Pack your inner princess (or prince) and get thee to Ashford Castle.
I can’t say I ever harbored notions of growing up to be a princess when I was a little girl. Such flights of fancy were not exactly entertained on a dairy farm in the west of Ireland. Sure, there were castles all around me, but they were just part of the landscape and, like the lush green grass and the moody, grey skies, just something I took for granted … until I left. I live in New York now and every trip home allows me to see Ireland and its green fields with a new appreciation (yes, my family makes fun of me). As for castles? Well, until recently, I was only interested in their fancy Afternoon Tea service or pretty grounds. Then, I spent a few days at stunning Ashford Castle on the Galway-Mayo border and realized what I was missing. While I still don’t see myself as the glass-slipper type, I can say that after an amazing few days of luxury, history, charm, and adventure, I found my inner queen. And I may have awakened a luxury-loving beast.
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A Fairytale Setting
Season 2 of The Crown + a bad case of MME (Megan Markle Envy) = everybody adding “Stay in a Castle” to their travel bucket lists. And why not? If you’re going to stay in a castle, it should look, feel, and be majestic, and Ireland’s Ashford Castle ticks all these boxes.
Lording over the charming little village of Cong on the Mayo-Galway border, and set on 350 stunning acres hugging the shores of Lough Corrib, Ashford Castle is consistently, and justifiably, ranked one of the world’s best hotels. A 13th century Anglo-Norman stronghold turned luxury hotel (and in between, a home to the Guinness family), Ashford was restored to its full historic splendor with a complete $75 million overhaul in 2015 (because there’s no point taking up residence in a castle if you have to wear long johns under your gowns). Along with all necessary updates, the careful restoration brought exquisite, individually-furnished guest rooms, luxurious bathrooms, enhanced public spaces, elegant dining rooms, a new spa, a plush 32-seat cinema, and more. There’s also a romantic lakeside cottage for when you need to entertain–or escape–a royal suitor. As castles go, this one’s pretty special.
Sure, landscaped grounds, sweeping staircases, a moat, and turreted towers all provide the required Instagram backdrops to let everyone know that you are staying in a castle, but it’s the quiet efficiency, discreet attention to every detail, and obvious sense of pride and care at every turn at Ashford Castle that makes you feel like you are staying in a castle. Add a staff that could be character actors for Irish wit, hospitality, and charm and you know you are staying in an Irish castle.
Over the years, Ashford has hosted royalty, dignitaries, and A-list celebrities, perhaps none more legendary (in local lore) than John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, who stayed at the castle while filming The Quiet Man nearby, so you are benefitting from service that has been refined on the fussiest of clientele. Yes, it seems rather old-fashioned to single out old-fashioned service but by golly if it doesn’t feel good to be waited on so magnificently. Just nod and practice your awkward regal wave.
Keep Your Head in the Clouds
In the good old days, a Queen could just off someone’s head for kicks, but these days we have less messy ways to get an adrenaline rush, and you’ll find plentiful outlets on the grounds of Ashford Castle. Forget taking tea all day (not that we’d judge), the modern Queen takes advantage of onsite activities ranging from falconry, horseback riding, golf, and cycling, to fishing, boating, clay-shooting, and archery.
A great way to keep your head above the commoners is the onsite zip line course, which allows a bird’s eye view of the castle as you zip through the woods. And if you enjoy hanging out on the tree-tops, challenge yourself to a tree-climbing exercise with the tallest tree-climb in Ireland, a 164-foot tree planted in the late 1800’s by the Guinness family.
Walk a Hawk
Did you know that many common terms in the English language derive from the sport of falconry? “Hoodwinked” refers to the act of covering a bird’s head with a hood to soothe and calm him while “fed up” is a falconry term that means a hawk has had its full feed and won’t be interested in flying or training. Did you also know that while you might initially squirm at the sight of fresh dead mice, you will be plucking them like pretty flowers when you realize it makes a magnificent bird cut across the sky and swoop down to your gloved fist? Ashford Castle’s School of Falconry is the oldest Falconry school in Ireland and the private one-hour woodland walk with a harris hawk, either on your wrist or following closely and coming to you on command, is a truly enchanting experience.
Summon the Hounds
Hollywood princesses might prop ornamental pooches in their Chanel purses, but Queens prefer the company of formidable Irish wolfhounds. Ashford Castle is home to two gentle giants, Cronan and Garvan, and the two noble Wolfhound brothers make a daily appearance in the castle from 10-11 am. Guests get to meet and play with the dogs and take pictures, before immediately going online to look for Irish wolfhound litters (and then, a larger car and home to accommodate them).
Early risers can accompany these magnificent creatures on a morning woodland walk (rain boots and coats are provided by the castle); just meet at reception at 8.30 am.
It’s Good to Be the Queen
For some reason, I don’t imagine that Britain’s Queen Elizabeth spends much time obsessing about her pores or the knots in her neck, but Queen Bey does, and I curtsy to her in the beauty department. A spa treatment, or spa day, is essential to a restful escape and Ashford Castle’s lavish spa and indoor pool, added during the two-year refurbishment, offers state of the art luxury and facilities with stunning views of Lough Corrib. Decorated in calming greys, creams, and greens, the spa boasts a stunning indoor relaxation pool housed in a bronze conservatory, complete with seashell chandeliers and a Tree of Life mosaic.
Treatment options here include hot stone massage, aroma and marine therapy, regenerating facials, detoxifying wraps, and pampering beauty treatments, as well as a variety of Hammam sessions and other wellness treatments.
Making the Fairytale a Reality
Staying with family is nice, but they never remember to turn down my bed and top up my bottle of sherry so it’s probably best that, going forward, I just see them at Afternoon Tea and stay in Ashford, where they know how to take care of me. The Lodge at Ashford Castle–a four-star property on the same grounds as Ashford Castle–makes a stay here a much more affordable affair while the level of service and comfort are on par with what you can expect at the castle. Many guests opt to stay a few nights in the lodge and then splurge for a special night or two at the castle. You can also stay in the lodge the entire time and then plan a meal in the castle.
Once home to Ashford Castle’s Estate Manager, the Lodge has its own distinct style and character: along with a lakeside setting, access to all the activities on the grounds, and superb service and dining options, the Lodge has an excellent contemporary art collection and playful, chic rooms, as well as an onsite skincare specialist. Families will appreciate the more relaxed vibe, Duplex Suites, and children’s game room.
If your vacation budget often requires robbing Peter to pay Paul, you may be interested to know that thanks to Norwegian Airlines, you can save on flights (and splurge on accommodations). The Scandinavian low-cost carrier has been shaking up transatlantic travel for the past year with its low fares and low-frill flights to Ireland. For their New York hub, Norwegian operates out of Stewart Airport in Newburgh (about two hours drive from Manhattan) and delivers you to Shannon Airport in Clare, just an hour or so drive from Ashford Castle. You can save a few hundred dollars on flights and even better, spare yourself some travel stress, too: Stewart Airport may be outside the city, but it’s easily accessible by Metro North railroad or bus, and the airport is a refreshingly pleasant experience. I went from check-in to my gate within 10 minutes and the security officer told me to have a safe flight (a shock to my New York sensibilities).
Norwegian offers flights to Shannon, Dublin, and Cork airports in Ireland from Newburgh, New York and Providence, Rhode Island.