Ireland conjures up images of green rolling hills and sheep farms, jolly people and pints of Guinness. And, with a rich history steeped in wild tales of clans and ruling families, castles. There must be a castle or castle remains for every third citizen, if the ruins you pass while driving along country roads are a testament.
Fortunately for the modern traveler, not every former fortress has been reduced to a pile of rubble. Irish castle hotels are gaining in popularity, and are impressive to even the most discerning luxury traveler.
My family and I road tripped through the Irish countryside this spring. We started in Dublin, and hugged the southwestern coast around to Shannon. We stayed in city hotels, charming lodges, and, you guessed it, castles.
Here is where we stayed, and my impression of why these properties are so special. And as a bonus, I’ll even throw in which one was my favorite.
After two nights spent in the city of Dublin, this was our first experience in an Irish castle hotel. And what an impression it made! This property, located near the town of Waterford in County Waterford, is not accessible by car – you have to take a ferry. It sits on its own island, sheltered from the “real world” on all sides. That uniqueness aside, our jaws dropped when we approached this gorgeous entrance. The interior held the same charm, as though we were literally stepping back in time to the an age of princesses and knights, manor lords and ladies. The only thing I felt I forgot was my flowing gown.
It took us a minute to learn how to pronounce this Irish name. But it mattered little once we did because the sight of the property and its setting in the hills of Connemara in County Galway took our breaths away. It’s wild, it’s remote, and with snowy mountains mixed with peat bogs, it’s like nothing you’d ever dream would be in Ireland. The property is newly renovated, the aesthetic being a combination of cozy elegance and rustic chic. As a group we spent many an hour in one of the several lounge rooms, playing cards and sampling their fine wine and beer list. I could have sunk into those couches by the fire and never have left.
This is perhaps the most internationally recognized property, given the list of celebrity names who have passed through its doors. It’s located in Cong in County Mayo, close enough to Ballynahinch for a day trip. We did not actually stay here, but it’s worth mentioning as its reputation precedes it. Everyone we encountered on the grounds were extremely accommodating, and graciously allowed us to wander. The interior, dominated by a red a gold color scheme, was the most castle-y of all the places we went. It’s no wonder Ashford Castle has racked up the awards, including No. 2 in the Top 10 Best Resorts in Europe according to Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards in 2014.
Sadly, even good things must come to an end, and this was the final hotel stay for our very last night in Ireland. Oh, but what a stay it was! This castle’s history can be traced back 1,000 years in history, through the Dromoland O’Brien clan to their ancestor Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland. It’s located in County Clare, not far from Shannon. The property is extensive, and the castle itself like a delightful maze, with surprises around every corner. One of the highlights is a life-sized chess board, complete with giant pawns. We only had one night here, bittersweet as we prepared to depart from this beautiful country, but it’s somewhere I would recommend to anyone wanting to experience the best of the best.
Now that I’ve given you a mini-tour of Irish castle hotels, you might be asking… which one was my favorite? Well, since we weren’t fortunate enough to stay at Ashford Castle, I’ll have to rule that one out. Waterford was like a dream, and Dromoland the perfect cap to a wonderful holiday, but I have to give the prize to Ballynahinch. It’s the combination of history, aesthetic, the quality of the experience, and the location that puts this property at the top of my list.
Stay tuned, because I’ll be posting the story of my family’s personal experience at Ballynahinch Castle later this week, complete with a peek inside!