This December marked 19 years since me and Mrs O first got together. For both of us, that’s more than half our lives, but to her it must have felt like longer.
Her reward was a weekend away in a plush castle hotel in the west of Ireland, land of her forefathers, and what a weekend it was. If you’ve never been – as I hadn’t – and if you can afford it – which I couldn’t (thank you, Barclaycard) – then the following is a suggestion of how to do it in style.
Flights from London to Knock Airport are frequent and cheap (around £60 return) as is car hire (£55 for three days in a 4×4) which means you’ve got more to spend at Ashford Castle (good, because that’s decidedly not cheap).
With parts dating back to 1228, this luxury five-star was home to the Guinness family from 1852-1939, and was recently bought by impressive South African hotelier Beatrice Tollman, who has given it a £100 million refurbishment.
Getting there is easy, via a simple 45-minute well sign-posted drive on lovely quiet roads heading south-west from the airport to the shore of Lough (Lake) Corrib, on the border of Counties Mayo and Galway, next to the pretty village of Cong, where they filmed John Ford’s 1952 Oscar-winning film ‘The Quiet Man’ starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald.
The castle is something else. Your jaw drops when you first ‘Google’ it, and drops again when you arrive, because it is so much more impressive up-close and personal.
Two restaurants, a billiards room, cigar room, cinema, library, piano bar fronting a courtyard with fountains, another with oak panelling, and 82 stunning rooms with views over water and islands and the distant hills of Connemara all come wrapped in floor-to-very-high-ceiling silk wallpaper, deep thick carpets and chandeliers originally intended for the White House.
The combination weakens the knees, but this is Ireland, so there’s not a whiff of pretentiousness or snobbery about any of it, just a whole load of class and character. You’ll enjoy rubbing the belly of the hotel’s two Irish Wolfhounds every morning alongside a billionaire doing likewise, such is the nature of this place, egos are best left with the felt-hatted concierge as you step inside. It’s part of the charm that, in a castle that has hosted kings (Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, the Kennedys, President Reagan), poets (Oscar Wilde) actors (Brad Pitt, Robin Williams) and athletes (Rory McIlroy got married here in April), all’s equal through them there doors.
If, like mine, your long-suffering wife deserves it, plump for Room 430 (see why when you get there) but this is the west of Ireland, so while the bedrooms may be special, it is outdoors that I beseech you go.
There’s a nine-hole golf course if that’s your thing (green fees waived) but for a broader audience in terms of ability and age you could do as we did and try your leather-gloved hand at falconry, taking your very own Harris Hawk for a walk (hunt) through the crisp, dappled woodland in the hotel’s grounds.
Other animals also offer themselves, and Mrs O is beginning to get back in the saddle after 19 years with someone who’s only ever ridden a donkey on Blackpool Beach, so after much nudging and reassuring, she convinced me to join her on a horse-ride through another bit of Ashford’s 3,000 graceful acres.
I asked for, and thankfully got, a plodder, aptly named Guinness, because he was stout. He took me (I was meant to take him, but we both knew the score) on a well-trod path passing guests who thought I was more in control than I was. It was another memorable hour, and I didn’t fall off once.
The next day we struck out in the car on a breath-taking drive along yet more well-surfaced, well-signed and largely empty roads through the wonder that is Connemara. I’d never been, and had never appreciated how stunning the scenery is in this easily-reached part of the world. Think Lake District on steroids, with views and backdrops to rival those of the Scottish Highlands, weather permitting.
A four-hour round trip takes you through Roundstone and up to Clifden, where you should make time for the town’s famously fresh seafood, then on to the Sky Road, a circular route of ocean panoramas.
Give yourself longer and head south to Galway and its ‘Jewish Arch,’ reminding us that Jews have been coming ashore on the west coast of Ireland for 500 years; first from Spain, later from Lithuania.
Back at the castle, there’s an evening sing-song in the bar, and Mrs O knows all the words because her dad sung them all to her as a child. Sipping a cocktail served with wood-smoke (I’m not kidding) it’s the perfect way to end the day, after a mouth-watering meal in the George V restaurant and earlier a sumptuous one-hour massage in which the pixy-like masseuse demonstrated ably enough that small doesn’t mean weak.
The following morning, on our actual anniversary, I surprise Mrs O with a horse and carriage ride, as we ramble up to a hillside built by – and beloved of – Sir Arthur Guinness (Lord Audilaun) who came up here to enjoy the views with his wife, Olivia. Like us, they were still very much in love after many years together. And with treats like Ashford every so often, Mrs O may yet stick around for another 19 years.
Ashford Castle is part of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, prices from £279 per night. For further information visit www.ashfordcastle.com or call +353 94 954 6003.