Easy Escapes: Ashford Castle, Cong, Ireland

Recently restored, this magnificent castle is perfect for a one-stop Irish country house break with plenty to do

Recently restored, this magnificent castle is perfect for a one-stop Irish country house break with plenty to do

Why go? 40 miles south of Knock airport, Ashford Castle sits on the northern shores of Lough Corrib in County Mayo. It dates from 1228, but its mighty neo-Gothic battlements owe everything to the Guinness family, who took it over in 1852 and used it as a fabulous holiday home for 87 years. While it gets a lot of American visitors and has abundant four-poster beds, this five-star castle hotel is not as ‘ye olde’ as you might expect (we only spotted one suit of armour). Thanks to a two-year, £46m restoration by new owners Red Carnation, who have stylish hotels in London, Geneva, Florida and Cape Town, the property has a freshness and vivacity – including a smart new spa and a 350-acre estate rich with activities – that makes it well worth a visit.

Fancy a Guinness? Ashford Castle was once the family holiday home

When? Anytime. It would be wrong to say it always rains in Ireland – however… The good thing is if the weather’s poor you’ll still have a great time because the Irish are masters at creating a convivial atmosphere with their fires, whisky, hearty food, live music and craic. Pack a mac and footwear that can get on with mud.

Stay at: Ashford Castle (doubles from £278 with breakfast from September, ashfordcastle.com) has 82 rooms in 11 categories all furnished with an opulent and pampering style. The most affordable are classed as Corrib, with the next level, Deluxe, the smart choice. Styles, colours and views vary from room to room so look online first and state your preferences. The public areas are rich with art, antiques and memorabilia from the Guinness era, and the standard of service is exceptionally high. New additions are a very grand billiards room, a cigar terrace, a plush-red 32-seat cinema with complimentary popcorn, and a delighftul spa that uses organic seaweed beauty products from the Irish company Voya (voya.ie).

Princess moment: a lake view deluxe bedroom at Ashford Castle

A second accommodation option is The Lodge (from £215 with breakfast, thelodgeac.com), a contemporary 50-room hotel centred on what was once the estate manager’s headquarters. Most rooms are in adjacent blocks with a dull grey pebbledash exterior, but the interiors feature king-size beds and colourful wallpapers – the hotel is popular for weddings and celebrations. Wi-Fi is free in both properties.

Irish charmer: the bathroom in a junior suite at Ashford Castle

Dine at: Breakfast is served in the George V Dining Room, built in 1905 for the visit of the Prince of Wales and suitably grand. It’s a well-orchestrated affair with both buffet and à-la-carte options featuring treats like Connemara smoked salmon, baked ham and scrambled eggs with truffles. This is also the place for an elegant dinner (a jacket is required for men) with a seasonal, locally-sourced menu featuring dishes such as Irish langoustine and Achill Island Black Face lamb. Wine pairings are offered – be sure to try some from Bouchard Finlayson in South Africa’s Western Cape, which is part of the Red Carnation collection. The Drawing Room serves an excellent Irish stew (yes, you’d better have some Guinness with it), while for something more informal head to nearby Cullen’s at the Cottage, where the Galway oysters are sensational, or Wilde’s at The Lodge has an intimate and contemporary dining room. It’s best to make reservations for all these venues. In Cong, Pat Cohan’s Bar (patcohanbar.ie) is a modern bistro with dishes that include a West Coast seafood board and a prime Irish beef burger.

Winging it: be sure to take a hawk for a walk at Ashford Castle

You really must: The range of activities in and around the castle grounds can keep you busy for days. Just walking in the estate (which is open to the public for an entrance fee), with its lakeside setting, walled garden, woodlands and romantic Guinness Tower, is pleasure enough. One place not to miss is Ireland’s School of Falconry (falconry.ie) where some 30 birds of prey live in regal style. While other places just show you the birds, here you can take a ‘hawk walk’ through the woods with an expert who will let you hold, call and feed it. The estate also has an Equestrian Centre (ashfordequestrian.com) with well-trained Connemara ponies – they cater for all levels and you can have a lesson in the indoor arena or go for a hack. If you have experience, book a two-hour scenic ride to ‘the viewpoint’ where there is the opportunity to canter. Other options include a nine-hole golf course, clay pigeon shooting, archery, mountain biking and lake and river fishing.

You can also take a five minute walk into the sweet little village of Cong, which still has a time-warp obsession with the 1951 film The Quiet Man, which was shot around here and starred John Wayne. You can watch it in the Ashford Castle cinema, or on the TV in your room, and despite the far-from-PC stereotyping it’s an entertaining yarn with many local buildings seemingly unchanged.

Saddle up: you can also go riding on a handsome Connemara pony © imagepalace.co.uk

Bring home: Stick your head in Mrs Tea’s, a bakery and boutique near the castle entrance which opened in April and stocks treats from Ireland including Orla Kiely bags, Voya beauty products and Avoca rugs. You can also pick up A Life In Food, a cookbook by the leading lady of Red Carnation hotels, Bea Tollman. Unlike many hotel recipe collections, which tend to go in for grand and expensive creations, this is a homely compendium of favourites ranging from chicken curry to cheesecake – some of these dishes feature on the Castle’s various menus.

Book now: Cong is a 45 minute drive south of Ireland West Airport Knock. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies direct from Luton, Stansted, East Midlands and Liverpool; other routes are with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) from Gatwick and with Flybe (flybe.com) from Manchester. Transfers arranged through Ashford Castle cost £83 one-way, or see irelandwestairport.com for car hire options.

Info: Ireland (Rough Guides; £15.99) is a comprehensive guide. You can also contact Cong Tourist Information Office (00 353 94 954 6542), and see discoverireland.ie.

lead image and thumbnail: © imagepalace.co.uk

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