With lush verdant greenery, a rich heritage and turreted towers that hark back to a grand ancestral past, Ashford Castle in Co Mayo, Ireland, has magic in store for all the family.
With a history that dates back to 1228, Ashford Castle is everything you could hope for when it comes to grandeur steeped in history. The former home of the Guinness family, the impressive estate of over 350 acres is edged by the river Cong, enchanting woodlands and views of Lough Corrib, Ireland’s second largest lake.
Grand and majestic, Ashford Castle also exudes a sense of calm serenity that’s conducive to a sense of back-to-nature goodness. You can meander along the banks of the picturesque lake listening to the sounds of the local wildlife or hire bikes to take a grand tour of the estate. For the golf enthusiast, there’s a 9-hole course, as well as outdoor pursuits for all ages including fly-fishing, horse riding, archery, clay pigeon shooting and Ireland’s first School of Falconry.
The medieval ramparts of
Ashford Castle are rich fodder for a child’s imagination, inspiring fantasy play and conjuring up fairytales of knights and princesses
Within the confines of the five-star hotel, the décor adheres to old-fashioned country style, with oak panelled walls, oil paintings on the wall, gilded Rococo mirrors and Waterford crystal chandeliers. The warm tones of deep russet burgundy and burnt orange give a luxurious yet homely feel. It has an understated, refined charm, delivered with the warmest of Irish hospitality. It’s magical at the best of times, but come Halloween, proceedings take a decidedly bewitching tone!
From the moment you cross the ancient bridge and swerve along the gravel path to the grand entrance, you feel the warm welcome. The doorman met us with a courteous ‘We’ve been expecting you’ smile. Arriving a few days before Halloween, there were smiles, too, from a decorative display of grinning pumpkins, covered in spooky cobwebs with the odd spider lurking here and there! And there was plenty more spooky magic to come…
In our room, some wizardly garb awaited 8-year-old Joe: a long black gown and a wand that would no doubt come in handy, especially as he’s already bespectacled like Harry Potter! After that, it was as if Joe performed his own disappearing trick as, once he’d met his fellow guests and new wizard pals, he vanished with them for an afternoon of fun activities. I only caught the occasional glance of him now and again as he and his gang went about their adventures.
And that’s the beauty of Ashford Castle’s Wizard Package: children are thoroughly entertained, while grown-ups can find their own diversions, which in my case included a relaxing few hours at the spa, and an afternoon curled up on the bed, watching The Quiet Man.
It’s no coincidence that the 1952 film that won director John Ford an Oscar is on the hotel’s in-room movie menu. The romantic comedy, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, was filmed here – on the Ashford Castle Estate and in the village of Cong. (Incidentally, next time you’re watching ET, look out for the classic scene where Eliot frees the frogs, mimicking the famous romantic tug-of-war love scene between O’Hara and Wayne in The Quiet Man).
Other hocus-pocus activities for the wizards-in-training included a visit to the School of Falconry to meet Dingle, the resident owl, as well as some arts and crafts and a cupcake bake-and-decorate session in the hotel kitchen. A special supper for children was followed by a Harry Potter movie night in the dungeon, which is adorned with flags bearing coats of arms that give a Hogwarts feel (only these flags are ‘O’Connell’ and ‘O’Brien’ rather than ‘Gryffindor’ and ‘Slitherine’). Meanwhile parents can relax with early evening cocktails and a Table d’Hote dinner a deux.
With the day’s Halloween activities kicking off at 3pm each afternoon, our mornings were dedicated family time. Each day began with a handsome breakfast: an excellent buffet of cold meats, fresh fruit and cereals, and everything you could want for the Full English (with an Irish spin, of course, as all produce is sourced locally). There were also plenty of freshly cooked hot dishes: Scrambled Eggs were delicious, while Joe’s soft-boiled eggs were perfect for dipping his toast soldiers.
After such a fine start, Joe and I enjoyed ambling around the stunning gardens and grounds, Joe exploring the nooks and crannies of the buildings – and attempting an ascent up one of the sloping walls, just as a marauding knight might have in days gone by. We wandered down to the boathouse, walking along the decked walkway, and watching the waves gently lapping against the shore in soft, soporific tones. Later, we hired bikes to explore further afield, down lanes and through woodland, stopping at the Equestrian Centre where Joe made friends with a dog who happily played ‘fetch’ every time Joe threw a stick. We also cycled up to ‘The Quiet Man House’, looking just as pretty and pristine as it did in the film. The best bit was just standing by the lake shore, calm and serene, and thinking how little this fabulous vista had changed over the years, and wondering how many folk had wondered at the view through the centuries.
Eating There are several dining rooms offering excellent home-cooked-style fare, whether you fancy wine-paired fine dining or a light snack, with many of the ingredients coming fresh from the estate. Both the award-winning Connaught Room and the George V dining room (built by the Guinness family to welcome the Prince of Wales in 1906) offer haute cuisine with views of the lake. The Drawing Room has an all-day menu, including afternoon tea, while the informal Bistro, Cullens at the Cottage, features fish, lobster fresh from the tank, steaks and more. Pre-dinner drinks can be enjoyed in the Prince of Wales cocktail bar and post-dinner drinks and entertainment in the Dungeon Bar. A children’s menu is available in all restaurants and features well-loved staples like fish fingers, pasta and chicken nuggets, as well as some dishes for a rather more sophisticated mini palettes, including Pan Fried Tiger Prawns with an Orange Reduction, Medallion of Beef Fillet, and Poached Fillet of Cod in Lemon Butter. There’s also an extensive room service menu.
Rooms The décor of our Deluxe Family Room with two queen-size beds was a little on the chintzy side, though this traditional style befits the overall stately feel of the hotel. Each of the rooms and suites have their own distinct style, many retaining original features and all equipped with modern amenities including Broadband and interactive TV. The huge bathroom, however, was the epitome of modern luxury, with a line up of toiletries by Irish fashion designer Orla Kiely, adorned with her signature leaf motif – perfectly apt for this refined pastoral setting.
History & design Founded by the Anglo-Norman de Burgo family, Ashford was just one of the castles the de Burgo’s built throughout the province. In 1589 Ashford passed into the hands of a new owner, the English Lord Bingham, governor of Connaught, who added a fortified enclave. And in 1715, the famous Ashford estate was established by the Oranmore and Browne family, who added a fabulous French-style chateau to the architectural splendour of the castle. The estate was extended in 1852 to 26,000 acres by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, who also built new roads, planted thousands of trees and added two large Victorian-style extensions. In 1868, his son, Lord Ardilaun, an avid gardener, oversaw the development of massive woodlands and rebuilt the entire west wing of the castle. In 1939, Ashford was bought by Noel Huggard, who established the castle as a “First Class Hotel” – a tradition it has maintained ever since. Currently undergoing its latest phase of renovations, Ashford Castle will be closed from January 2015 and will reopen in March 2015 with a revamped spa, heated indoor swimming pool, 32-seat cinema and children’s play room – all in time to celebrate its 75th anniversary as a hotel.
Why go For peace, tranquillity and general R&R in luxury surroundings and a stunning rural setting. Service with a smile and hospitality are second to none – which is why Ashford Castle has won numerous awards including No 1 Irish Hotel in Conde Nast Traveller Gold List 2013 and Best Resort Hotel in Ireland in the Conde Nast Traveller Readers’ Choice Awards 2012.
Who is it best for All ages, but especially imaginative children who love to explore and imagine themselves as wizards, hogwarts, knights or princesses
Our Favourite Bit Having 350 acres estate on your doorstep is a boon, and watching the sunset over the Lough was truly magical.
Top Tip Watch The Quiet Man so you can spot familiar sights around the estate. If wild weather permits, you could even film your own family reenactment of that romantic tug-of-war… (And, on a more practical note, be sure to pack your wet weather gear…)
Don’t Go If you’re averse to rain. This is Ireland, after all, and it’s the frequent downpours that give the Emerald Isle its lush greenness.
While You’re Here Take a trip into the village of Cong, which is full of olde-worlde charm. Plus, you just might spy John Wayne (well, a life-size statue of him, whisking Maureen O’Hara off her feet… again).