Afternoon tea in elegant room with lake views, plus a billiards room and cigar terrace
Numerous past celebrity guests
Friendly, resident Irish wolfhounds
Some rooms are small
Food is pricey and gets mixed reviews
Extra fees for all estate activities, including boat tour
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. The 82 sumptuous, individually decorated rooms combine old-fashioned grandeur with modern tech amenities (including electronic shades, free Wi-Fi, and wall outlets for both U.S. and European plugs). George V Dining Room offers excellent, formal fine dining (jackets are required in the evening), and afternoon tea can be enjoyed in the graceful Connaught 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. It's one of the best hotels in not only Ireland but the world, and for many guests will be a magical, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
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, to the turreted towers, to the friendly resident Irish wolfhounds who hang out in the lobby in the morning. There's even a secret tunnel dating to the 16th century (now a wine cellar).
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. For 60 years, it was the family residence of the Guinness Family, who returned much of the 25,000-acre estate to the locals. The castle grounds were also 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). Guests can watch the film for free in their rooms and in the castle's on-site 32-seat movie theater.
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 ambience is undeniably formal -- jackets are required in George V Dining Room at dinner, for example, and liveried doormen wear top hats. It's part of the fun of the experience for some, but others may find it too stuffy for their tastes.
Despite the massive size of the hotel and estate, there are only 82 rooms, which allows for a high level of service. The castle was purchased by the Red Carnation Hotel Collection in 2013, and received a massive, $75 million overhaul, which completed in 2015. The updates helped elevate the experience here to one that is truly world-class.
Ashford 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
One-hour drive to Rossaveal, where ferries to the Aran Islands depart
Elegant, individually decorated rooms with impressive tech features
Each of the 82 rooms at Ashford Castle has a different look, but all are sumptuously appointed with antique-style decor. Expect patterned carpets, wallpaper, and often, bedspreads, as well as touches such as floor-to-ceiling drapes and in some rooms, four-poster beds. Though many rooms have bold shades, including rich reds, others are more neutral, allowing the hotel to cater to different tastes.
This old-fashioned elegance is combined with thoroughly 21st-century amenities; all rooms have impressive tech features, including free Wi-Fi, touch controls for the drapes and electricity, bluetooth speakers, USB chargers (handy for phones), and plugs for both U.S., U.K, and European devices. The cable TVs have movies and music on demand, and "The Quiet Man" -- filmed partly on the grounds -- is free. There are lots of thoughtful details that help elevate the experience here, including fresh flowers, evening turndown service, Egyptian cotton bed linens, and soft bathrobes and slippers. Bathrooms, like the rooms, vary, but all have Voya toiletries; most have marble tile, old-fashioned wooden lids on the toilets, shower/tub combos, and heated towel racks.
There are three main categories here: Rooms, Staterooms, and Suites, plus a Hideaway Cottage on the grounds. Some may find the entry-level Corrib Rooms a bit snug for the price (around 250 square feet, or 23 square meters, including the bathroom). Some upgraded rooms have lake views, and most of the Staterooms have fireplaces; some have clawfoot bathtubs. All rooms have a king-size bed, and Suites add a sofa bed; connecting rooms are also available for families.
Many guests at Ashford Castle spend their entire stay without leaving the grounds -- understandable, when there is so much to do. Fun countryside activities include falconry (run by an outside company), clay pigeon shooting, archery, trout and salmon fishing on Lough Corrib, cycling and kayaking, horseback riding (there's an equestrian center), golfing at the nine-hole course, and even zip-lining. The boat cruises on the lake are especially popular, and the History Cruise is available daily. There's also a free 32-seat movie theater with its own popcorn machine where movies are shown twice a day (one is more family-friendly, and one more mature). Families will likely "Lego Butler" service, where a butler brings legos for the little ones, and babysitting can be arranged for a fee.
Formal fine-dining restaurant (jackets required), as well as a casual dungeon bistro
George V Dining Room is a formal restaurant with white tablecloths, 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.
The Dungeon is located on the lower ground floor of the castle (hence the name), and serves local pub food such as burgers, corned beef, black pudding, and seafood. Cullen's at the Cottage is housed in a thatched cottage next to the golf course. It's open daily for lunch and dinner from May to September, and serves fare such as burgers, lobster, spaghetti, and mussels. Reservations are recommended for George V and recommended for Cullen's.
Afternoon tea is offered in the Connaught Room, and drinks and light fare can be ordered 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. There is also a wine cellar located in 16th-century secret passageways of the castle, where tastings and special wine pairing dinners are provided. There's a small bar in the billiards room, and smoking is allowed on the attached cigar terrace.