Imagine a real 13th century Irish castle, strategically located between a lake and a river, surrounded by hundreds of acres of private woodland, that’s also a five star hotel. You’ve discovered Ireland’s premier vacation destination, Ashford castle. Originally a monastery, dating back to 1228 AD, its imposing facade is a reminder that, here in Ireland, time appears to stand still! All your dreams of castles and kings instantly come alive at your first glimpse of its towering presence guarding the shoreline of Lough Corrib.
Thick stone walls, towers and turrets….it’s exactly what you’d expect a castle to look like! And the fantasy of falcons soaring over the forest, knights in shining armor protecting the castle walls, is a dream come true. The castle has been expanded throughout the centuries and new wings were cleverly built-to-match as recently as (year?) But the original structure is still in use. There’s a wonderful tower where Ashford Castle began hundreds of years ago. The country was divided into four regions, Ulster, Munster, Leister and Connacht. Connacht is the region where Ashford Castle resides. In those days, one’s enemies didn’t actually fly in, they arrived by boat, so you’d plenty of time to see them. The castle is geographically very well placed because it sits on the second largest lake in Ireland.
There are very few 5-star castle hotels in the world, and from the moment you arrive at Ashford, you know you’ve discovered something special. The interior of the castle is decorated in authentic antiques and original oil paintings. When you come here, you’re not just “checking in,” it’s more like you’re being welcomed as a weekend guest at a private estate. Like when it was owned by the brewing dynasty, the Guinness family. It actually belonged to the Guinness’s from the 1700’s until the early 1930’s. It became their winter retreat, if you will. So this is where they came for the refined gentry sports like hunting, shooting, and fishing. It was the Guinness’s who were responsible for developing the castle as it is today. They made major renovations, turning the castle into a place of inviting warmth and luxury.
Their love of fine craftsmanship and quality shows through in all the public rooms, and you’ll definitely notice the details that also make it comfortable. Wood paneled walls and an impressive two story foyer make an impressive entrance. Appreciation of the art work or a spontaneous game of chess invites you to relax in the foyer, or you can jump right in and have the concierge help with any dining or sporting wish you may have.
The castles bedrooms are all unique, not only in size, but also in the elegant décor. The variety of accommodations include a total of 83 bedrooms, staterooms, and suites, each individually designed and richly furnished, some with four poster beds. All rooms are air conditioned and decorated with designer fabrics and comfortable sitting areas that will tempt you to linger in your room!
All guest rooms are very individual, they’re individual in size, they’re individual in location, but the wonderful thing about most of them is that there are only two rooms in Ashford that don’t boast either a view of that magnificent lake out there or the river to the front. So by and large, all of the rooms command a water view, which is, I think in today’s stressful environment, tends to lead people into a distressing scenario automatically.
While each room is unique and individually designed, all are spacious, and many have lovely sitting areas. You’ll be relieved to hear they don’t have the facilities of the thirteenth century! They have, in fact, joined the 21st century, so all rooms have power-showers and Wi-Fi connectivity throughout the castle.
Marble bathrooms are strikingly modern. Some feature double sinks that cleverly give couples plenty of space, and antique pedestal claw footed tubs. Why not have a relaxing soak before slipping into a thick terry robe and slippers and enjoy the complimentary Moulton and Brown toiletries?
For a little extra space, one of the castle’s suites is perfect for relaxing or taking the time to do a little business. The bedrooms in several are up a few stairs at a higher level, and the parlor or sitting room is separate, so there is privacy. You’ll also enjoy the staterooms, the canopied beds and furnishings are straight out of a movie, ahh, the romance. You’ll find something you like that will certainly give you memories to last a lifetime of your fantasy abode.
But to appreciate the true “castle-in-the-country” life, then getting involved in some of the castles sporting activities is definitely in order! They are a total resort, in the Irish sense of the word. So they offer things like golf, which is complementary to guests, and a health and fitness center, also complementary. They have outdoor sports, fishing, of course, because they’re on the second largest lake in Ireland, horseback riding, with a stable holding twelve horses. They offer archery, clay pigeon shooting, and they’re the only castle or property in the country that boasts Ireland’s first School of Falconry.
Well, you can’t visit Ashford Castle without doing a little falconry, so no sooner said than done! After all, its part of the castle fantasy, remember? It’s definitely an incredible experience…and very easy to learn with a bit of coaching! It’s also a great experience for kids, who are absolutely thrilled to work with these magnificent birds, and from what I’m told, the feeling is mutual!
Continuing with the lifestyle of the sporting crowd, you can move on to one of the original diversions here at the castle…sport shooting. Not for game, like they did a hundred years ago, but for clay targets! And again, with an expert at your side, you’ll quickly brush up on safety and technique…and actually hit a few!
With your aim tuned in, another sporting diversion will catch your attention…archery! Once necessary to put food on the castle table, it’s now just for fun! But again with some expert coaching, you’ll have a great afternoon. Bull’s eye!
After a day enjoying the sports activities on the castle grounds, an evening wining and dining in front of the fire would be high on anyone’s list! Dining at Ashford castle ranks among the finest culinary experiences in Ireland. They operate two restaurants here, their specialty restaurant called the Connacht Room after, of course, the area they’re in. The chef here is absolutely wonderful. He’s an award winning chef himself and what he offers in this particular restaurant is a tasting menu, which is basically a five or seven course menu that the chef has actually chosen for the evening. In addition, there’s a sommelier who works alongside the chef, to choose the appropriate wines to compliment the meals. So it is very much a dining experience, and one which guests seem to enjoy immensely.
On the other side of the castle, they’ve got the George V dining room, and in there they tend to focus a little bit more on indigenous, Irish cuisine. People don’t necessarily associate Ireland with cuisine, but after you’ve been around Ireland a little bit, you’ll realize that, in fact, the Irish do eat very well in their country.
Now if someone comes in and doesn’t want a full, heavy meal, there is a casual place where they can have a sandwich. In the Drawing Room they offer a snack menu, so you can have something like a baguette or a ciabatta and international snacks.
If you’d like to work off some of that amazing cuisine, Ashford Castle has a state-of-the-art fitness center with a wide range of free weights, weight training and cardiovascular equipment. And then, to exercise your mind and spirit, the Spa at Ashford Castle has a wide selection of massages and body treatments, inspired by the pureness of the Irish countryside.
There are some day trips and excursions that are recommended and these are easily arranged by the concierge desk. They’re on the edge of Connemara and Connemara was much in vogue in the 1950’s because it was put on the map by the academy award winning film, The Quiet Man. John Ford directed the film, which starred John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Victor McClellan. They all stayed at the castle while making the film.
The movie was filmed down road in the town of Cong Abbey, which is still a wonderful place to walk and explore. It’s a lovely little village with small storefronts and streets, and it looks exactly like what you’d expect to see here in Ireland!
A great way to get a feel for this incredible part of the country is to take a boat cruise out on to the lake. The views are spectacular, and they say there are at least 365 islands on Lough Corrib….one for every day of the year!
Upon your return to Ashford castle, it’s time to dress and meet for a pre-dinner drink! They have two bars here. The cocktail bar, the Prince of Wales, named so because the Prince of Wales during the Guinness family ownership of Ashford, they invited the prince on a shooting expedition in 1905, and the bar was built for his coming. Similarly, the name of the dining room originates from George V visiting.
You usually go to the cocktail bar for pre-dinner drinks, and then after your meal, people are escorted down to the Dungeon Bar, where live entertainment can be enjoyed. A castle wouldn’t be complete without a dungeon now would it? But this one’s fun! Don’t be afraid, they won’t torture you, just give you plenty of libation.
A visit to Ashford castle is exactly what a luxury vacation in Ireland is all about. And there’s no doubt you’ll be well taken care of here. So, whether its history, an Irish green landscape, scenery, good food, or just plain old fun, Ashford castle will be an experience you’ll never forget.