by Christine Koubek
Dapper gentleman dressed in dark jackets welcome guests as you drive past iron gates and cross a small bridge, flanked by stone towers that look like Chess rooks. Up ahead, there’s a sprawling 800-year-old castle, set on the edge of a grand lake, amidst beautiful hillsides and forest. “It looks like a real Hogwarts,” Harry Potter fans may say.
Ashford Castle has won many prestigious awards, and has hosted a long list of celebrities and high profile political figures, including Brad Pitt, Barbara Streisand, Jack Nicholson and former President Ronald Reagan. (Across from the gift shop, you can see Reagan’s letter of thanks hanging in a hallway that is full of framed photos of famous guests).
What really makes Ashford special though, especially for families, is its activities — horseback riding at the largest equestrian center in the country, fishing on Lough Corrib (largest lake in the Republic of Ireland), and Ireland’s first school of falconry, just to name a few.
Ashford Castle, located 45 minutes from Galway City and in Ireland’s beautiful Connemara area, was originally founded in 1228 by the Anglo-Norman de Burgos family, following their defeat of the native O’Connor’s of Connaught. Ashford passed to a new owner 350 years later, English Lord Bingham, after a fierce battle between Bingham’s forces and the de-Burgos. In 1715, Ashford Estate was established by the Oranmore and Brown families, after which they added a French style chateau to the architecture.
Sir Benjamin Guinness acquired the estate in 1852, and over the next 63 years, the Guinness family improved the castle and the land greatly, extending the estate to 26,000 acres, building new roads, adding two large Victorian-style extensions and planting thousands of trees, many not native to Ireland.
The Castle first became a hotel in 1939, after Noel Huggard purchased it from the Guinness Family Trust. The 83-room, 365-acre property, has been operated as a hotel by various owners ever since.
A new chapter in Ashford’s history began in 2013 when Red Carnation Hotels purchased the estate. In 2015, the castle reopened to guests after a two-year $75 million renovation and restoration that included the replacement of 800 windows and the creation of a 32-seat cinema, billiards room, cigar terrace, spa, along with many other updates.
Our Editor Loves
- Stately, centuries-old castle
- Elegant and large guestrooms
- Unique activity offerings for families
- Horse Back Riding
- Connecting Rooms
- Free Wi-Fi
- Onsite Dining
Rooms & Rates
Corrib Rooms and Corrib Lake View Rooms have either a king bed or two twins, with lake, river or garden views. Deluxe Rooms and Deluxe Lake View Rooms are slightly larger and offer king, queen and twin beds.
There are six "Family Room" suites that can accommodate a maximum of two adults and three children under the age of 12. The room is oversized, has two queen beds and can accomodate a crib.
Suites are slightly larger, with 600 square feet of space, and consist of a separate bedroom, sitting room area and oversized luxury bathroom.
Staterooms are located in the oldest section of the castle. These rooms date back to the 13th and 17th centuries, and feature high ceilings and large bathrooms. Many also have traditional four-poster beds, pedestal claw baths and original fireplaces with antique furniture.
All room and suite amenities include an interactive TV system with movies on demand, music on demand, free Wi-Fi access, a writing desk, bluetooth speaker, USB chargers, an iron and ironing board, safety deposit box, and in some rooms, a sherry decanter. Air conditioning was recently added to all of the rooms as well. Presently, none of the rooms have refrigerators, microwaves or kitchenettes, but mini-fridges are available upon request.
For connecting rooms, request Corrib, Corrib Lake View and Deluxe room categories. Many of these rooms are located on the newer side of the castle, where you'll have a shorter distance to the spa and breakfast.
Kids under 12 stay free. Extra rollaway beds come at a charge per night, and include breakfast for the added person. Use of Pack n' Play-style cribs is complimentary.
We spent almost a month in Ireland and the one day I'll remember over all the others was the day we spent at Ashford Castle. The experience was GRAND from the time we drove through the gates on the way in to when we drove through the gates on the way out. I can't tell you how many rooms they have because they made us feel like we were the only ones staying at the castle that night. There is no detail overlooked in their desire to make your stay perfect. It was an extravagance to be sure but one with no regrets.
From the moment you turn onto the long drive that wraps around the property and winds its way up to the castle, you feel simultaneously welcomed home and transported to a fairytale land. Ashford Castle is truly one of the most special places you can ever visit. The Castle is magnificent, with every detail restored to perfection and exquisitely maintained. The grounds extend in all directions, with stunning lake views, formal gardens, and shady forest paths. Activities, such as falconry, clay pigeon shooting, and archery, all help you feel even more steeped in Irish tradition. However, perhaps the most extraordinary part of the stay at Ashford is the people who work at the Castle and who so clearly treat your stay with the utmost importance. They seem to want to share in the Castle's history and traditions with you. Whether young or old, Ashford Castle is an exceptional place to spend your time. The only downside is that it will break your heart to leave!
While Ashford does not have a pool or children's center, there are enough activities to keep a family busy for days. And children are permitted at the spa relaxation pool at designated times, twice a day.
Don't miss the private hawk walk at the on-property Ireland School of Falconry, where you'll learn how to get birds of prey to swoop in and land on your gloved fist. On arrival, your falconer introduces you to the various resident hawks, falcons and an owl. He or she then details how each breed's eyesight, flight style, speed and hunting abilities vary. After that, the real fun begins. The falconer took out 14-month-old brother hawks, Chico and Aztec, who played off each other, making sure one didn't receive more treats than the other, as they flew off through the castle grounds and woodlands, then swooped down on our fists once we made the instructed motion. The tour takes an hour, and costs an additional fee. Nice touch: the walk took longer than an hour and there was no extra charge. Also, family members who want to be spectators instead of participants are allowed to attend gratis.
Take a guided bike tour and pedal through the village of Cong, a 3,000-acre forest, and by Ashford estate's Neolithic Stone Circles. The guide also runs their boating and combined pedal/paddle programs.
The Lough Corrib Cruise is a fantastic way to see this majestic lake, sail by some of its more than 300 islands and learn a bit of Irish history -- including the acts that defined the Guinness family's kindness, as opposed to another big land owner at the time named "Boycott." Tours typically depart twice per day from a castle-side dock. The late afternoon tour includes cocktails and an island stop.
Horseback riding is available through the equestrian center for all ability levels. Short treks meander through the castle grounds. Longer ones head out into the mountains of Connemara. For free horse fun, take little ones for a walk here to look at the horses in the stalls, or to catch them working out in the school's indoor ring.
Kids (especially fans of Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games) will love the archery lessons. The instructor sets up targets, instructs you on proper stance and aiming, then adjusts your shot and target distance if you need help or an extra challenge. Ask for fingertip protectors early to avoid blisters.
Take the kids fishing for wild brown trout and salmon on the River Cong and Lough Corrib with an internationally recognized fishing guide who has lived by the lake all his life. Half-day, full-day, hourly fly-fishing and boat and rod rentals are all available.
Kayaking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, tennis, clay pigeon shooting and a nine-hole golf course are also available. You can also sip lemonade and play a game of chess or backgammon at the lobby game tables.
Note: If you have a family of four or more, ask for a discount on any of the activities. The price for most activities decreased with each person added, so it pays to ask.
Be sure to pick up the mini-booklet, "Walking & Jogging Maps" from the concierge. It has three walking and three running routes; each mapped out in distance and estimated time. The 5k loop is a scenic and well-shaded run through leafy forest trails that end lakeside.
The food is fantastic at Ashford Castle. Ashford's restaurants feature locally sourced ingredients from the surrounding sea, lake and land. The staff will go out of their way to help you feed your baby or toddler -- heating bottles, mashing potatoes and vegetables, you name it.
Cullen's at the Cottage
Cullen's at the Cottage, located across a small bridge, is the Castle's casual and seasonal restaurant. Inside the red barn doors, fishing nets and buoys hang from the ceiling and lobsters swim in a wall-side tank. Children's menu fare includes steamed mussels, sea trout, burgers and tagliatelle pasta. Outdoor patio seating overlooking the boat dock is also available. Note: Cullen's at the Cottage is only open June 1 through Sept. 30.
From Oct. 1 through May 31, Cullen's at the Dungeon -- a red-room of arched walls, candles and coat-of-arm banners, located on the Castle's lower floor -- takes over as the casual eatery and serves a bistro style menu.
The Drawing Room
The Drawing Room, overlooking the gardens and lake, is the place for excellent coffee drinks, lunch and the Lady Ardilaun's Afternoon Tea, complete with fruit scones, clotted cream and a selection of finger sandwiches and pastries served on tiered trays. Tea is served daily from 3 to 5 p.m. Sandwiches, salads and soups are served from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Irish stew is a favorite of many guests, but their Butternut Squash soup is the best I've ever had.
George V, named for the Prince of Wales, is the Castle's main dining room. An elaborate buffet breakfast with the option of ordering pancakes and omelets is also included in the Bed & Breakfast rates. The dinner menu changes frequently and features a mix of modern Irish and international cuisine. Baked filet of Irish pork and roast monkfish with creamy polenta, pear and parsley were just two of the items during our stay.
Planning & Tips
All About the Extras
Kids age 3 to 10 receive slippers embossed with Ashford's logo (pink for girls, blue for boys), and babies and toddlers are given an Ashford Castle teddy bear. Valet parking, nightly entertainment, tee times, Wi-Fi access and a 24-hour business center are all complimentary to guests.
Babysitting is provided (at an additional cost) through an outside agency that Ashford staff has used for more than a decade. Several of the sitters have been coming to the castle for more than five years, so be sure to ask for one of them.
The Castle's Gift Shop sells Waterford Crystal, a wide-variety of tweeds, and high-end odds and ends like luggage tags, Ashford Boy/Girl Slippers and Bathrobes, all embossed with Ashford's gold logo. Limited baby supplies and toys also available.
The Art of Smart Timing
Facilities and activities are open year-round, except for Cullen's at the Cottage restaurant. In addition, while pike fishing is allowed year-round, the primary fishing season runs from Feb. 15 to Sept. 30. Cong typically has mild winters and rarely gets snow. Travel November through March for the best bargain rates -- with the exception of Christmas, New Year's and bank holidays. The best weather, of course, is in the summer, when occupancy runs highest. Summer guests are primarily from the U.S. The remaining months are typically filled with folks from Ireland, the U.K., and other parts of Europe.
Ashford Castle is approximately 2.5 hours from Dublin's airport, and under two hours from Shannon International Airport. Many guests rent a car or book a chauffeur service.
Important driving note: Print the directions from Google maps and, if possible, turn on your cell phone's voice driven navigation system for the last portion of the trip, the part that is off the highway. Roads are narrow and there are a couple places where you could easily miss a sign, so a guided GPS system is very helpful.
For Mom and Dad
Hire a babysitter and take a stroll along the river to the village Cong for dinner and music in one of the pubs. Or for a fancier evening, dine in George V, then have a few drinks in the Drawing Room and listen (or sing) as the resident harpist and singer play Irish classics, original music and lead more than a few sing-a-longs. For a great daytime date, walk or jog the woodsy 5k route, stop lakeside near the end and soak your feet from the dock of old boathouse.
The newly renovated spa is already award winning. The state-of-the-art facilities include five treatment rooms, a fitness center, steam room and spa relaxation room and pool area. Special spa packages for mothers and daughters (and fathers and sons) are in the planning stages. Children are permitted in the relaxation pool area at designated times.