I’ve always wondered what it’s like to stay in a castle. So I was beaming from ear to ear when I got the chance to stay at a notable one recently. It was no ordinary castle, mind you, as Ashford Castle is outstanding in so many ways.
It was built in 1228 by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family and would pass through many hands before being acquired by Ireland’s favourite family, the Guinnesses in 1852. The estate was extended extensively during their time and additions made to the stately home.
Finally, after several more changes of hand, it was purchased in May 2013 by the Red Carnation Hotel group who undertook a massive US$75mil (RM330.64mil) renovation of the close to 800-year-old building. It was opened as an 85-room luxury hotel in April last year and wowed just about everyone who visited, winning accolades like Virtuoso’s Best Hotel of the Year 2015, Travel + Leisure’s Third Best Hotel in the World 2015 and the European Hospitality Awards’ Renovation of the Year.
Add me to that list of people who were blown away by a recent stay. I’ve never seen so many “hardened” media from all over the world get this excited over sharing pictures of the suites that each of us were assigned. Every suite is unique, as were the oohs and aahs ensuing from each person. I’ve stayed in quite a few top-notch hotels, but even I was bowled over by the heated towel racks and floors – don’t you just hate walking on a cold floor and frosty fabric! And the mini-chandelier in my suite was nothing to sniff at either. (Apparently, I was the only one who had one – dare I cue Sia’s Chandelier song now?).
The interiors of the splendid castle matched the stately exterior – plush furnishings and subdued lighting, but all done in good taste (not crass or over the top).
Dining was a real affair at every point, and while we had a lovely welcome with our own personal bagpiper leading us into the castle when we checked-in, it was accompanied by rain. So drinks at Cullen’s at the Cottage (normally a 20-minute stroll away, but we were driven there because of the rain) was a good warm-up with a glass of Connemara Peated Single Malt Whiskey with intoxicating smokey and fruity notes. My selection got a thumbs up from our tour director Michael Doughty.
Dinner later was excellent as was the next night’s dinner at the George V Dining Room named in honour of the Prince of Wales who visited in 1905. They also serve the daily breakfast here which is luxurious fare by any standard, with Waterford Crystal chandeliers hanging overhead and great views of the extensive grounds outside.
And there’s The Prince of Wales Bar where you must try the Black Velvet (which is equal parts champagne and Guinness) and Arthur’s Bellini (which is peach schnapps topped with Guinness).
There are many more dining and bar options in the Castle – there’s the Dungeon, Wilde’s at the Lodge, Connaught Room for tea and private dining, as well as the Cigar Terrace for cigar connoisseurs. You’ll just need to extend your stay to get a feel for all of them.
But it’s not just about food in this sophisticated location – there are many other delightful activities to help you burn off calories. You can watch movies (each day a different movie is screened, though one of the days is dedicated to the The Quiet Man, the 1952 John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara’s film where parts of the grounds and the little village of Cong nearby are featured in the movie), or opt for a luxurious spa that was opened at the end of October.
But if you’re aiming to do more, there’s golf, tennis, fishing, cycling, pony rides, riding lessons, trail riding, carriage rides, kayaking down the River Cong, clay shooting and archery. (Do note that most of these activities have to be paid for and are not included in the accommodation package.)
One can also take the opportunity to visit Lough Corrib (which fronts the castle) – the second largest lake in Ireland – where trips on a wooden boat are offered or go a different direction with a luxury motor-yacht.
I preferred the other option – cruising on the lake with Corrib Cruises with a bagpiper sending me off, and then sipping wine as I viewed the castle from a new perspective. The many islands on the humongous lake and the surrounding Connemara Mountains are a lovely sight.
What set the cruise apart though was local resident, 85-year-old Martin Noone, entertaining us with Irish ditties with heaps of passion. He would also talk excitedly about his bit part in that movie!
Another major highlight for me was the chance to do some falconry at Ireland’s oldest falconry school which is within castle grounds. We were introduced to the trainers and the hawks – yes, not falcons, but huge Harris hawks. We all had a chance to “work” with the animals, and I still get a thrill thinking of that powerful bird flying off on command and returning to perch on my “gloved” hand. You wouldn’t want their powerful talons sinking into your flesh – trust me. And, they were not as heavy as I thought they would be.
You can also take walks in the extensive 141.6ha grounds with many beautiful gardens and parks, including a herb and vegetable garden. There’s also a lovely trail along the river to the quaint town of Cong, where everything seems a tribute to that terribly quite man. Incidentally, O’Hara who lived in Ireland till 2013, passed away during the time I was in Dublin, on Oct 24.
While heading for that walk, I managed to get some “alone time” with the two Irish wolfhounds, Garvan and Cronin, who are the castle’s standard-bearers. We crossed paths while they were out on their daily walk. Who can resist stopping to chat with such friendly beauties? And who can resist this amazing place with a castle to boot.
Cong, County Mayo, Ireland
Tel: + 35 394 954 6003
This article was originally published in Life Inspired, out every second and fourth Sunday of the month, and distributed exclusively with The Sunday Star to selected areas in the Klang Valley. It is also sold separately at selected bookstores.