By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR
There simply isn’t any other word to adequately describe Ashford Castle’s new look.
The well-known castle hotel, home to the Guinness family for more than 100 years, was purchased in 2013 by Red Carnation Hotels and has since been totally and exquisitely refurbished.
We toured the recently reopened hotel in Cong, Co. Mayo, this spring, courtesy of effervescent Sales and Marketing Director Paula Carroll, and saw for ourselves what a spectacular property two years of work has created. In fact, Ashford is so spectacular that Virtuoso, a luxury travel network, recently named it the world’s leading hotel, a title earned by Ashford topping some 1,100 other extraordinary contenders from all over the world.
The “new” Ashford is the brainchild of Beatrice Tollman, president and founder of Red Carnation Hotels, a South African company, along with her daughter, Toni, the Red Carnation project team, and architect Philippe Bonino. Renovations were done to respect the castle’s storied and historic past while incorporating the latest technologies expected by today’s traveler.
The 50-million-euro renovation required a complete overhaul of the infrastructure due to the age and scale of the castle. Included were more than 800 new windows, new wiring, a new lead roof, and repointed stonework. Grounds were done over and additions included a five-room spa, billiard room, children’s games room, indoor and ozone-filtrated swimming pool, techno-gym, 32-seat cinema, and a cigar terrace. Kitchens were moved and rebuilt on a different level to be closer to dining areas for more efficient and timely service and 500,000 euros were spent to upgrade the nine-hole golf course.
There are 130 shimmering chandeliers in Ashford’s hallways, corridors and rooms, including 11 Waterford Crystal chandeliers in the George V dining room. Each of Ashford’s 70 guest rooms, 15 staterooms, and suites was furnished with antiques, original artwork and marble bathrooms in addition to I-luv speakers, electronic blinds, air conditioning, mood light dimming, and USB chargers in the wall. There is complimentary wi-fi throughout the hotel. Wherever possible, materials and pieces were sourced from local artisans and suppliers, like the Connemara marble bar top in the Prince of Wales cocktail bar.
Little guests are welcomed with apple juice and cookies as well as storybooks personalized with their names. The young ones can also partake of a Lego room service menu. Top quality babysitters are available, too, so parents can enjoy a night out.
Ancient underground wine stores have been transformed into private dining cellars and an old boathouse on Lough Corrib has become a private, secluded, and luxurious lakeside cottage suite.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the renovation was that Mrs. Tollman, wife, mother and grandmother, was completely hands-on and involved in every last meticulous detail from construction to the addition of live orchids in bedrooms and eating areas, such as the drawing room. She orders vases of glorious red roses to be delivered fresh daily for gathering spots such as the Connaught Room, where you can take afternoon tea, and the Prince of Wales bar.
And, if that is not enough, the tireless Mrs. Tollman is also an accomplished cook who oversees restaurants in 13 Red Carnation hotels on three continents as well as a restaurant in London and a country inn in Dorset. In her cookbook, “A Life in Food” (available at the Ashford gift shop), she writes, “I have learnt much along the way, but one particularly important golden rule that I feel I must impart is to always seek out the freshest seasonal ingredients, no matter where you are. I have long been an advocate of farmers’ markets and I always buy organic, locally sourced products whenever possible.” Good advice for us all; it shows that she was well ahead of her time as farmers’ markets have only recently surged in popularity.
Red Carnation purchased Ashford in 2013 for a reported 25 million euro and bought the 50-bedroom Lodge, a boutique 4-star sister hotel within the castle grounds, for 1.8 million euro in 2014.
Room rates have increased (high season from 495 euro per night for B&B in a Corrib room) at Ashford Castle to reflect the investment costs. The split-level Reagan Presidential Suite rents in high season for 2,500 euro a night. (President Ronald Reagan was just one of many dignitaries to visit Ashford over the years. Among the royalty, celebrities and heads of state welcomed to the hotel over the years were George V (then Prince of Wales), Brad Pitt, John Wayne, Fred Astaire, Barbara Streisand, John Travolta, and many more.)
There’s lots to do on the 350-acre Ashford property, including falconry, archery, zip lining, horseback riding, clay shooting, golf, tennis on new, all-weather surfaces, and cycling and water sports on Lough Corrib. Six ghillies are available at Ireland’s only Orvis-endorsed property for fishing, and gear can be rented or purchased at the fishing and golf center. All activities can also be enjoyed by guests at The Lodge.
And don’t forget shopping! Ashford has two boutique stores on the grounds that sell a variety of gifts, clothing and food. At Mrs. Tea’s Boutique and Bakery (next to Cullen’s at the Cottage restaurant), visitors will find a split-level shop selling gourmet foods made at Ashford daily and an assortment of locally made products including Connemara Smokehouse salmon, Bewley’s coffee, and more. In the boutique, there are locally made souvenirs, sporting goods, and clothing.
Niall Rochford, general manager at Ashford for the past 14 years, noted that staff levels have increased significantly to 300 to support the improved facilities. Some staffers at Ashford have worked there for up to 40 years, which is quite a tribute to management.
Historically, some 85 percent of the high season guests at Ashford come from the US, with many traveling from California, Arizona and Texas. Most American guests, though, still visit Ashford from the East Coast, from New York, New Jersey and Boston primarily.
Ashford is well known for its link to the 1952 film, “The Quiet Man,” with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, which is still shown in the theatre daily.
For more information about this great venue, visit ashfordcastle.com.
• The Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival in Co. Clare, one of Ireland’s oldest traditional festivals, takes place in the small spa town from Aug. 28 through to Oct. 4. The festival is more than 150 years old and attracts up to 60,000 people from all over the world. Third generation matchmaker Willie Daly, who will be on hand to bring singles together, boasts many marriages to date. See matchmakerireland.com for more.
• And, while you’re in Co. Clare, be sure to stop in on a Sunday between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., May to October, at the Burren Art and Craft fair in Ballyvaughan. There you’ll find a collection of items for sale by crafters, photographers, and artists based and working in the Burren region. The fair is in the Village Hall and is well worth a visit. We especially like Janis James’s goat milk soaps that smell wonderful, are easy to pack, and make great gifts to bring home. Admission is free.
• Up in Co. Mayo, the Ballycroy National Park visitor center is open from 10-5:30 daily through September and admission is free. At the park, there is a nature trail with pond, interpretation panels and viewing points, and you will be introduced to the landscape of the spectacular Nephin Beg mountain range and Owenduff Bog, one of the last intact active blanket bog systems in Ireland and Western Europe. It’s a great day out in the fresh air. For more information, visit ballycroynationalpark.ie.
Enjoy Ireland whenever and wherever you go and keep an eye out for airline and ground travel deals often available at this time of year. Summer has wound down but there’s still a lot to see and do in Ireland.