Ashford Castle the crown jewel of Ireland's hotels

Ashford Castle the crown jewel of Ireland's hotels

CONG, IRELAND - When the car in which we are passengers reaches a point on the winding country road where fairytale Ashford Castle and its Lough Corrib backdrop come into view, the breathtaking panorama prompts us to simultaneously blurt out: “Oh my God!”

“And that’s why they call this Oh My God Corner,” smiles Ryan, the charming young Irishman who picked us up at Galway’s rail station after our journey from Dublin.

A few minutes later we are welcomed to the fabled castle — now part of the renowned Red Carnation Hotel Collection and a Leading Hotels of the World member — by a smartly dressed doorman donned in a top hat and emerald green long coat. We bound up the stairs of the 13th-century landmark, past the two stone Irish wolfhounds guarding the entrance, and enter a lobby wrapped in rich oak panelling and an even richer history. We are instantly impressed.

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Above: The castle's idyllic setting makes it a perfect retreat.


While always regarded as the crown jewel of Irish hotels, Ashford Castle, thanks to a massive $100 million (Cdn) restoration initiated by Red Carnation’s owners Stanley and Beatrice Tollman after they bought the property in 2013, has been lovingly transformed into one of the great hotels of the world — some might argue it’s the greatest and few would disagree. (The influential Virtuoso travel group, in fact, recently awarded Ashford Castle its Best Hotel in the World Award).

Staff snaps to attention when we enter the lobby, offer us an adult beverage and quickly whisk us through the arrivals process — their attentiveness quickly eases the stresses of a long day of travel.

Majella McGovern offers to show us to our stateroom — 430. “It’s located in the oldest part of the castle, dating from 1228,” she tells us.

Many people have owned Ashford Castle over the centuries, including one of Ireland’s most famous families. The head of the Guinness clan of black beer fame, Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, bought the estate in 1852 and bequeathed it to his son Lord Ardilaun in 1868. It remained in a family trust until 1915 when new owners turned it into a hotel.

As we make our way to Room 430, we pass the castle’s grand staircase where royalty (England’s King George V and Monaco’s Prince Rainier), a former U.S. president (Ronald Reagan) and the kings and queens of stage and screen (John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Pierce Brosnan and Robin Williams, among them) all left their footprints.

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Above: The rooms and public spaces are fit for royalty.


Museum-worthy paintings and ancient artifacts like knight’s armour, regal red velvet furnishings, an overhead library filled with volumes of priceless books and an impressive array of crystal chandeliers adorn the Oak Hall where the staircase is located. We poke our heads into the Inglenook Room opposite Oak Hall and are surprised by the display cases filled with elegant silverware.

“There’s over 1,000 pieces here that once belonged to Washington Augustus Roebling, the man who built New York’s Brooklyn Bridge,” Majella tells us.

The Inglenook, where the castle’s most impressive fireplace is located — you can actually sit in it — drifts off into the lavish Connaught Tea Room where traditional high tea has been served each afternoon since 1868.

When Majella finally pushes open the large wooden door guarding Room 430, we’re left speechless by what’s inside. While each of Ashford’s 83 guest rooms are unique, our stateroom is simply stunning. The walls are covered in rich fabrics — a feature of all Red Carnation properties, apparently — and a large canopied bed sits in the middle of the oversized room with the cathedral ceiling. We’re especially awed with the red wine-coloured marble fireplace, which Majella says is an original from 1228. A set of narrow stairs beside the bed leads to a cozy reading loft where a day bed invites us to curl up with a glass of wine and a good book.

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Above: The manicured grounds drift off into tranquil Loch Corrib.


While it appears we’ve stepped back into the 13th century thanks to the room’s lovely antique furnishings, we’re quickly brought back to modern times when we enter the bathroom, which has been totally remodelled and updated with the addition of state-of-the-art amenities like a large soaker tub, oversized shower, plush towels, heated floor and lots of high-end toiletries. Flat screen televisions, Wi-Fi and other modern gadgets complete the decor.

When Majella pulls back the room’s curtains, however, the true beauty of Ashford Castle is revealed. Below our window we see lovely flower beds and manicured lawns that sweep down to idyllic Lough Corrib, which is dotted with white swans, small forested islands and colourful fishing boats. Gorgeous!

Two of the most famous rooms at Ashford are the Reagan Presidential Suite, where the late U.S. leader and his wife Nancy stayed during their historic 1984 visit to Ireland, and The Kennedy Suite, where U.S. senator Ted Kennedy spent time in the 1980s. Many American guests ask to stay in those historic rooms, which, like our stateroom, are located in the oldest part of the castle.

For the next few days we immerse ourselves in the regal splendours of Ashford Castle, like:

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Above: Writer Atchison gets a falconry lesson from trainer Anna Aseeva.


• Taking long walks in the gardens where lords and ladies once had their secret trysts away from prying eyes;

• Playing a game of golf on the estate’s nine-hole championship course designed by legendary Irish golf architect Eddie Hackett;

• Enjoying treatments in the castle’s world-class spa staffed by well trained therapists using some unique local ingredients like seaweed in their massages and scrubs;

• Paying a visit to the stables where guests can saddle up well-groomed horses and meander along lovely wooded trails;

• Taking a lesson in falconry (where I get the thrill of holding and feeding a Peruvian Harris hawk named Lima);

• Strolling along the shores of the River Corrib — it’s the dividing line between County Mayo and County Galway — where we see fly fishermen expertly casting for trout;

• And cap our stay off with a 10-course feast in the castle’s Michelin-star worthy dining room The George V (named after the British King who visited here in 1905), and which is now ruled by acclaimed Chef Philippe Farineau.

All these activities are proof positive why Ashford Castle is regarded as much a destination as a hotel.

We also catch up on the castle’s colourful history with members of staff in the Prince of Wales Bar (it was George V’s private bar when he was here) and the grand parlour, where guests gather each evening to enjoy traditional Irish entertainment.

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Left: Castle's dogs Cronan and Garvin. Right: Castle sits on ancient grounds.


Servers Paul (Coyne), Michael (Conolleey) and Simon (Piercy), the guardians of the Guinness at Ashford, tell me many famous actors and golfers have sat at their tables and walked the well-groomed fairways of the castle’s excellent course over the years. Duty manager Michael Hill also reveals that PGA legend Tom Watson once played the course before going on to win one of his five British Open championships.

Ashford Castle is indeed an inspiring place.

The third hole at Ashford golf course is called “Watson’s Way” because the Hall of Famer cut the corner on the 391yard, par 4 and chipped in for an eagle — a remarkable feat when you consider the forest obstacle that Watson had to contend with off the tee.

“We’ve also had many famous people take their vows at Ashford — like actor Pierce Brosnan,” says Hill. The former James Bond married Keely Shaye Smith at Ashford Castle in 2001.

The Ashford estate also served as the backdrop for director John Ford’s legendary 1952 film, The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald.

“Ford, O’Hara and Wayne all stayed in the castle during filming and the house next to our falconry was used as the main prop in the film,” says Hill, who adds, “many guests are still attracted to Ashford because of that old movie.”

Speaking of movies, Ashord’s 32-seat theatre, where guests get to see Hollywood classics from the comfort of plush velvet seats while eating popcorn and sweets each evening, is one of the castle’s most popular spots, especially with families. So, too, is the lavish billiards room opposite the theatre — both were added during the castle’s latest refurbishment.

Two of the most popular members of Ashford’s staff are Cronan and Garvin, the castle’s resident Irish wolfhounds, both of who like to mingle with guests in the Oak Hall.

The gentle giants, whose breed is recognized as “the king of dogs and the dog of kings,” feel right at home in this palatial setting.

Hill offers to show me the wine cellar, which is located in the 17th century part of the castle. Open for tastings, the cellar has a fabulous collection of old and new world vintages and has been the place of many marriage proposals.

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Left: Scenes for Quiet Man movie were shot at castle. Right: Castle's spa.


The Tollman family are very active in the running of Ashford Castle — some of Beatrice Tollman’s own family recipes, like her amazing chicken noodle soup, show up on the menus of George V and the Dungeon, the hotel’s casual dining spot.

What really makes a stay at Ashford Castle special, though, is the way guests are treated by staff, many of whom have had long, distinguished careers at the property. Within a few hours of arriving, we’re on a first name basis with most of the servers and front desk staff, whose incredible Irish hospitality and charm soon make us feel like one of the family.

Thanks to the Tollmans — and the fabulous staff they have assembled — Ashford Castle’s past, present and future are well secured and in good hands.

 

Information
Rates at Ashford Castle (Nov-Mar) start at €245.00 ($360 Cdn.) and in the peak summer months (May-Oct) start at €550.00 per room based on double occupancy, per night, B&B. Ashford also offers specials throughout the year — some include accommodation paired with spa packages. For more information, go to www. ashfordcastle.com / The best way to get to Ashford Castle from Canada is with Air Canada Rouge or WestJet via Dublin. Then take the train from Dublin’s Hueston Station to Galway (2.5 hours away). Ashford will arrange transportation to the hotel from Galway rail station. / During your stay at Ashford Castle, make sure you visit the lovely 7th century island village of Cong — a short walk from the castle. It’s a home to the ruins of Cong Abbey and four pubs that service the 100 or so inhabitants.

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