The drive from Shannon Airport to Ashford Castle looks exactly as you’d imagine. The lush green fields. The cows grazing. The herds of sheep. The white and silver sky. Eamon Walkin, my driver, seems unfazed by the majesty of it all, as he tells me about all the famous people he’s driven to and from the castle: Pierce Brosnan (all the ladies greeted him outside), Bob Dylan (not very verbose), and Rod Steiger, who shared a few off-color jokes. There is indeed such a thing as Irish hospitality, and Walkin is my first encounter with the most polite people I’ve ever met. I am charmed, even at 6 a.m., without a wink of sleep, and excited to check out a castle, renowned chefs, and posh afternoon teas — Ireland’s luxurious side.
Along the drive, Walkin tells me that we’ll be taking a few scary corners, but the sharp turns will be worth it once we hit the “Oh My God” corner: the one that goes around the bend to the view of the castle. And he’s right. As soon as we go make the turn, there is stately Ashford Castle. The sight of it wakes my tired eyes.
Ireland might not immediately come to mind when considering a luxury vacation, but the land of pints, pubs, and fish ’n’ chips has another side to it — and one look at breathtaking Ashford Castle and you will know you’ve arrived in the right destination. While County Mayo boasts six castles, Ashford Castle is the only one still in working order. It’s been a hotel since the 1940s, boasting 5 stars and membership in Leading Hotels of the World. Built in 1228, the castle passed from the de Burgos family to the Guinness family to the current owner: Bea Tollman, founder and president of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection. When Tollman bought the castle in 2013, she decided to give it a major overhaul to bring it back to its original beauty while also modernizing it.
Amid the changes, the old world charms still prevail: The gracious doormen, the lush interior, the gardens, the stately dining room, the beautifully-designed rooms, and the activities that hark back to the 13th century. On our first day, we find ourselves walking down a picturesque path to Ireland’s oldest school of falconry. Aurelie O’Sullivan, my guide for the “hawk walk,” introduces the hawks, which are squawking at an owl on a nearby tree. Inca is the bird for my foray into this medieval activity. I’m nervous, knowing Inca is a predator. But Aurelie, who studies birds of prey, reassures me. “Because you are with me, Inca automatically trusts you,” she explains. It’s fascinating, learning about hawks. They see more colors than humans do, and when Inca lands on my arm, her landing is so gentle that I barely know she’s there. To spur Inca to fly off my arm, I move my arm back, but I don’t bring it forward yet until Inca, who’s looking around at trees and branches, has set her eyes on a destination. “Hawks won’t take off until they see where they want to go,” Aurelie tells me.
In the evening, there is a luxurious dinner at George V, in an ornate dining room with large, round tables and polite old-school waiters. The menu is as luxe as one would expect at a castle. Stefan Matz, an award-winning chef from Germany, is one of Ireland’s top chefs. His food is modern, with a nod to tradition, and he uses ingredients from local producers. Each dish is listed with a recommended wine. You can sip a glass of Thelema Mountain Red with the free-range chicken, Sancerre with the risotto of crabmeat, or a chablis with the fillet of organic Connemara salmon. A plate of petit fours arrives after dinner, but I still order dessert: a sweet and salty peanut butter mousse with brittle and caramel ice cream that I enjoy with a late-harvest Reisling.
The forest that surrounds the castle spans 350 acres and is rich with mystical, archeological wonders. When I decided to go horseback riding, I had no idea how magical it would be. Tom Clesham, whose family owns the Ashford Equestrian Centre, brings out the horses we’ll ride. Along the ride, Tom points out an old stone wall built by the Guinness family, an ancient well, and the Guinness fort. His stories are so fascinating, I make a mental note to learn more about this forest.
When I arrive in Dublin in the late afternoon, there are people spilling out of the pubs near Grafton Street and Merrion Square, the after-work crowd sipping beer and talking. I skip the pubs and head to dinner at the elegant Merrion Hotel, home to Ireland’s only two-star Michelin restaurant: Restaurant Patrick Guillbaud. While I enjoy Carlingford oysters, spiced Wicklow lamb, and Grand Marnier soufflé, I am looking forward to afternoon tea the next day. The Merrion Hotel’s Art Tea might possibly be the most unique tea experience: Desserts are created and inspired by famous works of art around the hotel.
We sit by the fireplace. Soon the waitress sets down a glass of champagne and says that we can order as many teas as we’d like. I’m not sure why tea tastes so much better in Ireland, but it does. Desserts were equally spectacular: chocolate trinity, rosewater and orange mousse, and a raspberry and passionfruit tart.
When driving with Walkin through County Mayo at the beginning of my trip, he told me a tale of being in New York and telling people he wanted to go out and look for craic, pronounced “crack.” “Everyone gave me strange looks, as you can imagine,” he said, laughing. “But craic just means fun in Gaelic.” I had certainly found memorable — and lavish — forms of craic here in Ireland.
Tracey Ceurvels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.