I arrived at Ashford Castle in Ireland’s idyllic County Mayo expecting little more than to get to live out my childhood fantasies of staying in an 800-year old castle-turned-five-star-hotel, and spending the afternoons enjoying tea and finger sandwiches while admiring the picturesque garden and lake views. Of course, if that sounds like your perfect holiday, Ashford Castle will certainly provide an excellent backdrop for doing so, but I soon discovered that visiting this hotel is about so much more than getting to live like royalty for a few nights. A visit to Ashford is about showcasing the best of a country’s beauty, culture and history that is deeply embedded into the framework 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 accommodations (a roaring fire will be waiting in your room to warm you up or dry you off upon arrival), it’s important to begin your Ashford experience by learning about the property’s rich, star-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 more than 600 years later that Ashford became the luxurious estate that it’s known as today.
After exchanging hands through several prominent Irish families over the years, Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness (yes, that Guinness) purchased Ashford in 1852, turning it into one of the family’s lavish summer homes where they entertained 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 intent of becoming a hotel, and it has since accommodated guests ranging from Grace Kelly, the Prince of Monaco and President Ronald Regan to Stevie Wonder, Brad Pitt and Uma Thurman (it’s quite the secret celebrity haven, 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 has since spent countless hours refurbishing the property, collecting pieces from the Guinness estate that showcases the castle’s glamorous history, and curating new guest experiences that highlight Ireland’s impeccable scenery, sports and culture. There are 83 rooms and suites available at Ashford, so it has that Goldilocks balance of not feeling at all crowded while also not seeming like you’re the only one staying on the 350-acre property. Every 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 grounds are home to seven different restaurants, each with its own unique personality and experience, plus 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 out Stanley’s for an intimate dinner with the hotel’s executive chef. The castle is passionate about offering local, in-season ingredients whenever possible to showcase the best of Irish cuisine — any negative preconceived notions about Irish food will be thrown to the wayside upon your first meal.
Considering there are 350 lush acres of gardens, forests and woodlands on the shore of a spectacular emerald lake — not to mention a sprawling castle full of amenities — you could spend an entire week at Ashford without running out of things to do. It’s an outdoorsman’s paradise, offering golf, fishing, shooting, cycling, horseback riding, kayaking and more with killer views at every turn. However, if you’re looking for something a bit more out of the ordinary, don’t miss an experience at the hotel’s falconry school, which happens to be the oldest in Ireland. The school offers private hawk walks where guests get to explore the grounds accompanied by the magnificent birds alongside knowledgeable instructors who will help you feel like a falcony pro in no time.
An Authentic Exploration of Picturesque West Ireland
While it will be 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) involved getting off the grounds and exploring scenic West Ireland. The hotel recently launched a remarkable Meet the Makers experience that brings guests into the homes, workshops and studios of the country’s most talented artisans, chefs, musicians, farmers and more, who are dedicated to keeping Irish craft and cultural traditions alive. It’s not just the best thing to do when staying at Ashford but possibly one of the best experiences one could have in Ireland.
Our excursion began after breakfast, where we wound up the West Coast with the hotel’s Experiences Ambassador, Eowin Warner, who has a vast network of prominent Irish creatives as he is a documentarian and part of Ireland’s burgeoning slow food movement. He coordinates all of the trips and the concierge will work with you to determine the best itinerary for your interest, as there are more than 30 makers involved.
Our first stop was at the stunning home of a master basketmaker to learn about his craft. Not only does he make gorgeous pieces in the traditional Irish fashion, but he grows all the materials on his property, too. 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 was sourced from within 25 miles of us, from the perfectly pink salmon to the sweet-tart rhubarb. I even worked up the courage to try my first black pudding as the chefs dished 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, there is an art to it), while a father-son duo educated us on real Irish musical and dancing traditions, as it seems much of Irish dancing has gotten the “Toddlers and Tiaras” treatment in the States.
Being welcomed into the homes and businesses of strangers who were so passionate about their chosen profession and country sealed my trip to Ashford Castle as the ultimate return to travel post-covid and reminded me of why I love to travel so much. Whether it was expanding my knowledge of Irish cuisine, meeting the talented people who are seeking to preserve the country’s history and culture for the next generations or reveling in the West Coast’s diverse landscape, I left with a zest for Ireland and the desire to better support the amazing chefs, artisans and musicians waiting for me back home. It turns out, sleeping in a castle was just the cherry on top of a truly unforgettable, enlightening stay.
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