News & Reviews Europe Ireland Review: Ashford Castle, Ireland

Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle, Ireland
Room type: Junior Suite
Duration: 13th > 15th November
Booked with: Amex FHR

This review has been difficult to write (haven’t they all!).  Normally I would write this either at the hotel or very soon after, but due to the overdose of 5 star hotels in a 2 week period, I’m rather behind.  But that is not what makes it a challenge.  The issue is that I cannot write this without comparing it to Ballyfin.  Ashford Castle won Virtuoso’s “Best Hotel in the World” in 2015 and Ballyfin won Conde Nast Travellers “Best Hotel in the World” 2016, so it makes it a fair comparison.  But really there is no comparison.  Ballyfin is better in every single imaginable way.  That does not make Ashford Castle a bad experience, just one that cannot live up to what came after it.

Pre-sales

I had a brief e-mail chit chat to their reservations team regarding transfers and best routes for the trip.   Everything was promptly handled and the collection from the airport was booked.  There was no pre-arrivals information nor any request for any additional information from us, which Ballyfin did so well.  Not even a top o’ the mornin’ to ya.  How very disappointing.

Getting there

Around 45 minutes from Knock Airport.  It’s a good job that it’s in Catholic territory, as the big man appeared to be smiling down on us when during the large cross winds the plane landed like it was about to crash.

After, what now appears a standard habit of traveling, I stopped pooing myself from the landing, I was out of the airport in no time.  The airport is tiny, so even with luggage it will take minutes from the debarking to being through immigration, as RyanAir are never in the mood to waste money and not turn around the aircraft immediately.  The scale of the airport does not prevent them from managing to fit in a single advert, though – one for Ashford Castle, with a simple message: “Best Hotel in the World”.  Nothing like some additional hype to sprinkle onto your hype.  With the Ashford Castle driver waiting outside, we were promptly on our way, with arrival just after 10am.  The room was not immediately available, so they offered a tour, but waking up at 6am to get on a RyanAir flight was enough excitement for one day, so I went to have breakfast instead.  By 11:10 the room was ready, which, for no extra cost, was greatly appreciated.

Ashford Castle entrance

Ashford Castle entrance

Setting

The entire wow factor of Ashford Castle is – surprise, surprise – that it is in fact a castle.  This gives everyone the opportunity to relive their Disney childhood dreams, albeit for only a few nights.

Fingers crossed it’s the happy Disney, not the Sleepy Hollow version.

Ashford Castle is incredibly well maintained by a large team of gardeners, but the land it sits on is still one of the major selling points, as it is surrounded by real, uninterrupted, natural beauty, including a lake and river, along with acres of beautiful landscape, a golf course and pristine gardens.  It presents itself as the fairytale that many would hope for.

Gardens

Gardens

Stay List

Nope.  Nada.  Nothing.  They failed to acknowledge it to any degree and when I emailed their reception team to confirm if they received it, they waited until an hour after I had checked out to respond.

Rooms

You cannot go somewhere like Ashford and complain about the decor, as spending even 15 seconds on their website  would tell you everything you should expect.  Some of the rooms are ok, others may even venture into good, but the majority are more disgusting than a glory hole at the Little Chef.  Taking Ashford Castle back to the 1600s would be too modern.  I can always live with decor that I’m not a fan of, as long as it does not feel cheap, is well maintained and is practical.  Ashford has gone to the hassle of refurbishing and introducing modern tech into the rooms, so your lighting system, do not disturb and underfloor heating in the bathroom is easily managed.  I will even forgive them for having 3 TVs in a Junior Suite, with one of them being completely obstructed by the four poster bed.

Even the view isn't bad

Even the view isn’t bad

It was a rare moment to experience a Junior Suite with separate living room.  Normally this just means you have a bit of extra space in the bedroom that serves no purpose other than to justify the price increase.  The only reason you ever book a Junior Suite is the hope that they will upgrade you to a suite, but here the Junior Suite offered enough for a separate area that offered privacy from the bedroom.  The website showed availability in all the room categories above the Junior Suite, but they still did not upgrade us.  With an 11am check-in, I did not feel it appropriate to throw my toys out of the pram and question this injustice.  However, the sinking feel was the same one I received one Christmas, after begging my parents for an iPod only to be given a Walkman.

Bedroom

Bedroom

For some quick improvements, they would do with having tea or coffee making facilities, get rid of the hideous reading lights next to the bed that felt more like a threat than a help, and remove the need needing to be physically present to keep the heating on, as it means if you leave the room the heating goes off.  They do, however, give you chocolates during downturn, so all is forgiven.

Bedroom

Bedroom

Living room

Living room

Room controls

Room controls

Bathroom

Bathroom

Amenities

There are so many different rooms and facilities at Ashford Castle, that even if I were not so lazy, I would  struggle to list them all.

Their library probably has some information in it somewhere

Their library probably has some information in it somewhere

Spa

My favourite place in most hotels.  And here is no exception.  The spa only opened last year, which is obvious, but not for the lack of maturity or service, but the incredible, fresh facilities.  The facilities are incredible; the heated pool is the perfect place to relax, but perhaps even better is the relaxation rooms available for after treatments that contain great views, light snacks and peaceful music.  It was rare to ever see anyone at the pool, and even rarer to see anyone in it, seeing that they had the most bizarre policy whereby you had to wear a hat if you entered it.  Maybe if we all looked ridiculous then we’d get along better?

A friend joined me on the trip and went to the spa twice for a massage and facial, both which she really enjoyed it, but didn’t rate it amongst the best she’s had. The main issue was the hard sell on the products at the end.

Ashford Castle pool

Ashford Castle pool

Gym

Gym

Activities

There is a massive list of things to do at Ashford, including watching films in their own cinema, golf, tennis and shooting, but the only one that appealed was the falconry.  Luckily for us, the concierge was in cost-saving mode, as they could not be bothered to help us.  As it was the final day and time was limited, we wanted to only take some pictures of them, rather than do the entire hour course.  Speaking to concierge, they just told us to deal with the falconry company directly, so we didn’t bother.  We were not after a freebie, we just didn’t want to hang around for an hour doing it when we didn’t have much time.

Food

I have no idea what took place with the food at Ashford Castle, as it went from offering one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had, to mildly edible lunch and inedible, dry and tasteless dinner.  Maybe the chef goes home and one of the wolfhounds takes over.

I’m not a big breakfast person and often just don’t bother when at home or in most hotels, particularly when on business trips, as they’re rarely any good, but Ashford was exceptional. A small, but very good buffet with possibly the best sausages in the history of mankind, then a limited but excellent a la carte offering. For dinner in the aptly and self-prophesying Dungeon, I sent my dinner back. Lunch was not much better, so then we didn’t really care to look forward to anything. If I stayed any longer I would have likely just resulted to eating breakfast three times a day.  We didn’t feel like eating at George V, as we had been on a fine dining binge recently and it felt overkill, so we mixed between lunch at the bar beside it, room service (same menu as the bar) and The Dungeon.

There was also a strange disconnect between the tea (excellent) and an inability to understand coffee; or they understood it perfectly, but had no idea how to execute it.  Guests are not given any priority with bookings, which is now common in most similar hotels, as getting a dinner reservation for specific times proved very difficult – luckily room service swept in to the rescue on one night.  Well, they delivered something that you’d call food, at least.

Let's focus on the positives and show some breakfast pictures

Let’s focus on the positives and show some breakfast pictures

Service

What you must say about Ashford Castle is their desire to try.  There is what I will call “classic Irish hospitality”, whereby their natural friendliness signs through.

With 82 rooms, Ashford has become too large and with too much going on to offer the type of service that I would have expected from the so-called Best Hotel in the World.  It is what so many English countryside resorts remind me of; in that they are very friendly, they clearly are trying and you will not leave with any complaints, but you will not be going to your blog and start writing a poem about how amazing it was.  There is a big difference between employees who could not be more helpful and react to the guests vs the top-end resorts who have already thought of it well in advance.  Ballyfin achieves this, whereas Ashford does not.  it’s smiles and willing, but it will never be perfect, yet nor is there anything worthy of complaining about.

This is not greatly surprising, as it appeared a large amount of the guests were not staying there and lots of areas of the hotel are signed posted to say they are for guests only.

The bridge that leads to the main entrance.

The bridge that leads to the main entrance.

Worth Knowing

Whenever I book a hotel I will look up the rates myself, then contact AMEX or a Virtuoso agent to see what rates they are able to get.  The rates are almost always identical, so the reason comes down to the extra benefits, such as $100 credit, upgrades and late checkout.  For Ashford Castle, the rate AMEX returned was so cheap I had to ask them to double check it – it was half the price of booking directly.  Fortunately the rate was correct, so it made the trip half price.  If you do book with AMEX, you should also be aware that Ashford gives you a voucher on arrival that you need to give at checkout to get your €85 credit.  I forgot to do this, yet then emailed them on the car journey to Ballyfin and they swiftly refunded it, but it’s rather strange they need you to proactively provide it in the first place.

Main entrance and library

Main entrance and library

The Good

  • Excellent list of activities
  • Beautiful, well maintained grounds
  • Breakfast

The Bad

  • Lunch and dinner

The Luxurious

  • By all definitions, it is a castle.

Conclusion

Having stayed here immediately after The Halkin, Ashford Castle had the lowest standards to hit in order for me to be satisfied.  So I can walk away from Ashford having enjoyed it.  It is not perfect, but the AMEX pricing made it really, really attractive.  However, once transfers were added in, the costs did begin to spiral and a spa treatment or two and it’s very easy to spend nearly €1000 per day, of which only €400/n was for the Junior Suite.   I am rarely surprised by a bill, especially as most resorts I’ve stayed at this year are all-inclusive, but Ashford did just that.  And not one of those good surprises, like “I’m not pregnant”, but the kind like “Please contact us urgently” coming from your doctor. Or “I am pregnant”.

60% of guests are US based, which is likely the why behind why it is so well regarded.  Castles aren’t a common site in the land of the free, so the rarity of being able to stay in one most make this very appealing.  Ashford Castle is beautiful, but in so many other areas it’s simply mediocre and in no way deserves the awards it has won.  You should not visit here to expect the worlds best hotel, but that does not mean you should leave having had a bad experience.  The best experience is just coming without the hype.  But sometimes that is hard, as it seems they have bought into it themselves, especially when I noticed a bus with “tourist bus” written on the side of it arriving.  Nothing says exclusive more than a tourist bus.

It is a beautiful property with really beautiful surroundings, so I would return one day, but it’s hard to be so positive of it when Ballyfin is so much better.

Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 4th Dec '16

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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