2018 Platinum List Focus: Ashford Castle

The landmark property in western Ireland—long a favorite of celebrities and royals—combines historic grandeur with personal attention to the smallest details

WORDS Chris Wright
September / October 2018
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As a rule, hotels don’t encourage guests to lie on the floors of their public areas. This is especially true of a space like Ashford Castle’s Oak Hall, which, with its carved wooden ceiling, gilt-framed portraits and red-draped windows overlooking a 19th-century fountain, seems the kind of room where a gentle cough might raise eyebrows. Yet here we are, my nine-year-old daughter and me, rolling around with Garvin and Cronin, the estate’s two enormous Irish wolfhounds. “This is the best hotel in the world,” Molly says as Garvin nuzzles her ear. “Write that.” 

Ashford Castle is situated on the northern shore of Lough Corrib in County Mayo, western Ireland, just outside the village of Cong. You approach over a stone bridge—the lake, mottled with islands, is to your left,
the jumble of turrets and battlements ahead. There are, in fact, several castles here, cobbled together over the centuries, the oldest of which dates back to 1228. The dominant structure, built in the 1850s by the Guinness family, is typical of the age: dreamy nostalgia tinged with Gothic gloom. You half expect Ivanhoe to stroll by. Or possibly Frankenstein’s monster. 

The property was made into a hotel in the 1930s, and soon became a favored getaway spot for politicians, aristocrats and Hollywood actors. The leather-and-wood Prince of Wales Bar is named for George V, the future king of England, who fished here in 1905, and who was followed by the likes of Ronald Reagan, Grace Kelly and Brad Pitt. The financial crash of 2008 hit Ashford hard, however, resulting in redundancies and disrepair. “For those of us who worked here, who were emotionally invested in the place,” says general manager Niall Rochford, “it was a very difficult time.” 

The turnaround came in 2013, when Ashford was acquired by Red Carnation, the family-run group founded by South African hotelier Beatrice Tollman. Rochford recalls the first time the family visited the castle, when Beatrice’s husband, Stanley, stood on the stairs and assured the staff that their jobs were safe, and that Ashford would not only recover but flourish. True to their word, the Tollmans subsequently invested $75 million into a restoration project, creating an 83-room hotel that … well, what Molly said. 

The risk with a property like this is that grandeur will devolve into garishness. Walk through Ashford’s interior, though, and you will find a variety of structural and decorative features that are so finely balanced, so lovingly restored, you could almost call it homey. And while there’s no shortage of baronial statement pieces—marble fireplaces and bronze sculptures, Murano chandeliers and silk wall coverings—these are offset by
the occasional touch of whimsy. In our room, the canopied bed is echoed by a four-poster tub in the bathroom, complete with its own TV. 

There’s also a playfulness to the Dungeon, with its red vaulted ceiling, heraldic banners and iron-latticed windows. This is one of several restaurants on the estate, and we eat at all of them: seared sea bass, fresh oysters, Irish lamb-neck stew, free-range pork cheeks, Atlantic fish cakes and a mac and cheese that inspires Molly to remark: “This food is so welcoming.” The grandest restaurant is the George V, where you dine seated on royal-blue chairs below Waterford crystal chandeliers. This is where we have our breakfasts: grilled kippers (and chocolate croissants) one morning, and a full Irish (and chocolate croissants) on the other. 

The grounds are equally splendid: a 350-acre expanse of woodland and formal gardens. There’s also a nine-hole golf course, and a range of outdoor activities that include clay pigeon shooting, tennis, fishing, falconry, horse riding and kayaking. Molly, of course, goes mad for this stuff—along with the conservatory swimming pool and the 32-seat cinema—but I’m content just wandering around, watching swans glide across the big lake, losing myself in a thicket of trees, stumbling across an old walled garden filled with flowers and honeybees. 

What makes Ashford truly special, though, lies beyond its material qualities. When I sit down for tea with Rochford, we are served by a young man whose father worked here, as did his grandfather, and his great-grandfather. Rochford has been with the estate for 16 years, but others predate him by decades. “We’ve invested our lives here,” he says. “We’ve formed a bond with the place and the people.” 

We are seated in the Inglenook Room, before a huge wooden fireplace, alongside my fidgety daughter. At a previous meeting, a young woman named Zoe had come to her rescue, whisking her off to feed horses at
the stables. Molly tells Rochford this and he smiles: “Zoe’s my daughter.” Just then, another woman arrives, unbidden, to show Molly the hotel’s chocolate-making facility. 

This sort of thing happens a lot during our stay. After an archery session in the woods, a young man arrives on a bicycle to serve us ice cream. On a lake cruise, the captain hands Molly his hat and lets her steer the boat home, singing to her as we go: “Oh, Molly, my Irish Molly, my sweet acushla dear!” Over and over, people we don’t recognize pass us by with a “Hello, Molly!” Sometimes this is followed up by a joke, or a commentary on the weather. These aren’t extravagant gestures, but they can be the difference between a good hotel and a great one. As Molly puts it: “The people here are oddly lovely.”

“That’s a West Ireland thing,” says Patrick Luskin, our singing boat captain. “It’s not just the hotel.” We are aboard Luskin’s boat, The Isle of Inisfree, heading for Inchagoill, one of the largest of Corrib’s 370-odd islands. It is home to two cherished local relics: a church from the 12th century, and another built in the 5th century by none other than Saint Patrick. To reach these buildings, the captain leads us past the ruins of drystone houses, melancholy remnants of the families who once lived on the island but abandoned it in the 1930s. 

This is our second day at Ashford, and tomorrow morning we’ll be gone, too. Our final dinner is at Cullen’s, in a thatched cottage near the castle, where we get a roasted seafood platter to share. As we eat, I ask Molly about the highlight of her trip and she says: “The hawk walk.” Specifically: “When Inca [our Harris’s hawk] caught a mouse.” Crossing the bridge back to the castle, we pause to give Larry the Langoustine (or what’s left of him) a burial at sea. The sun has broken through the clouds, turning the water a shimmering pea green. On the dock to our left, an elderly man in a kilt is playing the bagpipes, which has to be a happy coincidence. We plop Larry into the water and stand there for a bit, watching as he drifts out of view. 

To discover the 2018 Platinum List Awards for Best Country House Hotels, click here

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