Ireland is known for its rolling green hills, fervent history, affable people and quintessential music. Tucked away to the west, the village of Cong has all of this, plus something the rest of the country doesn’t: Ashford Castle. Built eight centuries ago, the former residence of the Guinness family is now one of the ritziest hotels in the world. Nobility, celebrities and heads of state frequent this pristine fairytale setting that boasts lavish décor, tempting culinary treats, stunning scenery and activities to entertain you for weeks.
Stay in Ashford Castle – or Nearby in the Village of Cong
Ashford Castle (ashfordcastle.com) is the ultimate place to unwind and marvel at the beauty around you. The hotel is one of 17 five-star luxury retreats owned by the Tollman family of South Africa, who recently invested $75 million in a two-year renovation of the castle.
A guard in full regalia welcomes you as you pull up to the property’s grand iron gate. Once inside, you travel through the nine-hole golf course before arriving to the magnificent dwelling.
Sink into a plush chair at check-in with a refreshing Ashford gin cocktail, the staff greeting you by name. Take a minute to gaze at the lobby’s oak ceilings, 800-book library, 19th century suit of armor and grand arrangement of red roses.
The hotel has 83 guest rooms and suites, each uniquely decorated with art, antiques and handcrafted furniture. While some rooms have original fireplaces and pedestal claw baths, all the rooms have expansive waterfront views of the lake or river.
The estate also hosts another property on site called The Lodge at Ashford Castle (thelodgeac.com). A recipient of a Condé Nast Traveler Readers Choice Award, the impressive country home features chic contemporary style, 38 beautiful guest rooms, 26 luxurious suites and an excellent restaurant.
If a bed-and-breakfast experience is what you wish, Ryan’s Hotel (ryanshotelcong.ie) is perfect. Located in the heart of Cong, the inn is owned by two chefs who are former Ashford Castle employees. A strong attention to detail and comfort are undeniable in this quaint and authentic setting. Make sure to enjoy an afternoon pint on their beautiful outdoor deck.
True Irish Food is Fresh and Local
Built in 1905 for the arrival of the Prince of Wales, who later became George V, the George V restaurant is Ashford Castle’s prized jewel. Waterford crystal chandeliers, royal blue velvet chairs, perfectly set linen tables and oak paneled walls adorn the room. Overlooking the estate’s gardens and with the soft tunes of the resident pianist, enjoy an unforgettable meal of locally grown food prepared by acclaimed chef Philipe Farineau.
Wilde’s at The Lodge is located on the Ashford property as well and offers a more contemporary take on Irish cuisine, including fresh seafood and lamb sourced locally from the nearby coastline and farms. Award-winning chef Jonathan Keane brings a creative take on some of the country’s most celebrated dishes.
Off property, The Crowe’s Nest is a traditional Irish bar and bistro with a large selection of beers and whiskeys and live Irish music several times a week. The warm fireplace is a cozy spot for a pint before dinner or for a relaxing after-dinner sip. The menu is seasonal and can include favorites like housemade seafood chowder, crispy fish and chips, and the famous chocolate and Guinness cake served with warm chocolate sauce.
If you are searching for sweet and simple, The Hungry Monk Café (hungrymonkcong.com) proudly serves fresh wholesome Irish food. Owners Aisling and Jonathan both worked in hospitality for years before they opened their own restaurant. With a motto like “sourced locally, served lovingly,” there isn’t a bad choice here.
Where to Shop in Cong for Art and More
If you plan a road trip beyond Cong, stock up first at Ryan’s Food Emporium (ryansfoodemporium.com): delicious Irish baked goods, breads, desserts, cheeses and wines. Everything is made in-house with ingredients sourced from the area’s best farms and producers.
Angela Emsen-West’s Watercolour Studios (artmayo.ie) is a charming gallery and workshop that sells original watercolor artwork. An easy 15-minute drive from Ashford Castle, this is where you will find distinctive pieces for keepsakes or gifts. If you want to paint with Emsen-West, she teaches classes at The Lodge at Ashford Castle.
Named one of the Queen’s favorite artists, celebrated painter and sculpture Rick Lewis (ricklewisart.com) has a gallery inside the castle. Lewis has been commissioned to create his nature-inspired art for heads of state and royalty and has art displayed in museums around the world.
Go Fly a Hawk at Your Private Falconry Lesson
Ireland’s School of Falconry (falconry.ie) is an exclusive must-do when visiting Cong. Located on the Ashford Castle property, the school has excellent instructors who guide you before sending you out into the woods to fly your own hawk. As you see your mighty hawk flying from tree to tree, sailing above you and then gliding toward your outstretched glove, it will be one of the most unforgettable moments of your life.
Surrounded by forests, lakes and mountains, Cong is a nature-lover’s dream. Explore the plethora of hiking trails, bike the serene countryside or take a paddleboard or kayak around the lake. Lough Corrib, the largest lake in the Republic of Ireland, has 365 islands and is one of the most famous places to fish for trout. The nearby Cong River also has one of the best Atlantic salmon runs in the country.
The lake also offers cruise tours, and guests of Ashford Castle can rent their 40-foot Italian luxury yacht to spend the day out on the water.
On land, Ashford Castle hotel guests and day visitors can participate in any number of outdoor activities, including horseback riding, archery, golf, tennis, zip lining and a rare opportunity to climb “Monty,” a 110-year-old, 164-foot-tall Monterey pine tree.
After being sporty — or in lieu of it — seek serenity at Ashford Castle’s glistening new spa. A co-ed relaxation pool is the most striking part of the graceful space, with a beautiful Tree of Life mural and a calming lake view. Couples suites, a hammam, steam rooms and a state-of-the-art gym round out the spa experience.
Ashford’s 3,000-bottle underground wine cellar is built into a former coal bunker. Fully restored to lavish elegance, the cellar now features private tasting rooms, where one of the estate’s sommeliers will take you on a journey through top vintages. It’s up to you to decide which wine pairs best with stories of epic tree climbing and falconry.