I was escorted about 40 metres along twisting corridors – past a courtyard where my bright green bike, with helmet, awaited – to #224, the Kennedy Suite (Ted K stayed here around 40 years ago). Wow. I looked through a trio of adjacent four-metre-high cathedral-like windows, their shared cream drapes’ pelmet an elaborate tassel-decorated theatrical prop, and across to Lough Corrib and snow-capped mountains of Connemara. I had a log-look working fire, electric towel rails and a 19th-century walnut bed, its four twisting wood poles topped by cheery wood cherubim with waving arms.
Time to explore. I started cycling some of the 141 hectares of wooded grounds – Ashford offers trips with former 2008 Olympian, David O’Loughlin. Paths, many tarmac, are thoughtfully well-maintained. At one point comes an enormous squawk in a tree high above – a falcon has landed. The falcon school is right nearby. I passed two brand-new tennis courts and a dog clean-up station (the hotel has a pair of gigantic Irish wolfhounds on daily call). I passed St Mary’s Church (the hotel restricts itself to two or three weddings a year).
I later saw such enhancements as a residents-only billiard room with smokers’ terrace and a plush all-red 32-seat screening room, with daily free showings of John Wayne’s 1951 The Quiet Man (shot here) and two other movies, popcorn included. One of the ground-floor reception rooms is now a showcase for 1,200 pieces of Roebling-marked silver, the formal dining set of the engineer of New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, bought by the Tollmans at auction.
The hotel has eight places to eat and/or drink. Cullens, once a cinema, is now a cottage-like comfy space, all white with a fishing boat and nets hanging over. We drink a Tollman-owned South African wine, Bouchard Finlayson 2014 Walker Bay.
I breakfast in the signature restaurant, the George V Dining Room. I look up at 12 multi-level early-20th-century chandeliers, and down at plush multi-coloured Victorian carpeting. One buffet station has a giant china bento box, each compartment with a different home-made yoghurt or fruit: nearby are half-glass open bottles of drink and today’s smoothie, blackberries. Another station has dozens of bread, all homemade. A la carte includes kippers and farl (potato flatbread) with truffle sour cream and oil.
This is a place for destressing and privacy – recently, 10 adult Texan girlfriends flew in for four nights, without going off-campus. General activities include golf, falconry, archery, sheepdog working, clay pigeon shooting, small cruises, walking those wolfhounds, tree climbing, ziplining, history tours, riding, fishing, boating, cycling and kayaking, tennis, paddleboarding, off-road driving, biking and visiting resident artist Rick Lewis. And, as would be expected, there is a good gym (LifeFitness) and a superb spa, a haven of palest greys and big white orchids. Softest music and skilled techniques while away the hour-long facial (unusually, Laura carefully explains why, for my skin, she chose Elemis rather than Natura Bissé or Voya).
But now for Ashford Castle’s cream-on-the-cake: a 30-ish local hotelier, Eoin Warner, working with and exclusively for Ashford Castle, has set up four different days of Irish experiences. First, we head for a distant farm at the foothills of Slieve Aughty Mountains, Co Galway. A former cowshed has, with considerable thought – and money gained from selling 13 milking cows – been turned into Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese. A fourth-generation dairy farmer’s daughter, Teresa Roche, returned from nursing in New Zealand, learned alpine cheese making in Switzerland and four years later she is turning out 1,000 cheese wheels a year. We toured production and the maturation shed, and then made and ate raclette followed by Teresa’s mum’s Irish stew, lamb and veggie bits and boiled potatoes.