The Perfect Long Weekend: Ashford Castle

Ireland’s 13th-century estate gets a makeover for the 21st—and you’re invited.

Tom Parker
OF 7

Recastle-ing, mind you, can be risky— not to mention very stressful, time- consuming, and expensive.

Think for a moment, if you will, about just how much time and energy it took the last time you refurbished that downstairs powder room. Now multiply that 100 times—and over 350 acres, 82 bedrooms, 136 bathrooms, 58 public rooms, equestrian and falconry centers; plus, building a gym, spa, and replacing some 820 leaded glass windows.

The elaborate restoration of Ashford Castle, which we visited recently, was, to be sure, a superhuman feat of passion...and dollars. We’re happy to report that it shows. ’Twas money well spent. At least for those of us lucky enough to visit. For the Tollman family, who knows if they’ll ever see a return on their investment—other than the enthusiasm of just about every single person I’ve talked to who has visited the new Ashford.

Not that any of that was going to stop Mrs. Beatrice Tollman from creating the finest country castle-cum-hotel in Ireland.

A few months after I returned from a dreamy long autumn weekend there—and from my very first visit to Ireland (I couldn’t tell you why I never went before; other destinations seemed to take precedence)—I decided to ring Mrs. Tollman, matriarch of the family that purchased this particular Irish castle in 2013 and owns Red Carnation–branded properties from Geneva to Cape Town.

“Oh, my,” she sighed when I asked her how the refurbishment was conducted over the yearlong renovation, during which 300 individuals labored around the clock, literally 24/7 at times. “You simply can’t believe what we went through. And of course, just when we thought everything was fine, out popped another drip, drip, drip.” Plumbing was just the beginning, she said, noting that some $75 million was spent restoring this fine 13th-century estate on the shores of Ireland’s second-largest lake, Lough Corrib. The Tollmans painstakingly refinished the antique wood paneling throughout, built a 32-seat cinema, and elaborately groomed and relandscaped surrounding ponds, rivers, and streams.

A visit to Ashford on its own is perfectly justifiable, especially considering its location way out there on the west coast of Ireland. But it’s also the perfect long weekend from London, which is how I arranged my own trip, flying out of Gatwick into Galway, a 25-mile drive away. “Can’t believe you’ve never been here,” said Ray Kenny, my chauffeur and guide, who dispensed all sorts of charming anecdote and commentary along the bucolic drive from the airport. “Beautiful, beautiful countryside, and you’re going to love the castle.” What, I asked, did he do outside of driving for the property? Turns out, he and his wife, Sharon, run a small gastropub in Cong, the town within walking distance: chowder, a lamb hot pot, fish and chips, that sort of food. I should be so lucky to have such impeccable cooking and perfect produce in my Upper East Side Manhattan neighborhood. Nary a Whole Foods in these parts.

Irish hospitality may be legendary, but not until one has experienced the welcoming Niall Rochford, Ashford’s general manager for the past 14 years; Paddy Costello, a 40-year veteran who greets you upon arrival; the merry marauding band of bagpipers; and the gracious young women who ushered me into the Ronald Reagan Presidential Suite. Yes, indeed, the 40th U.S. president visited Ashford—as did Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, and John Lennon—in 1984 and slept in the opulent, rambling master suite, where I found myself flipping through issues of Country Life, deciding whether I needed a glass of port, Champagne, or Merlot; chocolates, prosciutto, or fresh fruit, which had been harvested for my arrival—and will be for yours as well.

One night was dinner en suite, by candlelight, the fireplace a comforting reminder of the chilly advent of fall outside. The castle was built in 1228, and the Tollmans are just the most recent owners (others include the Guinness family, who famously hosted a visit by King George V in 1906); and though additions upon additions have changed its configuration, we loved afternoon tea on silver service in the Connaught Room, a pint of Guinness or a tipple or two in the Prince of Wales Bar, a charming lunch or more casual dinner at Cullen’s in the cottage, which is just a folly’s stroll from the main attraction. The Billiards Room and Cigar Terrace were perfect retreats after an evening of beef Wellington, carved tableside in the main dining room. But then, not everything revolves around hearty appetites—though the property has a total of 12 establishments offering food and drink.

There’s a state-of-the-art gym and an incredible spa with a myriad of treatments. There’s fishing and boating, and clay pigeon shooting. My own favorite daylight activity was falconry. The facility itself is amazing to see, with its glorious array of elegantly caged and über-pedigreed feathered creatures. To be out in the forest primeval with just a heavy mitt, a few pieces of raw meat, and James and Deborah Knight, who started the falconry school 16 years ago, at your side is really pretty transcendent.

All this for $75 million? And I haven’t even mentioned the incredible furnishings, silver cutlery, or the 16,404 yards of fabric—that’s 9.33 miles!—that Tollman and her daughter, Toni, procured to re-create the opulence and luxury of bygone times.

Take a tour of the reimagined Ashford Castle »