Having traversed the Atlantic Ocean and Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region to reach fabled Ashford Castle, I now can say that I have lived like royalty. It was only for a day, but a day in an ancient world lasts a lifetime in memory.
The castle, once the proud estate of the Guinness family, was built on the shores of Lough Corrib in 1228. The view across the lake has not changed in over 6,000 years and all of the castle’s 83 rooms retain their original features. The room my wife and I stayed in offered a stunning view of the 44,000-acre lake, home to some 365 islands. It was a view made better (if not blurrier) by the complimentary bottle of champagne and decanter of cherry that welcomed us upon our arrival. And so we learned, quite quickly on this special visit, that life as royalty is good.
As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens that Rick Steves raves about––it was difficult to pull ourselves out from within the castle walls that first afternoon. Ashford Castle is just too magical. Original architecture is still in-tact, ranging from massive fireplaces to Waterford chandeliers to Roccoco gilt mirrors.
The Drawing Room was my favorite, where live music entertained at night and views of the perfectly manicured back-lawn, magnificent fountain and opening bay of Lough Corrib entertained by day. As soon as we checked in, my wife and I took our drinks to the Drawing Room, plopped down by the piano and wondered: Who else might have sat in these very chairs?
Possibilities include the Emperor of India, Britain’s King George V, President Ronald Reagan, Senator Ted Kennedy, Oscar Wilde, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, all of whom have stayed at Ashford. In fact, the Duke (by whom I mean John Wayne, not some British royalty) stayed at Ashford when he filmed the movie “The Quiet Man.”
Wayne, O’Hara and director John Ford stayed at Ashford during the shooting of the movie that would put the quiet, nearby village of Cong on the map. Originally, people thought the movie would be a flop––the Republic only agreed to produce the movie after Wayne and O’Hara promised to first also star in a different Republic film you may have heard of … Rio Grande. They shot Rio Grande in the U.S. then raced back to this mystical spot in Western Ireland that captivated Wayne and compelled him to convince Republic to take on the film.
Many of the movie’s action sequences were filmed on Ashford’s estate. You can walk from the castle to the very waters where the priest in “The Quiet Man” hooked the monstrous salmon he’d been trying to catch for 10 years. That’s not the only reason I was excited to bring my rod and ply the waters at Ashford; many of the largest pike in Fred Buller's famous book, "The Doomsday Book of Mammoth Pike," were caught on Lough Corrib.
The Cong River, an excellent trout and salmon stream, spills into the lake outside the castle’s front door, creating a picture-perfect scene of a fairy-tale like bridge leading to the castle’s grand entrance. “We call that the ‘Oh-My-God!’ corner,” says Ashford’s Director of Sales and Marketing Paula Carroll. “That last bend always surprises guests, when you come around the corner and suddenly this majestic castle comes into view as though sitting on the side of the lake.”
That final stretch of river is not merely scenic, though; it’s a terrific spot to cast for salmon when they’re running in May. I have to admit, I did catch myself distracted on several casts––not paying due attention to my silver spoon as my eyes gravitated toward the castle in front me. The castle’s ghillie, Frank Costello, is an Orvis-endorsed guide who grew up on Lough Corrib and doesn’t let his international reputation go to his head. Ashford’s concierge called him for me at 6:30pm and he kindly offered me tips over the phone.
I may not have caught the fabled fish that Father Lonergan hooked during Maureen O’Hara’s stream-side confession in “The Quiet Man,” but I definitely had fun trying.
As tasty as the steak was at the George V Dining Room, I wouldn’t have wanted to trade it in for a fresh-caught salmon anyway (the castle does offer to clean and cook guests' fish). The dining room was built in 1906 in preparation for a special visit from the Prince of Wales and has been winning awards ever since. Our dinner was beyond delicious, and the service was impeccable. Take a sip of wine, and a waiter tops it off. Take another sip, and the waiter comes back.
You can definitely see why Carroll, who herself has been at Ashford for 25 years, takes such pride in her 160-person staff. “What makes Ashford special are the wonderful people who work here,” she told me. “Over 40 percent of the staff have in excess of 20 years of service here, and 55 percent have more than 15 years. That’s why clients feel like they are coming and being welcomed home.”
A perfect example is the family who has visited Ashford every Christmas for the past 18 years. They leave all their own ornaments at Ashford, and the staff decorates their room for them before they arrive, creating a home-away-from-home feeling.
With such service, it’s little wonder that Ashford was voted #1 Best Resort Hotel in Europe by readers of Conde Nast Traveler in 2010. Of course, the magnificent castle, immaculate estate and stunning grounds help a bit, too.
In addition to golf, biking, boating, horseback riding, clay shooting and archery, Ashford Castle also offers falconry, providing a rare chance for visitors to partake in an ancient sport unlike any other. I have sat in a duck blind with birds as the target, but to walk in the woods with a bird as my ally––for it to be released into the tree tops to search for prey, then to return to my arm as my comrade––is something else. Falconry, defined as “taking wild quarry in its natural state or habitat using trained hawks or falcons,” dates back to 2,000 B.C. and is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia or the Far East.
Europe adopted the sport in perhaps the 4th century when the Huns invaded, and it became popular among the nobles in part because falcons and hawks were rare, expensive and required the great estates of castles. It was not exclusive to men, however, as a European nobleman in 1801 commented, “the ladies not only accompanied the gentlemen in pursuit of falconry, but often practiced it by themselves; and even excelled the men in knowledge and exercise of the art.” This note also documents that women, unsurprisingly, have been bettering men since at least 1801 … though I suspect that began centuries earlier!
In total, the grandeur of Ashford blew me away. As a writer, I’m humbled to admit I was too overwhelmed to summarize my experience in a pithy clincher sentence. So I leaned on Ashford’s General Manager Nial Rochford who, to his credit, did a fine job: “Located on the shores of the sparkling Lough Corrib, the estate boasts generous woodland and magnificently tended grounds where the slow, relaxed pace of a bygone era meets the luxury and comfort of a 5-star hotel.”
Ashford Castle's website is www.ashfordcastle.ie. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1.800.346.7007.
Tearing yourself away from Ashford Castle's 365-acre estate is no easy task, but if you manage to get away even for an hour or two, Ireland's wildest region, Connemara, is your reward. There are several notable stops nearby, including the picturesque Kylemore Abbey.
The Neo-Gothic country house was built by a wealthy English businessmen in the 1860s. During WW I, refugee Benedictine nuns from Belgium took over the Abbey, and today it's an exclusive boarding school for girls.
Connemara National Park, a short drive from Ashford, was another highlight for my wife and me. Its 5,000 acres of wild bog and mountains are free to access, with hikes ranging from easy to moderate. The Connemara region is also home to famed Croagh Patrick, the mountain from which St. Patrick supposedly banished the snakes from Ireland.