Monday, June 29, 2009

Ashford Castle

Travel is about extraordinary experiences.  Sampling raw horsemeat in Japan.  Singing for the King and Queen of Norway in Oslo.  And checking out Devil’s Tower in my Ford Escort surrounded by thousands of Harley-lovers during Sturgis – well, that won’t happen again either.

And I am quite certain I will never have another hotel experience like Ashford Castle.  All of the trite superlatives apply.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I did feel like royalty.  It is one of the grandest luxury hotels in Ireland.  But a stay at Ashford Castle is far from trite. 

The de Burgos family founded the castle in 1228.  They chose a gorgeous plot of land on the shores of Lough Corrib, Ireland’s second-largest lake, surrounded by forests and mountains.  Nearly 800 years later, Ashford’s guests benefit from the de Burgos family’s excellent choice.  Indeed, others had their eyes on Ashford as well, and in 1589 the de Burgos family lost the castle in a fierce battle with Lord Bingham, Governor of Connaught.  In 1852 the Guinness family – yes, that Guinness family – purchased the estate and surrounding lands expanding both the grounds as well as the castle and laying the foundations for Ashford’s glorious gardens.  The castle was transformed into a destination hotel in 1939 and is celebrating 70 years of catering to dignitaries, celebrities, and public figures. 

Hotels with distinguished histories and a celebrity clientele can often be stuffy or at worst snobby.  Neither word describes the staff at Ashford Castle.  Indeed, they are kind, helpful, and jolly.  From the charming young woman who greeted me by name when I arrived, to the handsome young man who loaded my suitcase into my car, I was impressed by the generosity and genuine concern of each person I met on the staff.  Their attention to detail – everything from chocolate truffles placed just so on my pillow to a relaxed formality of the dining service in the George V restaurant – was apparent in every detail of my stay.   

The Gypsy’s Essentials

  • The Shower: fabulous!  Our room had a rain showerhead, great water pressure, and white, fluffy bath sheets.  No excuse for being dirty here!
  • The Bed: very comfortable with down-filled pillows
  • The Green Report: imagine turning an 800 year-old castle into an environmentally-conscious establishment.  Well, Ashford Castle has begun the transition and has earned a Bronze Medal as participants in the Greening Irish Hospitality initiative.  They recycle and compost, use energy-saving light bulbs, have reduced water usage, and source locally-grown foods.
  • Internet Access: free WiFi in the common areas, which was down while I was there.  However, you can connect with a cable in each room – also for free.  Bring your own cable as there are only a few available at the front desk.
  • Children Welcome: surprisingly, yes.  There were many families with young children here and child-appropriate activities as well. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ashford Castle is quite family-friendly. 
  • Breakfast: in the King George V dining room choose from an a la carte menu or the buffet featuring traditional Irish breakfast foods as well as cereals, pastries, cheeses, and juices.  €24 per person.
  • Price: Very Expensive.  Ashford offers some well-priced packages, however, which can make celebrating a significant birthday, honeymoon, or anniversary a bit more reasonable.  Additionally they offer all-inclusive packages for Christmas and New Years which, frankly, sound incredible.  Ashford Castle is also part of the Kiwi Collection.
More after the jump...

    My room at Ashford Castle overlooked the fountain and the lawn spreading down toward the lake.  The hotel is not air-conditioned, and I threw open the windows, soothed by the splashing fountain all day.  The rooms at the hotel are spacious and comfortable with beautiful fabrics, perfectly-chosen furniture, and glistening bathrooms.  Even in the most luxurious suites, the castle offers a cozy elegance paying homage to the estate’s long history as a summer and hunting retreat.  However, for those who need to sit and work for any length of time, the guest rooms are not particularly well-suited.  Rather than having a true desk, my room had a dressing table with an ill-fitting chair.  There is WiFi in the public spaces as well as a business center, but I had trouble finding a comfortable place to sit and write for an extended period of time.  Perhaps it would be best not to plan to work while at Ashford Castle. 

    And why would you work if you don’t have to?  Ashford offers a full-range of activities for guests of any age ranging from the typical resort activities -- horseback riding, golf, tennis, and spa treatments – to activities which reflect Ashford’s unique history:  cocktail demonstrations, boat cruises, fishing expeditions, archery and target shooting.  Ashford also plays host to Ireland’s School of Falconry, an experience unto itself.  You can read about my Hawk Walk at the School of Falconry here.  

    Driving away from Ashford Castle, I felt a deep sadness.  My stay was extraordinary – relaxing and stimulating at the same time.  And I do hope it was not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because I thoroughly enjoyed Ashford Castle and hope that I get to return one day. 

    The Details:
    Ashford Castle
    Cong, Co. Mayo, Ireland

    Getting there:

    Ashford Castle is about an hour north of Galway in County Mayo.  The castle is happy to help make arrangements for your arrival if you will not be driving your own car.  There is not a regular shuttle, however, to the castle grounds. 

    Because of Ashford’s rather remote location, leaving the resort generally involves driving with one exception.  The village of Cong, one of Ireland’s Tidiest Towns, lies just up the road from Ashford Castle, and it is within easy walking distance.  Staying and eating at a resort can be an expensive prospect.  While the castle’s dining options are excellent, walking in to Cong you’ll find some less-expensive restaurants and cafes as well as the remains of Cong Abbey and the Monk’s Fishing Hut – both charming and worthy of a visit. 

    Additionally, if staying at Ashford is completely out of the question, there are several B&Bs in Cong.  Visitors to the castle must pay an entrance fee (€4) and can only visit the grounds unless they have a restaurant reservation or another activity planned.

    Note: my stay at Ashford Castle was sponsored by Ashford Castle and They provided me with a two-night stay at the Castle.  Read more about my review policies.

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    jessiev said...

    OH. i SOOOO want to go there. i'll put it on my to-do list! thanks so much for the superlative review.

    Travelwriter said...

    Thanks for this elaborate report about Ashford Castle. said...

    It is indeed a great hotel. But you should have tried breakfast in bed. OMG! They arrive with linen table cloth and napkins, set up the table beautifully. Then the food starts appearing ... fruit, freshly squeezed orange juice, Irish breakfast, coffee, different breads, and a huge bowl of fresh strawberries and a bowl of fresh cream too.

    You 'need' to retire back to bed to digest it all lol.

    I also like the fact that it is not at all stuffy and self-important. Everyone is welcomed and well cared for.

    Lola said...

    Really nice comprehensive report! I enjoyed myself at Ashford, though sometimes I was a little spooked out. But a beautiful property nonetheless.

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