Princess, castles, and an elaborate rescue by a knight in shining armor might sound like a childhood dream, but in western Ireland just 19 miles from Galway, fairy tales still come true. Ireland always fascinated me. The Irish brogue, the charming Irishmen,the vibrant green landscape. Add a bit of old-fashioned princess-pampering, and a fair bit of Irish luck, and my girlfriend Gaylene and I were off to the Ashford Castle for a girlfriend getaway.
Once we stepped off the train in Galway, we had visions of mental and physical re-energizing via massages and wine, but first we had to get there. We rented a car, and somehow I mastered the left-sided driver role while my girlfriend Gaylene navigated. Ashford Castle was just 19 miles north, but the tight squeezes on the narrow country roads are stressful.
The stone hedge framed the narrow country road that lead to the regal entrance of Ashford Castle, indicated by the iron sign at the massive entrance. We’d read that the castle was hidden deep in over 350 acres of wooded parkland, but it’s quite an awe-inspiring moment when you see it in person.
Embracing the shores of Lough Corrib, this 13th Century Castle is an architectural nod to a fascinating history of a bygone age. I nudged the Volkswagen through the archway (after a security guard checked my reservation) and toward the castle. The rain hadn’t stopped since we exited the train, but driving amidst forests and lakeside gardens that contain millions of trees, shrubs, and plants from around the world shook the gloom out of the day.
My first glimpse of Ashford Castle was larger than my little girl imaginations. Built primarily in the 19th century, although conscious of the vestiges of this 13th-century Norman stronghold, the grand turreted entrance passes over the River Cong, across the drawbridge to the reception area. The imposing exterior opens into a richly decorated interior that conveys the centuries of care for fine craftsmanship. The common rooms welcome with a crackling fire, grandly appointed with baronial coffered ceilings, oak paneling, turned balustrades and old-world art.
In 1939, the castle opened its door as an exclusive hotel garnering a five-star reputation as one of most luxurious resort hotels in the world where high profile celebrities and public figures reveled in its Old World charm. Romantic souls might recall the Oscar-winning 1952 flick, The Quiet Man, featuring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara filmed in the shadow of Ashford Castle and the nearby village of Cong. In honor of the film, the castle features daily showings of the flick.
Traditional décor, antiques, fine fabrics, and exceptional art are displayed throughout the twists and turns through the hallways and drawing room that lead us to a clunky elevator and ultimately our accommodations. The luxury accommodations are spacious and individually designed with elegant period furnishings, marble bathrooms, and modern amenities such as flat-screen TVs. Our bedroom commanded a rainy view of the wide waters of Lough Corrib and the seaside running path.
Tea, Wine and Food
Gaylene elected the ambitious undertaking of jogging (and raved about the scenic paths). Other activities include the on-site 9-hole private course; tennis; the Ashford Equestrian Centre; game sports from hunting, clay pigeon shooting to falconry; lake cruising; or fishing the great lake and rivers on the estate.
I opted for afternoon tea (followed by a relaxing glass of wine) in the elegant Drawing Room. I still enjoyed the magnificent panoramic views of Lough Corrib, but I stayed dry and warm nestled in my buttonback leather armchair. Later, I thought I’d stop at the Prince of Wales Cocktail Bar, built for the 1800’s visit of the Prince of Wales who subsequently became King George V.
With room for 150 guests and breathtaking views across the river, luxurious furnishings and most discreet service, the George V Dining Room is another one of those memorably elegant dining experiences. Pampering might be Ashford Castle’s middle name, as the George V Dining Room experience made us feel even more like royalty.
With a bottle of South African Cabernet Sauvignon chilling, the chef’s creations were a marvelous combination of careful seasonings of local specialties, such as classic roast rack of spring lamb, fine herb crust with sautéed vegetable and roast potatoes. I watched as other table guests enjoyed a roast neck of pork with apple and herb stuffing, served from the carving trolley.
A local harpist and singer entertained us at the Dungeon Bar where nightly entertainment for guests and the local is a common late night occurrence. The walls proudly display the colorful flags of the Irish clans, while locals join in singing the traditional Irish ballads, like Danny Boy.
Breakfast is a feast. A meal consisting of the smoothie of the day bursting with local strawberries, a hot sugar-crusted glazed ham, creamy scrambled eggs and Irish Vine tomatoes, and I finally pulled myself away from the tasty delights to feast on the final step of pampering, the spa.
For over 700 years, Ashford Castle has offered a myriad of ways to enjoy the hospitality of a castle in Ireland. For fairy princess wanna-bes like Gaylene and me, the historic Ashford Castle makes all big girls’ pampering dreams come true, from culinary experiences to fine wine to rejuvenating spa treatments. When you leave the castle behind you, in your mind, you leave as a Princess of the Ashford Castle.
I crossed another country off my bucket list when I visited Ireland, but I have a lot more places to see, like a safarin South Africa.
What’s on your bucket list? Your dream vacation?