Colin White visits a country house where heritage and character are matched by superb hospitality amid spectacular surroundings.
Set on 350 acres in the Mayo town of Cong on the picturesque shores of Lough Corrib, the Ashford estate is genuinely breathtaking upon first arrival.
The Lodge dates back to 1865 – in addition to providing a home for the estate manager of nearby Ashford Castle, it also hosted a variety of guests who included fishermen, walkers and friends of the family.
Today, The Lodge offers mellow country house hospitality, artfully combined with a chic contemporary style, to discerning travellers from all over the world. Ashford Castle – The Lodge’s sister property – is just a short stroll away, set amongst grandeur. The Lodge is a slightly different affair. Almost in the shadows of the stately castle, it retains a sense of history, but combines this with modern elements throughout the interior which exemplify the overall sense of luxury.
THE ROAD TO CONG
A whistle-stop visit to Croagh Patrick and the Joyce Country are enjoyed en route to the hotel, but are eclipsed by the spectacular views on offer driving from Louisburgh to Leenaun. Having visited New Zealand’s south island just months previously, the scenery is every bit as spectacular as those at the Southern Alps.
We arrive in Cong at midday and are immediately endeared with the village – a quaint busy little spot with a very healthy level of tourism. The amount of visitors that descend on the town is unsurprising; the town has much in its favour – situated in the heart of the picturesque west of Ireland with easy access to Connemara and all the jewels of its crown.
One thing the town has that few other in Ireland can boast is a bona fide Hollywood tradition. Acclaimed director John Ford (The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) shot the majority of arguably his greatest movie, The Quiet Man, in and around the village of Cong and on the grounds of the Ashford Estate during 1951. The film starred iconic Hollywood luminaries John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
A young Oscar Wilde spent a lot of time in Cong as a child and returned to the area many times throughout adulthood. Wilde was clearly in awe of the surrounds of county Mayo. ‘I am sure you will like this wild mountainous country, close to the Atlantic and teeming with sport of all kinds. It is every way magnificent and makes me years younger than actual history records,’ he wrote to a friend during one of his many visits.
A WARM WELCOME
Checking in on Sunday morning reception manager Zoltan and his colleague Anna promptly welcomed us. The first thing that struck me about my room, ‘Krug’ (all rooms are named after famous Champagnes and wines) was the sheer size of the accommodation. The bathroom was one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, and the poster bed was elegant and spacious.
What I was most pleased about, however, was the LCD television that graced the room. Ireland and Scotland’s battle in their European Championship qualifier was only a matter of hours away and I was delighted to have the option of watching the game in the comfort of the room’s large comfortable armchair.
Having arranged to try an eight-course tasting menu in Wilde’s restaurant, I was impressed upon visiting the eatery. Overlooking the beautiful estate grounds during dusk, the setting was the epitome of tranquillity.
The fare proved superior to the views, however. Head chef Jonathan Keane and his creative team have created a menu that takes advantage of the fine ingredients available from artisan suppliers in the local area. The eight courses covered a wide array of cuisine, both gastronomically and stylistically. Keane creates a variety of delicious dishes that showcase unique flavours and textures – from the offset it was clear I was experiencing high-end dining.
The standout dish of the day was the tempura mussels, seaweed and liquorice mayonnaise served on a black slate. The juxtaposition of the visual (everything was black!) and the vibrant flavours of the dish was mightily impressive.
I must give a special mention to the excellent waiting staff and chef for the delivery of the final dessert course. With kick-off to the big game quickly approaching, they graciously suggested we drop down to the Quay Bar to complete the tasting menu – all done with a smile and the minimum amount of fuss.
The Quay Bar is informal and the perfect environment in which to sit back, admire the sweeping views of Lough Corrib, sip on a drink or enjoy a delicious meal.
However, I had sport on my mind. After wolfing down the delicious dessert – and the opening 15 minutes of the game – I returned to the comfort of Krug and relaxed with my feet up to watch the match on the high-quality television – lovely stuff.
ALL THE TRAPPINGS
The Lodge at Ashford Castle offers sophisticated and beautifully designed accommodation. Rooms at The Lodge are individually designed and furnished to a high standard, as well as being equipped with the latest technology.
The location and facilities allow the guest to tailor their stay in any way they desire. Whether you’re looking for a family retreat, a romantic break, or even travelling with a group, The Lodge has the amenities to cater for all needs.
At the hotel you’ll experience all the luxurious trappings that go along with a high-end hotel, as well as a warm welcome and access to a wonderful array of activities, both in the Estate and the local area.
Try a range of different activities at The Lodge – the choice is vast with plenty to keep you occupied
Swingers: Designed by the renowned Irish golf architect Eddie Hackett, the nine-hole parkland course is perfect for golfers of all abilities.
Anyone for tennis?: Two newly resurfaced all-weather tennis courts are ideal for wannabe Federers and Sharipovas.
Gone fishing: The idyllic shores of Lough Corrib are renowned for brown trout, pike and salmon and is the perfect location for anglers.
Falconry: Ireland’s oldest school of falconry is a must-try when you stay at The Lodge. Guests are always astonished by the hawks’ grace and stealth – and there’s no better setting than in the grounds of Ashford Castle. The school is also home to a variety of eagles, owls and falcons, which the team will be happy to introduce you to.
Ride on: Enjoy some spectacular scenery from the saddle. From complete beginners to experienced riders, horse riding at The Lodge is an unforgettable experience. The ancient forest with beautiful woodland paths will both enchant and excite on a memorable trail ride. Pony rides are also available.
Carriage ride: For those that would prefer not to be on horseback, a carriage ride is an ideal way of getting out and seeing the incredible Ashford Estate. Head into the forest, explore the lakeshore and perhaps visit the famous Danagher’s house from The Quiet Man movie.
Wheeling in the years: Cyclists of all abilities will enjoy discovering the wonderful countryside by bike – getting fit and having fun at the same time. The Lodge at Ashford Castle has mile upon mile of great cycling trails, from leisurely pathways to more challenging routes.
The river wild: Spend an enjoyable morning or afternoon kayaking on the River Cong accompanied by an experienced guide. Enjoy the vast expanses of mountains and valleys in one of The Lodge’s traditional handcrafted wooden boats.
Cruise control: A relaxing lake cruise is the perfect way to explore the 365 islands and immerse yourself in the magnificent scenery surrounding Lough Corrib.
Beautify: The recently opened Beauty Rooms at The Lodge is led by Debbie Murphy, who has over 20 years’ experience as a beauty and skin care consultant.