If you can only do one splurge hotel in your lifetime, seriously consider making it Ashford Castle!
Ashford was the last of eight hotels I stayed in on a recent 3 1/2-week trip to England, Wales and Ireland. But I decided to start the trip reports with this one because it makes me think of eating dessert first. :)
Ireland has many castle hotels (and sort-of castle hotels). To go there and not stay in one of them would be, to my way of thinking, to miss part of the Irish experience. But as wonderful as many of them are, Ashford Castle is almost certainly the brightest jewel in the crown.
First, a bit of history. Ashford Castle (originally called the “Castle of Cong”) was built in 1228 by an invading Anglo-Norman family. It was already 360 years old when Queen Elizabeth I re-certified it as a British fortress. By the mid-1800s, the castle was acquired by the Guinness family (yes, that Guinness family), and most recently, by the Red Carnation Hotel Collection in 2013.
1. Words are not sufficient to describe the architecture and interior design.
It goes without saying that the 800-year old castle’s architecture is amazing, but the total package is so much more than that. Red Carnation not only purchased the property, but then it spent, according to one article I read, more than three times the purchase price on renovations. The results are flawless interior spaces that are every bit the equal of the architecture. Everywhere you look is photo worthy, so this blog can only provide a very inadequate sampling of the castle's magic.
Photo courtesy of Debbie Wood, part of The University of Texas at Tyler’s invitational group which we booked at Ashford Castle in the summer of 2015.
This magnificent bronze conservatory houses the new spa overlooking the lake. The spa is on the ground floor, and the exercise room is upstairs.
The inside of the spa is likewise amazing. The custom tile mural features a Tree of Life design and elements from Celtic mythology.
The Oak Hall is one of several popular guest lounges in the castle. On one side of the room is a fireplace.
On the other side is a chess table.
And this is what is in between. The chandelier is Waterford, and all the flowers at the castle are real.
There are a lot of public areas I haven’t shown you, but we need to get to some guest rooms.
Every room is different, but our room will give you an idea of the care that goes into each. Ours was a Deluxe Lakeview Room (room #309), which looked out over the spa.
Here's a close-up of our bedspread and the wall upholstery. It wasn't printed; it was all done with decorative stitching. The loveseat and draperies were mohair velvet.
Here's a video tour of our room and bathroom. It was all so gorgeous!
We were fortunate enough to be able to see the Reagan Presidential Suite during a site inspection. You enter it in this sitting room, with its silk upholstered walls and draperies. And look at that fabulous secretary!
Bedroom of the Reagan Presidential Suite. Notice the TV mounted to the bed canopy. Yes, there's history, and there's romance—but not at the expense of technology's conveniences.
The bathroom of the Reagan Presidential Suite
2. The castle is set amid 350 acres and is bordered by the island-studded Lough Corrib (the second-largest lake in Ireland) and the fast-moving River Cong.
Photo courtesy of client Tamra Pierce, from a summer visit
The property is beautiful and peaceful, begging guests to explore its forest and numerous estate gardens.
3. The service is 5-star.
As a regular host to royalty, dignitaries and celebrities, the staff is trained to anticipate guests’ needs. Past examples of this included providing around-the-clock security for Princess Grace’s $15 million worth of diamonds, and assisting Secret Service efforts to comb Lough Corrib before President Reagan’s 1984 visit, of which The New York Times said, “Mr. Reagan will spend two nights at Ireland's grandest country hotel, Ashford Castle. . .”
Even for non-luminaries, like ourselves, the service shines. Based on our experience, if you meet a staff member one day, s/he remembers your name when you pass in the corridor the next day (and it will be “Good morning, Mr. Smith,” not, “Hey, John, how’s it going?”).
Preparations have been made for every comfort. Not only umbrellas, but also raincoats and Wellies were available to borrow for use on the castle grounds. And on the day Ophelia blew in, this reception area served hot chocolate with Bailey’s Irish Cream. Yum!
Then there are the comforts you don’t even want to have to think about. Like all the old, drafty windows that were replaced with double-glazed glass—800 of them—and let’s face it, in a castle, that means custom sizing. In addition, the beautiful wood paneling was carefully removed, fireproofed, refinished, and expertly replaced. And then there are the generators.
At the same time we were heading to Ashford Castle on the west coast of Ireland, so was Ophelia, reported to be the biggest hurricane on record that far north in the Atlantic. Though only a tropical storm by the time it reached Ireland, it knocked out the power in Cong, a village that’s only a 10-minute walk from the castle. Our lights in the castle flickered, and we figure that’s when the generators took over. (There could be no inconvenience to the guests of Ashford Castle!) Our friends, however, who were going to leave the next day for Tipperary, received a call from those accommodations, telling them not to come, as they had no power. Oh well, another night at Ashford for them!
4. This is a destination hotel with numerous options for activities on the property.
The activities, while not free, do contribute to the feeling that you’re visiting your gentrified friend’s country estate back in the day.
Some of the leisure pursuits include golf (Ashford has a 9-hole, par 35 parkland course), riding (horseback or in horse-drawn carts), ziplining and tree-climbing, tennis, fishing, archery, clay-pigeon shooting, kayaking, boat rides, billiards, cycling, wine tastings in the cellar, and a very informative history tour of the property.
We and our friends, Karen and Tony (the photographer for this photo), managed to work in a horse-drawn cart ride through the woods before Ophelia blew in.
Truth be told, the guys were even determined to squeeze in a game of 9-hole golf at Ashford. (Naturally, with Ophelia heading straight for us, they had the golf course almost to themselves!)
One of activities that guests rave about is falconry. Ashford Castle is home to Ireland’s first School of Falconry.
Client photo courtesy of Tamra Pierce
Unfortunately, my reservation for this (and all outdoor activities for that day) had to be canceled due to the storm. But these prior clients had better timing.
Client photo courtesy of photographer Debbie Wood
Another big hit are the owner’s lovable Irish Wolfhounds, Cronan and Garvan (all 165 pounds of Garvan!), who are brought into the castle to interact with guests each morning between 10:00-11:00. (If you tell Cronan he’s a handsome boy, he’ll roll over.)
For quiet time indoors, the Oak Hall mezzanine houses a library of over 800 antiquarian books. Between the bookcases are window seats on which to curl up under the sun’s rays while enjoying the library’s treasures.
And if all this is not enough, there’s also a 32-seat theater that shows two movies a day. Popcorn, snacks and bottled waters are provided.
Eating is also an activity, right? Here, the Connaught Room is set up for afternoon tea.
And here we are on our final night, awaiting dinner in the Dungeon.
5. The most important reason of all to come to Ashford Castle: the memories you make will last a lifetime!
Travel almost always involves eliminating things that won’t fit into the time (and/or budget) available; it’s a values exercise. We only had four days in Ireland. I told Al that I didn’t care what we did as long as we had two days at Ashford Castle. We were extremely happy with that decision.
I second what one reviewer said about it: “Put Ashford Castle down as a dream location for a once-in-a-lifetime destination.” It’s absolutely worth it!
It was sad to pass through these doors for the final time. But we carried the memories home with us. And the photos.
From the front, prior to our early morning departure
If you’d like to see more, here's a beautiful, professionally done video from Youtube.
We can currently offer the following Virtuoso Amenities at Ashford Castle:
Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
Full Irish breakfast included in rates daily, served in restaurant
$100 USD equivalent Food & Beverage credit to be utilized during stay (not combinable, no cash value if not redeemed in full)
Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability