You can live like royalty in this 13th-century castle in Ireland
I arrived at Ashford Castle in Ireland’s idyllic County Mayo, hoping to live out my childhood fantasies of staying in an 800-year-old castle-turned-five-star hotel and spending the after- noon enjoying tea and sandwiches while admiring the picturesque garden and lake view. Of course, if this sounds like your perfect vacation, Ashford Castle will certainly provide a great backdrop to do so, but I soon discovered that visiting this hotel is about much more than just living like royalty for a few nights. A visit to Ashford is all about showcasing the best of a country’s deep-rooted beauty, culture and history within the setting of the castle and its incredibly kind, passionate and knowledgeable staff.
A brief history of Ashford Castle
Once you’ve received a welcome drink and settled into your accommodation (a roaring fire will be waiting in your room to warm you up or dry you off when you arrive), it’s important to start your Ashford experience by telling you about the wealth of the property. -studded history. The castle was originally built as an Anglo-Norman fortress in 1288, and it remained an important stronghold for centuries. It wasn’t until over 600 years later that Ashford became the luxurious estate it is known for today.
After trading hands with several prominent Irish families over the years, Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness (yes, that Guinness) bought Ashford in 1852, turning it into one of the family’s lavish summer residences where they entertained from notable guests from the Prince of Wales – who later became King George V – to Oscar Wilde and his family. In 1939 Ashford was purchased with the intention of becoming a hotel, and it has since hosted guests ranging from Grace Kelly, the Prince of Monaco and President Ronald Regan to Stevie Wonder, Brad Pitt and Uma Thurman (that’s quite the secret celebrity hideaway, so be on the lookout while enjoying your Irish breakfast in the George V dining room).
The Ashford Experience
Red Carnation Hotels purchased Ashford Castle in 2013 and have since spent countless hours renovating the property, collecting Guinness estate pieces that showcase the castle’s glamorous history and curating new experiences for guests who showcase Ireland’s pristine scenery, sports and culture. There are 83 rooms and suites available at Ashford, so it has that Goldilocks balance of not feeling crowded at all while not looking like the only one staying on the 350-acre property. Each guest is treated with the utmost attention and care, so it won’t take long for you to feel like a member of the Irish aristocracy.
The estate is home to seven different restaurants, each with their own personality and experience, as well as two bars and a well-appointed wine cellar. The concierge will help you determine the best dining experiences for your needs, whether it’s coordinating a private tasting in the cellar that spotlights Irish-influenced labels (a must for oenophiles) or renting Stanley’s for an intimate dinner with the hotel’s executive chef. The Castle is passionate about providing local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible to showcase the best of Irish cuisine – any negative preconceptions about Irish cuisine will be thrown to the wayside from your first meal.
Considering there are 350 lush acres of gardens, forest and woodland on the shore of a spectacular emerald lake – not to mention a sprawling castle full of amenities – you could spend an entire week in Ashford and not miss a thing. to do. It’s an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, offering golf, fishing, shooting, biking, horseback riding, kayaking and more with breathtaking views at every turn. However, if you’re looking for something a little more unusual, don’t miss an experience at the hotel’s school of falconry, which happens to be the oldest in Ireland. The school offers private falcon walks where guests can explore the grounds accompanied by beautiful birds alongside knowledgeable instructors who will help you feel like a falconry pro in no time.
An authentic exploration of Ireland’s scenic west
While it’s tempting to spend your entire stay on property, the best experience of the trip (and one of the most special days I’ve had in a long time) was leaving the grounds and exploring the scenic west of Ireland. The hotel recently launched a remarkable Meet the Makers experience that brings guests into the homes, workshops and studios of the nation’s most talented artisans, chefs, musicians, farmers and others, who are dedicated to preserving the Irish crafts and cultural traditions. It’s not just the best thing to do when staying in Ashford, but possibly one of the best experiences one can have in Ireland.
Our excursion began after breakfast, where we met up on the West Coast with the Hotel’s Experiences Ambassador, Eowin Warner, who has an extensive network of top Irish creatives as he is a documentary filmmaker and does part of the burgeoning Irish slow food movement. He coordinates all trips and the concierge will work with you to determine the best route based on your interests, as there are over 30 decision makers involved.
Our first stop was at the beautiful home of a master basket weaver to learn more about his craft. Not only does he make beautiful pieces in traditional Irish fashion, he also farms all the materials on his property. Lunch was served at the home of one of the two brilliant chefs behind the popular pop-up restaurant, The Sea Hare, which is currently in Clifden for the summer. Everything we dined on came from within 25 miles of us, from perfectly pink salmon to sweet rhubarb. I even plucked up the courage to try my first black pudding while the chefs were talking about the evolution of Irish cuisine. Our final stop was at a legendary pub, where we learned how to pour our own pints of Guinness (yes, it’s an art), while a father-son duo taught us how to real Irish musical and dancing traditions, as it seems much Irish dancing has been given the ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ treatment in the United States.
Being welcomed into the homes and businesses of strangers so passionate about the profession and the country they have chosen sealed my trip to Ashford Castle as the ultimate throwback to post-covid travel and reminded me why I like to travel so much. Whether it’s deepening my knowledge of Irish cuisine, meeting talented people who seek to preserve the country’s history and culture for future generations, or delighting in the diverse landscape of the West Coast, I left with a zest for Ireland and a desire to better support the amazing chefs, artisans and musicians who await me back home. It turns out that sleeping in a castle was just the icing on the cake of a truly unforgettable and informative stay.
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