My love affair with Canada began with a high school graduation gift from my old man: a week-long, father-son fishing trip. We bunked in a rundown resort in the woods of Ontario. Wind and rain besieged the camp, and daily thunderstorms forced us off the lake back into our knotty pine cabin, which housed a pair of field mice. In the black of night, a wind gust blew open the cabin door and in our semi-awake state we shoved a dresser in front of the door to prevent it from blowing open again and letting even more rainwater pour in. I loved every minute of it.
Since that stormy initiation, the Canadian wilderness has beckoned me back annually, if not two or three times a year. My dad and I found a new resort we escape to every Father’s Day and now consider our home-away-from-home.
A family road-trip to Niagara Falls a decade ago gave me the chance to see the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world; it also provided a few afternoons of fantastic stream fishing near Toronto.
A group of high school buddies and I brave the conditions every couple winters and snowshoe through the lakes and highlands of southern Ontario––punching through thin ice on a spring fed lake chilled my bones but did nothing to cool my passion toward Canada.
A few years ago, Vancouver welcomed me to the beauty of British Columbia, and served as a lovely launching pad for an Alaskan cruise.
A fly-in fishing adventure near Ear Falls two Septembers ago, during the full moon phase, taught me that walleyes can indeed feed so ferociously that your jig doesn’t hit the bottom of the lake. More importantly, it allowed me to treat my dad to his first fly-in fishing excursion––a trip he had dreamed his whole life of going on “someday.” The big moon lit up Bear Paw Lake as we caught walleye after walleye into the late night hours, all alone in the silence of the wilderness.
The year after, I breached Manitoba for my first time at a resort that presented a miraculous collection of contradictions: extreme luxury in the remote Atikaki Wilderness Provincial Park; 5-star service and gourmet food at a fly-in camp; world-class fishing with lavish accommodations in the midst of a beautiful and unspoiled boreal forest.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of lodging and luxury, annual Boundary Waters camping trips with cousins taught me how to paddle a canoe and tie up a bear bag to keep our food safe in the air––while we slept in tents on the ground.
This May, a decade and a half after that first Canada fishing trip, my love affair with the Canadian wilderness will culminate with the adventure of a lifetime: a week of ocean kayaking, mountain hiking, heli-fishing and glacier trekking at the incomparable Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort in the Great Bear Rainforest.
Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort
The resort, recently featured in the New York Times best-seller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” consists of nine chalets built on stilts on a tidal, fjord-like bay just south of Alaska’s Inside Passage, and is accessible only by helicopter and sea plane. From this pocket of luxury, guests have access to over 50,000 square miles of breathtaking beauty, including 10,000-year old glaciers, mountain tops, old-growth rainforests, remote islands, white sand beaches, hot springs, a 5,000-foot waterfall and over 50 pristine rivers and streams––the majority of which can only be reached by Nimmo Bay helicopters.
Daily adventures include whitewater rafting, kayaking, paddle boarding, deep-sea fishing, glacier trekking, bear- and whale-watching excursions, hiking and stream fishing. With all that activity, guests work up a hearty appetite to fully appreciate the mountain-top picnic lunches and gourmet dinners back at the lodge––a dining experience that has been called “one of the best in Vancouver” by New York Times best-selling travel author Patricia Shultz.
As grand as the operation is today, it all began with one man’s dream over 20 years ago to run a fishing lodge with his wife and kids. “I wanted to make a living doing something where I could be with my family,” explained Vancouver Island local Craig Murray, who started the lodge in 1980 after purchasing an old float house near Port Hardy and towing it by barge to Nimmo’s current location. “Not a lot of jobs out here at the time other than logging and commercial fishing and those would require me to leave my wife and kids behind and travel to wherever there’s work.”
And so, at 34, Murray decided to follow his dream and start Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort with his wife and sons, age 3 and 1.
“There are 150 million things that can go wrong, and most of them did at some time or another, but we managed,” said Craig. “We had no options––we had to make it work, even when the bank would say, ‘Sorry, no more money.’”
The resort initially focused just on fishing, and gradually grew from accommodating eight guests to its current capacity of 18. For nine months of the year, the eco-friendly operation is powered by electricity generated from the waterfall. A hydroxyl waste management system converts all the camp’s waste-water into to bacteria-free, clear water that can be released back into nature. Nimmo Bay has always led the way with sustainability and consciously minimizes its carbon footprint.
“There are too many things in this world that are not sustainable, too many people that aren’t thinking about that,” Murray said. “Right from the get-go we had a catch-and-release only fishery, so we never killed any fish at all. We have the purest, sweetest drinking water coming down from Mount Stevens. We did all the stuff you can possibly do to be green right from Day 1 because we know how fortunate we are to live in this pristine environment.”
Over the years, visitors from all over the world have taken note of the pristine environment as well. Nimmo Bay boasts a 76 percent return rate. It is consistently rated as one of the elite wilderness resorts in the world. The secret behind it all is simple, according to Murray, who in his early years visited his guests at their homes to study their behavior and preferences in order to optimize their future Nimmo Bay experiences.
“There are three reasons for our success at Nimmo Bay: humor, music and detail,” Murray said.
“Music is the universal language, and it’s all around us in nature,” Murray said. “If more people got involved with making music it’d be a happier place.”
His own children have taken the advice to heart. Murray’s middle child, Clifton, serves as an international ambassador for the resort while traveling with his popular band, The Tenors. Murray’s youngest child, Georgia, works full-time at the resort by day and is a professional singer by night. Guitars, sing-a-longs and karaoke are common at Nimmo Bay.
Murray’s oldest, Fraser, now runs the resort along with his wife, his cousin and his sister Georgia. “My dad has taught me so much,” says Fraser, who became a father himself earlier this winter. “He was there when I caught my first fish, and he also had me washing dishes and cleaning toilets at a very young age.”
Fraser and his generation of Murrays were the driving force in expanding Nimmo Bay’s offerings to include a wider breadth of activities beyond fishing, such as heli-hiking, whale watching, whitewater rafting and glacier trekking.
“We have all dedicated so much of our lives to Nimmo Bay that it is hard to separate life from work,” Fraser admitted. “Dad taught me the value of a long, hard day’s work and to never give up on something you believe in. I would say the only thing that was ever bigger then Nimmo Bay in our lives was our family, and this is true to this day.”
Younger sister, Georgia, agrees. “It is very special to be a part of a family business,” she said. “We are so lucky to be carrying on our mom and dad's legacy and putting our own stamp on it.”
As for me, I am lucky to have the chance to visit this remarkable place and this remarkable family in less than three months. Given the Murray’s legacy, it is fitting that this trip will be my last great adventure before I myself become a father later this summer.
I hope one day I will be able to share my love of the Canadian wilderness with my son or daughter as Murray has done with his.
The website for Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort is www.nimmobay.com. To contact the resort, email email@example.com or call 1-800-837-4354.
Photos courtey of Jeremy Koreski.
People often ask, “What was your favorite part of your trip?” It’s a difficult question. Pinpointing one specific highlight and ranking it against the others can be nearly impossible, especially on longer trips that consist of a variety of activities and settings that can’t be fairly compared.
That said, when people ask me, “What was your favorite place that you stayed in Ireland?” I have no hesitation in my response––even though I was lucky enough to stay at a wide variety of world-class resorts, including a 5-star hotel in beautiful County Wicklow, a 500-year-old baronial castle, and a resort on the Ring of Kerry with a view of the ocean.
The favorite place I stayed in Ireland was the Ashford Castle near the quiet village of Cong. As much as my wife and I loved every place we stayed on the Emerald Island, Ashford Castle was, without question, the crown jewel.
The 800-year-old castle, built on the shores of Lough Corrib in Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region, was once the proud estate of the Guinness family. Yes, that Guinness family––who, as you would expect–– had perhaps the finest estate in all of Ireland. The view across the famous lake has not changed since Sir Benjamin lee Guinness himself lived at Ashford, 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.
As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens, and hundreds of Oak, Beech and Chestnut trees have been re-planted––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 spectacular, with live music entertaining at night and views of the perfectly manicured back-lawn, magnificent fountain and opening bay of Lough Corrib delighting by day. As we lounged in the Drawing Room and listened to the lovely piano music we wondered: Who else may have sat in these antique chairs?
Choices include the Emperor of India, Britain’s King George V, President Ronald Reagan, Senator Ted Kennedy, Oscar Wild, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, 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.”
Many of the movie’s action sequences were filmed on Ashford’s estate, and 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.
There is also the Cong River, an excellent trout and salmon stream, which dumps into the lake outside the castle’s front door, creating a picture-perfect moment of a fairy-tale like bridge leading to the castle’s grand entrance. “We call that the ‘Oh-My-God!’ corner,” says Ashford’s Molly Leibowitz. “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 just 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 my silver spoon its due attention as my eyes studies 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 took notes dutifully, knowing that last year Costello caught a brown trout from the lake that topped the scales at over 13 pounds.
Costello and the concierge’s help that evening was typical of the service at Ashford. “What makes Ashford special are the wonderful people who work here,” said Paula Carroll, Ashford Castle’s Senior Manager. “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 decorations at Ashford, and the staff decorates their room for them every year before they arrive, so when they walk into their room it’s completely decorated with all their family decorations.
With such service to complement such a breathtaking setting, it’s clear why Ashford was voted #1 Best Resort Hotel in Europe by readers of Conde Nast Traveler in 2010.
Or, for that matter, why my answer is so easy when people ask me, “What was your favorite part of Ireland?”
Ashford Castle's website is www.ashfordcastle.ie. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1.800.346.7007.
A 400-pound crocodile is glaring at me 15 feet away with its razor sharp teeth on display. A cunning predator, the crocodile has the strongest jaws on the planet with a biting force of 5,000 pounds per inch.
“Crocs can jump through the air faster than you can blink,” says my guide, Jim Willcox.
I am miles away from civilization, in the upper reaches of a narrow river channel winding through the jungle, as Willcox whispers these comforting words. Today I have spotted birds I never knew existed, and caught five types of fish I’ve never before seen.
Now I lock eyes with the crocodile and wonder, for the first time during this extreme fishing pursuit, if I am perhaps no longer the predator.
It feels as though I am in the Amazon, or maybe on the Nile River, fishing in a foreign world where crocodiles are kings––they have been known to attack great white sharks––and every cast holds the promise of catching something bizarre. Instead, I am only 80 miles south of Miami, fishing in the Florida Everglades with a man many say is the best guide in the business.
And while reaching Captain Jim Willcox was easy and inexpensive compared to the travel required for equal adventures in far-flung parts of the world, our journey since leaving the dock in Islamorada, Florida, has not been void of danger. “He died this spring,” Willcox says, nodding to a memorial photo pinned to a mangrove tree along the channel. “Lost control of his boat. They found his boat way up in the mangrove trees with the motor still running 90 minutes after the crash.”
We are lucky on this October morning. Calm wind makes it possible to run some 30 miles in Willcox’s 18-foot Action Craft boat to leave behind the Atlantic Ocean, cut through the Gulf of Mexico and sneak up into the bowels of the Everglades. At full throttle, Willcox’s 150-horsepower Yamaha propels his boat on plane so he can fly through water just 12 inches deep. Nonetheless, it is critical that we pay attention to the tide or we will get trapped up in a narrow channel that held water when initially motored through but recedes into a mud bank by the end of low tide.
“There’s no cell phone reception here,” Willcox says. “People get stuck and you’re not going anywhere until the next day.”
In a sense, Willcox has been trapped by the region for more than two decades. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, cheering for the Eagles and driving 90 minutes to the East Coast when he wanted to fish for marlin and tuna. He came to Bud N’ Mary’s marina in Islamorada one December with his dad and fell in love with fishing in the Keys.
For the next 12 years, Willcox came to Islamorada each December with his 13-foot Boston Whaler and fished every day for a month straight. The unique beauty and diverse fishery captivated him so intensely that he couldn’t leave, so Willcox made the leap to move 1,300 miles south to become a full-time fishing guide.
“I could never do a corporate job and work for some stiff in a suit,” said Willcox, now in his 15th year operating his Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. “I report to the Everglades now.”
It appears fishing and guiding is what Willcox was born to do. He has won numerous fishing tournaments, been featured in big-time publications ranging from The Washington Post to Field & Stream, and has starred in television shows on ESPN, Versus and The Weather Channel.
“Jim is a natural for TV,” said Terry Boeder, a producer for North American Fisherman-TV (NAF-TV) who has filmed numerous fishing shows with Willcox. “His excitement and enthusiasm for the keys is 100 percent authentic.”
This past summer, Boeder’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and he wanted to do something special for them. Try not to hate him for it, but Boeder gets to fish all over the country with the top guides while producing shows for NAF-TV. When it came time to decide who he should hire to take his parents out for a memorable anniversary, the decision was easy.
“I picked Islamorada for my parents’ 50th anniversary because of Jim,” Boeder said. “He introduced my parents to all the beautiful things the area has to offer. They had never been to the Keys, and because of Jim, they are making plans to come back.”
I can understand why Boeder picked Willcox. If I exclude a couple local guide-buddies from the equation to remove any biases, I have to say Willcox is hands-down the best guide I’ve ever fished with––and the most fun.
Incidentally, I first heard about Willcox during an episode of NAF-TV that Boeder filmed. In the show, Willcox and his guest boated a monstrous, 14-foot-long sawfish. The footage is incredible––watch the action on Willcox’s website and you’ll understand why ancient people believed in sea monsters.
“I fish 9 days a week,” Willcox quips, conservatively putting the estimate at 250 days a year. He’s mastered a 40-mile radius of ocean and Everglade water, and narrates every twist and turn so I can begin to appreciate this powerful environment.
He knows this water like the back of his hand. As soon as we reach our spot and start pitching jigs to mangrove trees we start catching fish. I’ve never before caught a redfish, but 30 seconds into fishing I’m reeling one in. My excitement grows as I cast back out and just as quickly get another bite, this time only to discover another new species for me: a snook.
From then on, the action was fast and furious with both quantity and quality fish. Big mangrove snappers, sheepshead, catfish, more snook and lots of bruiser redfish up to 14 pounds––fish that give a heck of a fight on 15-pound braided line. We also saw countless birds ranging from hawks to spoonbills, as well as sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, manatees and that up-close-and-personal crocodile.
In fact, it is the wildlife and the wild scenery that most amaze me on this adventure. Where else in the U.S. can you have an experience like this? No wonder Willcox’s clients rave about him.
“Jim can stop his boat in the middle of nowhere, drop in a few lines and pull out dozens of a specific type of fish,” says Matt Waddell, of White Plains, New York, who visits Islamorada annually for guided outings with Willcox. “Then he’ll motor for a while, stop somewhere else, and you start catching dozens of some totally different type of fish.”
Waddell brought his 12-year-old son out fishing with Willcox as a birthday present to the boy. After catching mackerel, blue fish, redfish, snapper, snook and trout, Waddell’s son caught a large shark.
“As a dad, there’s nothing like seeing the pure joy of your 12-year-old reeling in fish after fish and then catching this huge shark,” Waddell recalls. “Those trips are also a chance for me to bond with my sons with no video games, no phones and no TV. We just talk about what’s going on in life, but it’s not heavy or uncomfortable because they’re so excited about the fishing.”
“Jim is great with kids,” Waddell said. “He engages with them really well, and he subtly teaches them without patronizing them.”
Willcox gets to see childlike excitement from many of his clients throughout the day; it’s what he loves most about guiding.
“Guiding gives me a chance to spend every day in this wilderness,” he said. “And it’s awesome to introduce people to the Everglades and see them freak out. They get so excited by the entire experience––seeing that is a rush for me.”
Capt. Jim Willcox operates Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. His website is www.ultimatekeysfishing.com. To contact Jim, email email@example.com or call 305-393-1128.
You can still see the affects of Hurricane Wilma (2005) in much of the region. The two trees on the point in the photo below seem like the inspration for the song "Lean on Me." The Gulf of Mexico is in the background.
These two members of the Audobon Society were catching baitfish to gauge how the bird population would fare in the months ahead. Lots of bait means lots of birds.
Below, Capt. Jim Willcox noticed birds concentrated in this area, so we boated over and threw out a net, figuring the birds were hovering over baitfish.
The net was so heavy Willcox could barely haul it in. (I almost had to put down my camera and help). We used these pilchards for bait the rest of the day.
At the fish cleaning station back at the marina, dozens of tarpon gathered to snatch up our fish guts. Half a dozen sharks joined them. It's difficult to gauge the perspective in this photo because there are so many huge fish here, but the majority of these tarpon ranged from 25 to 75 pounds, with several over 100.
After our day in the Everglades, we stopped in the Atlantic Ocean for an hour and caught a ton of mangrove snappers, pictured above and below. Willcox directed us to a local restaurant that night that cooked our fillets in four different, delicious ways.
What a day! It had the perfect ending, fresh fish at a restaurant on the beach, and the perfect beginning: a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, pictured below.
Sometimes Mother Nature surprises you. She displays herself in shapes and forms you didn’t think possible on this planet. Such was the case on the remote Isle of Skye, in the far highlands of Scotland where my wife and I discovered natural beauty in ways we never knew existed.
Our hiking excursion in this less-visited region of Scotland delighted us to the point of “stealing the show” as the final leg of our European excursion. We had toured the highlights of Ireland for a week, then jumped the pond to Scotland to see The Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle, then drove a half-day to reach this unusual expanse, and immediately realized the splendor of the Scottish highlands is truly unparalleled.
The base camp for our hiking adventure, Letterfinlay Lodge Hotel, turned out to be a hidden gem itself. It’s perched precariously on the banks of Loch Lochy, in the heart of the “outdoor capital of the U.K.” In fact, the tallest mountain on the British Isles, Ben Nevis, is just 12 miles from Letterfinlay, which opened as a hunting and fishing lodge in 1957.
Ian Smith bought the property five years ago and succeeded at upgrading the accommodations without losing any of the lodge’s original charm. In fact, while the magnificent view from the deck (pictured below) is my favorite physical feature of the lodge, its faint, old-school lodge smell is a close second.
“I love the feel of this place,” I said to my wife one evening as we enjoyed a pre-dinner drink on Letterfinlay’s panoramic Osprey sun deck. It was one of those vague statements you make when you’re charmed by the spirit of a quaint lodge but can’t quite find the words to express what you’re getting at.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Jodie responded immediately. “If we lived here [in Scotland], I could see us coming to this place every year for vacation.”
In fact, Letterfinlay does hold the distinction of being the secret little place where “the locals” go on their vacations.
“The hotel has an amazing setting on the banks of Loch Lochy surrounded by some of our country's stunning mountains,” said Claire, of Falkirk, Scotland, via TripAdvisor. “We ate in the hotel both nights and the food was perfect and the staff service was superb. This is a small hotel with a big heart. We really cannot recommend this gem highly enough and we look forward to getting the chance to go back!”
Letterfinlay features 14 rooms, a dining room and bar, and a comfortable lounge complete with a dart board and billiards table. A friendly atmosphere permeates all parts of the lodge (they even welcome dogs in select rooms) and we enjoyed walking the halls and gazing at trophy fish photos and mounted stags adorning the walls.
The staff is fantastic. Lindsey was our favorite, a local lassie in her young 20s who was full of energy and offered us practical tips on everything from what to order for breakfast (we liked how she called French toast “eggy bread”) and where to explore.
The staff also accommodates weddings, offering guests the chance to rent out the entire lodge and have a private party.
“Every couple wants their wedding to be perfect and ours was just that,” said Sam, of Edinburgh, Scotland, via TripAdvisor. “Letterfinlay, with its charm and character, was the ideal place for our wedding ceremony and photos. It was a delight to work with such a professional and courteous staff who was able to ensure that every detail was taken care of.”
The detail that drove us to stay at Letterfinlay is its unbeatable location. It’s a four hour drive from the nation’s famous capital city, Edinburgh, where the majority of tourists stay for their entire time in Scotland. From Letterfinlay, you’re then just two hours away from the mystical Isle of Skye.
Until recently the unspoiled island was only accessible by boat, but the construction of the Skye Bridge offers a lovely drive that will doubtlessly take you longer than MapQuest suggests, due to the frequent photo opportunities (such as the one pictured below) that demand you pull over.
We left Letterfinlay at 5:30 the morning of our Skye expedition and headed straight to The Old Man of Storr on the northern part of the island, known as the Trotternish Peninsula. The 19-mile long peninsula is the highest point of the island; The Old Man of Storr is a bizarre rock formation at the peninsula’s peak that stands 160-feet tall and towers over The Sound of Raasay.
Skye means “cloudy” in Old Norse, but we were blessed with a rain-free morning and made our ascent up the mountain-side with dry footing and relatively clear skies. The views were spectacular. Skye is sparsely populated––the 600-mile island is said to have more sheep than people––and our early start allowed us to have The Old Man to ourselves. We reached the summit without seeing another soul, hiking alone with the mountain goats.
Photos don’t do this natural treasure justice, but I had to try. At one point the wind nearly blew my tripod and camera over, and I leapt from my pose, several feet away, just in the nick of time to save my Nikon from a premature and rocky death.
As we were about to begin our descent I turned to my wife and said, “Wait. Let’s just stand here another few minutes in silence.”
I am so grateful we paused. Moments like that are hard to come by. You only have so many instances in life when Earth’s rugged beauty knocks you over and leaves you gasping for air. When it happens, you want to soak up every ounce of it.
After conquering The Old Man of Storr, we made our way north to The Quiraing, stopping along the way at Kilt Rock waterfall. The 200-foot-tall sea cliff, so named due to its resemblance to a Scotsman’s tartan kilt, has a layer of volcanic rock with vertical lava columns that look like pleats.
The Quiraing presented us with a new hiking challenge, and while it was less vertically challenging than The Old Man of Storr, its views were equally stunning.
We peered down at the dramatic, jagged northern end of the Trotternish Peninsula and identified each of The Quiraing’s famous rock formations: The Table, The Prison and The Needle.
If I saw the terrain in a movie I’d think for sure it was made up for dramatic effect, but sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and Mother Nature surprises me in ways I didn’t think possible.
I love it when she does.
How beautiful is Letterfinlay Lodge and its surrounding area? Well, one evening we were driving back to the lodge from nearby Fort William and got a "wee bit" lost. Our GPS took us through some tiny dirt road barely wide enough for one car, nonetheless two-way traffic. Tourists would never drive on this road, intentionally. Sheep were running ahead of us as we passed the driveways and houses of several local farmers. Suddenly we came around a turn and saw this view:
We also enjoyed the drive back to Letterfinlay from the Island of Skye. To reach the island, we took the bridge, but on the return trip we took a different route via a ferry. The next two photos came in the parking lot while we were waiting for the ferry:
Of course, it is the views from The Old Man of Storr and The Quiraing that remain most vividly imprinted in my mind.
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.