If you’ve never walked into a hotel room and burst into tears—of joy, that is–then it’s time you visited the newly refurbished Ashford Castle in Cong, Ireland. The 800-year-old stone stronghold, recently named “Hotel of the Year” by the Virtuoso luxury travel network, reopened in Spring 2015 following a US $75 million dollar roof-to-cellar renovation.
Frankly, its super-luxurious makeover has left some folks feeling a bit verklempt. Duty Manager Emer Mulcahy has actually seen guests cry when they’re shown to their rooms, “because they’re so beautiful,” she explains. “They’ve got the ‘wow’ factor.”
Not that this stately pile was exactly a shanty before the recent influx of cash. I first stayed at Ashford Castle in 2009 and was duly impressed by its imposing grey turrets towering over the shores of Lough Corrib. It was once the domain of the Guinness family (as in the beer), and its illustrious guests have included Oscar Wilde, President Ronald Reagan, Monaco’s Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace, and Hollywood heartthrobs Brad Pitt and Pierce Brosnan.
Returning to see what changes new owners Bea and Stanley Tollman of Red Carnation Hotels have made since purchasing the 350-acre estate in 2013, I can see that as formidable as the castle appeared on my inaugural visit, it was a diamond in the rough by today’s comparison. The renovation has revealed previously undiscovered facets of this five-star historic gem, and boy, does it sparkle.
Each of the 82 guest rooms and suites have been individually decorated, with walls swathed in magnificent fabrics, beds sporting 300 thread-count Egyptian cotton linens embroidered with the castle’s crest, and antiques that span the centuries. Your room might come equipped with a Murano glass chandelier, a 19th century Italian bed carved with chubby-cheeked cherubs or an 18th century Spanish walnut armoire.
If you’re keen on green, you’ll swoon over suite 423, where virtually every surface is boldly bedecked in emerald velvet. For a superbly sudsy soak, ask for room 329, which includes a canopy over the bathtub and stained glass windows in the shower.
My own accommodation, room 427, is elegantly attired with silver-embroidered silk walls, an antique gate transformed into a headboard, a grandfather clock, and painted portraits of swan-necked ladies gazing out serenely from their gilded frames.
In the George V dining room, newly installed mirrored panels above the wainscoting reflect a fleet of Waterford crystal chandeliers. The room is named for England’s Prince of Wales, who came for a visit in 1905 and found it so accommodating that he stayed for two months. Royalty, unlike fish, apparently does not begin to smell after three days.
The adjacent Drawing Room, with a broad expanse of windows overlooking the mercury grey lake, has ditched its flouncy old chintz in favor of sophisticated sapphire blue velvet. Settle in for a sumptuous afternoon tea, which includes Ashford’s own bespoke blend of tea leaves.
Beyond these cosmetic nips and tucks, the castle has beefed up its recreational amenities, too. Take a dip in the indoor swimming pool, housed in the spa sanctuary that opened this summer.
Indulge in a game of snooker in the billiards room, which serves whisky and brandy and opens onto a roof terrace where you can puff on Cuban cigars from the humidor.
Or kick back in the 32-seat cinema, noshing on free popcorn and candy from the comfort of a red-velvet armchair. The Quiet Man, filmed in the adjacent village of Cong, plays nightly. (If you want to bask in a bit of stardust, book room 500, where John Wayne stayed during the shoot, or room 408, which hosted his co-star, Maureen O’Hara.)
Of course, no castle is complete without secret passageways. Builders unearthed a 16th century tunnel during renovations, which has been refitted as a wine cellar offering private tastings.
There’s a “dungeon,” as well, featuring a snug subterranean restaurant, complete with heraldic banners and backlit stained glass panels.
The Prince of Wales bar remains a perennial favorite, too, with its polished wood paneling and tufted leather chairs.
If you can be tempted beyond castle walls, you’ll find plenty of suitably baronial pursuits. The estate includes Ireland’s oldest School of Falconry, an equestrian center, a nine-hole golf course, clay shooting, tennis courts, kayaking, lake cruises and the only Orvis-endorsed fishing property in Ireland.
You can also dine at The Lodge, Ashford’s sister property, where Wilde’s and The Quay Bar & Brasserie serve locally sourced Irish classics. This four-star 50-room boutique hotel, which recently replaced all its soft furnishings, is like the flashier, more modern sibling of Ashford, with bold splashes of color, modern art, and a buzzy, casual ambiance.
While both The Lodge and the castle have benefited from the new owners’ lavish attention to detail (and deep pockets), one thing that remains consistent is above-and-beyond service. This might mean making dog biscuits for guests to take home to their pooch, storing Christmas ornaments for a loyal couple who return every year for the holidays, or helping a family trace their local roots.
The importance of personal touches isn’t lost on the Tollmans. General Manager Niall Rochford, a 13-year-veteran of Ashford Castle, remembers the day they visited the estate with a view toward acquiring it.
“Mr. Tollman said, ‘Isn’t this place wonderful?’” Rochford recalls. “And Mrs. Tollman said, ‘Yes, Stanley, but it’s the people that make it so special.” The Tollmans are so keen to support their employees that they offer nearly 80 internal training courses, and they give personalized presents to every staff member each Christmas.
“What’s happening here today hasn’t happened since the Guinness family was here,” Rochford says. “Once again, we have a family that’s involved with everybody and caringly investing in this old estate.”
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