By Tom Sykes
Ashford Castle (Photo: Ashford Castle)
The Wild Atlantic Way is the evocative name given by locals to the far western edge of Ireland. While this accurately conjures up the windswept beauty of the ragged coastline, don’t let it fool you into thinking your accommodation will necessarily involve hunkering down in turf-walled houses with dentally-challenged crones gnawing on a crust of soda bread.
There are, of course, many comfortable hotels in the West of Ireland, but there is perhaps none so extraordinary or lavish as Ashford Castle, an imposing fantasy of crenellations once owned by the Guinness family (think Ireland’s Rockefellers), which has reopened after a $50 million refurbishment.
A room at Ashford Castle (Photo: Ashford Castle)
The extraordinary monument to Victorian excess — the traces of the original medieval castle are almost impossible to discern beneath the 1850s extensions – sits in an unrivaled position on the edge of Lough Corrib, Ireland’s largest inland lake. There are breathtaking views of the lake from each of the stunningly refurbished bedrooms, which feature magnificent four-poster beds the size of garage doors.
The local village of Cong is famous for having been used as the principal location in John Ford’s movie The Quiet Man, and there are countless homages to the film throughout the town; barely a wall is free of some inscription or other testifying to its importance in the 1952 John Wayne picture. Ashford Castle itself features in the movie as the ‘Big House,’ and one channel on the in-room entertainment system is dedicated to the classic production (although modern audiences might find the wife-beating-played-for-laughs element of the film somewhat less than charming).
Cliffs of Moher (Photo: Jennifer Boyer/Flickr)
The location makes this an ideal base from which to explore large sections of Mayo and Galway, key sections of the Wild Atlantic Way. The legendary Cliffs of Moher are an easy two-hour drive to the south, and Croagh Patrick mountain is 90 minutes to the north. Between those two iconic destinations there are enough activities, beaches, and jaw-dropping views to keep a tourist occupied for a good five-day stay.
But visitors may find a reluctance to get into the car, as there is so much to do at Ashford castle itself, aside from the usual country hotel offerings of pool, gym and tennis courts.
Fishermen, for example, can spend the summer months in the company of a ghillie, as fishing experts are called here, in search of trout — float lazily in one of the hotel’s traditional wooden rowboats on the lake or cast off from the river which feeds it.
Give falconry a go. (Photo: Ashford Castle)
A visit to the remarkable school of falconry on the hotel’s grounds — where you can experience the thrill of a bird of prey swooping down from a tree to land on your gloved arm — is highly recommended, and not just for readers of the recent best seller H is For Hawk.
For the very bravest, we suggest shunning the delights of the swimming pool in favor of a swim in Lough Corrib lake itself.
There are also some wonderful forest walks on the Castle grounds, including one route that leads hikers through sunlight-dappled woodlands to a humble wooden chalet with a commanding view of the lake. It was built by a former incumbent of the property, Lord Ardilaun, for the enjoyment of his wife. After his death in 1915, Lady Ardilaun raised an obelisk to his memory next to the chalet.
That in particular is perhaps one of the most romantic spots in Ireland – ask the kitchen to make you a picnic to enjoy there as you gaze out on the stunning view of Lough Corrib and its islands, enjoying the amazing vista just as Lord and Lady Ardilaun did over 100 years ago.
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