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The West's best-kept secret

I've always been a bit intimidated by golf. The clubs, bought second-hand years ago in a fit of enthusiasm, have languished in the shed ever since. And any time I stay at a hotel with a course I keep well away from the greens and leave it to the pros.

I've never thought of golf as a game for all the family to play, but a place like Castle Dargan ridded me of some of those prejudices.

There's passion and enthusiasm for the game. And while the hotel boasts a class course, there's no elitism or snobbery about it. The resort has its own top- notch pro -- Frenchman Xavier Medas -- who's a brilliant teacher.

If you want to play the game, the course has been lovingly created based on a design by Darren Clarke.

If you're not up to that, you can borrow some clubs from the friendly guys at the golf shop and there's a big par-3 training area, for a bit of pitch and putt practice, that's never overly crowded.

Castle Dargan itself is a hidden treasure in a beautiful county that's often overlooked, even though in many areas it's as stunning as the west coast gets.

The rooms are modern and very Radisson-ish. My only gripe was a noisy duvet that was a little light for my tastes.

Talking of taste, the Hall Door restaurant is exceptional, a place where fine dining doesn't mean tiny portions. The cuisine is modern but the portions are old-Ireland big, with gargantuan steaks and, a rarity for Ireland, wines which start in the low €20 bracket.

Filled with locals -- a good sign -- it offers a beautiful view over the golf course and surrounding countryside and there's a nice buzz about it.

If you're busy playing golf, your better half can look out at you from the Icon Spa, which has plenty of good deals on offer.

There's also a relaxing hydropool, with jets of bubbling water to ease away those aches and pains, and a rare O2 bar, where you can breathe in 95pc pure oxygen, which is seemingly good for the intake of vitamins and minerals to your body.

The hotel is ideally placed to visit Sligo. Even though you're in the heart of the country, the town's just a 10-minute drive away. Given a makeover over the past few years, it's a buzzing spot with some great drinking and dining options.

Hargadon Bros is an historic pub, filled with snugs, nooks and crannies. Its pub grub attracts a big clientele of locals and tourists alike.

If you fancy something more exotic, the riverbank area (a nice spot for a walk) is home to Tobergal Lane Cafe (www.tobergallanecafe.ie), a tapas and wine bar that's light on the pocket. There's music at weekends, too, and it's got a cosmopolitan air for such a small town. And while we often don't think of Ireland as a foodie haven, it's interesting that any restaurants I encountered were committed to local producers and quality ingredients.

Best of all, the hotel has plenty of good value deals that won't break the bank.

>>The four-star Castle Dargan has midweek breaks with two nights B&B and one dinner for €129 per person sharing.

The same package with a round of golf will cost an extra €30pp. Another round is €20 more. There's also a Super Sunday overnight with golf or spa dry float package and B&B for €60pps and a Sligo Races special.

>Mark Evans