The Grand Dame
After winding through narrow the lanes of the R334 you dead-end into the entrance of Ashford Castle. As you drive through the narrow archway, the stone over the arch says 1228, it gives one pause. And what follows are the undulating greens of the golf course and magnificent views on the 350-acre estate where this luxury hotel sits right on the edge of Lake Corrib (second largest in Ireland). Here the ‘hobnobs’ arrive by helicopter to play golf and dine like latter-day lords in the castle's conspicuously grand dining rooms. Perfectly smart staff greets guests, then sorts out their fondest desires for their stay, escorts them on a short tour of the property, and wraps them in a warm cloak of hospitality and deposits them in their rooms. In my room where succulent pears, tasty truffles and a personal note from the general manager.
Ashford Castle has stood the test of time well, inside the castle's imposing structure, Ashford's richly decorated interior speaks of centuries of care and excellent craftsmanship. Wonderful oak paneling, exquisite antiquities and fine antique furnishings adorn the many nooks and crannies. In the drawing room, guests ease into wingback and button back leather armchairs worn to glove-like suppleness and indulge from a trolley dispensing morning coffee, lunchtime snacks and tea. The adjoining cocktail bar is grandly formal, but the barrel-vaulted dungeon bar, where guests can join in singing traditional ballads, is the more popular choice especially after dinner.
The George V dining room is as regal as they come, with its 11 weighty Waterford chandeliers, rococo gilt mirrors and elegantly set tables. Here, pricey traditional and Continental fare is offered. The other option is a set seven course tasting menu by Chef Matz in the Connaught Room with only ten tables. Cullen’s, the casual gastro pub is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays - the two nights I was there. So instead of just eating in the drawing room, we decided to go next door to Salt. The food at the Ice House had so impressed us we knew we couldn’t go wrong at its sister property.
Paddy, the charming doorman at Ashford, volunteered to shuttle us over to Lisloughrey in the golf cart... but when the gales force rains came (no surprise in Ireland) -- he took us in his car. Near-by Lisloughrey Lodge stands proudly on a spectacular ten-acre site overlooking Lough Corrib, it was name the best boutique hotel in Ireland this year. Panoramic lake views, mature woodlands and Lisloughrey Quay combine together to produce a truly unique setting. There are 28 bedrooms and 22 suites in Lisloughrey Lodge, which was formerly the gamekeepers lodge for Ashford Castle. This is a hotel that will appeal to the young and young at heart. It mixes contemporary and modern style in a traditional house setting.
Salt Restaurant serves excellent cuisine in a unique setting on the second floor. The entire first floor of the original house has been authentically restored and features a collection of intimate spaces for you to enjoy the delights of fine food and wine. The kitchen, led by Chef Wade Murphy has distinguishing itself by producing exceptional food in a modern Irish style featuring fresh local ingredients. We found the delicious food was matched by genuinely friendly and attentive service.
Ashford offers a huge range of activities, from walks within the estate, golfing on Ashford's 9-hole course, or trying your hand a fly fishing for trout and salmon on Lough Corrib. For slower pursuits, Lake Cruises are available. At their Equestrian Center, they will match you up for a horseback ride through hundreds of acres of parklands. Also one can easily walk into the village of Cong, and it really shouldn’t be missed. One, there is the ruins of the Cong Abbey and Cloisters, a monastery that was well established by the ninth century. Also you have the Quiet Man’s actual locations used for the filming with its marvelous little cottages and church.
I had a special adventure awaiting me at Ireland's first Falconry School, which offered me the rare opportunity to handle birds of prey. Marc Barrett, our instructor, had us meet all manners of raptors, most are Harris Hawks. This was a thrilling experience and was beyond my expectations; it was not just a photo op. First, you learn a great deal about the birds, you meet your charge and wander the grounds and let them fly, follow you from tree to tree and come swooping back to your left hand perch for a small bit of Irish beef! It was a most exciting two hours and opened my eyes to a whole new world.
There are mixed opinions about this but I think this is quite an incredible trusting relationship between men and birds. I was amazed at how gentle and graceful they are -- true flying machines, as well as, being paid assassins. Most are working birds that are used for pest control. We had a wonderful morning with these birds. Coming back to the barn was Dingle, a massive European eagle owl with deep orange eyes, who was sitting on the gloved hand of a lovely young woman. Dingle is one of the many raptors, but he lives alone and is not liked by the others. I never knew that two-thirds of owls head is taken up by his amazing eyes (better then Thermal Weapon Sight gear), but this leaves little room for the brain - yes, pea size, not a compliment, but true.
Unfortunately, my time at playing the part of landed gentry in this fairy tale setting was about to end and their wasn‘t any time to relax with a soothing massage at the Spa. Actually, there was never any time for a spa break, but I was able to nourish my soul throughout the trip with wonderful walks, sights and getting to know some locals.
We departed very early the following morning here again Ashford Castle, shone with all five stars; the staff pleasantly sent us off with breakfast boxes which they had waiting, and coffee to go! I took one last walk through the rooms filled with family heirlooms, rich furnishings and priceless objects d’art. Ashford deserves all the accolades and one can’t come to Ireland without this special experience. Ashford presents the chance to enjoy the splendor of a bygone era in comfort and style and hopefully it will remain the Grande Dame of Ireland!