"Someone could have come in here and changed everything," says Niall Rochford, the long-serving general manager at Ireland's Ashford Castle, discussing the landmark property's recent refurbishment by its new owner Red Carnation Hotels under the direction of the Tollman family, which owns the portfolio of boutique hotels in Europe, South Africa and the United States.
Perched on the shore of Lough Corrib, the sprawling castle dates to 1228, when the invading Anglo-Norman de Burgo family built it as their stronghold. Changing hands over the centuries, the estate was purchased by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness in 1852 and expanded both in land and structure. His son Lord Ardilaun and his wife then made it the setting of their love story. Over the decades, Ashford has hosted King George V, Ronald Reagan, Brad Pitt and other A-listers. The top-to-bottom renovation and restoration was carried out with sensitivity to this storied history and preserves the castle's spirit and sense of place.
In addition to extensive upgrades to the infrastructure that may go unnoticed, the hotel's public spaces and 82 rooms and suites have been completely renovated and redecorated with newly acquired antiques and artworks, sumptuous fabrics, custom carpets, marble bathrooms and state-of-the-art systems.
Additions include a 32-seat cinema where you can view movies, including The Quiet Man, with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, with some scenes filmed here. A clubby new billiard room and bar opens to a rooftop cigar terrace, where you can sample a flight of Irish whiskeys and select a smoke from Stanley Tollman's personal collection, which includes Cohiba Esplendidos and Partagás Lusitanias. A wine cave with a sommelier's tasting table is planned for a tunnel discovered during the renovations. A spa with a swimming pool is on the drawing board.
Even the estate's nine-hole golf course, where guests play at no charge, has been improved, and 18-hole courses are nearby. Other country pursuits include shooting clay pigeons, horseback riding, fishing, falconry or exploring the property's 350 pastoral acres.
"Ashford Castle is very important to the culture of Ireland, to the psyche of Ireland, to the people of Ireland," says Rochford. "What's happening now represents what happened way back in the 1800s [with the Guinness family]. We now have a family investing lovingly and caringly in this great old estate, and that hasn't happened in Ireland for a very, very long time."