Hopping in a hire car at Dublin airport, the journey to Ireland’s most glamorous hotel, Ashford Castle in County Mayo is an uncomplicated three hour drive West, all the more entertaining due to my companion’s Irish roots and her running commentary of the country’s charming idiosyncrasies such as the Virgin Mary statues that feature on so many roadsides for those who feel an urge for a quick prayer. As it was the first time that I’d driven outside the UK I could have done with one. If you can afford it, I would recommend making use of the castle’s helipad.
After overcoming typical hire car difficulties such as struggling to find out how the lights and windscreen wipers worked, not to mention the radio and the button that released the fuel cap, I was extremely grateful for the warming rum punch awaiting us on checking in, along with an equally warm Irish welcome and a brief tour of the magnificent public areas on the ground floor; the Oak Hall overlooked by the galleried Library, The Inglenook with its ornate carved fireplace and 1,000 piece silver gilt dinner service, The Connaught Room where afternoon tea by award-winning Head Pastry Chef Paula Stakelum is served, the green leather and wood panelled Prince of Wales bar named after the hotel’s most prestigious guest, the future King George V, and The Drawing Room with its grand piano that’s put to good use by the resident pianist every evening – a lovely spot for a cocktail.
The sizeable castle boasts 83 individually designed rooms, including a range of suites and a hideaway cottage, and while the site originates from the 13th century, there is nothing remotely tired about it today, having had approximately 50 million euros lavished on it by the prestigious Red Carnation hotel group who purchased the property and 350 acre estate in 2013. It is something to behold. Once owned by the esteemed Guinness family, every inch has been lovingly restored to its former glory, with polished hand-crafted antique furniture, original art and befittingly luxurious fabrics in sumptuous colours, while the gracious team of staff ensure that the atmosphere remains relaxed and beyond welcoming whether you’re the US president, a Hollywood starlet or a milkman cashed in your life savings for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Whoever you are, you will not be disappointed.
If you can manage it, it’s worth taking the stairs rather than the lift to your room, regardless of how many floors you have to climb, for the maze of corridors and staircases lined with paintings and arched windows, through which you can spy Lough Corrib, really captures the surreal feeling of calling this extraordinary place home for a couple of nights, not least when you spot photos of famous past guests including Oscar Wilde and Grace Kelly. Our high ceilinged lough-view room combined traditional Victorian furnishings with 21st century comforts such as underfloor heating and an aqua television in the bathroom, electric blackout blinds and a gas fire ready at the flick of a switch – perfect for stormy January days. Complimentary sherry and expertly tempered dark chocolate with the Ashford Castle logo was another cheering sight.
When it comes to dinner, there are four restaurants within the estate to choose from, but none as grand as the Prussian blue George V dining room built by the Guinness family to mark the arrival of the Prince of Wales in 1905, hence the countless Waterford Crystal chandeliers and regal décor. Presided over by Chef Philippe Farineau, there was no finer way to kick off our first evening than the five course table d’hote, with an impeccable starter of scallops and slow braised oxtail followed by the hotel’s famed cote du boeuf pour deux, presented on a carving trolley and sliced table side; a terrific partner to one of the Bouchard Finlayson red wines from Ashford’s sister wine estate in South Africa. A dessert of peanut butter parfait, salted peanut and banana was the charm.
Dining at the less formal and arguably more atmospheric basement Dungeon on our second night, its red walls, suits of armour and heraldic flags set the tone, and while the speciality is steak due to the Josper grill, I was keen to try more of the exemplary local fish and seafood, such as the West Coast seafood platter featuring langoustines, Dooncastle oysters topped with sea trout caviar, smoked salmon, brown shrimps, crab, smoked eel and poached trout. A main of seabass with a saffron and mussel sauce more than hit the spot, which is exactly what my companion said about The Dungeon’s Irish coffee to finish.
The 32 seat cinema, with its comfortable red velvet armchairs and impressive screen, is another wonderful addition, particularly during the winter months when you fancy cosying up after dinner. With complimentary, family-friendly screenings taking place in the afternoon and evening such as Goldeneye and the 1952 Maureen O’Hara classic The Quiet Man featuring Ashford Castle and the neighbouring village of Cong, abundant sweets and popcorn are laid on to enhance your viewing experience, with no trailers in sight! The Billiard Room & Cigar Terrace overlooking the River Cong is another must after dark, a game followed by a glass of the finest single pot still Irish whiskey, while Mr Tollman’s cigar collection will satisfy the most dedicated connoisseur.
Breakfast, also served in the George V dining room, is even more extravagant than you’re expecting, a menu of tempting a la carte options such as Ashford Castle’s famed Irish breakfast with black and white pudding and proper Irish bacon, besides a vast continental buffet featuring freshly prepared viennoiserie, smoothies and juices, a wide selection of local cheeses, ham carved to order or creamy home-cooked porridge with help yourself toppings including Irish whiskey. Dietary requirements are also well catered for; my made-to-order gluten free pancakes were superb, while on the second morning I enjoyed the veggie option of roasted squash with pickled mushrooms, spinach, seeds and poached eggs.
We were in need of a jolly good stroll after breakfast, but we had missed the daily walk of the castle’s two resident Irish Wolfhounds’s at 8.30am. We did catch up with them having a rest in the Oak Hall, however, and they were only too happy to have a tummy rub. Wellington boots and Mackintoshes are lined up by the front door ready for guests unprepared for the changeable Irish weather, while a charming line of Pashley bicycles are an appealing invitation to explore on two wheels – just don’t forget the map.
Along with Ashford Castle’s gift shop stocked with luxury souvenirs, the stand-alone Mrs Tea’s Boutique & Bakery sells Irish woollens and outdoor attire along with teas, gifts and takeaway food and drinks, perfect for a spontaneous picnic on a fine day. But we had our sights on afternoon tea in the Connaught Room – a well earned treat after a morning cycle around the estate and neighbouring village of Cong where we explored the Abbey ruin, Monks Fishing House and extensive woodland on foot. Another highlight was the hour-long boat trip which departs at 11am daily, weather permitting. Captained by Patrick, who has lived on the estate all his life, he provided a real insight into the landscape and the people who have shaped this magical place.
From the abundant display of red roses greeting you in the Oak Hall, to the sweeping lough views and four poster state bedrooms, it would be hard to find a more romantic venue for a weekend, nor one with more fun activities to try your hand at; fishing, tennis, tree climbing (something else I’ve never done), woodland zip-lining, kayaking and paddleboarding, clay pigeon shooting, archery, horse riding, golf, a falconry lesson with an expert from the dedicated Falconry School or a carriage ride – the list is endless.
Or you could just spend the day in the serene Ashford Castle Spa, recently voted Ireland’s best due to its essence infused steam room, five treatment rooms including one for couples and a heated swimming pool enhanced by panoramic views of the lough, chandeliers inspired by fishing nets and a stylish Tree of Life mosaic mural symbolising Irish Celtic mythology. If you want to completely unwind go for the signature head-to-toe 75 minute Ashford Castle Ritual, but it won’t be difficult to think you’re having an out of body experience regardless.
Rooms at Ashford Castle start from €315 a night for a double room, on a bed and breakfast basis. To book call 0035 394 954 6003, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ashfordcastle.com – Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland F31 CA48