In a tiny village on the west coast of Ireland, this former castle gives visitors a taste of the aristocratic life.
Luxury hotels may promise to treat their guests like royalty, but they seldom get to mean it, well, literally. Ashford Castle in Ireland is one that can. In its 800-year history, the 13th century castle has hosted British royals and aristocrats at parties thrown by the millionaire Guinness family, its former owners. It has also entertained the likes of Oscar Wilde, Princess Grace of Monaco and George, Prince of Wales (later known as George V, King of England).
Set on more than 140 hectares of lush woodland, the country estate turned hotel lies beyond an actual moat and drawbridge, on the shores of Lough Corrib, the second-largest lake in the Irish Republic. As you pass through the tall wrought-iron gates and pull up to the imposing medieval castle, you almost expect to see gilded horse-drawn carriages lined up in the driveway instead of sleek luxury cars.
Once you’re inside, it’s harder still to shake the feeling of history (and perfectly acceptable to walk around slightly slack-jawed). From the Waterford crystal chandeliers and antique oak wood panelling on the ceiling to the rich tapestries and giant fireplace engraved with the Guinness family crest and motto, evidence of the castle’s life from centuries past is everywhere. Wandering around the castle, it’s impossible not to feel continually awed by the legacy and history swirling all about you, whether you’re seated for afternoon tea in the high-ceilinged room overlooking the lake, admiring the 1870s Irish oak staircase leading up to the ornate bedrooms, each with a fireplace and four-poster bed, or feasting on a locally sourced five-course meal at George V, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant.
But it’s not just the interiors of the castle that’ll take you back in time. The property offers several, shall we say, aristocratic leisure pursuits—there’s archery, falconry, clay bird shooting, salmon fishing, sheep herding and nature walks with giant Irish wolfhounds. For those with a more modern taste for adventure, there’s zip lining, a scenic boat cruise and golf on an eco-friendly 9-hole course. A recent American guest loved her falconry experience so much she quit her job and moved to the castle to work alongside the birds’ trainers, who coincidentally also run Ireland’s oldest falconry school.
There may be plenty to do on-site but the quaint village of Cong, just a five-minute stroll away, is well worth a visit for its little pubs, cafes and shops carrying local, handmade goods. Be sure to check out Rare & Recent Books (where I scored an early edition of a P.G. Wodehouse novel) and Puddleducks Café for a spot of tea and cake. If exploring the countryside is more your speed, hop into a rented car and head down the coast along the scenic driving trail known as the Wild Atlantic Way. Along this route, which spans nine counties including Mayo where the castle is located, are picturesque villages and towns, sweeping ocean views and rugged cliffs, including the famed Cliffs of Moher.
To call Ashford Castle a hotel seems woefully inadequate, for this isn’t merely a room you rent for the night. It is an experience—a chance to immerse yourself in the cultural traditions and history of Ireland and live, however fleetingly, like a royal. Only catch: getting back to reality is a real drag.