Returning to Ireland has always been a joy, even if visits in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis tended to be rather sobering. The Great Recession hit Ireland with a wallop, leaving the once-vaunted Celtic Tiger economy defanged and declawed. But on our last trip, in 2013, I saw glimmers of light: the recent debut of exceptional new hotels such as Ballyfin in County Laois and the emergence of new restaurants capitalizing on the country’s exceptional meat, fish and produce. Now, at last, a significant recovery appears to be under way: Dublin is bustling just as before, and an extensive urban light-rail system is under construction; and Ashford Castle, long a favorite of Hideaway Report readers, has been given a makeover to the tune of $75 million.
From New York, we flew into Shannon, on the west coast, where we picked up a car for the hour-and-a-half drive to Cong, in County Mayo. After zipping along a motorway toward Galway, we soon came to the point where the four-lane highway ended, and we found ourselves on a two-lane road bordered by encroaching hedgerows. Thanks to the good signage, we reached our destination without difficulty. With its thatched-roof cottages surrounded by forested hills, the postcard-perfect village of Cong provided the setting for John Ford’s 1952 classic movie, The Quiet Man. Nearby, Ashford Castle stands on a 350-acre estate, as it has for close to 800 years.
The original part of the castle dates to 1228, when the Anglo-Norman de Burgos built it after defeating the local O’Connors. Three centuries later, in 1589, Sir Richard Bingham defeated the de Burgos and constructed a fortified enclave. However, the greatest expansion came in 1852, when the wealthy Guinness brewing family purchased the estate and added two large extensions. The Guinnesses deeded Ashford Castle to the Irish government in 1939, at which time it became a hotel. The well-respected South African group Red Carnation Hotels acquired the property in 2013. Overseeing its restoration, company president Beatrice Tollman and architect Philippe Bonino were faced with considerable challenges. The project entailed complete repointing of all the stonework, including 40 battlements; reinforcing almost 11,000 square feet of roofing with 30 tons of lead; replacing 800 windows; installing 130 chandeliers; and refurbishing all 82 rooms and suites.
As you approach, the towers and crenellations of the castle are an impressive sight. Alighting from our car, we were escorted into the great Oak Hall by a tailcoated doorman, where we waited briefly to check in. With its paneled walls, magnificent central chandelier, blazing log fire and library of more than 800 antiquarian books, the hall is both imposing and inviting.
This came with a jewel box of a living room with a triptych of windows looking out over Lough Corrib.
Once registered, we were accompanied to our suite. This came with a jewel box of a living room with a triptych of windows looking out over Lough Corrib. Overall the lavish décor was a study in blue, with floral damask wall coverings, a patterned carpet and a plump cushioned sofa. Welcoming touches included a complimentary bottle of Champagne and a decanter of sherry. The bedroom had the same color scheme and proved comfortable, albeit rather snug, with ample storage in custom armoires and a generous chest of drawers. We had a minor problem with the bedside lighting, but our call for assistance brought an immediate and satisfactory response. The principal marble bath provided a double vanity and a combined soaking tub and shower; a second small bath came with a walk-in shower stall.
Ashford has several dining venues. As a setting for a calorie-laden afternoon tea, the Connaught Room could not be bettered. The main George V Dining Room — the name comes from a visit to the castle in 1905 by the Prince of Wales, later King George V — is a dramatic space with paneled walls, a coffered ceiling and Waterford chandeliers. Executive chef Philippe Farineau combines classic French cuisine with outstanding local ingredients, many sourced from within 20 miles of Cong. My starter of wild Irish pigeon with foie gras was superb, as was the ensuing rack of Connemara lamb, carved tableside, with roasted château potatoes, asparagus and a Paloise sauce. The service was attentive, professional and friendly throughout. The adjacent Prince of Wales Bar, with its perfect proportions and intricate wood detailing, is one of the most beautiful bars I’ve ever seen. Informal meals can be taken at Cullen’s at the Cottage on the grounds nearby.
Ashford’s makeover included the addition of an extremely impressive new spa. It offers treatment rooms with uninterrupted views across the serene expanse of Lough Corrib. A menu of facials, scrubs and detoxifying wraps, plus aroma and marine therapies, is complemented by a hammam and a spectacular relaxation pool. However, most of our time at the property was spent outdoors. The grounds are crisscrossed by paths and walkways leading to glorious viewpoints. A picturesque nine-hole golf course is laid out on what was originally a deer park (although keen golfers will no doubt visit legendary nearby courses such as Connemara, Carne, Enniscrone and County Sligo). And Lough Corrib offers exceptional fishing for wild brown trout — the best in Europe according to some experts — especially during the mayfly season at the end of May and beginning of June. We also enjoyed visits to the Harris’s hawks in the hotel’s falconry school.
Thanks to the lavish investment by its new owners, Ashford Castle is now a magnificent property and unquestionably one of the finest country house hotels in Ireland.
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The effortless balance between consummate professionalism and genuine personal warmth.
The car park by the entrance detracts from the romantic impression.
Good to Know
Hideaway Cottage, a secluded restored boathouse, located a short walk from the castle, is beautifully appointed and ideal for those on honeymoon.
Rates: Deluxe Room, $780; Junior Stateroom, $1,480
Address: Cong, County Mayo
Telephone: (353) 94-954-6003
For more than 50 years Ballymaloe House has drawn food lovers first from Ireland and then from the world over. Back in 1964, the co-owner of the hotel, Myrtle Allen, brought new life to Irish cuisine. Her formula — a daily menu using the best local ingredients simply prepared — now seems obvious, but it was way ahead of its time.
Due to delays and diversions, the 165-mile drive from Ashford took longer than anticipated, so we were delighted to finally arrive at the gates to Ballymaloe, just outside the small village of Shanagarry, about 30 minutes to the east of Cork. A winding driveway took us through fields and wooded plots up to the lovely house, most of which dates to the early-19th century. The vine-clad façade, with a handsome blue door topped with a fantail window, looked extremely welcoming.
The hotel’s 29 rooms, all individually decorated, come in a variety of sizes. Our so-called Large Room was decorated in traditional country-house style, with striped wallpaper, chintz curtains and a beige carpet. The antique furniture included an armoire fronted with a dressing mirror, a writing desk and two armchairs by a window that overlooked the grounds. The bath had just been redone with modern fixtures, though it provided only a combined shower and tub. The property’s principal public space, the living room, with its high ceilings, fireplace and large windows, proved a delightful spot for an afternoon read. And a conservatory, fragrant with jasmine, soon became our place of choice for a pre-dinner cocktail.
Given Ballymaloe’s reputation, we looked forward to our dinners with relish. Although the Yeats Room Restaurant can no longer boast a Michelin star, we were not disappointed. The multi-choice five-course dinners were exceptional. Among our favorite dishes were potato soup with lovage pesto; chicken livers with carrots, cumin and wild watercress; roasted duck with sage-and-onion stuffing; and local lamb braised with garlic and scallions.
During our brief stay, we took a class at the Ballymaloe Cookery School located two miles away. We also made an excursion to the nearby Jameson whiskey distillery and paid a visit to the scenic fishing port of Kinsale, which is known for its restaurants and annual Gourmet Festival in October.
Although Ballymaloe House does not offer the pinnacle of luxury, it is an elegant and comfortable country house hotel with professional and personable staff. We found the experience of total immersion in all things culinary to be exceptionally interesting and worthwhile.
The 174-mile drive from Ballymaloe to Dublin takes about three hours on the M8 motorway. On my first trip to Ireland more than 30 years ago, the traffic was invariably light. Nowadays, alas, it can often be quite frenetic.
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The combination of a fine restaurant and the nearby cooking school.
The style of our modern bath was rather austere.
Good to Know
Ballymaloe offers several special wine programs during the year. And if you love the hotel’s famous bread, you can learn how to make it at 7 a.m. each morning with the kitchen staff.
Rates: Large Room, $310; Superior Room, $330
Address: Shanagarry, County Cork
Telephone: (353) 21-465-2531
For some years, many Hideaway Report readers have written to ask me for another recommendation in Dublin aside from The Merrion, not least because demand for accommodations at this distinguished hotel often results in its being fully booked. With that in mind, we checked into The Westbury, which has recently been the subject of a $2.2 million renovation.
The location of the hotel, on a small street just off the main pedestrian thoroughfare of Grafton Street, is ideal. Close to both Trinity College and St. Stephen’s Green, the hotel is an easy walk to most of the city’s leading shops, restaurants, galleries, museums and other cultural venues. At the heart of the property is a handsome marble reception area and the impressive Gallery lounge. There the décor is a skillful mix of classic and contemporary design, with wood-clad pillars, crystal chandeliers and panels of pale-pink marble. On arrival, our suite was not ready, so a hospitable assistant manager escorted us to The Gallery and graciously arranged for tea and scones to be served.
Our spacious Studio Suite came with a contemporary four-poster bed, a large credenza, an ample writing desk and a neutral palette of taupes and creams, enlivened by plush red club chairs and accent pillows. Amenities included a Nespresso coffeemaker and an iPod dock. The marble bath had a large single vanity and combined tub and shower. Although the atmosphere of the suite was somewhat similar to that of an upscale business hotel, we were comfortable and content.
For in-house dining, you can choose between stylish WILDE for seasonal Irish cuisine as well as classic international dishes, and Balfes, a café-like spot for casual meals. I greatly enjoyed the secluded Sidecar Bar, an intimate, clubby space with proficient mixologists who were also well-versed in the lore of Irish whiskey.
A highlight of our stay was the outstanding concierge desk, where the performance of the staff could not have been more efficient and informative. Although The Westbury lacks the traditional charm of The Merrion, it is nonetheless a fine hotel and worthy of recommendation.
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The ideal location close to Grafton Street.
Our bath’s lack of a walk-in shower and its single vanity.
Good to Know
Dublin’s social elite congregate in the Gallery for afternoon tea.
Rates: Deluxe Room, $520; Luxury Studio Suite, $630
Address: Balfe Street, Dublin
Telephone: (353) 1-679-1122