Ashford Castle: Full flight into luxury

There's a rustling above us in the canopy of oaks and chestnuts, then a heart-stopping rush of air. A chocolate-brown Harris's hawk lands with a thump on my outstretched glove and dives for its "prey" – the sliver of meat between my fingers.

We're on a "hawk walk" in the woodlands of one of Ireland's grandest and much-awarded luxury hotels, Ashford Castle, with our charming falconer, Mel, experiencing a sport that has enthralled people for 4000 years.

My hawk, Beckett, is a young, exuberant male, eager to make his "kills" both on my glove and in the bushes. The other hawk, Stoker, a larger alpha female, is slightly more sensible, despite eventually flouncing home because Beckett is receiving all the attention.

They are two of about 20 birds, including a goshawk, peregrine hybrids, owls and merlins, from Ireland's School of Falconry, the oldest established falconry school in Ireland and one of the hotel's drawcards.

Ashford Castle, with its crenellated medieval towers, ivy-clad grey stone and resident Irish wolfhounds is a combination of fairytale castle and epic blockbuster. In its rich and complex history, there's a touch of Ben Hur, a sprinkling of Rapunzel, a dash of Genghis Khan and a hint of War and Peace.

We're not, of course, in Jerusalem or Russia or Mongolia or even the German village of Brothers Grimm fancy. We're in Cong, Western Ireland, in a fairly imposing five-star hotel, to put it mildly.

On arrival, we stop on the castle's drawbridge to admire a magnificent, somewhat eclectic, mix of medieval Norman stronghold, English fortress, French chateau and Irish mansion house, cushioned by cropped lawns, draped in ivy, twinkling against the County Mayo sky.

It's clear that this manicured place, lounging on the shores of "the cleanest lough in Ireland, Lough Corrib", will be offering no draughty halls, damp bedchambers, cobwebbed dungeons or benighted mythical princesses.

Instead, there will be luxury – enough to satisfy royalty, presidents, celebrities and me, currently cowering beneath the portcullis.

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There's more cowering going on up among the battlements – the wood pigeons look jumpy, entirely understandable given they're sharing the 142-hectare estate with the likes of Stoker and Beckett. Mind you, Mel tells us that some of the hawks have developed a more benign taste for mushrooms.

We've come for a day-trip to the 82-room Ashford Castle as part of Belmond's five day, four-night Grand Hibernian Legends and Loughs train trip. The new luxury train will carry us from Dublin through Cork, Killarney, Galway, Westport, County Mayo and Connemara before heading back to Dublin. Eight-hundred-year-old Ashford Castle, where The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara was filmed in the early 1950s, is a highlight.

We will dine like kings in the George V dining room, on herb-crusted wild hake with risotto nero, Connemara mussels, clams, wild langoustine and bouillabaisse jus from executive chef Philippe Farineau. We will engage in falconry, tour the castle, examine the bathroom where Ronald Reagan, ahem, did business, gawp at the gallery of celebs from Woody Allen to John F. Kennedy, and pat, gingerly, Garvan, one of the resident Irish wolfhounds, who, at two, already weighs 95 kilos and is 196 centimetres tall.

Ashford began life in 1228 as the Castle of Cong, built by the invading Anglo-Normans and occupied for 350 years by the de Burgo family.

But, as our entertaining guide, activities estate manager, Tom Breen, quips: "If you can't beat them, you breed them out with Irish charm!" Over time, de Burgo became de Borko, and finally, Bourke.

In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I re-certified the castle as a British fortress. In 1715, it was gifted to the Oranmore and Browne family who named it Ashford Castle and added a French chateau. The double-headed eagles on the roof represent the Browne coat-of-arms.

But the name most associated with the castle is Guinness, with Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness buying it in 1852 and extending the estate bigly, as Donald Trump might say, adding two Victorian-style extensions and planting thousands of exotic trees.

Sir Benjamin's son, Lord Ardilaun, inherited, married, and expanded Ashford. Eager to be rid of the "booze money" taint, the lord and lady set about social climbing.

For six years, they prepared the house for a two-week 1905 visit from the prince who would be George V. Their efforts succeeded. He stayed for six weeks, taking part in a heroic shoot that cleaned out every woodcock in Mayo.

The Guinnesses were renowned for being excellent employers. The term "to boycott" originated from a neighbouring estate, run by one Captain Boycott. He maltreated his workers who, seeing how the Guinnesses treated theirs, went on strike, prompting a London paper to announce: "Boycott in Ireland".

Descendants of those workers are still at Ashford, which has undergone another major refurbishment more recently. Mrs Beatrice Tollman, founder of the boutique South African Red Carnation Hotel Collection, has Ashford polished to a high sheen – do try her South African-inspired bobotie spring rolls or peri-peri poussin at one of the more informal estate restaurants, Cullen's at the Cottage. Some of the wines also hail from Bouchard Finlayson, a fine Cape vineyard.

The grand public rooms, which include the Oak Hall, the Inglenook, the George V Dining Room, the Connaught Room, Prince of Wales Bar are filled with valuable furnishings, original panelling, ceilings, balustrades and honeycombed with secret doors, tunnels and passages.

Between eating, sleeping, golfing and spa pampering, there's a world of fishing, boating, kayaking, horse riding, ziplining, archery, bike riding, clay pigeon shooting and a charming activity listed as "tree climbing".

No wonder fortunate people return year after year, including Caroll Spinney, of Sesame Street's Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch fame. If passing through, you may hear the curmudgeonly tones of Oscar the Grouch ringing in the New Year by the Inglenook fireplace, as is his wont.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

Belmond.com/grandhibernian

ireland.com

GETTING THERE

Emirates and Qantas codeshare from Sydney and Melbourne to Dublin via Dubai. See qantas.com.au

TOURING THERE

Ashford Castle has doubles from €245 ($352) with breakfast. See ashfordcastle.com/. Belmond Grand Hibernian offers two, four and six-night journeys. Prices start from €3160 ($4565) a person for a two-night journey with two guests sharing twin or double cabins and includes meals, drinks, excursions and accommodation. See Belmond.com/grandhibernian

Alison Stewart was a guest of Belmond and Tourism Ireland

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