Many travelers have bucket lists. Some have lists of the things they’d like to do before they die, like jumping out of a plane or trekking across a desert on camelback. Some have lists of the places they’d like to see, like the ruins of ancient civilizations or the slopes of the alps. And then some even have lists of their dream hotels. I can happily say that I fall into that category, and Ashford Castle has been on my list from the day I moved to Ireland.
My parents came to spend the holidays with me in the Emerald Isle, and after a few days in Dublin I was excited to show them the beauty of the west coast. We were heading on to Galway, but not without a detour first – because what would a road trip through Ireland be if you didn’t visit a castle?
We made a quick visit to the town of Cong first, where Ashford Castle is located on the border of County Mayo. You may recognize it as the backdrop for John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s The Quiet Man. A gentle fog had settled over the old abbey and along the River Cong, which flows into Lake Corrib on the Ashford estate. It gave the afternoon a touch of magic. As it began to rain, we headed in to the castle grounds to warm up with a spot of afternoon tea.
There are hardly words to describe the feeling when you step into a castle. It’s like stepping into the pages of a book you read when you were younger, when the world was made of fairy tales and happily ever afters. The grandeur of another time surrounds you. It’s as if you can see years past in the carvings of the oak walls. There was nothing imposing about Ashford. From the moment we were greeted by the affable doorman, it felt like coming home.
We were led through the stunning Oak Hall into the Connaught Room. We took our seats by the fireplace and a host welcomed us with a glass of champagne, which is always the best kind of welcome. The windows of the room look out across the fountains and emerald lawn to Lake Corrib. Had it been warmer, we’d be likely to see guests out fishing. But today was foggy and chilled, which made the Connaught Room seem even cozier. There was no sense of urgency here. Just incredibly cordial service that encouraged you to sit back, relax, and enjoy a nice cup of tea.
Afternoon tea is an Ashford tradition dating back to 1868. The original silver tea set is displayed in the Connaught Room, and the room was presented to Lord and Lady Ardilaun for their 25th wedding anniversary in 1896. Ashford serves tea daily at 1:30 pm, 2:00 pm, 3:30 pm, and 4:00 pm. Whether staying at the hotel or just visiting for the day, guests can enjoy the traditional afternoon tea menu or add a side of champagne.
Our waiter first brought us deliciously spiced lemonade as we chose from the seemingly endless variety of black, herbal, green, fruit, and smoked teas from around the world. Our tea of choice was then brought out in silver pots. Shortly thereafter a server brought out a tiered tray containing delicate finger sandwiches and ornate pastries. There were four sandwiches, each uniquely delicious – egg, chicken salad with almonds, lobster and Galway Bay prawn on brioche, and Irish wagu beef with mustard and cucumber.
The dessert plate was even more tempting. The rich spread included a panna cotta, a chocolate torte, an eclair, and more. Finally, the waiter brings scones fresh out of the oven. The basket includes fruit, plain, and cheese scones served with lemon curd, clotted cream, and a seasonal jam. My favorite recommendation was to try the lemon curd on the cheese scone!
It was truly a refined, relaxing, and rewarding experience with absolutely divine dishes served in a fairytale ambiance. What girl doesn’t grow up dreaming of frolicking around a castle of her own?
After tea, we strolled through the well-manicured gardens and were treated to the most welcoming tour of the rest of the estate grounds, including several restaurants, lounges, and even a cinema. As we only had time at the castle for tea, we didn’t get to partake in the estate’s wide array of activities. But I hope to make it back one day soon to do just that.
There’s enough to do so you don’t even have to leave the grounds to experience the perfect getaway! Cozy up in the intimate cinema. Soak at the spa. Check out the Irish School of Falconry, or try your hand at archery or clay pigeon shooting. As someone who grew up with her own bow and arrows, this definitely caught my eye! I recommend renting a bike to explore out into humble Cong village – there so many cozy cafes here!
Ashford Castle, originally the Castle of Cong, was first built in 1228. It later became a British fortress under Queen Elizabeth I and eventually fell into ownership of the Guinness family. Today it is part of the Red Carnation Hotel collection and houses 83 guest rooms. Each are luxuriously and uniquely designed so that not one looks alike. You can even bring your pets along!
Don’t mind me, my future french bulldogs and I will just be moving into the Reagan Presidential Suite. And can every room I stay in while I travel have Waterford Crystal chandeliers from now on?
Visiting Ashford was nothing short of a dream, and an experience well worth the detour. There’s nothing quite like being fully immersed in an experience rich in history as well as Irish hospitality. The beautifully refurbished interiors of the castle felt like a genuine step back in time. And a vacation should be just that, even if just for one day. A step out of the real world and into one where time isn’t relevant when you’re sipping spiced tea and watching the sun set over a lake. I cannot wait to plan my next visit.
There’s nothing a good cup of tea can’t fix.
You can book a stay at Ashford Castle or make an afternoon tea reservation here.