It's a majestic place in a country rich with a 800-year history, and the former home of the Guinness family. It’s an enchanted castle where medieval underground escape routes for fleeing royalty touch up against a cellar with 600 wines and a five-star steakhouse. It boasts magnificently appointed rooms; a state-of-the-art spa; and even an indoor cinema playing "The Quiet Man," the 1950s movie that brought John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara to the U.S. and put Irish tourism on the map.
But it is the grounds that really make Ashford Castle an unforgettable destination for a wedding, a small group, a honeymoon, or just a special trip.
Downton Abbey-esque experiences
Set on Lough Corrib and completed in 1228, the castle itself has been lovingly restored by Red Carnation Hotels and its parent company, The Travel Corporation (and sister companies Uniworld River Cruise Collection, Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, Luxury Gold and a handful of other travel brands).
And indeed, Mrs. Tollman’s spirit seems to inhabit the place, from the original artwork on the walls to the recipes for cheesecake and black bread in the kitchen.
There are 83 individually and uniquely decorated rooms and suites, in a palette ranging from red to black-and-white check (plus 64 rooms in the more affordable Lodge at Ashford Castle down the road). Additionally, a new, adorable and completely private, gated Hideaway Cottage over by the river is perfect for a newlywed couple or a guest with pets.
For dining, there is Franco-Irish cuisine in the George V Dining Room, where the smoked salmon is hand-cut tableside; a steakhouse in the Dungeon; lunch and afternoon tea in the Connaught Room.
And still, the eye is drawn out the window, where the ancient pines soar and the waters of Lough Corrib, the largest in Ireland, extend for 68 square miles. There are 26,000 acres of forest out there, bought up piece by piece and planted tree by tree over 100 years by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness and his descendants.
For travelers in groups and destination weddings looking for something really different, the massive woodlands and restored gardens and fountains offer a backdrop for Downton Abbey-esque experiences.
Along with the golf, zip-lining and horseback riding, there is also falconry, clay shooting, archery, and morning walks with the Irish wolfhounds. And, guests are treated like royalty by a staff of charming and experienced experts who make sure everyone succeeds at something.
Falconry is offered at Ashford Castle.
The service is five-star, and everyone has a story to tell. Activities manager Thomas Breen recounts how he made the Guinness World Record in archery, by shooting consecutive bull’s eyes for 28.5 straight hours. (“Relax,” is his advice. “Just let the arrow do the work.”) And what could be more romantic than the story of the red carnations that everyone wears in their lapels, as Stanley Tollman did when he met Beatrice in the 1950s.
For families going home to visit their roots in Ireland or cost-conscious wedding parties, European low-cost carrier Norwegian offers discount fares, including direct flights to Shannon out of Newburgh, New York, about 50 miles from Manhattan.
The news of the day
Ireland, a traditional favorite for American travelers, is especially in vogue this year, a “safe” European destination with friendly and English-speaking locals. And Ashford Castle itself is about to get some great publicity.
Even now, The Lodge hosts 125 or so corporate meetings and private weddings a year; the ballroom seats 186 banquet-style or 220 for conferences.
For 2018, meanwhile, The Lodge plans to turn eight existing suites into family rooms to accommodate its increasingly intergenerational guest list.
About a third of the business is from the U.S. and Canada; and North American visitors to the Lodge increased by 57 percent since it was bought by Red Carnation Hotels in 2013. Deluxe rooms at the Lodge run about €150-€320 per night including breakfast, depending on the season; in the private, three-room, townhouse-like buildings, the Duplex Suite, Superior Deluxe and Deluxe rooms are priced from €550.00-€1130.00.
Also on the drawing board are plans for six new islands the hotel purchased in the middle of the lake just last week.
Under Bea Tollman’s stewardship, the luxury Red Carnation Hotels brand has grown from 14 properties seven years ago to 17 today, and the goal is to have 25-30 properties over the next few years. "No request is too large, no detail too small," the motto goes.
Booking exclusively through travel agents
Like all the TTC companies, Red Carnation does no advertising in North America and works exclusively through the travel agent channel, said Paula Carroll, director of marketing and sales at Ashford Castle. This year, it was honored to receive a Best of the Best award from Virtuoso Travel Network.
Fully 35 percent of the staff has been here more than 25 years, said Carroll, highlighting “the economic importance of this restored property to all the little villages that surround it.” Carroll celebrated her 30th anniversary at the property last month.
Also new this month, is a director of sales and marketing for the U.S., Melissa Young, who will be based in TTC’s New York headquarters in Manhattan.