The expansive grounds at the recently renovated Ashford Castle in County Mayo, Ireland

Born Again

In Ireland, treat yourself royally at a castle being made more royal

BY DON NICHOLS

Want to be dazzled? Venture across the Atlantic to County Mayo on Ireland's West Coast and settle into Ashford Castle for a few days. The 13th-century manor, which has operated as a hotel for 75 years, now sports a dramatically updated look via a new owner you might call its knight in shining armor.

Through its storied past - the Guinness family owned the castle and used it as a country residence from 1852 to 1939 - Ashford has hosted the likes of George V of England (then Prince of Wales), prime minister Tony Blair, Sen. Edward Kennedy, Brad Pitt, Barbra Streisand, and other luminaries. In recent years, with the Irish economy ailing, the castle lost a bit of its luster when it fell into receivership and little money could be spent on upkeep and improvements. Enter Red Carnation Hotels, which bought the 82-room property two years ago and, as knights do, has been acting gallantly ever since - investing heavily in its restoration, surprising even the hotel's management team with the work's magnitude. The new owner has spent at least as much money on the restoration as was spent buying the castle, which borders Lough Corrib and the River Cong and sits on 350 lush acres about 25 miles north of Galway.

"We could never have imagined what's happening here at Ashford Castle," says general manager Niall Rochford, who has overseen the hotel's operation for nearly 13 years.

Red Carnation, which owns and operates 18 hotels in South Africa, Europe, and the U.S. (the Chesterfield Palm Beach in Florida), renovated half of the rooms in early 2014 and shut down the hotel early this year to redo the remaining ones, work it plans to complete by April. We're talking striking changes. Every room is being completely redone and given its own distinct, stately look: Beautiful antiques, expensive fabrics, bespoke carpets, original artwork, and marble bathrooms work together to create especially elegant rooms that will make you feel like royalty yourself. They all come with the latest techno amenities, including USB ports connecting to flat-screen LED smart TVs, iLuv speakers, electronic blinds, and complimentary Wi-Fi.

More antiques and locally sourced materials now dress up the public areas. For example, look for the suit of armor (a favorite with kids) in the entrance hall and the antique lectern in the George V dining room. You can't miss the eye-catching Connemara marble bar in the Prince of Wales Bar.

The restoration includes enticing new offerings, as well. Venture inside the handsome Billiards Room and you'll be awed by a full-sized mahogany and satinwood cross-banded billiards table from Thurston & Co. Ltd. While relaxing here, order a cognac, premium Scotch, or rare Irish whiskey - your liquor choices include Midleton 25 and Knappogue Castle 1951. On the rooftop just outside the Billiards Room, the hotel has just opened a Cigar Terrace with seating in a plush tent. Light up fine stogies such as the Habano 2000, Cohíba Espléndido, or Partagás Lusitania. For family fun, get comfortable in one of the new cinema's plush 32 seats and watch a flick.

More big changes loom. A little-known tunnel inside the castle is currently being converted into a wine cellar with intimate private dining rooms, and the hotel plans to significantly upgrade its spa and fitness center and add an indoor pool later this year. A boathouse on the lake will soon become a secluded honeymoon suite.

So, so many changes. Do yourself a favor and ask some of Ashford's nearly 200 friendly employees for their take on them. Many have worked at the hotel for 20-plus years and it's quite heartwarming to hear them lovingly reminisce about the castle and talk proudly of its transformation under Red Carnation. "It's like they've awoken a sleeping giant," says Robert Bowe, a 27-year veteran of the hotel who's the sommelier in the George V dining room. From $475. 800-346-7007; ashfordcastle.com

GREAT OUTDOORS

Any stay at Ashford includes outdoor fun, given it sits on so many green acres. Horseback riding, falconry, clay-pigeon shooting, fly-fishing, tennis, and golf headline the activities. Of special note if you like to play golf when away from home: A drainage problem that sometimes hindered play on the hotel's nine-hole golf course has now been corrected, upping the number of days guests can hit its fairways throughout the year.

LODGING OPTION

If you find Ashford's rates too steep or worry the castle may be too formal for your tastes, consider booking its sister property, the 26-suite Lodge at Ashford Castle, just a short walk away. The more casual, more funky lodge, which Red Carnation bought last year, is more economical, with rates from $175. While saving money, you'll still have access to all the castle's amenities. 011-353-94-954-5400; thelodgeac.com

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