ASHFORD CASTLE …the best Castle experience in the world!
By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Out & Travelin’, Critics On The Aisle
If you have ever wondered what its like to live on a magnificent country estate with all the finest things in the world at your command, now you can stop wondering and have it all at Ashford Castle Hotel and Spa 45 minutes from Galway City, Ireland. Ashford Castle was named Best Hotel in the World by Virtuoso, a network of international travel agents in 2015. It continues to receive 5-star accolades and major awards from Conde Nast Traveler,Travel + Leisure and is the TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Award for 2016Seeing is believing, so we checked in for two nights to explore the castle, try its highly rated restaurants, individually decorated deluxe guest rooms and suites, the new spa and outstanding sporting activities and – well – live like royalty for one brief shining moment in a 21st-century Camelot
This castle dates back to 1228 AD and recently reopened to the public after a $75 million restoration with elegant and comfortable interiors, and 21st-century plumbing, electrical and IT features – all supervised by its new owner, Bea Tollman, founder and president of the luxury Red Carnation Hotel Collection, her daughter, Toni, and French designer, Philippe Benino.
The approach by car to the castle through the beautiful countryside of Counties Galway and Mayo to picturesque Cong village and Ashford’s magnificent iron-gated entrance is – in itself – a 5-star sightseeing trip. The estate’s long, winding driveway provided a chance to slowly take in the full scale of the majestic castle, acres of lawn dotted with a variety of gardens, mature trees and the pristine Cong River and Lake Corrib, the second largest lake in Ireland. The perfect place for us simple folk to live a royal dream.
At the grand entrance, a charming doorman quickly took charge of our luggage and guided us though the elegant lobby to an obviously well-trained smiling and attentive reception staff. The check in was quick and easy –and like in “Cheers” – everyone at the desk knew our names. As Shane, the pleasant and knowledgeable concierge, escorted us, he gave us an overview of the castle hotel and in to our large and beautifully appointed guest room, where he clearly explained the workings of lights, windows, shades, locks and the finest other brand-new technological essentials.
These first all-important contacts with the well-groomed and outfitted staff demonstrated that exceptional service is a top priority at Ashford Castle. And that service unfailingly continued throughout our stay by everyone at the hotel. (This is a sure sign that a hotel is owned and managed by professional hoteliers who are expert at keeping up staff morale. It was one of many reasons Bea Tollman was named Hotelier of the Year at the European Hospitality Awards in 2012. In accepting the honor, she said her passion was to make guests feel truly special because that’s what is “at the heart of everything we do.” How true. The staff members are the first and last faces seen by guests.)
After unpacking, there was plenty of time for a leisurely walk through the many spacious and comfortable public rooms, each dedicated to a specific guest activity and all are filled with magnificent original paintings, rare antiques and wonderful art objects including, of course, a suit of armor. There’s even a richly appointed billiard room with a smoking terrace. And a fully-appointed spa unlike any seen before – anywhere. Next on the agenda was a stroll through the array of gardens and along the shoreline of the crystal clear Cong River and Corrig Lake before dinner. It sparked our appetite for more exploration of the estate grounds and our first meal at the castle.
Food Glorious Food…
As we entered the George V dining room, with its high ceilings and crystal chandeliers, maître d, Martin Gibbons – a 40-year veteran of the castle, – with a kind word and a twinkle in his eye, showed us to our table. We decided on the 5-course table d’hôte. Martin suggested we try the Connemara Smokehouse organic salmon, followed by owner Bea Tollman’s Billi Bi mussel soup (sourced from the clean sea waters of western Ireland); Irish-raised aged Angus rib of beef, carved at the table; and then a selection of locally sourced Irish cheeses or a sumptuous pudding (dessert) made with chocolate, blood orange slices and juniper berries. The fifth course was a cup of freshly-brewed rich coffee accompanied by a generous selection of petit-fours and macaroons.
Each course was truly delicious: superb quality, perfectly balanced flavors and beautifully plated, without overdoing it, by acclaimed head chef, Philippe Farineau and head pastry chef Paula Stakelum. Expert advice on wines came from chief sommelier, Robert Bowe. The dinner, accompanied by a Bouchard Finlayson wine from a ‘sister property’ of Ashford Castle in South Africa and a great Irish-crafted beer, was greatly enhanced by the exceptional service. As the song goes: “Who could ask for anything more?”
Breakfasts in the George V dining room included a served traditional Irish breakfast or other choices – healthy or hearty – from the menu. We indulged in the lavish buffet, one of the best ever in a hotel. It was a cornucopia of cereals, fresh and preserved fruits, pastries, Connemara baked ham carved from the bone, sliced Irish salmon, sausages, bacon, cheeses, and much more to satisfy whatever food regiment anyone eats at home. Back at our table, the charming and always smiling Eleanor poured us pots and pots of freshly-brewed coffee, served with a lovely lilting commentary about her 15 happy years serving friendly Ashford Castle guests.
Our second dinner was under the glorious, vaulted ceiling- but less formal – Cullen’s at the Dungeon restaurant. It has an Irish themed menu that offers dishes as delicious and well-served as formal dining in the George V and the other restaurants on the estate. We chose baked wild hake with herb-crusted potatoes, and a chopped Angus beef filet burger topped with luscious Irish Cheddar-both accompanied by a pint o’ Guinness, perfectly poured.
The selection of restaurants in and on the castle grounds include the elegant and airy Connaught Room serving a classic Irish tea with an elegant array of delicious sweet and savory treats from 1:30 pm onwards. It’s a rejuvenating experience to sit, sip and nibble while enjoying the beauty of the room and the view of the gardens. The castle’s Drawing Room serves an all-day menu from 11 am to 6 pm.
The Prince of Wales Bar is reminiscent of the stately, well-appointed men’s club portrayed in old movies. This one is a relaxed men’s and women’s club and convivial gathering place for cocktails and after-dinner drinks. Its name dates from the 1905 visit to the castle by the prince who became George V in 1910.
Cullen’s at The Cottage on the lush estate grounds is an Irish thatched cottage for casual dining from an internationally themed menu. Nearby is the beautiful and upscale Mrs Tea’s Boutique and Bakery offering specialty food items, and featuring gifts and clothing (fashion, outer wear, golf/sportswear, among other quality goods.).
Chef Farineau is passionate about using sustainable locally sourced foods. Ashford lists in many places the names of its local suppliers of meat, poultry, meat products, dairy, specialty foods, seafood, fruits and vegetables. The just-picked, freshly-prepared tastes are evident in every dish offered on the estate. To add to the freshness of every dish, the castle grows herbs and vegetables in its greenhouses and gardens as well as editable flowers that add to the delectable flavors of any meal or snack. The chef said, “I believe the dining experience begins before the guest even arrives – it has to provoke a sense of anticipation and showcase our exceptional local produce in its finest form.”
Activities on the castle’s pristine 350-acre estate…
Before and after light or hearty eating experience, there are more activities for individuals, couples and families at Ashford Castle than any hotel in Ireland. Outdoors there are many unique options such as falconry-where expert handlers will have participants engaging with owls (they deliver rings at Ashford weddings!) and majestic hawks. Fishing for salmon (hatched on the property), brown trout and pike in the castle’s pristine Cong River and Corrig Lake is Orvis-endorsed and its equipment can be bought in Mrs Tea’s Boutique and Bakery. The fishing ‘guillie’ Frank, not only will take you out onto the lake to fish, but if you ask him nicely, he’ll also show you his handmade elm and oak fishing boat on display in a secret room near The Dungeon.
The many other choices on the estate include archery and clay pigeon shooting; a nine-hole golf course, kayaking, tennis, bicycling, horseback riding, horse and carriage rides, boating, climbing a 100’ Monterey pine tree, whizzing along the canopy on a woodland zip wire, walking and history tours, a luxury charter cruise (conducted by a fifth-generation ferryman of the Laskin Family), traditional sailing and an indoor children’s play room. For passive exercise, there is walking at your own pace along the estate’s 26 miles of paths, lanes and roads through the many gardens, open fields, river and lake shoreline and vast woodlands with mature tree specimens from around the world. Long ago, the Guinness Family planted 1.5 million trees on the 350 acres and neighboring properties. This is nature at its best on a grand estate that practices sustainable land management – safe for birds, bees, and other species, including people.
Olympian and world-champion archer, Tom Breen, the Activities Director, said more active features are under consideration and some are in the planning stage. It seems that at Ashford Castle there is no such thing as “too much of good thing.” Irish fitness expert and Olympic cyclist David O’Loughlin is also on the castle’s activities team.
A spa a day, will keep the doctor – and aging – away!
The new Ashford spa and gym fits right in with grandeur of the castle, with its centerpiece of an indoor resistance pool in a French-style glass conservatory. It has under-floor heating and a large outdoor stone relaxation and sunning terrace overlooking Lough Corrig. The gym has the latest Life Fitness equipment and a person trainer who is available to create session according to individual goals. The spa offers five treatment rooms, including a couple’s room, for facials, scrubs, detoxifying wraps, aroma and therapies. The massages include eight marine and seven for the face as well as pregnancy pampering treatment. And for the latest innovation in wellness technology, try a PureFlow fitness session, the first to be offered in Ireland.
For men there is a facial, Swedish full-body massage and a head to toe massage and facial. For men and women, a tanning treatment with out the risk of sun exposure is offered. Guests can choose from three product ranges: Voya, Elemis and Red Carnation Hotel’s own B I Africa property range. For children there is a Relaxation Pool Access schedule each morning and afternoon.
Gifts aplenty at Ashford Castle shops…
Shopping therapy is right up there with outdoor activity, pampering spa and fine dining to rejuvenate mind and body. The exclusive shop within the castle walls (for guests only) has a selection of Red Carnation’s own luxurious ties, scarves, cushions, pens and Mrs Tollman’s book, “A Life in Food,” a great read with photos that includes recipes and delightful anecdotes. A short stoll away from the castle entrance is Mrs Tea’s Boutique & Bakery. It’s in a classic stone building that’s well-stocked with gourmet foods: freshly made sandwiches, baked pies, cakes, crumbly cookies, jams and jellies made right on the castle premises, and more comfort foods. Day visitors to the castle property can shop at Mrs Tea’s as well.
Irish-made gifts include hand-made candles, O’Rian and Crannmor pottery and Guinness merchandise. For women there are clothing items from Avoca and Selected Femme, handbags by Orla Kiely, Liberty and Oriano; and jewelry from Knight and Day and Newbridge, knitwear and blankets from renowned Irish brands, including Foxford and Avoca. Mrs. Tollman has even partnered with the famed French fragrance house of Fragonard to produce her signature fragrance BEA, in scents for both men and women.
The second floor of the gift shop/bakery is dedicated to sporting apparel and equipment for purchase and hire for fishing and golfing on the estate grounds. Top brands include Titleist, Footjoy for golf enthusiasts and a range of world-renowned Orvis rods, flies and glasses. Guests have access to showering and changing facilities in the shop building. And after fishing or golf, how convenient for a stop on the shop’s sweeping outdoor terrace for home-made lemonade and ice cream with a view of the golf course and river.
The Sound of Music and the Magic of Movies at the Castle…
For centuries, castles have been renowned for entertainment to amuse and delight guests. In the 21st century, Ashford Castle continues this noble tradition with a plush 32-seat private cinema, and live piano entertainment every evening in the Drawing Room that flows into the adjacent George V dining room. Some nights you might hear a lovely lady singing melodic Cole Porter show tunes along with the piano music. There is a billiards room with a well-stocked cigar terrace, a really well stocked (20,000 bottles/600 wines) stone wine cellar and a children’s game room.
John Ford’s still-popular movie “The Quiet Man,” starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald is available at any time on the flat screen TVs in the guest rooms and suites or round up a group to see it in the castle’s theater. Wayne and O’Hara lived in the castle during filming, and the movie was shot in Cong village. There is a delightful bronze statue in the reception area of Wayne sweeping O’Hara off her feet. Now, that would make a rare worthwhile-looking-at selfie for your social network pages. Be nice and credit the location as the 5-star Ashford Castle Hotel in Ireland..
5-Star Accommodations with 5-Star Views…
There are ten room types –each with a view to remember – river, lake, river and lake, and sweeping landscapes. The 83 rooms and suites in the castle and a gated, private lakeside cottage have all been extensively upgraded and individually decorated to preserve the original features and further added the latest modern luxuries, including flat screen TV and cable with streaming movies and other IT-age features.
Each accommodation dazzles with fine art, antiques and other classic furniture, collectible objects, rich fabrics, custom-designed carpets, superb lighting, plush terry toweling, and 400 thread-count Egyptian cotton bed linens, and a wide choice of pillow types to ensure a refreshing night’s sleep, and much more. On one of our tours of the nooks and crannies of the castle, as we visited the wine cellar, our guide said “Ashford is still giving up its secrets. We’ve just found three hidden tunnels – two still closed and one recently opened up. And, up near the gift shop on the second level there’s a stairway to nowhere. Now what do you suppose that’s all about?”
Be sure to view the above video of the eye-popping sights and activities at the luxurious Ashford Castle. It is now the premiere hotel and spa destination in Ireland, perhaps in the world. Highly recommended by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Out and Travelin’. And for another visual tour of castle, and reservations, go to ashfordcastle.com For details about the other award-winning hotels in the Red Carnation Collection, visit, redcarnationhotels.com.