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Breaking Travel News investigates: Ashford Castle - A dream realised

One of the problems with the misuse of language in the hospitality industry is that when something genuinely superlative does come up it can be hard to describe.

With so much verbosity, hyperbole, and exaggeration routinely deployed, words such as iconic, stunning, and breathtaking have become all but meaningless.

This presents us with something of a problem when trying to describe Ashford Castle, the 83-room hotel operated by Red Carnation on the west Coast of Ireland.

The one-of-a-kind property is all of the above. But it is also so much more.

Set in 350 acres of woodland on the picturesque shores of Lough Corrib in County Mayo, the castle dates back to 1228 and has a history almost as colourful as Ireland itself.

First opening as a hotel in 1939 after generations of ownership by the Guinness family, the property expanded through the decades, welcoming everybody from John Wayne to US president Ronald Regan.

However, mirroring the wider crash of the Irish economy, it fell into receivership in 2009, and was purchased by the Tollman family of South Africa and added to the Red Carnation portfolio.

It might just have been the best thing to happen to the hotel.

Following a €100 million investment, Ashford Castle has been completely reimaged under the new owners, reopening in 2013.

Under the leadership of architect Philippe Bonino every inch has been examined, resorted and enhanced, with the property regaining its place as the most luxurious destination in Ireland.

As Niall Rochford, general manager, explains: “This was not a refurbishment.

“It was much more fundamental, a restoration of a very important historical estate in an Irish context.

“When it was purchased by the Tollmans we received a letter from the Irish prime minister and he visited when we reopened, it is that important to the country.”

The results are simply stunning; with each room a destination in its own right.

The 70 guest rooms and 15 staterooms and suites exude luxury, filled to bursting with antique furniture, inch-deep carpets, marble bathrooms and thick draped fabrics.

Feelings of space, permanence and history pervade the halls allowing guests to sink into the grandeur of the place, leaving the real world far behind. 

Rochford adds of the renovations: “We took a decision to focus on quality.

“We decided not to add extra rooms, but went for facilities that would improve the stay for guests – the billiards room, the cinema, and the wine cellar for example.

“The vision of our owners, the Tollmans, was to create the best hotel of its kind in the world, and I think they have succeeded in that aim.”

Visiting over Easter, our stateroom is as spacious as a ballroom, the four poster bed stretching 20 feet to toward the ceiling.

Opening the door for the first time, it is astounding, I can’t help but laugh at the sheer scale and opulence of the place.

Outside the manicured lawns nestle next to the lake – it is hard to think of anything more perfect.

But sumptuous decoration is one thing – running a hotel quite another.

Ashford Castle would be nothing without its staff.

As Rochford continues: “We aim to provide genuine and generous hospitality here at Ashford Castle.

“Innately I think we are good at that here in Ireland, but with the structures of the Red Carnation company behind us, we are really able to share that with our guests.

“Our staff are of the hotel, many of them of have been here for two, three, or four generations, with the estate in its many guises.”

This is evident in the attention shown to guests.

Each member of staff is attentive, engaged and full of ideas on how to improve a stay; different to the stiff, formal procedures which can characterise hotels at this level.

Staff at Ashford carry out their duties in a genuine, friendly manner; it is as though - as the cliché goes - they really are welcoming you to their own home.

If you can drag yourself away from your room there is plenty on offer to guests.

This is not a museum, the place fairly buzzes with activity, with children running through the corridors and the reception a hive of bustling action as guests prepare for their next adventure.

There are as many as 21 activities available, with everything from tree climbing, archery, and horse riding to fishing and a round on the nine-hole golf course on offer to guests.

Only having two days, we opted for falconry and clay pigeon shooting – both were superb.

While other hotels might present these excursions as a group activity, Ashford Castle allows guests to enjoy them as a private event, with staff giving you there undivided attention.

Walking through the woodland surrounding the castle as part of the falconry expedition is a real chance to get back to nature, with the birds soaring overhead searching for prey.

Our guide is knowledgeable, friendly and clearly has a real love for her work at the falconry school.

Illustrating just how close the castle is to the local community, clay pigeon shooting doesn’t start until after mass in the local churches.

It’s well worth the wait however, with the sound of the shells rolling out over the surrounding countryside.

Again we enjoyed the activity as part of our own small group, making it possible to really get to grips with the guns – though hitting the targets is far from easy!

Fine cuisine is of course the order of the day at a property of this magnitude and the George V dining room doesn’t disappoint.

While dinner jackets are a must, the atmosphere is again far from stuffy.

Families are welcomed alongside courting couples to the graceful restaurant where twinkling Waterford Crystal chandeliers gaze down upon guests.

Acclaimed chef Philippe Farineau combines his many talents with the much loved recipes of Beatrice Tollman, to create a unique banquet for guests.

Next door The Prince of Wales Bar is just as one would imagine it would be in an Irish castle.

Built in the late 1800s, the bar is reminiscent of its captivating past, with its opulent fabrics, fine wood panelling, and original fireplace creating a warm and welcoming ambience – the perfect place to enjoy a glass of peaty Irish whisky.

With the hotel renovated, staff in place, activities aplenty and world-class dining on offer, it seems Ashford has everything in place.

But it is the luxurious flourishes which really make the stay.

A liveried driver greets you at the airport ahead of a drive of just less than an hour to the castle; polite, discreet, and lavish.

A decanter of sherry awaits guests on the sprawling desk in the room, a real fire is lit in the hearth as part of the turndown service, and two gigantic Irish wolfhounds - Garvin and Cronin – greet guests on arrival.

It is things like this that separate the hotel from the pack.

At Ashford Castle, a dream to create the best hotel of its kind in the world has been realised.

More Information

The magnificent Ashford Castle is set in 350 acres, on the picturesque shores of Lough Corrib.

Dating back to 1228, the castle now enters a new chapter in its history, as part of The Red Carnation Hotel Collection.

With 83 spectacular rooms, suites and a Lakeside Cottage, a wealth of activities and plenty of thoughtful touches, guests will enjoy acclaimed Irish hospitality on a grand scale.

Rooms at Ashford Castle start from €335 for a double room, on a bed and breakfast basis.

To book head over to the official website.

Chris O’Toole