Returning to the road in New Mexico in pursuit of making art.
Once the stomping grounds of Oscar Wilde and Princess Grace, Ashford Castle provides the perfect dose of Middle Ages adventure.
BETWEEN MY DINOSAUR and “Star Wars” phases, I (like many children) was enamored with knights and castles, thanks to an illustrated children’s encyclopedia of historic fortresses and citadels that transported me to the Middle Ages. But I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with no access to anything resembling a castle. The most imposing building in my early life? The Monroeville Mall off Route 22. What a joy, then, all these years later, not only to see a castle up close but also to eat and sleep in one.
The nearly 800-year-old Ashford Castle, which has been transformed into a luxury hotel, is situated on 350 acres overlooking Lough Corrib, a massive lake in western Ireland. The property’s sprawling classical gardens are winding enough to get lost in for hours, and somehow both wild and manicured. Imagine all of the adventure of the Middle Ages but none of the hardships: bubonic plague, bloody Crusades. Ashford has wonderful restaurants, a spa, a cozy bar, an archery range, a golf course, and a falconry school where you can feed mice to a hawk named Aztec.
Before I arrived by train from Dublin, I worried that the hotel’s owners would have paved over the castle’s rich ancientness with the clean pine wood, enormous light-filled windows, and plain, bleach-colored walls that seem to be the current formula for newly renovated properties. But, once past the castle gates and into the lobby, it was blessedly clear that Ashford has stayed true to its origins: The walls are crimson, the furniture velvet, and the mahogany-hued accenting recalls the Tudor period. Through the sinuous hallways and up the grand staircases, the floors creak, and suits of armor line the hallways. High tea is served in a small drawing room. Harpsichord concertos played in my mind as I walked by oil portraits with imposing frames. Outdoors, old stone walls separate various wooded routes; little doorways lead down ancient stone steps to hidden gardens with large fountains. Not far off, you can find the remains of a medieval abbey and a monk’s fishing house.
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Kings — those magical figures in crowns and robes — actually came here. The castle was built in 1228 by an Anglo-Norman family, and it passed hands a number of times, including to the Guinnesses in 1852. Oscar Wilde visited, as did Princess Grace of Monaco. Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth II’s grandfather, King George V, once drank so much at the bar that they ended up naming the joint The Prince of Wales (his title before his coronation); next door is the formal dining room, George V, where jackets are required. The castle became a hotel in the first half of the 20th century, and a refurbishment in 2014 spruced it up to its current form. Only the spa, built in 2015, feels sparklingly 21st century, housed in a glass conservatory with a lovely pool and Turkish bath.
But for all of this premodern splendor, it was the smallest moment that delighted me the most. One quiet morning, as rain streaked my windows, I lit the fireplace in my suite and poured a drink from a crystal brandy decanter (yes, it was early, but I once read that Princess Margaret used to start the day with a cocktail, so why couldn’t I?). Lying on my canopy bed, I opened a dusty book of Celtic mythology from their considerable library and whiled away the hours.
This, in retrospect, was the most authentic glimpse of what it might feel like not just to visit a castle, but to live in one. Sometimes, when we’re really lucky, we can become the kids we once were, with that same sense of starry-eyed wonder. Here, on this humdrum morning, with nowhere to go and no place to be, I realized that that’s what a stay like this can offer, a chance to visit a world you thought was beyond your reach, a pipe dream that — unlike the Millennium Falcon and the Triassic era — can actually come true.
Ashford Castle is a Fine Hotels + Resorts property. When you book with
American Express Travel, you’ll receive an exclusive suite of benefits including daily breakfast for two, a $100 experience credit that varies by property, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and more. Plus, book on AmexTravel.com and you can earn 5X Membership Rewards® points, or use Pay with Points, on prepaid stays. Terms apply. Learn more here.
Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.
Simon Watson is a native of Dublin, Ireland. His work has appeared in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W Magazine, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House & Garden. In 2020, he published “The Lives of Others,” a major monograph representing a survey of his work over the last 30 years.
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