Turn your kids’ princess or knight obsession into a family trip to a real castle. And while most of the world’s great castles, especially those you can actually spend a night in, are in Europe, the Ashford Castle, in the village of Cong in Ireland, is an easy place to start. Built as a defensive fortress in 1228 by the de Burgo clan, and owned by the beer-brewing Guinness family through the early 20th century, the castle has operated as a luxury hotel since 1939, catering to as many movie stars as families.
From first sight, the Ashford lives up to every storybook notion of what a castle should be, with an imposing Gothic structure and an ivy-strewn stone facade that looks out over 350 acres of countryside. Inside, the 83 guest rooms have an old-world elegance, while the common areas play up the castle’s past: A suit of armor guards the entryway, family crests hang on the stone walls, and gilt-framed portraits of former residents watch over tourists. Then there’s the medieval-looking Dungeon Bar, which hosts rousing nightly sing-alongs.
Kids may recognize the drawbridges and dungeons, but chances are they’ve never heard of falconry, an ancient sport of kings. The Ashford is renowned for its falconry school (the first in Ireland), and children delight in watching the hawks take off from adults’ long leather gloves to grab bits of meat. Other activities are similarly old-world—archery, fly-fishing, horseback riding, golf. The food, on the other hand, is stuck in neither time nor stereotype: Rather than the overboiled potatoes you might expect, the Ashford presents Irish fare with a modern twist. You’ll find poached local cod with organic vegetables on the kids’ menu, and Galway oysters for parents.
You could easily spend a week on the Ashford’s grounds, but it’s well worth renting a car and exploring the surrounding area too. Since the roads go through every town, you don’t get anywhere quickly, but that’s just fine. Heading west, you’ll hit the Connemara region, a bucolic landscape of streams, sheep, and stone cottages. Even when it’s pouring (which is often), the area is breathtaking. And of course, at the end of the day, your castle awaits.
Ashford Castle is about two hours from the Shannon airport. From $325for a double in low season (January 1 to March 31; November 1 to December 22) to $1,400 for a one-bedroom suite in high season (May 15 to September 30).
Photos: Matthew Hranek