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Staying and Playing in Ireland's Regal Retreat, The Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle

There’s a mild obsession that people seem have with castles. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of those Robin Hood and King Arthur tales from our childhood, or a dream for a soon-to-be-bride planning her fairytale wedding. Perhaps it’s just the idea that one gets to have a brush with royalty, knowing that castles have been the homes of aristocrats for hundreds of years. There are many impressive castles throughout Europe and in Ireland, but on the shores of Lough Corrib, Ashford Castle has been the resting place for royalty and the well-to-do since the 13th century.

Ashford Castle

Past the grand stone gates and verdant green lawn, there is a view of the lake, and there sits the Ashford Castle. It is a majestic and daunting sight as one approaches over the knoll, as the massive structure of gray-stoned walls and turrets sprawl across the expanse. There’s a need to go slowly, to savor the moment as you cross a stone bridge and guard house to arrive at the entrance. The doorman, dressed in his uniform of a green coat and top hat, gives a warm greeting with his lovely, singsong Irish accent: Welcome to the Ashford Castle.

Ashford Castle

As you enter, the sense of history and gravitas begins to set in. You are in one of the world’s top castle hotels where generations of royalty have lived for 800 years. There is a 400-year-old suit of armor used in the joust that seems to peer at you as you walk into the parlor. The grandeur of the castle is on full display with fine Irish craftsmanship of ornately-carved wood paneling, molding and arches. Expect to spend extra moments absorbed by the ubiquitous Waterford and Donegal crystal chandeliers, priceless artworks, woven tapestries, oil portraits of historical figures and delicate antique furnishings. Yet through it all, the castle never feels like a museum. Perhaps it’s the infectiously warm Irish hospitality of the staff, or the modern conveniences. Either way, the castle invites one to enjoy and experience versus to just admire.

Ashford Castle

The edifice has gone through several hands since it was founded in 1228 by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family who claimed direct descent from Charlemagne. In 1852, the estate became the home of the Guinness family, who expanded the castle structure with two large, Victorian-style extensions and a Neo-Gothic wing which style was in vogue during that era. After other owners, and a period of less ambitious care and development, it was purchased by the Red Carnation Group in 2013, who worked tirelessly and invested millions upon millions to bring the castle back to its former glory. It is now regarded as one of the top castle hotels in the world and was in fact voted by Virtuoso as the Number 1 hotel in the world in 2015.

Ashford Castle

The castle’s former guests reads like a who’s who of royalty, heads of state and entertainment icons. President Reagan stayed there while in office as did Bono, Robin Williams, Sharon Stone, Brad Pitt and countless others. Pierce Brosnan was even married there.

The castle’s rooms are unique with a range of color palettes and designs, from floral to bold and vibrant. All have exquisite chandeliers, oil portraits of landlords past, delicate antiques and fine objects d’art. The furnishings are exquisite as well with canopy and four poster beds, chairs and lounges of the highest craftsmanship and detail. Today’s conveniences and technology has been seamlessly combined within the historic structure for a modernly comfortable stay.

Ashford Castle

Accommodations range in size from standard rooms to the larger family and the presidential suite. The presidential suite became the Ronald Reagan suite after his visit as head of state in the 1980s. It is their top category suite since it was built in 1228, and has a parlor with a fireplace and wonderful views of the grounds and lake. The bedroom is quite spacious with his and her bathrooms, a second fireplace, a canopied bed, a chaise lounge and more fine furnishings and antiques.

The hotel only has 83 rooms, and due to strict laws to preserve this historical icon, no additional development will occur. Guests may opt to stay at the Lodge at Ashford Castle which is also located on the castle grounds. The property is more like a country inn with 64 rooms and suites.

The dining options at the Ashford Castle range from an epicurean feast in an opulent setting, to more casual Irish fare in The Dungeon, or to a splendid proper high tea. 

Ashford Castle
Ronald Reagan Suite

The King George V Dining Room is nothing less than a stately dining experience. The restaurant is named in the honor of the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1905 who became King George V of England. The setting is majestic with vaulted ceilings, rich, wooden-panel walls, and twinkling Waterford crystal chandeliers with a staff decked out in tuxedos and tails. This is a formal affair and as you take your seat you’ll notice the live piano music setting the romantic tone for the evening.

Ashford Castle

The cuisine is helmed by celebrated chef Philippe Farineau who applies haute French cooking techniques and presentations to dishes created from seasonal ingredients from the west of Ireland. The menu ranges from exotic to haute traditional, and includes a few selections from the grand dame of the Red Carnation hotels, Beatrice Tollman. Expect an exceptional wine pairing as well from their 1,000 bottle wine cellar and the expertise of their talented sommeliers. The service is on par with the cuisine, with the nattily dressed staff providing attentive service just short of mind reading.

Ashford Castle

After dinner, guests are invited into the drawing room for entertainment and cocktails. One of the performances is by local Irish songbird, Kai, who sings Irish ballads as if her voice was touched by an angel. If you close your eyes, you would swear that you were listening to an intimate performance by Julie Andrews.

Once you arrive at the Ashford Castle, there’s really no reason to go anywhere else until the time of departure as there’s so much to do there, indoors and out. Beyond just getting lost marveling at all of the centuries-old coats of arms, oil portraits and other objects d’ art, head to The Billards Room or Prince of Wales Bar. There’s also a good-sized theater for movie nights with some great films and a box of popcorn.

Ashford Castle

The castle also boasts one of the top spa experiences in Ireland with five treatment rooms, a revitalizing Hamman and a steam room. The relaxation pool is located within a bronze conservatory and is really a work of art with ornate chandeliers and a tile wall mosaic depicting Irish Celtic Mythology.  

The Ashford Castle is surrounded by 350 acres of waterfront land, ancient, thick-wooded forests busting with wildlife, and trout-filled rivers and streams.  Trekkers will love the countless trails where you may not see another soul for hours.

Ashford Castle

Beyond the natural gifts that have made this place magical, the estate’s custodians have left their mark with beautiful gardens, with some intentionally left natural and others finely groomed. The Parterre is a walled garden filled with perennial flowers busting with vibrant colors as well as fruit trees and vegetables. Lovebirds will enjoy long, leisurely strolls, especially through the Terrace Walks and Broad Walks which were created by the Guinness family over 100 years ago.

Ashford Castle

There is a surfeit of outdoor activities at one of the world’s top sporting estates, from enjoying a challenging nine-hole golf course to horse riding, zip-lining, clay shooting, archery and cycling paths. On the lake there is kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding or taking an hour-long historical tour around the lake on a vintage ship. Guests can go on a falconry walk with amazing Harris Falcons and watch them fly circles round the castle woodlands, finally to land on a gloved hand. Another favored pastime is fly fishing for the area’s coveted brown trout or fishing for pike and salmon from a vintage wooden boat.

Ashford Castle

The staff that at the castle is as dedicated as the Knights of the Round Table. There is an evident pride of working in an icon of Ireland history and one of the top hotels of the world. Forget asking how many years they’ve worked there, ask how many generations, as many follow in the footsteps of parents and even grandparents. Without exception, warm Irish hospitality is the norm, from the front desk to the wait staff, to the housekeepers and gardeners, all are friendly, capable, and truly dedicated to providing the best services possible.  

There’s a reason why Ashford Castle has a legions of repeat guests, fans and a cadre of awards from the purveyors of luxury travel. It is simply the quintessential royal holiday and unlike any other in the world.

Glenn Harris

Glenn Harris is an accomplished journalist focusing on international travel, fine dining, and luxury lifestyle events. His wanderlust has taken him to over 95 countries where he is constantly straying off the beaten path uncovering new and often exotic finds. He particularly enjoys seeking out lesser known travel gems and places to stay, dine, or experiences to capture. ...(Read More)

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