On an ordinary October evening, in the baronial dining room at Ireland’s Ashford Castle, six middle-aged and older guests are having dinner at the next table. Nodding to the companionable group, our waiter whispers,” They come three times a year.”
It turns out they are from Pennsylvania, and Ashford isn’t necessarily their holiday or celebratory destination, they just love it. And they aren’t alone.
Patrick and Julie Calhoun, a Little Rock, Arkansas, couple, like to end their United Kingdom travels at Ashford. “What makes it special for us is that it is a highly refined, out of the way refuge,” said Patrick, whose Irish roots go back almost three centuries. “We always stop there at the end of our trips to recuperate for a few days before coming home. We’re in love with the place.”
There’s a lot to love at Ashford, which dominates the northern shore of Lough Corrib, Ireland’s second largest lake: Hiking and jogging trails through 350 acres of gardens and woodlands. An equestrian center with a dozen horses, an indoor arena, and trails around the lake and into the Connemara mountains. Sport clay shooting and archery, tennis and a 9-hole golf course (six top 18-hole courses are within 45 minutes) — but surprisingly there is no swimming pool. A popular diversion is a lake cruise among the dozens of islands, with an occasional visit to one with an historical church where St Patrick’s nephew is buried.
Ashford is particularly known for its country sports: Ireland’s first school of falconry, where you learn to handle and fly birds of prey on a “Hawk Walk.” A fly-fishing program in partnership with Orvis, the well-known fly-fishing company. Some of the best salmon and trout fishing in Europe.
Ashford has three Health and Beauty Rooms for a wide range of beauty and body treatments, plus a sauna, Jacuzzi, steam room and fully-equipped gymnasium. For me, the hands down highlight is the glassed-in relaxation terrace nestled against the castle walls that looks out to the round turreted battlements and the tranquil Lough beyond.
Conceived as an ancient stronghold in 1228, Ashford was expanded several times by subsequent owners, including the Guinness brewing dynasty, who added wings and gardens. In 1939 the longtime residence became a hotel for fishermen; late in the 20th century succeeding owners rebuilt portions in a luxurious baronial style well suited to its present life as a high end resort.
From the tiny village of Cong, a mile-long driveway over a drawbridge leads up to Ashford’s massive pile of turrets, towers and battlements. The public rooms are baronial: Well padded armchairs and cushy sofas in the spacious Drawing Room where guests enjoy afternoon tea and evening entertainments; the clubby Prince of Wales Bar, built for that visiting royal; sitting rooms with coffered ceilings, carved oak paneling and museum-quality antiques and paintings; and the honey-paneled George V dining room lighted by nine Waterford crystal chandeliers, where Executive Chef Stefan Matz serves his modern Irish and international menu from locally-sourced ingredients like Connemara lamb and fish from the lake and nearby Atlantic Ocean.
In a skillful feat of hospitality, Ashford’s 83 bedrooms are simultaneously cozy and manorial, intimate and spacious. Perhaps it’s the decanter of sherry or Irish liqueur that makes you feel like an invited friend rather than a paying guest. Or the attentive service of the ever-smiling staff.
Elegantly appointed rooms in the original castle building have double-height ceilings, four-poster beds, views of the Lough or the Cong River and bathrooms with claw-footed tubs and an occasional fireplace. Bedrooms in the new wing are smaller, though no less comfortable, with antiques and marble bathrooms. All have interactive TV systems, high-speed Internet access, and special sockets for US voltage.
The grounds at Ashford and the village of Cong, called Innisfree in the movie, are famous as the backdrop for much of “The Quiet Man,” John Ford’s 1952 classic of rural Irish life, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. One of the film’s main houses stands next to the falconry school. (The movie is available any time on your bedroom’s flat-screen TV.)
Ashford’s charms have drawn dozens of notable guests, from royalty (King George V and Princess Grace) and presidents (Reagan) to showbiz celebrities (the Beatles, Brad Pitt and Pierce Brosnan, who was married there).
With easy visits to the nearby hills and bogs of Connemara and the lively port of Galway Bay, there is no shortage of day trips and on-site activities, but there are guests, like the Calhouns, who find magic in doing nothing. “It is the most relaxing place I have ever stayed,” said Julie. “It is the perfect place for a long walk in the mist or sunshine. There are days I don’t leave our room. I just open the window and read and relax in my PJs until dinner.”
“We’ve never done any of the activities,” added Patrick. “It’s a treat just to walk into the Village of Cong for fish and chips and a pint or to read the paper over a pot of tea and scones. Most of all, the setting is a little slice of ‘Irish Heaven.'”
Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland; 011 353 94 954 6003; Fax: 011 353 94 954 6260. A member of The Leading Small Hotels of the World, for reservations call 800-346-7007. Excluding holidays, weekday rates until April start at about $120 per person in a double room, including breakfast and taxes; log onto the website for detailed packages and offerings.