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The Lodge at Castle Ashford: Deepest Mayo home to a heavenly haven

The Lodge at Ashford Castle
The Lodge at Ashford Castle

By Paula Gracey

Driving through the majestic stone archway at the entrance to Ashford Estate has the unfailing ability to instantly erase that four hour drive from Belfast to deepest Mayo with the added joy of being stuck behind the obligatory tractor on the way. Instant calm.

Take a deep breath and immerse yourself in the wonderful silence as you travel along the tree lined driveway that opens onto the golf course and there in front of you stands Ashford Castle in all its glory – a proper castle with turrets and flags, just as it should be.

Now just in case you think our Lotto numbers had come up and we’d joined Rory McIlroy on the Rich List, we weren’t turning right into the opulent venue for his wedding to Erica two years ago.

We’d chosen the adjacent Lodge at Ashford Castle, much more homely and us.

Not many places can truly claim to look down upon the splendour of Ashford Castle the way The Lodge does, from its lofty position overlooking a little harbour on Lough Corrib, so peaceful with beautiful gardens and a terrace where you can relax and take in the view.

Our beautifully appointed room was situated on one side of an enclosed courtyard with a fountain in the middle. We were on the upstairs level of two storeys and the sound of that fountain when you opened your window or door to the tiny balcony was so calming, you feel like you are in a spa. Totally zen, and doing my beloved yoga in the morning as the sun came up over the Lodge was so enjoyable.

After a quick freshen up and change, we headed down for pre-dinner drinks in the cosy little Quay bar which is totally in keeping with the style throughout. The whole Lodge is just like a big old house of rooms, nooks and crannies, open fires, leather chairs and beautiful views. It is just so welcoming. Four years on from our last visit, we felt like we had never left and the friendly staff just make everything so perfect for you.

There are lots of areas to relax in, read a book or a newspaper or just take in the amazing artwork and interiors. If, like me, you are a fan of old Hollywood, you will love the photographs and paintings of movie icons like Marlene Dietrich, Maureen O’Hara, Fred Astaire and many more scattered around the Lodge.

The real beauty of the place is that you can chill out to your heart’s content, or they will organise activities that you wouldn’t experience anywhere else.

Last time it was learning to milk cows on the working farm nearby that supplies much of the Lodge’s kitchen produce.

The Lodge at Ashford Castle
The Lodge at Ashford Castle

Now, after a hearty breakfast the next morning, we were heading off into neighbouring Connemara to a local family farm, Joyce Country Farm, to meet their amazing sheepdogs, from 10 day old pups right up to the experienced, fully trained working dogs.

Our minibus trip afforded us some amazing views of the rugged but beautiful countryside as our driver, a National Trust tour guide, regaled us with lots of interesting facts and stories about the area.

Arriving 30 minutes later, Joe, the farmer, greeted us with a handshake and a joke and we knew we were in for a fun time. First off, he said he was going to feed some baby lambs who had lost their mothers and asked if anyone would like to go with him – I was first behind him! I am such an animal lover and was thrilled to feed a three week old lamb from her bottle. Total cuteness overload.

On a more serious note, we learned how population shifts from rural areas to the cities and towns, coupled with an economic climate as harsh as the terrain, had made life in the hills surrounding us extremely tough.

Joe explained how he and the other remaining farmers struggled to make ends meet from sheep farming and how as each generation passed, fewer young farmers were taking up the reins.

To supplement his sheep farming, he began to breed his award winning border collies, many of which are sold both here and further afield in the UK. In the yard behind his house were three gorgeous wee scamps running around and wanting to meet everyone – so lovely. Then, Joe and his little daughter brought us out two new-born pups, they didn’t even have their little eyes open. Oh I wanted one! Mum was there in the background making sure her babies were OK and then they all went back into their pen together.

Next, we watched with awe as he released his fabulous dog Spot – what a star! Spot shot straight up the steep hill behind the house and, listening to Joe’s commands, he brought a small group of six sheep down the hill, through a small gap in a wall, into a round training pen, out of the pen again, through another gate, separating two from the group, then brought them back together – we were all absolutely amazed at the skill of this dog, and he loved it, too.

When he had finished he came over to say hello to us – they are all such great dogs with friendly personalities, I was loving every minute of it.

Full of surprises, Joe then produced photographs of Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson from when they were shooting Marley & Me nearby and he had a small part in the film where he had to create an Irish roadblock with one of his dogs and some sheep. I had such a great time, I would definitely recommend a visit if you are in the area.

Back into the minibus, we headed for lunch at Cullen’s at The Cottage, on the Ashford Estate, right beside the Castle -  a little thatched cottage with  whitewashed walls inside, lots of dark wood and an open fire. We enjoyed the most amazing lunch – I chose prawn, avocado and burnt orange salad to start and then lobster – oh my word, the flavours! A sumptuous Irish Coffee ice-cream dessert tipped us over the edge so we could either go and have a lie down or head off for a walk – we opted for the latter.

Having been here before and walked all around the little village of Cong with all its sights and scenery from the classic 1950s movie The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, we decided to walk around the grounds of the estate.

As we strolled along and listened to the river and the birds singing, we saw guests riding horses and fishing in the river, we watched a falconry exhibition, clay pigeon shooting and lots of people arriving in style for a wedding in the Castle. It was absolutely beautiful, like another world and so relaxing.

The Lodge at Ashford Castle
The Lodge at Ashford Castle

By the time we got back to our room a small nap was in order, with the window open so I could hear the gentle fountain in the middle of the courtyard.

With batteries now fully recharged, it was time to get dressed for dinner. We were meeting folks for pre-dinner drinks outside on the sun terrace which overlooks the harbour – what a view to take in while sipping a glass of fizz.

Dinner that night was in Wilde’s restaurant in The Lodge where we availed of the most amazing tasting menu by chef extraordinaire Jonathan Keane.

The Lodge at Ashford Castle
The Lodge at Ashford Castle

Again, all local produce was used in the most flavorsome, inventive creations, truly delicious, complemented by equally outstanding wine choices, Missionvale Chardonnay and Galpin Peak Pinot Noir, both from South Africa.

How I ate so much in one day I will never know – I usually only eat breakfast and dinner. Somehow, I found room for it all – I know, I’m such a trooper. I actually can’t even remember falling asleep in that stupendously comfortable bed after a day full of great craic, food and fresh air – I slept like an exhausted puppy.

Travel fact file

Escape to Mayo and Connemara this summer and explore the captivating landscape, meet the friendly locals (on two legs and four) and enjoy a peaceful stay in the majestic surrounds of the Ashford Estate.

This package includes a two night stay in a Deluxe Room at The Lodge, full Irish breakfast each morning, dinner in the Quay Bar and Brasserie on one evening and a packed lunch to enjoy on your excursion to the Sheep Dog demonstration at Joyce Country Sheepdogs in Connemara is included from €450 per room, based on two people sharing.

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