Picture-perfect spot to relax: Lodge at Ashford Castle
Jane Doran takes a luxurious break at the newly refurbished four-star Lodge at Ashford Castle
In 1951, John Ford set his epic film The Quiet Man in the picturesque village of Cong and the nearby grounds of Ashford Castle. While this part of Mayo, with misty Lough Corrib, moody mountains and medieval ruins, would be a tourist draw on its own, the John Wayne classic cast a spell on foreign viewers' minds.
Americans were especially smitten with this image of the ultimate 'Irishness'. But this part of Ireland is on almost every visitor's must-see list. It's the picture-postcard version of our country, and it's not just for the Yanks.
Where do you lay your head?
We stayed at the newly refurbished four-star Lodge at Ashford Castle. Set overlooking Lough Corrib on the grounds of the 360-acre Ashford Estate, the 150-year-old Lodge has 24 rooms and 26 suites, all individually designed and named after a wine or a champagne. The suite was huge – my friend Hillary declared it bigger than her apartment. The wonderful manager Colin said the hotel was changing all products used in their rooms to Irish-made ones, which is a nice touch.
Fancy a spot of 'dunch'?
There are good options for eating and drinking on The Lodge's grounds. The Quay bar on the first floor is a bright and airy space in which to enjoy lunch or to chill with a cocktail.
Cullens is a 10-minute walk. It's a restaurant in a beautifully restored thatched cottage with traditional boats hanging from the ceiling. I had a good steak and Hillary enjoyed her sea bass, but the desserts were too big.
There's also the Sunday Jazz Dunch, a three-course meal served between 3pm and 6pm in the elegant Piano Gallery. For €30 you get delicious food, served with newspapers, a glass of prosecco and live music.
Shall we go wildes?
Wildes restaurant on the second floor, overlooking the lake, was the culinary highlight. The A Taste of Ireland food guide refers to chef Jonathan Keane as: "One of the country's most exciting chefs." He forages for herbs and uses only locally sourced produce. We had the seven-course Menu of Discovery, which included innovative delights such as foie gras trifle, black pudding with chocolate, and Jonathan's signature dish, mussels in squid ink and liquorice. At €54 per person, it's not cheap, but it's worth it.
Falconry? Is it for the birds?
By 1228, when Ashford Castle was built, falconry was established in the area. We took a hawk walk with the School of Falconry around Ashford's woodland. Our instructor Aurelie handed us a huge leather glove to wear, then we were introduced to our birds. We walked into the woods, releasing the birds and watching in wonder as they swooped at breakneck speeds on to our outstretched arms.
A cruise back in time
Hop on Corrib Cruises' Isle of Innisfree for a two-hour trip with a stop-off on Inchagoill Island. The eerie island is home to ruins, some dating back to the 5th Century. Martin Noon (86), an actor in The Quiet Man, accompanies most cruises as a hobby. He plays the accordion, encourages singsongs, shows pictures of the cast and tells stories while people sip pints from the onboard bar. At first we were sceptical at the 'Oirishness' but Martin could charm the biggest of cynics and had the Irish tourists singing along and laughing as boisterously as the foreign ones. The craic was mighty.