Cabu by the Lakes Review: Forget Center Parcs, Ireland gets cabin fever at designer woodland retreat

Cabu by the Lakes Review: Forget Center Parcs, Ireland gets cabin fever at designer woodland retreat

Cabin Porn. That’s the title that catches my eye on the coffee table – a chunky, curated tome crammed with cosy cabins set in wild spaces.

Next to that book, and table, is a wood-burning stove.

Around that stove are creamy couches covered in woollen throws, timber walls hung with a mix of rustic touches (think old fly-fishing reels, balsam fir incense) and chic edits (a cocktail shaker, or black picnic hamper). There’s a Belling range, a deep bathtub on the bedroom’s coir carpet and, looking out the windows, I’m greeted by beaming glows of greenery.

If you need a tonic in our time of Covid-19, I may just have found one. Cabin Porn, where have you been all my life? And the kicker? My cabin is not in Scandinavia, or the Ozarks, or by a Canadian lake.

It is in Co Cavan.

“It’s like Center Parcs, only less hassle when you arrive”, my 10-year-old son muses as we pull up by ‘Cabü House’, a reception space set above Lough Oughter. There are no garish rubber wristbands or long lines of cars outside. Inside, subtle black floor stickers, a tiny bottle of scented hand sanitiser and black-rimmed Perspex screens are the only hints of the pandemic raging outside (we didn’t see staff wearing face coverings during our stay). A pair of vintage wooden skis hang on the wall next to a fire pit.

You can choose to just relax in your stylish cabin

You can choose to just relax in your stylish cabin

Below, I can just about see the rain-speckled surface of the lake through the trees. Across the road, there’s a forest bathing area with woodland saunas, Japanese bath and hot tubs snugly hidden beneath cedar-wood roofs. When we’re checked in, a cute wheelbarrow filled with shrubs is moved to reveal the access road, and we head off to unload into our cabin. After that, we drop off our vehicle, collect hire bikes, and freewheel into the car-free holiday oasis.

It’s worth getting the Center Parcs comparison out of the way early. For sure, both are sealed-off campuses taking square aim at those willing to spend several hundred euro on a couple of days self-catering in the woods. But Cabü by the Lakes is a fraction of the size – just 28 cabins and lakehouses are spread around the forest, there are no squeals from zip lines overhead, and no pool – not to mind Subtropical Swimming Paradise.

Where Center Parcs’ lodges are well-specced if a little Ikea-lite, the design here is a firm step up – from the copper-coated pots and Viners knives with which I throw together some pasta and salad, to the irresistible bathtub in the bedroom. We eat from enamel bowls and I wear my hiking shoes, but the linen is crisp and the Wi-Fi speedy – so you only ever have to pretend you are actually getting off-grid.

Where Center Parcs has a capacity for 2,500, this feels boutique and intimate. “Cabü cabins are for the curious, aesthestic-conscious traveller,”the blurb says. If that puts you off, and you prefer your forest escapes with Sports Bar and epic waterslides, then you’re better off re-setting the Satnav for Longford Forest.

So what exactly is Cabü, and how did it end up in the middle of Cavan? Well, based in London, the company makes timber-framed, architect-designed modular homes, studios and other spaces (the brochures are addictive now that half the world is working from home). The holiday retreat side of the business has a sister resort, Cabü by the Sea, at St Mary’s Bay in Kent – ‘Shoreditch-by-the-Sea’, as some have dubbed it. Both centre around a small spread of eco-conscious cabins, though the Irish edition begins with re-purposed builds, rather than Cabü originals.

Cabu by the Lakes in Co Cavan. Photo: Martin O'Reilly

Cabu by the Lakes in Co Cavan. Photo: Martin O’Reilly

Surprisingly, given how Instagramable the set-up is, the original village was built by the OPW as a holiday village at Killykeen back in the 1980s. Back then, of course, we called them “chalets” and drove there in Ford Cortinas. Ironically, given Cabü’s delayed opening due to Covid-19, the original resort was closed in 2002 following the foot-and-mouth outbreak, and never really got going again until Cabü acquired the operation in 2016.

It wasn’t a quick turnaround. The UK company spent several years stripping back and rebooting the original cabins, though you’ll spot surviving elements that give the results a lovely, lived-in feel – time-worn corrugated iron panelling evoking rural Ireland, for example, or barn-red roof tiles with moss peeping between them. I’ve no idea what the former chalets were like to stay in, but the concept does seem to have been ahead of its time.

“The name Killykeen in its Irish form, coill chaoin, means the beautiful wood,” reads a booklet for the original village – run by Coillte from 1989 – which staff found in a shed. “And beautiful it is, whether you choose to wander by the lakeshore paths or lose yourself in the populous solitude of the quiet trees.” In addition to wandering, or barbecuing on their back porches, guests can hire decent bikes (€20/€10 per day) and rent kayaks (€20/€10 per hour), SUP boards (€25 an hour) or boats (from €40 to €80, depending on whether you have a motor). Given the setting, fishing is the cherry on the cake.

Shortly after checking in, we report to the boathouse where a ridiculously rugged ghillie in wraparound shades, a black Cabü baseball cap and lumberjack shirt (part of the staff uniform, I later notice), gives us a crash course in rods and tackle. After dispatching with a waiver requiring several signatures, we putter out with our rods – the only boat on the lake in peak season.

Social distancing decals at Cabu by the Lakes

Social distancing decals at Cabu by the Lakes

Cavan is famously said to have a lake for every day of the year, and zooming in on the location in Google Maps, I find blue water splattered like camouflage around the red pin. It rains, there are bugs, and social distancing is of course a bit disruptive to everything, but the restfulness of the setting seems to sink into my stressy frame, almost by osmosis.

“We’re going to trawl for fish here,” our ghillie says, as the water narrows into a connecting channel. “We’ll let the boat do the work for us.” The lines go out, and we slip into a Lost World of overhanging trees, stone-arch bridges and the odd cloud of midges. Swans glide by with their signets, and we spot two flitting kingfishers. By the time we’re done, we’ve hooked (and returned) two glistening pike.

Back on our bikes, we spin up to ‘Cabü Corner’ – ie the shop – to inspect the goods and goodies. I steel myself for a generic stash of imported lifestyle items, but my first impression is one of encouraging local sourcing. “Cavan is very foodie,” Kate Carolan, the Sales & Marketing Manager, tells me as I snoop through Corleggy cheeses and Gubbeen meats, ready meals from Kayla’s Kitchen reasonably priced from €3 to €8, and Lough Gill and Wicklow Wolf craft beers among the takeaway drinks.

You’ll notice practically every furnishing in the cabin for sale here too – from those snazzy knives to the balsam fir incense and Dr Bronner’s bathroom products, to stuff like Izipizi sunglasses, vintage posters and Zoeppritz throws (€169 a pop). It’s a smart retail offering for a captive audience, but it doesn’t make me feel like a sucker, and there aren’t ridiculous, mini-bar-style mark-ups. A bog-standard tin of beans costs €1.30, for example.

Next door, the ‘Sitooterie’ (“the architect made it up,” Kate says when I ask about the word) is an outdoor, safari-style covered deck with a glass-enclosed fire pit, giant games like Jenga and Connect Four, and tables with gas-lit fires on which you can toast marshmallows. You can bring your own booze and food out (it’s quiet on our visit, but I could see some great craic here) or buy from the bar and restaurant. That’s closed for now, due to Covid-19, but set to open in October.

Ah yes, Covid-19. It hasn’t gone away during our little interlude, and Cabü’s website outlines the various hygiene, safety and distancing protocols in place. The resort is cashless, sauna and tub bookings are for 30-minute slots with thorough sanitation in between. Screens and signage are subtle (a change from glaring yellow), but I found the small hand sanitiser bottles easy to miss, and though its website asks guests to bring face coverings for some activities and times when social distancing isn’t possible, I don’t see any staff wearing them indoors. “We do have staff that prefer to wear a mask, which is a personal choice,” the company later tells me. “There is no obligation to wear masks where social distancing is possible and screens are used.”

A hot tub in the forest  

A hot tub in the forest

Quibbles? The Wi-Fi and rainshowers were super, but the smart TVs felt a little small (32″) to me. With just one fork, knife and spoon per person in our cutlery drawer, we could forget about getting lazy with the wash-up, too. There are no Cabü road-signs along the R-roads we took – so set the satnav, or navigate for Killykeen Forest Park.

As a packing note, paths and trails can be loose and mucky, so don’t bother with high-heels or glad-rags; it’s very much casual, cabin chic here. Similarly, no matter how cool and curated, this is a forest – so prepare for midges, horseflies and other bugs along the way.

I’m inherently resistant to Insta shtick, but you’ve got to call a good idea when you see it. And this is one. The reborn “chalets” are a million miles from Mosney, and there will be cries of pretension and over-pricing, but this is a well-conceived, luxury product that takes an under-rated Irish forest location and elevates it to something you wouldn’t be surprised to find in Canada or Scandinavia.

Slowly but surely, Ireland’s hidden heartlands are emerging from the ether. Center Parcs opened a year ago. With Cabü by the Lakes bringing some much-needed good news in 2020, two of our least-visited counties have gained a pair of world-class forest retreats in just 12 months.

Cabin Porn could be catching on.

Get there

Overnight stays in a one-bedroom cabin start from €175 per night, with a three-night minimum (busy times and two- and three-bed stays are more expensive). Activities and bike hire cost extra. Pól stayed as a guest.

A lodge interior  

A lodge interior

Contact 049 489-4027; holidays.cabu.co.uk.

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