A Holiday Driving Vacation in Ireland: Ashford Castle - Part 1

Ashford Castle visit during Ireland Vacation

Last June I spent a marvelous week in Ireland. I had one night in Dublin at the beginning and end of my trip, and spent 5 days driving in the West Country. Ireland deserves more time than one week, but in our busy world it is often hard to make time for longer vacations. At the same time, Ireland makes short trips easy; it’s a small country, there are flights from most US cities, and air fares are generally lower than for the rest of Europe.

I was able to visit four lovely hotels, all part of TravelStore's Signature Hotel and Resorts program, which means they extend extra amenities to our guests.  These are a nice selection of historic and modern accommodations, fitting for a country which is both old and new.

As an island, Ireland’s weather changes often. It can be windy, stormy, mild and wild – sometimes all in the same day, but you won’t get the horrible heat or the bitter cold of more land locked areas.  It does rain a lot (which is why it’s so green!), so while I had a mostly sunny week, it’s best to go with the right gear so you can get out and enjoy it.

Dublin has a number of good hotels. I stayed at The Fitzwilliam and very much enjoyed the location.  St Stephen’s Green is just across the street; so nice to have some green park to enjoy. Walk out the front door and turn left and you are on Grafton Street, now a pedestrian zone with lots of shopping.  

I enjoyed the Fitzwilliam’s somewhat whimsical décor, the tall purple headboards and strangely morphing chairs gave a nice modern design element to the room, a convenient electrical control panel made it easy to charge devices, a great bathroom, and a very lovely turn down tray of truffles and chocolates were all easy to enjoy.  (For those who prefer something more traditional, we have other good choices in our hotel program.)

We took off for County Mayo and the world famous Ashford Castle where we spent three lovely days.  This is an amazing destination -- a 13th Century castle on the shores of a huge protected lake. The grounds are amazing: the golf course, stone bridge and entrance roads are all planned to show off the hotel in a good light, and it does deserve its reputation.  The adjacent town of Cong is charming and quaint.

One of my traveling companions was not feeling well when we were here, so instead of doing a lot of sightseeing in Mayo and Connemara, we stayed close to home and explored Ashford, and I think that was well worth it!  A falconry school, horseback riding, fishing, clay shooting, lake cruises kept us engaged -- we were more relaxed and had more of a vacation!   

Ashford was a vacation home for Lord Ardilaun and the Guinness Family.  Some castle hotels have only a few authentic rooms, and most guests stay in a modern wing.  Ashford was redesigned for the Guinness family in the Regency style making it a balanced and beautiful building, and all the hotel rooms are in the existing wings, with only one, hardly noticeable, modernization added in 1939.

The rooms, when I was there needed some renovations, and with new owners (Red Carnation Hotels) they are getting it. But the bones are good – there are stunning furniture pieces throughout the hotel, the building is amazing, the grounds fabulous. It was the only place I visited in Ireland where the service staff was almost completely Irish; even most of the housemaids were local.

The food generally in Ireland is surprisingly good, but the meals we had at Ashford were memorable. The former gamekeeper’s cottage is across the bridge from the castle, and now houses a charming more casual dining choice than the main dining room – the fresh caught local fish and innovative vegetarian dishes here made us very happy!  We saw local anglers in the stream each night until the sun set some time after 11, and from what we tasted I can see why it’s a popular fishing spot. 

Having tea or a cocktail in the lounge as a guest in the afternoons was lovely, large windows looking out onto the lake, I felt like I’d stepped into Masterpiece Theatre, and was an honored house guest of some wealthy family in a bygone era.