This Mayo Hotel On a 350-Acre Estate Is The Perfect Weekend Escape For Nature-Lovers
Country-house charm meets culinary opulence
It was the first time a hawk had ever gone rogue. Day two at The Lodge at Ashford and I was trying to decide whether my country estate vibe was more Kiera Knightly or Jessica Browne Findlay when it became apparent that my boyfriend had lost one of the birds.
We were ambling through the 360-acre estate straddling the Galway/Mayo border, catching and releasing Harris Hawks and really feeling the part, under the careful guidance of our insanely knowledgable instructor, Meghan.
After shuttling down to the Falconry School, the oldest in Ireland, Meghan had made sure we were introduced to the birds individually before we gloved up and set off - leaving the oldest (and laziest) bird, Dingle the owl, behind at the aviary.
You'd be surprised how quickly you feel like you've been flying hawks forever. I felt my heart drop a little when "Beckett" took his first steep swoop towards the chicken foot clasped in my glove, but an hour later, armed with extensive insight from Meghan, the entire group felt like experts.
So cocky were we that we were now taking the birds' whereabouts for granted, allowing them to fly from tree to tree in the vast woodlands while we chatted about what we were going to have for lunch back at the Lodge.
That's when we noticed the slight panic in Meghan's voice as she called out to one of the naughtier Harris Hawks.
No sign. And my boyfriend standing at the front of the group with his arm outstretched in "landing" position. Guilty.
"This happens all the time I'd say?" I venture hopefully.
That's a no. We decide to call it a day for the Hawk Walk. Someone had mentioned Seafood Chowder and Guinness at the Lodge's Quay Bar and Brasserie, and there was no putting it out of our minds until we got it. So, hoping our feathered friend would return soon*, we made our way back to The Lodge.
"Everything at The Lodge is a performance - from the pop art to the smoke-effusing cocktails"
Bypassing the imposing walls of the castle itself (having been greeted by a porter at the drawbridge) makes you glad of the chilled out, cosy contrast of The Lodge.
The exterior of the 64-room country house has a gorgeous Fawlty Towers-esque quaintness, but inside there's bursts of modern appeal. The pop art adorning the walls in direct opposition to the traditional 19th century decor is the first hint of the sheer theatricality of this hotel.
I LOVE drama, and everything here is done with aplomb. From the presentation of the food in Wilde's multiple-award-winning restaurant, to the smoke bellowing from an Old Fashioned courtesy of Mixologist Johnny Burke, everything is a performance.
Lunch was no different. The Quay Bar Bites menu by Head Chef Jonathan Keane was as expertly curated as the art on the walls. Locally sourced artisan tasting dishes ranging from Duck Leg croquettes to Monkfish fingers managed to tempt one or two away from the previously-decided Seafood Chowder and Guinness Combo.
I went for the oyster orzo with a side of poached pear and pickled walnuts in a Cuinneog buttermilk dressing, and managed to steal a couple of Monkfish fingers - heaven.
If we weren't already excited for the full Chef Keane experience at Wilde's Restaurant that evening, we were practically salivating now.
But first - four hours to kill. A stroll down to Cong for a pack of Tayto and another pint of Guinness in a sleepy pub was the first port of call.
En route - more drama. A giant bust of Maureen O' Hara and John Wayne in a scene from The Quiet Man welcomes you to the tiny town, and movie-lovers can follow the movie 'trail' extending from Leam bridge outside Oughterard to Cong, or visit the Quiet Man museum.
For us, a ramble around the ruins of Cong Abbey, extending out over the lake to the Monk's Fishing House, before swan-watching and pondering why we'd ever spend a weekend in the city again.
"Chef Jonathan Keane's showmanship matches his culinary expertise"
Dinner at Wilde's restaurant. The matinee at the Quay Bar and Brasserie had suitably prepared us for the spectacle. Chef Keane's showmanship matches his culinary expertise, and he ventured around the table inviting us to guess the flavours in a small bite for a prize. (Nobody could pick out the horseradish sauce - cheater).
Chef Jonathan's mission statement is "local food with imagination" and he describes the menu as “inventive dishes using the finest of Irish artisan produce and uncomplicated flavours”.
The mission is accomplished with scallop ceviche and seaweed crisp, beef tartare with egg yolk and shallot mayonnaise, duck with carrot, orange and pine.
Ingredients are foraged in the surrounding estates, complemented by food from local producers with "friends in food" including Ballyhoura mushrooms and Dooncastle Oysters.
(Have you heard the story of Ballyhoura mushrooms? So good the Department of Agriculture conducted an investigation into the mislabelling of mushrooms with the brand name. More drama.)
The dessert menu is cryptically organised by flavours. "Seabuckthorn, Yuzu, Buttermilk. Chocolate, Parsnip, Pain E'Pice. Rhubarb, Gorse, Yoghurt."
I won't ruin the surprise, but there were happy sweet tooths all around.
We were lucky enough to stay in one of the six Lake View suites overlooking Lake Corrib. We had arrived after 10pm the evening before so had planned on a late supper delivered to the room, but once we saw the suite we knew we wouldn't have left no matter what time we arrived.
The Late Late Show accompanied by the 'Movie Night' menu with popcorn and nachos preceded one of the best night's sleep I've had in months.
On night two, after a long evening nestled into the couches in the upstairs lounge with an endless stream of cocktails, I'm ashamed to say we ordered room service again. This time, toasties and hot toddies presented to us on the coffee table as if we were dining in a five star restaurant rather than perched on the couch in our dressing gowns (so soft and fluffy).
This is Irish hospitality at its best - it's no wonder that Ireland is such a popular destination internationally. The levels of personal attention really know no bounds.
Speaking of personal attention, I went to visit Debbie Murphy in The Beauty Rooms the morning of our departure.
Debbie is the resident beautician, when she's not enlisted for bridal party beauty at the popular wedding spot, she's busy pampering guests with a range of Dermalogica products.
She analysed my skin and made me feel like the facial was completely customised - like she had never used this combination of Dermalogica products on anyone before me. I don't care if she was fibbing, it absolutely worked. I snoozed happily on the table while she spent almost two hours massaging, dabbing and cleansing and woke to a glow that mirrored my mood as I hopped in the car to head back to Dublin.
*Aztec is back safe and sound with his mate Beckett!
For more info or to book a stay at The Lodge at Ashford, head here.