Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites

 

In 2007, Marie-Thérèse and Ruairí de Blacam moved to the remote island of Inis Meáin, Ireland, driven by a compelling dream: to open a boutique hotel that fosters an intimate connection between its guests and the island environment.

This dream manifested as Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites, a hotel composed of just five suites, each with sweeping views of the stark island landscape and the vast ocean beyond. Guests dine nightly at the hotel’s restaurant, which serves meals crafted with herbs and vegetables grown on the island and seafood harvested from its shores. During their visits, guests can spend their days exploring the island by foot or bicycle, experiencing its bleak cliffs, austere beaches, and the rich culture of the local Gaelic-speaking community.

It is no wonder that the hotel is booked to capacity every season — in a time when pristine landscapes and simple lifestyles are becoming increasingly hard to find, the de Blacams have succeeded in creating a refuge from modern life.

Mood of Living Q&A

Mood of Living: When did you realize you wanted to open Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites, and where did the idea come from?

Ruairí & Marie-Thérèse:  Ruairí had always wanted to have his own restaurant, and having one in his homeplace of Inis Meáin was an attractive prospect. However, to have a high-end restaurant, we knew we would have to provide high-end rooms also to provide a package for the clientele that we hoped to attract.

MoL: Where do you look for inspiration?

R&M:  We both travelled internationally for many years for our previous jobs, so knew what we wanted and didn’t want in a hospitality experience. However, much of the ideas that we implemented at Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites are our own, and are inspired by the nature and terrain of our stunning and unique island location.  

MoL: How did you two meet?

R&M: In Dublin, at university, where our paths crossed studying for a degree in Entrepreneurship through Irish.

MoL: What about your experience working at Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites sets it apart most significantly from your past work experiences?

R&M:  The big difference is that we’re our own boss, which is much more satisfying. We have a clear style and defined opinions, so it’s very nice to be able to have the freedom to make all the decisions for our business and our work in the way that we would like.

MoL: Tell us about Inis Meáin island — what is the environment like, and the culture? How important was creating a sustainable destination for you, with respect to the environment, architecture, and the food experience?

R&M: Just us relocating to Inis Meáin to do this, or anybody relocating to Inis Meáin, makes a big difference to the sustainability of the island, as the population is only about 160 people.

Everything is inspired by the nature of the island — both the physical nature and the characteristic nature, including the architecture, interiors, and the food. It is a wildly-natural terrain completely intertwined with the constantly-changing oceanic weather, and it is a very quiet place.

MoL: What are some of your favorite things about living there?

R&M:  The beauty of the nature and the peace and quiet.

MoL: And least favorite things?

R&M: How difficult it is to find and relocate staff here.

MoL: What is the relationship like between the natural world of the island and its human inhabitants?

R&M: Completely intertwined. The process of reclaiming land by annually laying out sand and seaweed to create soil on top of the exposed bedrock, in order to raise animals and crops to support life here, has gone on for thousands of years and continues today.

MoL: How has the island changed, and how is it continuing to change?

R&M:  It hasn’t changed too much. If you read J.M. Synge’s The Aran Islands, which was written over 100 years ago, you will feel many of the same feelings Synge describes if you stay on the island today. It has been made much more accessible and easier to live on with daily ferries and planes and electricity since 1978 or so. But thankfully the neighboring islands of Inis Mór and Inis Oirr soak up most of the tourism, so the visitors that come here are usually looking for the peace and quiet that Inis Meáin offers.

MoL: What is the relationship like between Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites and the local community?

R&M: Very good, we’ve had great support since we opened 11 years ago. We have an islander rate in the restaurant, and many islanders will bring visitors to the restaurant, or visit for family birthdays or just a night out.

MoL: What is it like to bring up children there?

R&M: It’s a wonderful place to have a family, as it is completely safe and very in touch with nature, and always has been.

MoL: Ruairí grew up on Inis Meáin, and Marie-Thérèse moved there later in life to open Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites. Do you think you have different perspectives on and relationships with the island, and have any such differences proved either detrimental or beneficial?  

R&M: To a small extent, in that Marie-Thérèse can probably distance herself from island community matters a little more easily and offer a slightly different perspective on them. Purely as she didn’t grow up with the personalities and all the history of the island around us, as Ruairí did.

MoL: Tell us about the architecture of Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites. Who is the architect?

R&M:  Shane de Blacam of de Blacam & Meagher Architects in Dublin (Ruairí’s uncle). Shane and his partner John Meagher have been described as “The Godfathers of Irish Architecture” in the book Architects of Today, and a 40 year retrospective of their work was presented as the Irish Pavilion in the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2010.

MoL: Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites has just five rooms — how do you think the staff and guests benefit from its small size?

R&M:  It means that our guests don’t feel like just one in a large number. We usually get to know our guests a little, as they meet all of the staff several times over the course of a two or four night stay, and a third of our guests return, many of them every year. This makes the experience and the work more enjoyable for everybody.

MoL: What are the rooms like, and how does their design reflect the kind of experience you want to give guests?

R&M: The suites are designed to reflect the island outside and to complement the peace and quiet that the island gives to visitors. They each have a 10-meter-long continuous window looking out over the island landscape, Galway Bay, and the Connemara mountains beyond.  We try to bring that landscape through the window into the suite itself by using only natural materials, in tones of the colors that you see outside the window — wooden floors, grey soft furnishings in wool and felt, black and white photographs of the island, lime-plastered walls…

MoL: What attracts guests to Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites? Over the years, have you observed any commonalities among the kinds of people who decide to stay with you?

R&M: They are all looking for an escape in nature. You could say that what we do is similar to a nature lodge (a concept more common in places like Patagonia and New Zealand, but we seem to be the first ones to do it in Ireland). Many have an interest in design. Many work in international metropoles like Dublin, London, and New York, and have very busy lives. They are often independent and shy away from the tourism locations. Health professionals, creative professionals, and all sorts of entrepreneurs and self-employed professionals make up the majority of our guests!

MoL: What do you hope people take away from their visits to Inis Meáin? What kind of feedback do you most often receive from guests; has there been any feedback that has been especially meaningful to you?

R&M: The best feedback we could possibly get is guests booking in to come back the following year before they leave, which happily happens very often. There are often small things which we do our best to add to the suites each year, for example, guests suggested deckchairs to lounge in in the private seating area outside each suite, so we designed our own with the island dry-stone walls printed onto the canvas. The objective is for guests to take away a feeling of relaxation and refreshment, and perhaps a realignment of themselves and a reconnection with what’s important to them in their lives. Inis Meáin, and hopefully our place, gives them the space, and sometimes the stimulation and inspiration needed to do that.

MoL: What do you do during the hotel’s off-season?

R&M: Work at making it better! As well as all the continuous administration work of bookings, finance, marketing, etcetera.

MoL: Where do you see yourselves, Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites, and the island community years (or even decades) from now?

R&M: Hopefully here, retired, and with any luck, with one or both of our beautiful young daughters at the helm (they are only 7 and 5 for the moment)! If one or both of our daughters decide to settle here as adults, it will mean that the island community will be in a good state of health for them to make that decision.

MoL: In what ways do you think you benefit from running Inis Meáin as husband and wife team?

R&M: We have fun together and there is a huge amount of support for each other. We both say we couldn’t do it alone.

MoL: How do you two make time for life outside of work? Do you cook?

R&M: We make sure to have scheduled family breaks — we close the business for some days during the season to do this, and have a proper holiday during the winter. We have flexibility with our time in the winter to make sure we make up for any family or couple time that we lack during the season. Mostly at home in Inis Meáin, as we love living here all year around.

MoL: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from running Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites?

R&M: We’ve always been consistent with our ideas, our style and our concept and that really makes all the decisions easier as you have one thread running through everything. It’s also much easier to market, as your message is clear. That has worked really well for us and is something we try to carry through to other projects.

MoL: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?

R&M: Financially, running a very small business in a remote and logistically-challenging location is always going to be difficult. We are booked out a year in advance, but maintaining a margin and working out how to grow profitably is always our challenge.

MoL: What has been the most rewarding?

R&M: Running our own business that makes people happy and wanting to return!

MoL: What has running Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites taught each of you about yourselves and each other?

R&M: That we are both impatient and like to be our own boss, so we have clear lines to differentiate between our patches! Also that we both need to have an ongoing creative outlet somewhere within our many roles to feel satisfied.

MoL: What advice do you have for people who want to pursue careers in food and hospitality?

R&M: Make your money first or look for a friendly investor. It’s a tough industry with high costs and a high reliance on staff and raw ingredients — the availability and cost of both of which can fluctuate fairly wildly.

MoL: What scent makes you happy?

R&M: The sea — from the seaweed around the coast to the produce we harvest from the surrounding sea for the restaurant.

MoL: What music inspires you?

R&M: The birdsong here in springtime and the visiting cuckoo in May.  

MoL: Where do you go for peace of mind and spirit?

R&M: Anywhere on Inis Meáin.