Visiting Ashford Castle, in the West Coast of Ireland was, without a doubt, one of my Top 15 travel moments of 2015. Following an extensive refurbishment, the Irish grand dame reopened in 2015 as the one of the flagships of Red Carnation hotels – and I thought that it would be the perfect location to celebrate the beginning of Mr. O’s birthday week (yes, week!).
We chose to fly from London Heathrow to Shannon Airport (I had once landed before at this airport enroute to NYC), with Aer Lingus – which meant a short drive from home to the airport, and a 1h45 minute drive to Ashford Castle, but with a little stop for lunch. We hired a car (as we wanted to explore a little bit on the first and last days of this weekend) and made a pit stop at a delightful waterside restaurant recommended by the hotel concierge – the lovely Moran’s Oyster Cottage in Kilcogan, Co. Galway. We had our first taste of Irish soda bread, Guinness and fresh seafood. It couldn’t be more Irish.
After a quick 45-minute drive, we arrived at the stunning grounds of Ashford Castle, just before it got dark. We visited the hotel in November, when days are shorter and were very conscious of not wasting any daylight. Why? Because we would have missed this:
It had stopped raining, so we saw this as an omen of good things to come – and I have to tell you, we were not disappointed. At all.
We arrived at the hotel and were warmly greeted by the doorman, who made our luggage disappear and walked us to the reception area. We sat down and just took in our surroundings – Ashford Castle lives up to its grand reputation, but with a difference: it felt immensely cosy and from the first minute we felt at home. Needless to say, the lovely Irish accents helped. Of course they did.
We were escorted to our room and given a little tour of the main building – which I would recommend to every arriving guest. The current castle is made up of various additions and there are different levels and helps you find your way around at later stages (particularly handy after an evening at the bar, I would say).
And our bedroom (#430) was… beautiful. It was as grand as it can get – and I loved all the details. The team that led the refurbishment thought of everything and it this is a great example of old-meets-new in terms of interior hotel design.
Our bedroom, classified as a Stateroom was very spacious as you can see, and made up of two levels – there was a mezzanine with a day bed. Everything you see is brand new – but you get an immense sense of place. Everything is where it should be and looks like it belongs there – the fabrics, the scents, the technology. It was nothing short of perfect.
Power sockets by each bed? Check. USB ports? Check. Sherry? Check. Heated bathroom floors and incredibly powerful shower? Check. There is nothing I could think that would be missing. Powerful hairdryer? Check. Organic toiletries? Check. Fabulous towels? Check.
What is more… we had what could be considered a ‘room with a view’. Not a bad one indeed. Just bear with me.
We unpacked and went for a little wander around – outside as a) it was dry for a brief moment and b) it was almost dark. So we were treated to these views:
We spent the rest of the afternoon in our room, before heading to the bar for a quick drink before dinner. On the first night, we had a booking at the Dungeon, a more traditional (and relaxed, yet smart) Irish option, featuring Irish classics from past and present. We had a great meal and I had another fix of crab claws and tried my first Irish stew.
After dinner, we walked around the hotel a little bit and stumbled upon the billiards room. Over time, so did half of the hotel, and I have to say – we had one of the best unplanned nights ever. The hotel was completely full and I think that a good 30 of us stayed up until the wee hours. I discovered that Mr. O was a master at snooker (and you think you know a man after 11 years, ha!) and we indulged in a very local pastime: drinking Irish whiskey. I was re-acquainted with Red Breast (which I had first discovered in Northern Ireland, the previous year), and over the weekend, we tried a few others which we loved.
We had a relatively late night but somehow, made it for breakfast in time – how could I miss another serving of soda bread and Irish butter?
After breakfast, we made our way towards the Irish School of Falconry, which is located in the grounds of the castle. I had never tried this type of activity, but so many readers urged me to try this, so I couldn’t say no. Also, we had a boat trip planned which was subject to weather conditions, which did not materialise. It was pouring and cold, but we borrowed some wellies and rain jackets from the hotel and off we went.
I was ever so slightly terrified at first (the photos do not lie), but, as time passed and my confidence grew, I was so surprised – and delighted! The experience took an hour or so, in the rain, and I couldn’t have cared less. We made those birds fly and return to us. It was fantastic.
If you want to see a video of our excellent falconry skills, just head on to Instagram.
After this activity, one of many you can enjoy at Ashford Castle (seriously, there is something for everyone), we took advantage of the fact that it stopped raining for a little bit and walked around. That was before we met Tom, who manages all activities who took us on a proper tour around the Estate, complete with commentary.
One of the things that I found truly special at Ashford Castle were the people who worked here. Never in my life, have I been to a hotel where people were so proud to work there. Many have been working there for decades, and so did their parents and grandparents. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and sweet (and funny, actually) and that pride was so visible, it was actually touching. We talked about this with other guests (at the bar), and they all agreed.
We decided to skip lunch as we were due for Afternoon Tea – and a girl can only eat so much! This time around, Tom drove us to The Lodge, which is a separate building on the grounds of Ashford Castle (it is a 4-star hotel, more family oriented and at a different price point). We went to Wilde’s, its top restaurant and enjoyed a very different take on this tradition. Let’s put it this way – there was a chocolate egg, which was smashed on our table.. and we then got to eat everything that was in it. It was fun and delicious!
Following tea, we went to the spa. We were not going to let the rain ruin our weekend – and there was so much to do inside (including napping), that it honestly did not matter. The spa is the latest addition to the hotel – its style was very different but quite interesting. The pool was quite busy, but the treatment area was nice and quiet. I enjoyed a Voya Signature treatment whereas Mr. O had a deep tissue massage.
After the spa, I will not lie – we napped a little bit. Our bed was so comfortable, it was difficult to say no to it. So we didn’t.
We also met Eanna, the hotel’s F&B director, who has known my blog for a while (prior to joining Red Carnation) and enjoyed a glass of champagne and had a little private tour of the castle’s wine cellars.
On our last evening, we started it with a nice ShortCross Gin & Tonic at the Prince of Wales bar, before heading to the Georges V dining room, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant. Please note that there is a strict dress code enforced (jacket for gentlemen) and in all honesty, I was delighted. It was a special dining experience, with all the staff in white tie and having someone in shorts and trainers would have ruined my dinner. I am a great believer that there is a time and a place for everything and obviously we were prepared.
The restaurant offers a 5 or 8 course tasting menu (priced at €74 and €85, respectively, or €145 with wine pairings for the 8-course), but we were quite full from our tea, so we chose to go a la carte. We loved the prime rib of beef carved at the table (so old school and fab) and also some surprises that the chef sent over. It was an excellent meal and I loved that one guest was wearing her own tiara, because she felt that special!
We had an earlier night – after a few more whiskeys of course and slept like babies.
On Sunday, after a 10-hour rest, we enjoyed our last hearty breakfast before leaving the hotel, and heading towards Galway for some shopping, and yet another lunch at Moran’s before flying back to London.
Saying goodbye to Ashford Castle wasn’t easy – because we absolutely adored it. Everything about it – the grounds, the decor, the comfort and luxury and, most importantly, the people who worked there. We felt at home and part of this great family. Which means we need to go back, without a doubt.
Disclaimer and fact box: We were guests of Red Carnation Hotels, and adored our stay at Ashford Castle. Opinions are, as always, my own. But this wasn’t voted best hotel of 2015 by Virtuoso by accident – it really was fantastic. Rooms at Ashford Castle start at €245 per night (B&B) and staterooms like ours at €850 (B&B). A one-hour hawk walk costs €65.00 per person, based on a group of 2.