Being frequent visitors to Ireland, usually for my husband’s job, we’ve had opportunities to stay in a wide variety of accommodations, from modest rooms in quaint B&Bs, all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum, and you know what? They’ve ALL been good!
There is little that’s more rewarding than sitting at breakfast with friendly and hardworking host and innkeepers, learning about their lives and their perspectives on the world. Better yet is when you learn you may be related a few generations back, or that your ancestors were from the same village.
Once in a great while, you get to splurge. This is a review of Ashford Castle in County Mayo, where we spent a dream-like October weekend toward the end of 3 month work assignment in Ireland. (Prices are MUCH more reasonable in the off seasons than in high summer, and mid-week rates are usually lower than for weekends.) At various times, it has been named the fifth best hotel in the world, and has been called both the second and first best hotel in Ireland. It’s by far the nicest place we have ever stayed.
If you’ve ever seen the classic movie “The Quiet Man” starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, you know the place; its turrets are silhouetted against the sunset during the opening credits, and much of the movie was filmed in and around the tiny, picturesque village of Cong*, just off the castle grounds. The castle is situated at the edge of beautiful Lough (Lake) Corrib.
The 800 year old castle was owned by the Guinness family for a couple of generations during the 19th and 20th centuries, but had fallen into a state of disrepair. In 2013, it was purchased and lovingly (and fabulously) refurbished over a two year period at a cost of 75 million euros. It is decorated just as one would imagine, with lots of rich mahogany, red velvet and carpeting, some suits of armor, upper halls lined with bookshelves filled with tomes on myriad subjects. But look carefully, and you’ll find some very whimsical artwork, especially among the wildlife paintings in the main reception area.
The grounds are meticulously manicured, with gardens galore and massive conifers lining the many footpaths. What a perfect place to enjoy the outdoors!
(Here’s more information for history lovers, courtesy of National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographiclodges.com/lodges/europe/ashford-castle/about/#.WpRmSiJOmEc ) If you assume, as I did, that a bed chamber in a granite castle might be dank and chilly, it wasn’t at all. The gorgeous marble en suite bathrooms have heated floors, and big, thick towels, the bedrooms are carpeted, and the walls are upholstered with moisture-beating fabrics that coordinate beautifully with the luxurious bedding, which is unique in each bedroom. The bed in the room we had was at least king sized, but seemed even larger because of its soaring upholstered headboard. The enormous bed appeared to completely swallow up my six foot husband. Never have we slept on a more comfortable mattress. What restful nights we had!
The windows have electric shades that can be operated by remote control.
When guests approach the castle, they’re met by a friendly guard who confirms reservations and allows access to the property via a bridge over the moat.
(Yes! A MOAT!)
The guard calls ahead to the castle, so the doorman is able to greet the guests by name. While porters unload luggage, guests are ushered into the mahogany reception office, seated in red velvet chairs, and registered by the guest services manager, who explains the amenities, offers to make reservations for tea or dinner in one of two restaurants* in the castle, and presents each with a packet for any pre-booked activities or excursions. There are materials available for other attractions in the region, so if you go, don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions. Of course, if you’re paying to stay at a castle, you might as well hang around and make the most of it.
On-site activities include clay shooting, which we thoroughly enjoyed, horseback riding, and classes in falconry, a sport that has captured my imagination since about the age of 10, when I first read “My Side of the Mountain” and the other books in Jean Craighead George’s trilogy.
(THIS had been the impetus for our decision to come to Ashford Castle; it is the home of Ireland’s School of Falconry.) If you’ve any interest in birds of prey and aren’t particularly squeamish (the birds are motivated and rewarded with bits of mouse or newly hatched chick, which participants carry in their pockets) I highly recommend a class or “Hawk Walk.”
The morning was a lifelong dream come true for me. It was a thrill to have these majestic birds swoop down from the forest canopy to sit on my gloved arm.
Near the end of our class, we also did some work with a handsome Eurasian owl.
The walk through the woods was not strenuous, but do mind any tree roots that may be hidden by leaf cover, and understand that you’ll be on your feet for two or three hours.
*You’ll want to visit the little village of Cong. You can walk or cycle into town from the castle. There is a statue in the village center to commemorate the filming of The Quiet Man, as well as Pat Cohan’s Bar, “sort of” from the movie (not the original). Keep an eye out for photos, props, and memorabilia that decorate the cozy pub. We ducked in to get out of the rain and to have a cup of coffee, but it was early afternoon, and the folks who having lunch were served attractive meals. They all seemed happy with their food.
The town – a photographer’s dream – has some Cathedral ruins to explore and some pretty little cottages, as well as a bit of shopping (there’s an outlet with a variety of gifts and souvenirs, including some Irish wool sweaters).
If you’re a dog lover, be sure to make time to meet the lovely Irish wolfhounds, Cronan and Garvan, who visit with their owner on most mornings at around 10. They aren’t the most photogenic breed of dog, but are sweet natured, and eagerly enjoy ear and belly rubs from visitors.
These dogs, “the king of dogs; the dog of kings,” played a role in Irish history, as illustrated by the pair of bronze statues flanking the main entrance of the castle.
And speaking of dogs, if you’re interested in the work that Border collies do with sheep in Ireland and the UK, there is a wonderful demonstration hosted by shepherd Joe Joyce. It’s a fair drive from the castle, but well worth it if you have time. What better way to discover even more of Ireland’s stunning scenery? We count our visit to the sheep farm as one of our best days ever spent in Ireland. There was a litter of 11 week old puppies, and Joe took them out and let them begin to learn their job from the adult dogs. A few actually followed along, and he said it was the first time they were mature enough to show any interest. Watching them shadow their mentors was a delightful experience.
There are a few royally good choices for meal times, one of which we didn’t fully appreciate until we checked out. We tried each of them, and all were grand, but I think our favorite was The Dungeon. (Links added with descriptions for easy access to menus.) Afternoon tea is served in The Connaught Room, a comfortable and traditionally furnished parlor with stunning views looking out over Lough Corrib.
Elegant and creative fine dining is offered in the evening and at breakfast (a vast buffet is offered in the morning) in the George V Dining Room. The head chef, Phillipe Farineau (“French heart; Irish produce”) is incredibly talented, and ingredients are impeccably fresh and locally sourced to the greatest possible extent. There was nothing we ordered that was not perfect.
Only because we’re simple people at heart, and don’t love dressing to the nines, we chose to dine in “The Dungeon” (aptly named for its subterranean location) on the second night, and the food was so good (and more economical) that we went back again on our last evening at Ashford.
Think Irish stew, steaks, salmon, chicken, Shepherd’s pie, fish & chips – more basic, comfort and pub food, really, but all done beautifully, with some creative twists.
We were so busy all weekend that we barely noticed the thatch-roofed cottage that was separate from the castle, at the edge of the grounds. Someone suggested that we stop at Cullen’s at the Cottage as we were leaving, to pick up sandwiches for a picnic on the long ride home, nearly at the opposite coast of the country. We were very glad we did, because it may have been the nicest picnic of our lives. Everything from the rolls to the chicken and vegetables that filled them were perfectly fresh. We were able to choose from a wide selection of bottled juices and lemonade, as well as other freshly- made meal accompaniments such as salads and baked goods. If memory serves, the items for afternoon tea in the castle are baked here. There were also packages of nice quality treats and gift items for when we returned to the U.S. a few weeks later.
That weekend at Ashford Castle was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event, but what memories were made!
If your budget will accommodate such a weekend (or even one night) I think, you, too will find that it makes a lovely memory.