No iPod docks (though music on demand is available through the TV)
Ashford Castle embodies the fantasy of the Irish castle hotel, featuring a massive historic stone facade, complete with towers and turrets; gorgeous, manicured grounds; a stunning setting on a huge lake; and common spaces that are truly grand, with rich wood paneling, chandeliers, and antique furniture. After such magnificence, the rooms can be a bit of a letdown. They still retain elements of their original elegance, but some have frumpy style and need renovations. George V Dining Room offers excellent, formal fine dining (jackets are required in the evening), and drinks and tea can be enjoyed in the graceful drawing room with lake views. The wide range of estate activities includes falconry lessons, boat tours on the lake, golf on the 9-hole course, clay shooting, and archery.
In Ireland, it's not uncommon for hotels to label themselves as castles without being truly deserving of the word. Ashford Castle is not one of these hotels: The imposing property on Lough Corrib is as castle-like as it gets, from the sweeping manicured lawns, to the suits of armor greeting guests in the foyer, to the turreted towers.
And, as any true castle hotel should, Ashford Castle has a rich history. The Anglo-Norman de Burgo family first built a castle here in 1228, and then lost it after being defeated by the O'Connors in the 16th century. The castle passed hands many more times over the following centuries and the building went through a number of incarnations -- receiving the addition of a French-style chateau in 1715 and two Victorian wings in 1852 -- before evolving into the hotel it is today. In more recent history, the castle grounds were used as a primary filming location for the classic 1952 film The Quiet Man, which is a point of local pride (there is even a Quiet Man museum in Cong.)
The interior common spaces are as splendid as the exterior. The lobby, drawing room, and aptly labeled Oak Hall have rich wood paneling; oil paintings, chandeliers, and fireplaces can be found throughout and stunning vistas of the lake can be enjoyed from many rooms. However, the ambiance is undeniably formal -- jackets are required in George V Dining Room at dinner, for example -- and some may find it too stuffy for their taste.
Despite the massive size of the hotel and estate, there are only 83 rooms, which allows for a high level of service. Unfortunately, many of the rooms aren't nearly as impressive as the rest of the property. Renovations are always ongoing, but considering the hotel was up for sale for 25 million euro as of winter 2012, a major overhaul may not happen soon.
Ashord Castle sits on a 350-acre estate just outside the village of Cong, on the border between County Mayo and County Galway. It has a stunning lakefront location on Lough Corrib, and its sprawling estate grounds allow for numerous activities, including falconry lessons, clay pigeon shooting, horesback riding, and golf.
10-minute drive to the small village of Cong
10-minute drive to Cong Abbey, first founded in the seventh century; some of the current buildings date to the 12th century
53-minute drive to Galway
57-minute drive to Kylemore Abbey
1-hour drive to Rossaveal, where ferries to the Aran Islands depart
Rooms decor varies; some are elegant while others are a bit frumpy
The 83 rooms at Ashford Castle all have elegant features, such as antique furniture, floor-to-ceiling draperies, and pedestal sinks in the bathrooms. Room decor varies, and some of the more expensive rooms have details such as four-poster beds and fireplaces. Other rooms, however, have elements that look old rather than charmingly old-fashioned: There are tacky floral prints and visible signs of wear, such as wallpaper tears and nicks on the furniture. Renovations are always ongoing, but a larger overhaul may not happen until the castle finds a new owner.
Technology features are also not what one would expect from a five-pearl property. The plasma-screen TVs are interactive, with movies on demand and music on demand, but they're small and not flat enough to hang on the wall (they're hidden away in wooden cabinets). There are no iPod docks, and not all rooms have Wi-Fi.
The fitness center at Ashford Castle is adequate, with free weights, cardio machines, and strength training machines, but it's certainly nothing special -- the machines are older and cardio machines lack individual TVs.
Formal fine dining restaurant (jackets required), as well as a casual bistro
George V Dining Room is a formal restaurant with white tablecloths, 11 Waterford crystal chandeliers, a fireplace, and a dress code -- jackets are required for men in the evenings. Gourmet Irish and international cuisine using local ingredients is served, and there is even a carving trolley brought around for those who order the roast of the day. The restaurant is named for King George V, who visited the castle when he was still the Prince of Wales, and is open for breakfast, dinner, and Sunday lunch.
Cullen's at the Cottage is a casual bistro housed in a thatched cottage next to the golf course. It's open daily for lunch and dinner from May to September, and in the off season relocates to the Dungeon Bar space. Soups, salads, and hearty items such as fish and chips and burgers are served. Reservations are required for George V and recommended for Cullen's.
Afternoon tea and light fare is offered in the drawing room.
The Prince of Wales Cocktail Bar, built in the late 19th century for the Prince of Wales' visit, has a gentleman's club vibe, with green tufted leather furniture, wood paneling, and a fireplace. Cocktails, brandies, and liqueurs are available.