Sunday 4 December 2016

Barry Egan at Ashford Castle: 'It was my Road to Cong moment - live life in the now'

Five-star fairy-tale

Published 09/11/2015 | 02:30

Check in, chill out: Ashford Castle, just outside the Co Mayo village of Cong, provides the last word in luxury to pampered guests.
Check in, chill out: Ashford Castle, just outside the Co Mayo village of Cong, provides the last word in luxury to pampered guests.
Royal guest: The Prince of Wales Cocktail Bar at Ashford Castle is named after the Prince who visited the castle in 1905 for a woodcock shoot. Pictured at the shoot over a century ago were, from left, Lord Brandon, the Prince of Wales (later George V), Lord Ardilaun and Percy La Touche.
Ashford Castle
Fine dining: The food at the Castle is a five-star dining experience.

Barry Egan visits one of Ireland's most exclusive five-star hotels, and experiences something of a Damascene conversion.

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It has the elements of a vintage Bond movie.

You pull up outside the giant gates of a large fairy-tale castle and a very tall man in a bowler hat informs you in a strong local accent: "Mr Egan - we've been expecting you."

It's as close to cinematic as you're ever going to get without being in an actual movie. But then, Ashford Castle is one big-budget movie set, one big dreamscape, from the moment you walk in through its flamboyant doors and the hotel staff cry: "Action!"

Cut to two hours later; the vista that confronted us had elements of vintage Percy Bysshe Shelley when he wrote about "a har-mony in autumn/And a lustre in its sky".

The afternoon autumnal harmony was that bit more exquisite because we (my wife and I and our baby) were on a boat in the middle of Lough Corrib and the lustre in the Mayo sky was hard to miss. An old fella who was an extra in The Quiet Man in 1951 played tunes on the accordion and sang songs such as The Wild Rover.

The American tourists enjoyed the music as much as we did as the captain, Patrick Luskin, who grew up on this boat with his late father, steered a steady course to Inchagoill.

Once we landed on the island, there was an almost palpable sense of the spiritual. You don't necessarily have to believe in God to feel something, being on an island in the middle of Mayo where St Patrick is supposed to have pitched up in the fifth Century with a soul full of ideas about Christian faith in Ireland.

Ashford Castle
Ashford Castle

We all sat around some very old stones in the forest and the cap'n told us about the last inhabitant of the island, Tommie Nevin - who lived here alone but for his dog until 1948 - and how he would row a small fishing boat to Cong and return to the island "in the dark using the lights of the castle as his compass".

The sun was just starting to go down as we made our way back to the spectacle of Ashford, which we called home for the next three (very glorious) days.

To say it's luxurious is like saying James Bond liked a caper. You can see easily why it has been referred to by various publications as not only the best hotel in Ireland but possibly the best in the world. Time stands still in Ashford Castle. Or, on occasion, it goes backwards - you can enjoy a drink in the Prince of Wales Cocktail Bar and reflect at your leisure on how in 1905 the aforesaid prince, who would become George V, visited this very bling boozer.

You're transported to another place in your imagination as you drink your tea, or something stronger, in the afternoon in the Connaught Room and look out on the majestic, uninterrupted views afforded by every window. They're so all-consuming in their verdant splendour that it seemed almost wrong not to go out for a long walk and enjoy it all.

More summer than autumn, the sun shone - unusual for this part of the country, unusual for Ireland - for the entirety of our stay. So we took the baba in her buggy along the lakeside, through woodlands, and saw Mother Nature at her best.

You feel very small, very insignificant, walking among trees that were put here long before any of us were born and will remain long after we're gone. You realise your life is missing a key component when you're out walking here: nature. It was my Road to Damascus moment. Or my Road to Cong moment - live life more in the now.

The majesty of it all was intensified as I looked back, and the castle, first built in the 13th Century, seemed like something straight out of Hogwarts.

That night, while a lovely woman babysat our young 'un, we had a five-star dining experience in the George V Dining Room. I felt like a millionaire as the sommelier came over with fancy wine suggestions - I know sweet feck all about wine - and various head waiters fluttered about as we enjoyed a feast fit for George V himself. As if the night couldn't get any more perfect, when we returned to our palatial suite the baba was still asleep.

The following morning, my wife had a Harmonised massage in The Spa at Ashford Castle, a very chic new addition to the hotel. I sat in front of an open fireplace in the drawing room of the main hotel and read a book while the baby slept in her buggy. It was one of the most wonderful mornings of my life. Then my wife returned from having her treatment, she took the baby and I went and had mine: a detoxifying seaweed wrap and a hot stone massage followed by 15 minutes in the Hammam.

My wife and I were both floating on a cloud of zen bliss when we met up at 1pm and went for a dip with baba in the relaxation pool, complete with its Tree of Life mural which mesmerised our child. We were all feeling somewhat tranquil, serene even, after our collective morning in The Spa.

That sense of serenity can only be increased from November 19 to 22, I learned, when Ashford Castle hosts a yoga retreat with super-duper yogi master Alex (Ata) Baechler. The focal point will be balance and harmony, with every type of yoga session imaginable from asana and pranayama and hatha to meditation.

Royal guest: The Prince of Wales Cocktail Bar at Ashford Castle is named after the Prince who visited the castle in 1905 for a woodcock shoot. Pictured at the shoot over a century ago were, from left, Lord Brandon, the Prince of Wales (later George V), Lord Ardilaun and Percy La Touche.
Royal guest: The Prince of Wales Cocktail Bar at Ashford Castle is named after the Prince who visited the castle in 1905 for a woodcock shoot. Pictured at the shoot over a century ago were, from left, Lord Brandon, the Prince of Wales (later George V), Lord Ardilaun and Percy La Touche.

Later that night, looking out across Lough Corrib from the window of our room, I began to think that Ashford Castle is as much a meditation on living as a five-star hotel. They're also selling a bit of a fantasy here, but for a few bob it was an achievable fantasy. For three days it fulfilled my emotional needs, possibly until I got back to the big city and returned to the reality of doing the washing-up and stacking the dishwasher.

Before the long drive back to Dublin, we stopped for a quick bite in the Hungry Monk Cafe in the picture postcard-perfect village of Cong. A bowl of soup each.

I never got to touch mine. Baba spilled it all over me. My newly-installed advanced zen-calm protected my body and soul but not, sadly, my suit.

Getting there

From November 19 to 22, Ashford Castle (ashfordcastle.com) hosts a yoga retreat with yogi master Alex (Ata) Baechler. There will be several types of yoga sessions, from asana and pranayama and hatha to meditation.

The focal point will be balance and harmony.

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