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The completed restoration of Ireland’s Ashford Castle is a masterwork in over the top. Each of the castle hotel’s 82 rooms has been redone from floor to ceiling in true Victorian decor: ornate floral brocade, heavily fringed drapes, overstuffed velour upholstery and layer upon layer of rich colour and pattern that can only work in a grand setting such as this.
Dating back to 1228, the property was once home to the Guinness family and first opened as a hotel in 1939. Over the years, various owners made various changes, but in 2013 Red Carnation Hotels purchased the property and began restoring the stonework and integrating modern necessities such as WiFi and air conditioning into this ancient pile.
In April, the two-year-long, $75-million (U.S.) revamp, which also includes a 32-seat cinema, cigar terrace and billiards room, was revealed. What does refurbished Irish stately elegance look like? I couldn’t wait to check it out.
The Ashford Castle estate is a lush 142 hectares on the shores of Lough Corrib lake and River Cong, about a 45-minute drive northwest from Galway on Ireland’s west coast and under three hours from Dublin Airport. The best means of exploring this vast property is through an activity or three, which will have you zipping through forests on two wheels, walking along meadows, meditating riverside or sailing on calm, misty waters. Falconry is encouraged – Ashford has Ireland’s first falconry school – and hawk walks lead guests through wooded areas around the castle, so they can watch birds swoop from tree to tree. There’s also clay shooting, fishing and cycling, all taking visitors to different parts of the grounds so that you feel you have the place to yourself. All activities come with a cost on top of the room.
Whom You'll Meet
Ashford Castle fits the storybook description of regal living, the kind North Americans read about but can’t see on their own turf, which is likely why the guests are overwhelmingly American, particularly during summer months. (There are even North American 120-volt electrical outlets in all of its guest rooms.)
Eat In or Eat Out?
There’s little need to leave the Ashford estate with six eateries on site and a new executive chef, Philippe Farineau, overseeing the castle’s dining experiences. At afternoon tea in the intimate Connaught room, the scones are served on request so that they arrive at the table warm and ready for clotted cream and jams. Dinner in the George V is fine dining (men are required to wear jackets; ties are recommended, too), with an ever changing table d’hôte and an emphasis on local Connemara specialities, lamb being a signature. For stews and other traditional Irish dishes, there’s Cullen’s at the Dungeon in the basement of the castle, and steps from the main entrance is the casual Cullen’s at the Cottage. But if you’re feeling more Downstairs than Upstairs, try the tiny strip of shops in nearby Cong.
If you book Suite 326, you’ll enjoy a stunning marble bathtub, a work of art sitting under a chandelier in the grey-hued bathroom. Soft daylight through the window adds an ethereal glow. And while there are made-in-Ireland products for the bath, hold out for a visit from a staff member who’ll offer a selection of local soaps, with ingredients such as lavender, rosemary and mint. Younger guests, however, are going to love the Lego butler. Order pieces from a menu and the building blocks are delivered to your room.
If I Could Change One Thing
Maybe it’s because I live in a one-bedroom condo, but aside from finding my room, I got lost every time I went in search of something. You’re handed a map upon check-in and staff go out of their way to say hello and assist if needed, but a few well-appointed direction arrows would help immensely.
Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo. 82 rooms and suites from €495 ($711) (high season; inclusive of taxes and breakfast). 1-800-346-7007, ashfordcastle.com
The writer was a guest of the hotel.