It’s the little things about Ashford Castle that makes a stay there so enjoyable, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.
Being from Galway, I never take much persuading to head west, but when I was offered the chance to be wined and dined in a medieval castle built in 1228; needless to say I jumped at the chance.
If you are from Galway or Mayo, chances are you have at least spent one day with your family walking or cycling the grounds of Ashford Castle — or if you were in my family, being bundled into the back of the car to drive up to Cong for a picnic on the grounds.
So it was with a mixture of excitement and nostalgia, I took the trip again, some 25 years later, but this time to stay in the newly refurbished castle. It didn’t disappoint.
Now part of the Red Carnation group, Ashford Castle gives you the five-star experience in every way possible. Everything from the service to the surroundings is first rate. From the moment you walk inside the front lobby, you step back in time but without ever losing any of the luxuries that a five star experience offers.
Ashford Castle is set on 350 acres in Mayo, on the shores of Lough Corrib and the River Cong. Straddling the Galway border, the location is a spectacular one, with a stunning backdrop of woodlands, lake, river and mountains.
It’s a long slog from Cork to Cong and it was a dark winter’s evening by the time my girlfriend and I had arrived on the banks of the Corrib. We had barely parked the car before the doorman had strolled across to meet us. He knew our names before we offered them and immediately made us feel at ease. It was a sign of things to come.
It’s the little things about Ashford Castle that makes your stay so enjoyable. You can have a beautiful hotel room in a stunning hotel but still feel like you are anonymous. In Ashford Castle, they make you feel like you are the only guest staying. From the General Manager right down to the waiters and waitresses, everybody knew our name and made an effort to have a quick chat with us.
On the night we arrived, we were told it was a little too late to dine in the incredible George V dining room but instead could eat in the more low-key Dungeon Bar and restaurant which offers a modern Irish menu alongside some of ‘Ye Olde’ Irish cuisine. It’s a while since I had good old-fashioned corned beef and cabbage and it was a refreshing change.
Suitably refreshed we were shown to our room. If I did nothing else but stay in the room, I would have enjoyed my stay at Ashford. With floor to ceiling windows, it had stunning views of the lake and had the largest, and most comfortable, four-poster bed I have ever seen. Like much of the service at Ashford, the room mixed the old world charm with modern five-star comforts. At all times, you felt you were stepping back to a different time, yet the room had added touches like heated floors to make your stay all the more cosy.
Given the comforts of the room, it’s no surprise the Castle has hosted royalty of days gone by King George V and his consort Queen Mary to their modern day counterparts and Prince Rainier III of Monaco and his consort, Princess Grace. Other famous residents include Oscar Wile, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt and, of course, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara for the entirety of the shooting of The Quiet Man.
However, it’s the daytime that the Ashford estate really shows the visitor what it has to offer. On our first morning, we were treated to a cruise on Lough Corrib. Departing from almost right outside the door, you can virtually step out of your shower and onto the lake.
Luckily for us, we had one of those rare gifts in Galway — a fine sunny day. Again, the cruise offers you more than just a punt out onto the lake. Operated by brothers Patrick and David Luskin, Corrib Cruises has been in the family since 1976 when the men’s father John, who ran a joinery business, decided to take a punt while visiting the Isle of Wight. After chatting to some locals, he was told one of the original tenders from the QE2 was up for sale. He bought it for £10,000, renamed the boat The Corrib Queen and the business is running ever since.
It is impossible not to enjoy being out on Lough Corrib with the Luskin’s. They are literally a mine of information. We had a beautiful day for our cruise and we enjoyed stunning views of the lake and its islands not to mention the Connemara Mountains.
While floating along at a gentle pace, you are taken through the history of the Castle and the surrounding area, while being entertained by a charming old gentleman (and an extra from The Quiet Man days), who either regales you with a story or leads you in a song.
After returning to the Castle, we had a range of options open to us. From falconry or archery to clay pigeon shooting, a stay in Ashford Castle is an outdoor person’s dream. Given the stunning day and our 350 acre surroundings, we decided to opt for a bike ride.
After grabbing a quick spot of lunch, our bikes were waiting for us right outside the door. From then on you are left to your own devices to explore the myriad trails that lead off into the mighty estate. If you get the weather, I can’t recommend this option highly enough.
After working up a thirst on the trails, a spin to the nearby village of Cong is also a must. Just a stone’s throw from Ashford Castle, it’s the place made famous by The Quiet Man. However, while it alludes to its Hollywood connections, it never rams it down your throat.
Instead, you get gentle reminders with beautiful black and white photographs of that famous summer in 1951 when John Ford, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara rolled in to shoot a Hollywood classic. A good pint, good food and a gentle stroll around the Mayo village contrasts perfectly with the opulent surroundings of the castle
Opulent would best describe the George V dining room which serves guests their evening meal. Complete with a dress code of a jacket and a tie for the men, guests are treated to a full five-star silver service dining experience.
Built in honour of George V by the Guinness family ahead of his royal visit in 1906, the paneled walls and stunning Waterford Crystal chandeliers give you the impression that you are not just dining anywhere, but really stepping back to a time where service and setting meant something.
Put simply, Ashford Castle under the Red Carnation lives up to its motto: ‘No request too large, no detail too small’.
What to do
Set on a 350-acre estate, it’s a struggle to fit in every activity offered by the hotel. Ashford Castle offers a huge range of activities, from walking and cycling the grounds, golfing on Ashford’s nine-hole course, to fishing for trout and salmon on Lough Corrib and lake cruises. It also has one of the most advanced equestrian centre’s in the country and has Ireland’s first falconry school offering the rare opportunity to handle birds of prey.
What to see
Just a stone’s throw from the hotel is the picturesque village of Cong. Always a hive of activity; it’s a great way to pass a few hours enjoying a stroll or even a pint in some of the watering holes frequented by John Wayne as he filmed The Quiet Man.
What to eat/ where to eat
For a more traditional and casual dining experience, Cullen’s Cottage is located on the grounds, less than a two-minute walk from the castle.
The sights are really all around you. Look out your room window and you’ll see the stunning Lough Corrib or the sprawling 350 acre estate. Jump in your car for a few hours and you can explore the wilds of Connemara which are right on your doorstep.
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