's apartments is the breakfast banquet. There is nothing better than rolling down to the hotel restaurant for a full Irish, fresh fruit, juices, teas and coffees.

So come prepared. You need not go hungry with a bit of advance planning. A grocery shop en route to The Heritage will prove very valuable as the apartment facilities are top class, boasting full-size kitchens and dining areas and, weather permitting, you can dine al fresco on the adjacent patio.

In fact, the entire living quarters are more than a match for a swanky hotel room: luxury bedrooms and living rooms complete with all mod cons, including flat screen televisions with DVD players.

Indeed, a dreary Irish afternoon will prove much more bearable in the comforts of your apartment rather than sitting awkwardly on the edge of a bed somewhere else with a poor selection of teas and coffees, spoiled by the obligatory UHT milk.

The weather for my long weekend was fairly flawless, however the wet hours were not enjoyed watching the mid-afternoon matinee but taking on The Heritage's pride and joy, the Ballesteros Championship Golf Course.

Designed by Seve Ballesteros and Jeff Howes, the course was built to follow the natural contours of the undulating Laois countryside.

The track was a joy to play (in between showers) and was in superb condition, the summer rains making the fantastic fairways look particularly lush.

The greens are in excellent condition, running fast yet through, while the rough is punitive with lots of water in play, adding aesthetics and hazards in equal measure. And while the Ballesteros is certainly a resort-friendly course, a good score will be earned as it really is designed with the highest level of golf in mind.

The only fault I could find was the quality of sand in the bunkers - the downpour made the hazards almost unplayable with sticky, cement-like conditions underfoot.

A nice touch arrives on the ninth tee-box as a telephone kiosk has a direct line to the clubhouse café, which will have your order ready by the time you reach the halfway point.

All 18 holes proved a joy to play but the ninth and 18th proved most memorable as they are almost a mirror image of each other, playing either side of a water hazard that is very much in play.

If you hit a nice draw off the tee, you will find no problems on the ninth, but you better beware on the final hole as that very same shot could be what spoils your card.

The prestigious Seve Trophy took place at The Heritage in 2007, with a field including Colin Montgomerie, Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Robert Karlsson, Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jiménez.

The five-star golfing experience continues throughout the locker-rooms, club shop and bar, while an excellent academy is located on the far side of the resort. There, a very testing par three course will hone your short-game skills ahead of trying to tame the Ballesteros beast.

My stay at The Heritage was completed with a visit to the hotel's showpiece restaurant, The Arlington Room.

The menu offers contemporary international cuisine using the finest Irish ingredients. The Clonakilty black pudding starter stood out, while the main courses included pan-fried cod, lamb and pan-seared beef fillet.

The five-course meal included a sorbet interlude and a tasty dessert menu, served with tea and coffee for a very modest €45 per head, although some menu items come with supplementary charges.

Out and About
Your days and nights at the Heritage will be busy, such is the amount of facilities on offer during your three-night stay in the resort apartments. However, if you do choose to venture off-resort for a day trip, there are several options in the vicinity of the hotel.

A day out at the Curragh Racecourse can continue the sporting theme or a visit to the Kildare Village Outlet will fulfil any shopping cravings.

The Irish National Stud & Gardens and the Slieve Bloom Mountains are also close by, while other options include a boating excursion along the Grand Canal or perhaps a parachute jump, which is certain to provide the best view of the spectacular countryside throughout these parts.

For more information, visit: www.naturalretreats.ie.

Ed Leahy
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