For a romantic getaway in a spectacular location, look no further than Ireland’s luxurious castle hotels
Ashford Castle, County Mayo
There’s just one word to describe my reaction upon arriving at Ashford Castle: gobsmacked. I almost expected to wake up at any moment tucked in bed because - excuse the cliché - it was like stepping into a fairy tale. When you see the setting, amidst emerald green countryside on the banks of Loch Corrib and the River Cong on Ireland’s west coast, it quickly becomes clear why the Guinness family (yep, them of the black stuff) chose this location for their private estate. Dating back to 1228, Ashford became a hotel in 1939 and has since won countless accolades. You can spend hours getting lost in the grounds as I did, enjoying horse riding, learning falconry or attempting to catch salmon on the river, where local ghillie and larger-than-life character Frank Costello teaches fly fishing.
We were thrilled with our spacious room, 414, where a decanter of brandy awaited - apparently it's where Mel Gibson stayed during his visit! Everyone seems to have checked in at some point, from John Wayne to Ronald Reagan, and there's a sort of hall of fame in the hotel where photos and messages of gratitude are proudly displayed. Our bedroom was traditionally furnished and had a separate living room and beautiful view over the loch. The dining rooms downstairs are wood-panelled and there are fireplaces and elaborate paintings galore. Most importantly, the food blew us away. Sunday roasts are theatrically carved at the table in the George V restaurant, and the more intimate, gastronomic Connaught Room offers tasting menus. I can highly recommend cream of Galway Bay oyster soup with champagne foam. Following dinner there was an impromptu sing-along in the bar, with everyone throwing themselves into classics like Danny Boy. A fantastic atmosphere that makes you want to return again and again.
Double rooms cost from around €244.
Dromoland Castle, County Clare
This imposing castle is brilliantly located for exploring west Ireland’s dramatic scenery, such as the Aran Islands and the rugged Shannon region, where quaint fishing villages are scattered around limestone cliffs that plunge into the wild sea. The baronial castle sits in manicured grounds, with Gothic grey stone walls topped by four turrets, but the atmosphere inside is effortlessly warm and cosy. I loved the refined cocktail bar with log fire and gorgeous views of the Shannon River, in an octagonal room under the round tower that was once the study. And it’s great to see the tradition of afternoon tea is very much alive, with delicate pastries devoured by happy guests in the drawing room. Meals in the dining room, adorned with oil paintings and chandeliers, make excellent use of the wealth of local produce, like native lobster and melt-in-the-mouth beef. When we arrived we tucked into delicious, buttery Doolin baked crab claws - a serious treat. At dinner that night the turbot, which was caught locally off the Aran Islands, was spectacular, as was my husband's tender estate hunted venison, that I stole half of.
Bedrooms are spacious and filled with light; ours was Inichin, grandly decorated with two large double beds and huge windows overlooking the neat grounds and a fountain below. The Anne Semonin spa is contemporary and thoughtfully designed, with an outdoor spa pool under a gazebo in a pretty courtyard so it can be used year-round. Its powerful jets provided us with an effective wake-up call the morning after the night before. Last, but not least, in addition to activities like archery, shooting and horse riding, Dromoland Castle has an immaculate lakeside 18-hole golf course that should impress even the most demanding players. There’s a polished academy with expert tuition, where even the uninitiated like myself can learn a thing or two.
Double rooms cost from around €238
Adare Manor Hotel, County Limerick
It’s easy to run out of superlatives when it comes to this Irish gem, and the setting is perhaps the most breathtaking of the castles I visited on this trip - although the competition is fierce. It stands majestically in the pretty village of Adare, amid a whopping 840 acres of parkland and immaculate gardens. I couldn’t help but wonder if the poker-straight lines on the grass had been painted on! I could have happily spent weeks here, fishing for trout on the River Maigue that runs through the estate, getting pummelled in the treatment rooms, enjoying a dip in the pool and taking advantage of whiskey and wine tastings. The well-stocked cellar earns the hotel extra brownie points. But I would surely have come out a good stone heavier, as the food is sensational. We particularly enjoyed candlelit dinners in the Oakroom, where dishes like Irish beef and ceps, foie gras and poached halibut are beautifully executed. A digestif in the atmospheric vaulted bar, where a pianist and singer entertain, is the perfect finale to an evening.
The bedrooms inside the 18th-century castle are regal, with marble bathrooms, antiques, high ceilings and stunning views. Some have their own fireplaces, sitting areas and plenty of original features. Ours was 402, overlooking the lake and miles of stunning landscape beyond. Ask to be in the main building - we had a peek at and loved the look of room 406, which has an incredible, huge bathroom with freestanding bath. Again, there is a golf course - a championship one, no less - with plentiful water features meandering through the course. There’s also lots to explore in the area, including the sweetly named Ballybunion, a charming seaside village with interesting pubs and stalls in the summer selling periwinkles in paper bags. While here we hired a classic MGB for the day, which attracted lots of admiring glances, and whizzed around quiet country lanes with the roof down, stopping in Foyles where we visited the quirky but fascinating Flying Boat Museum. Well worth a look!
Double rooms cost from around €240.
Clontarf Castle Hotel, Dublin
Forget the chintz and formality often associated with traditional castle hotels. Clontarf Castle, in a leafy Dublin suburb, is cool, contemporary and quirky. Old and new contrast dramatically, with a four-storey atrium showcasing the original stone structure of the castle (dating back to the 11th century), enhanced by striking interior design. Think black chandeliers and gold panelling - let’s call it rock and roll chic. This goes for the bedrooms, too, which are simple but clean, with crisp white linen, fluffy robes and plasma TVs and other techie gadgets. Suites are more high tech, with remote control blinds, and it's worth upgrading up from a standard room to an executive, from €60, for a four-poster bed and other touches. The hotel benefited from a €10 million facelift in 2007 and was busy with a predominantly local crowd when we were there, who seemed to be regulars at the weekend carvery lunches.
The Fahrenheit Grill restaurant takes advantage of local suppliers and I happily tucked into an aged Irish rib-eye for dinner, rounded off nicely with a tasty homemade cheesecake. There’s also Indigo Lounge, a relaxed bar with oversized sofas, and Knight’s bar. The town of Clontarf is worth exploring, as is the nearby fishing village of Howth, while shopping in Dublin’s famous stores like Brown Thomas before returning to a stiff drink and roaring fire is also a treat. Clontarf Castle’s friendly concierge is a mine of information and only too happy to point guests in the right direction.
Double rooms cost from around €108
Aer Lingus has return flights from the UK to Ireland from as little as ₤20. www.aerlingus.com, 0870 8765000
To explore the region in style, hire a beautiful classic sports car from Heritage Sports Cars, www.heritagesportscars.com, +353 (0)69 63770
For a wealth of information about what to do and see, getting around and more accommodation in Ireland, visit the Tourism Ireland website at www.discoverireland.com