Time travel is easily achieved at Ireland’s stunning 5-star Ashford Castle – within an easy five-minute stroll visitors traverse 800 years of history, from the 13th century to the 21st, from authentic medieval castle accommodation to ultra-modern, two-story condominiums.
Such wide choice is the crowning achievement of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, a group of 17 boutique hotels in the UK, Ireland, South Africa and the US, which purchased the castle and neighboring Lisloughrey Lodge four years ago for around 20 million euro and has already invested more than 50 million euro in comprehensive renovation before reopening the property in 2015.
Located beside the quaint riverside town of Cong in County Mayo, where the classic 1952 movie, ‘The Quiet Man,’ starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and directed by John Ford, was filmed, Ashford Castle dates back to its 1228 original owners, the Anglo-Norman de Burgo (Burke) family. It then fell into the hands of several prominent Irish businessmen until bought by Sir Benjamin Guinness in 1852 who built a lodge on the 365-acre site for his estate manager. Fast forward to 1970 and new owner John Mulcahy orchestrates a major restoration program including building a golf course and developing the grounds and gardens. In 2007, the Lisloughrey Lodge was first converted into a hotel.
My companion and I had the good fortune to experience both the medieval and the modern, staying first in in the Lodge, Room 140, the Elwood Suite, located in an interior courtyard with a fountain and wooden bench seats as central ornamentation. As in keeping with the Carnation Collection’s trademark, the suite reflected a dramatically red ambience including furnishings such as leather sofa and matching chairs in the living room and red and white striped curtains. Adding a touch of quirkiness, a large portrait of Chinese communist revolutionary, Mao Tse-tung, with red face, hung on the wall at the foot of the stairs. White walls, ceiling and bannisters, black frames around mirrors and silver-framed glass coffee and side tables offered color contrast. A carnation in a vase presented a final design flourish. This overriding color scheme continued upstairs in the bedroom and bathroom with vivid red bed-board, red and white striped curtains and speckled red carpeting, all offset by white walls and ceiling and white-framed glass and silver dressing-table.
Mention must be made of the impressive eclectic collection of artwork in the public area of The Lodge building where the main reception desk is located. These ranged from surreal paintings of flying bicycles and floating balloons to lamp shades shaped as gold-leaf palm trees, portraits of famous femme fatale from stage and screen, as well as a fairground wooden horse painted in gay colors. Some of the works are by Mayo-based painter and sculptor Rick Lewis.
From the front of The Lodge, which comprises 24 deluxe bedrooms and 26 suites, guests enjoy pleasing views over Lisloughrey Harbour, Lough Corrib and the Connemara hills beyond. They can also enjoy drinks concocted by award-winning mixologist Sebastian Rosinski at the elegant Quay Bar and a varied menu at Wilde’s Restaurant, named after Sir William Wilde, who lived in the area and wrote a history of it. His son, playwright, Oscar Wilde, also enjoyed escapades there as a child.
As for the castle itself, adjectives such as ‘impressive’ hardly do justice to such a magnificent edifice with such lavish furnishings. Upon crossing what seems like a medieval drawbridge and up a short flight of stone steps from the front car park into the foyer, one has a sense of being transported back in time. Sparkling Waterford and Donegal crystal chandeliers hang from ceilings and antiques and artworks of all kinds adorn the walls. An atmosphere of quiet elegance pervades with intricately-carved walnut and Irish oak furnishings including a gleaming bar-counter made of moss-green Connemara marble.
For added pleasure, indulge in the traditional afternoon tea served in the spacious Connaught Room with clear views over the lake; a light lunch in the Drawing Room; or formal dining with service by tuxedoed waiters at the George V Dining Room.
As for more informal leisure, the castle’s own private cinema, complete with popcorn maker, its club-style billiards room, its wood-paneled Prince of Wales Bar or the frequent wine tastings in the cellar, provide plenty of options.
The recently-built spa is nestled within a bronze 19th century conservatory, with its center piece above the indoor swimming pool being a giant mural entitled ‘Tree of Life.’ Relaxation and treatment areas, a gym, as well as sauna and the steam-room are flooded with natural light and offer clear views over the estate and lake.
An undoubted highlight of our stay was an overnight in the Kennedy Suite, located in the oldest wing of the castle and named after US Senator Ted Kennedy, who was a guest here in the early 1980’s. Returning after an evening of cocktails we found considerate staff had created the most romantic of settings with soft mood music playing overhead, flickering candles on the table and the curtains drawn.
Having just published a novel (Pretty Ugly) in which the lead character is based on the late Massachusetts Senator, I was doubly delighted to have been allocated this particular suite. Reflecting a manor-like décor, it features an impressive selection of antique furniture including a 19th century walnut bed, an early 18th century Spanish Armoire and an early Victorian Rosewood center-table. Central to the room is an open fireplace with an intricate carved surround. An eclectic collections of period artefacts added Old World charm including apothecary jars, a hefty stone sculpture of a reclining wolfhound, one of Ireland’s most enduring symbols, a finely embroidered foot-stool, a silver serving tray, portraits of 19th century dignitaries and brass candle-holders. Combined with these are ultra-modern comforts including electronically operated window blinds, electric towel warming rack, a large flat TV screen and automatic room temperature settings.
Full-length front windows grant fine views directly to the Lough Corrib while side ones face on to a leafy forest. The bathroom is as equally seductive as the bedroom, comprising a deep tub with marble surround and a separate glass-doored shower in an adjoining room, with fragrant toiletries from Sligo brand brand, Voya. So much natural light floods the bathroom and so cheerful is the chirruping of birds in the nearby forest, one feels as if one is enjoying an outside shower.
Aside from the property’s own 9-hole golf course, there are many other activities open to guests such as falconry in the nearby woodlands with majestic Harris hawks, horse and bike rides, zip-wiring, tree climbing and archery, walking history tours, salmon fishing along the River Cong and boat trips on Lough Corrib with Corrib Cruises.
Displaying such grandeur, it is not surprising to learn that a succession of celebrities have chosen Ashford Castle as part of their Irish itinerary including John Lennon, Brad Pitt, Ronald Reagan, and even King George V of England. International golfer, Rory McIlroy and fiancée Erica Stoll were married there several months ago and James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan and his wife Keely Shaye did so some years ago.
A member of the Leading Hotels of the World, Ashford Castle is a luxury property of exceptional beauty nestling in classic Irish countryside with an intriguing history dating back several centuries.