Did you know that there are 522 medieval castles that dot the Republic of Ireland’s landscape? It’s true. Many of them are just brooding ruins atop windswept hills, but a select few have been painstakingly and beautifully restored. And, one such renaissance stands “keep and ramparts” above all others: Ashford Castle, the oldest fortress in the country and a true treasure of the Emerald Isle.
Grouped together like a pack of paparazzi, the intrepid “band of merry media” — 18 travel writers and photographers invited by Insight Vacations on a week-long sponsored press junket — jostle for position, under a fine mist, to frame a piper in full regalia, then fall in step behind him as he pipes us across the stone bridge straddling the River Cong in Co. Mayo.
“Céad míle fáilte! (One-hundred-thousand welcomes),” announces Niall Rochford, General Manager of the property, as staff, in proper livery, offer us refreshments.
“Welcome to Ashford Castle,” he adds as we walk up the entry stairs, flanked by a pair of Irish Wolfhound statues — four-legged guests are always welcome — step onto the bespoke carpeting and enter into a world of regal elegance wrapped in Irish charm.
Recognized by Virtuoso, the international luxury travel network, as Hotel of the Year for 2015, Ashford Castle, Ireland’s signature, five-star, country estate, is set amid 350 acres of well-manicured greenery, gardens and rustic paths and trails, that overlook the Lough Corrib, Ireland’s second largest lake.
With a heritage dating all the way back to 1228, Ashford Castle recently turned the page on its history when it was purchased by Red Carnation Hotels and immediately underwent a top-to-bottom, multi-million dollar renovation and refurbishment that was unveiled to much fanfare in April of last year.
I’m handed a green leather key card to a lovely, renovated deluxe view room on the top floor of the castle. As I swipe the card over the security pad and push back the door, my jaw drops in OMG fashion.
My suite, like the other 82 guest rooms, is richly appointed as the meticulous attention to detail is found in the unique works of art, carefully sourced antique furniture with sumptuous fabrics and custom-designed carpet, king-sized bed, feature lighting, exquisite toweling and VOYA seaweed-based organic bath and beauty products.
On every Insight Vacations’ journey a Bon Voyage dinner party breaks out, recognizing guests who have traveled previously with them.
I happen to be one of those so honored at Ashford’s Cullen’s at the Cottage, for documenting Insight’s “art of traveling in style” on its Country Roads of Italy, Bohemian Rhapsody, Iberian Adventure and Dalmatian Riviera itineraries.
A summer-only bistro restaurant occupying a traditional thatched-roof cottage, Cullen’s serves up international and local dishes inspired by Beatrice Tollman, owner of Ashford Castle, in a casual atmosphere accented by friendly Irish hospitality.
Greeted warmly by Sinéad, the restaurant manager, she and her young and eager wait staff go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure our dining experience at the Cottage is memorable. And, it is.
A nightcap is in order, both to celebrate our first day here and to help digest dinner, so we retire to The Prince of Wales Cocktail Bar where Tom, the on-duty mixologist, preps a Rémy Martin, neat, for me.
Seated at a glass-covered table showcasing a few antique flintlock pistols, I sip slowly wondering all the while if these weapons were ever used in a duel at 15 paces.
Sleep is just around the corner as I tuck myself into the inviting bed — turned down by evening maid service — with luxurious 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton monogrammed bed linen, and highlighted by a complimentary box of Lily O’Brien’s chocolates resting atop one of the pillows. Night night!
When it’s not raining on your parade, and that’s a real possibility when visiting the Emerald Isle, there are plenty of outdoor activities to keep you busy around Ashford in between breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Tee it up at the parkland golf course; play singles or doubles on two all-weather tennis courts; go fishing; grab a kayak and paddle around the lake; mount a horse and hit the woodland trails, or take a carriage ride with the entire family; hire a bike and cycle the castle’s vast estate; take aim at clay pigeons and bullseyes with skeet and archery; play billiards; screen The Quiet Man and other box-office hits in the velvet-seated cinema; relax in the spa; or, do what we’re about to do: experience the ancient sport of falconry.
Ireland’s School of Falconry is the oldest established falconry school in Ireland. Here, castle guests can book a once-in-a-lifetime “hawk walk” and fly their very own Harris’s hawk in the nearby woodlands.
Meet Jamie and Lima. Jamie’s the smiling redhead from California in the watchman’s cap and a bona fide falconry instructor; Lima’s the female Peruvian Harris’s hawk. Together, they’re schooling us in this 4,000 year-old hunting sport.
Following its “handler” from tree to tree, Lima periodically swoops down into our gloved fists, grabs a “snack,” then flies off again. You know she’s somewhere nearby from the sound of the tiny bells attached to her talons.
I’ve been told that a “history” cruise around Lough Corrib, sailing daily from Ashford Castle’s private pier, is a terrific way to explore the camera-ready surroundings of some of the lake’s 365 isles, one for each day of the year, and take in the panoramic views of the Connemara Mountains in the distance.
Together with my mates, we board the M.V. Isle of Innisfree, an original tender (lifeboat) from the Cunard Line, and shove off.
Captain/historian/owner Patrick steers the boat and narrates the scene both at the same time as we cruise across the lake. Meanwhile, Martin, an 80-year-old musician, entertains us topside on the “squeezebox” with a selection of Irish tunes, like Danny Boy and Rakes of Mallow.
In between the history lesson and the ditties, a member of the crew ensures that our glasses are kept full with wine or Jameson, or both, to ward off the cold wind hitting us straight on. Brrrr.
In 1906, the Prince of Wales was a guest of the Guinness family, owners of Ashford Castle at the time. The prince went on to become England’s King George V. In honor of the king’s visit, the Guinness family built a special dining room which still bears his name.
Dressed to the nines — coat and tie for the gents, the LBD (little black dress) for the ladies — we’re ushered into the graceful setting that is the George V Dining Room and prepare to dine like royalty.
From acclaimed Chef Philippe Farineau’s kitchen, a bounty of food magazine-worthy dishes are plated before us from Ireland’s lands, seas and farms. And paired with our delectable selections are several stellar wines from Bouchard Finlayson Winery of South Africa.
With our 48-hour, fairy tale-like stay coming to an end, members of the “band of merry media” add their names to the guest book to ensure that they’re part of the Ashford lore.
Red Carnation Hotels has done a masterful job of restoring this iconic country estate in Co. Mayo to its former glory, breathing new life into her to carry her forward, hopefully, for another 800 years. But, it is the staff, those warm and friendly individuals sporting the emblematic flower in their lapels, who have made our visit so unforgettable.
For complete information on Insight’s 100+ premium and luxury-escorted journeys around Europe, including a five-star luxury stay at Ashford, just click HERE, or call toll free 1-888-680-1241, or contact your travel agent.
©The Palladian Traveler