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Style: Fairy-tale meets Game of Throne
Scene: Lough-side in Ireland
Seen in the lobby:  Those who can actually get a room - occupancy rates are sky high at this sought-after castle


ASHFORD CASTLE is like a giant jewellery box; all plush red velvet, gold and hidden gems.   The historic castle has been around since the 13th century, presiding over the inky depths of Lough Corrib and the surrounding countryside with a stately air.  However in all its long history Ashford has never been as beautiful as it is now. Magnificent, yes. Imposing, definitely.  But never quite as beautiful. That’s because three years ago Ashford was acquired by the family-owned Red Carnation Hotels Collection and the magic wand of the Tollman family* was waved over Ashford.  The ‘wand’ entailed a $75 million budget, teams of craftsman, interior designers and three years of hard work but the result is certainly magical.  This is the most meticulous and opulent castle makeover I’ve ever seen. –and I’m lucky enough to have seen quite a few.

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Ashford castle above  luxury travel bible
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Put it this way even the ladies loo has silk wallpaper, so imagine what the suites are like.  No wonder it was voted the best hotel in the world by Virtuoso travel agents in 2015 and has a host of other shiny awards to put on its magnificent mantle-piece.

President and Founder of Red Carnation Hotel Collection, Beatrice Tollman, and her interior designer daughter Toni oversaw the transformation of the interiors. It was clearly a labour of love with auction house and antique shops scoured for four-poster beds, tallboys and suitably baronial suits of armour. Murano glass chandeliers hang from the ceilings like giant diamond earrings and emerald, ruby and sapphire colours are everywhere. Sumptuous fabrics for canopies, curtains and sofas were custom-designed and made (the work of Dublin soft furnishing Guru David Faulkner is much in evidence). The Tollmans see Ashford Castle as the flag ship of their hotel collection and the castle even houses one of their private silver collections displayed in glass cabinets.

 There is an impressive level of attention to even the smallest detail. As I sit and take afternoon tea in the stunning Connaught room overlooking the manicured gardens and the lake I notice that even the brocade trims on the arm of the sofa are intricate and carefully stitched.   The afternoon tea itself is impressive with stands of cakes so high they rest on the floor beside you, piled with scones, pastries and cupcakes decorated with wildflowers from the garden.   The gourmet offerings continue in the George V dining room where Chef Philippe Farineau creates food to match the sumptuous surroundings.  Down in the dungeon under a curved stone ceiling hung with heraldic flags there is a more casual bistro vibe.

Each of the rooms have been decorated and styled individually some of my favourites are the Staterooms in the oldest part of the castle with their canopied beds and rich colour schemes.  Two of the top Suites are both named after American politicians (friends of past owner John A Mulcahy). The Reagan Presidential Suite and the (Ted) Kennedy suite. So there is a top level of luxury whatever your political persuasion.

 Pictures of past presidents and other famous visitors line the walls.  Among the photos and oil painted portraits of past owners you’ll also see paintings of Irish wolf hounds. These are in honour of the castles two regal dogs Garvan and Cronan. Each morning they take their early morning walk around the grounds, kings of all they survey. At 10am guests may pay court to them in the wood-panelled oak room.  The dogs even have their own Instagram site to be which can be viewed by truly devoted followers at @ashford_woflhounds. 

The wolfhounds have got a good garden to play in, around its 350 acres of manicured gardens and woodlands (over a million trees planted by Lord Ardilaun).  Looking back at the castle with its fairy-tale turrets and towers, it feels as if history seeps out of its silver grey stonework. After all the oldest part of the building has been here 1228. Little by little, wing by wing, over the course of the next 700+ years the original tower evolved into an 82 room hotel; a little French chateau style here, Victorian pomp there. Each wood-panelled room and sweeping staircase adding to the grandeur. 

Within the grounds is an elegant equestrian centre and the oldest established falconry school in Ireland. Harris Hawks named after famous Irish writers (Swift, Beckett, Joyce, Stoker) are taken on Hawk Walks by guest and trainers.  It’s a privilege to get so close to these magnificent birds in their natural environment.  My heart swells with pride as (Oscar) Wilde swoops in fast and low to land on my arm for treat of meat. The fact that Wilde on the other hand treats me with the in difference and distain that a moving tree/feeding station deserves, does nothing to lessen the experience.  There is also a par golf course and fishing, archery and other landowner-ish pursuits are also available.  Back inside there is a billiards room, children’s game room, cigar terrace, 32-seat movie theatre, and a spectacular spa (recently voted Ireland’s Best hotel Spa in the 2016 World Spa Awards).

In the spa five treatment rooms accommodate a range of ultra-relaxing treatments. A bronze conservatory, designed by French architect Phillipe Bonino, houses an indoor pool with windows that look out to Lough Corrib, and a Tree of Life mosaic inspired by Irish folklore and Shell chandeliers which echo the wild Atlantic Coast nearby.

I decide on a World Weary Traveller treatment. Not so much because I’m weary - Ashford Castle could energize anyone. But because it uses a Voya wrap featuring hand-harvested seaweed from the nearby Atlantic coast. Cocooned in Irish green weed and rosemary I close my eyes and dream of knights and castles and Irish folk tales. 

Check in: Ashford Castle, Leaf Island, Cong, Co. Mayo, Ireland
Ultimate Luxury: The Reagan Presidential suite, located in the oldest wing of the castle has a stunning antique George III style four poster bed, original portrait art. 
Most Indulgent Moment: Time spent in the spectacular spa
Insider Secrets: The Tollman family are from South Africa and the beautiful mosaic in the spa is by renowned SA artist, Jane Du Rand
The Little Things: The tiniest design touches have all been thought about
Junior Luxies: Very welcome and incredibly well catered for 
Dent in the platinum:
Luxury Linkwww.redcarnationhotels.com , www.ashfordcastle.ie

* The Tollman family preside over The Travel Corporation which also  includes the ultra-luxurious and stylish Uniworld Boutique River Cruising.

 Hilary Doling 12/11/16

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