Now and again, you just have to spoil yourself. For us we decided that a 20th wedding anniversary was a good occasion to do this. We set out to do a tour of southern Ireland and stay at castles along the way.
There is certainly no shortage of castles and ancient ruins in Ireland. Around every corner you can seemingly find a moss covered stone ruin dating back to the 12th century with one or more partial walls left standing.
Some of these have been converted into hotels and are available for booking your romantic accommodation. Most often these venues are rented out for weddings and parties and in many cases we found that booking early was essential. In fact, we built our itinerary around the castle stays rather than the other way around. If you plan far enough ahead you may be able to work it the other way.
Another thing I must say is that many of these castles, especially the larger ones, have so much terrain to explore and offer some really cool activities that you may want to spend at least two nights or in the very least plan your days to arrive early and leave late to take advantage and explore these historic monuments. With the rates being what they are you’d be crazy not to!
We also found that the venues often did a package deal with breakfast and dinner. Most had top notch Chefs and a long history of Michelin stars or other culinary awards. Don’t miss out on the experience.
Arriving in Dublin our first stay was at the Clontarf Castle. Pulling into the estate after a long drive through the medieval gate and seeing the castle tower guarded by huge stone lions immediately put a huge smile on both our faces. There is something ‘royal’ about pulling up and walking in through the huge wooden doors knowing that kings and queens have passed through those doors before you!
The Clontarf castle was initially built in 1172 on the site of the Battle of Clontarf that took place in 1014 during which Viking Brodir killed King Brian Boru while he was praying in his tent. The castle grew and expanded and the current facade looks like it did in 1837. The castle changed hands over the years and the structures were extended to include modern guestrooms and conference facilities.
None of the hotel rooms are actually in the old castle at the Clontarf, just the common areas and the dining rooms. All guests can explore these areas. There is also a museum quality collection of art displayed throughout the establishment and upon check-in we received a guide to where to find these pictures. The original walls were preserved and integrated in the lobby decor.
Service here was spectacular, our room was large and the bed comfortable. We got a nice view of the old castle and the grounds from our window.
Being close to Dublin, we spent most of our time in the city and while we had our dinners in Dublin and in Howth, we enjoyed our breakfasts in the ancient royal hall. We saw the dinner menu and know that it would have been spectacular. Already a reason to go back!
Our next castle was the Lyrath Estate located in Kilkenny. While a popular wedding venue and modern spa this hotel is also built onto the original 17th century manor that still houses a wonderful courtyard and lobby decorated in the style of the era.
The Victorian gardens were designed by Lady Charlotte who lived in the house until her death in 1966. We opted for one of the three remaining ‘estate rooms’ (room 41!), which was amazingly like staying in the king’s bedroom at the Château Versailles. Four-poster bed, dark thick velours, Victorian furniture, even the view reminded us of looking at the Versailles gardens. Staying in room 41 felt like being thrown back in time to the 17th century – except for having electricity and running water that is! That night we were the only occupants (or were we?) in the entire historic manor and it made for an eerie feeling indeed. I wonder what the walls would say if they could talk…
We had booked with the dinner option and it was superb. The arrangement down to the placement of each miniature flower on the plate was like a masterpiece! So beautiful we didn’t want to eat it, but eat it we did and it tasted even better than it looked!
Our third accommodation was the Muckross Park Hotel and Spa, located in historic Killarney right by the Ring of Kerry. This wasn’t technically a castle but it was as close as we could get and the location was ideal. Although the hotel had a tower (in which we stayed), it was more of a modern structure built in the 20th century.
We actually had some issues with the room here but the desk manager took good care of us and we were glad to be close to the Ring of Kerry for our daylong drive.
We did have their five-course meal (with a couple of extra amuse-gueules thrown in) in their renowned dining room and my husband started to get worried about fitting into his suit for the next few dinners!!
Following the Ring of Kerry, we were off to Limerick where our plan was to visit the iconic Cliffs of Moher the next day. Our chosen castle was the famous Dromoland Castle built in 1543. This is one of those moments where as soon as you round the bend to pull into the grounds you see it on the far side of the golf course and it takes your breath away! Huge, magnificent, impressive and 10 more similar adjectives come to mind! We had to sit there and gawk at it for a minute saying: “Wow! I can’t believe we are staying there!! Like a dream”.
The folks at the Dromoland were amazing and noting that it was our wedding anniversary they upgraded us to a superb lake view room, awesome! Arriving late we didn’t get to explore much but made it a point to stay later in the morning to walk the grounds and admire the castle. From sunken gardens to swans on the lake… they offered hawking, skeet shooting, and more. The plates said ‘distinction since 1543’ how cool is that?
Dinner was amazing too. The young man who was our waiter showed us how the fork for our fish had two notches, one on each side and how that designated it as a fish fork. We asked what they were for and he said it had something to do with cracking shells, removing bones and twisting the fork. Hmm, now I’ll just feel uncivilized eating fish with a regular fork!
While you certainly do pay for the experience of staying in a 16th century castle, we could not help but notice how every fixture was a quality piece, how every detail was exceptional. The hand written note in our room to welcome us and wish us a happy anniversary, the modern day electronic controls built into the stone castle walls. This magical castle had been transformed into a comfortable and top of the line 5* hotel.
We didn’t want to leave but our credit card insisted we do!
Quite frankly I was concerned that nothing could out do the Dromoland and that we risked being disappointed for our last night. I have traveled extensively staying at renowned luxury hotels and the Dromoland just raised the bar on anything I had previously experienced. How could anything even come close anymore? Have we now spoiled all our future stays forever?
As hard as it is to believe, our next castle, the Ashford, actually outdid this and took us to the next level of heaven on earth. Pulling in, the first thing you see is the bridge across the river with its turrets.
All we could say was: “Wow!” The Ashford is a Red Carnation property as of recently but dates back to 1228 and has a rich history. It’s a destination in itself – it opened as a luxury hotel in 1939 making it the oldest castle hotel in Ireland. It was said that the Prince of Wales came for a week but loved it so much he stayed for a month. He must have a higher limit on his credit card than us… ahem!
The grounds were simply spectacular at the Ashford Castle. Our room was a water view overlooking the bridge in front and we could see swans in the water.
Dinner in the George V restaurant was exquisite! We had a roast, which was rolled out in a huge dome and carved in front of us by the chef. Desserts and more chocolates and my husband’s suit buttons were stretched to the limit. Salads when we get home! Salads we agreed. No wonder all the kings looked large and died young. How could one keep this up?
Perhaps simply by luck our castle experience was built up like a crescendo leading to the Ashford. We said that had we stayed here first, the rest would have disappointed. We certainly did these in the right order.
Finally as our week was coming to a close we headed back to Dublin for our flight home. We drove by a dozen more castles along the way in various states of disrepair and decay. Each one worthy of an hours visit but after seeing a dozen over the week we were castled out!
I have to say that it was an amazing 20th wedding anniversary and we were pampered beyond even our greatest expectations. All the same we are looking forward to going home and eating some Mac and cheese. Uncouth and uncivilized perhaps, I’d use a fish fork if I had one but just getting back to normal will also be good!
Related post: Ireland Road Trip