As tends to happen, the things I am most excited to see or experience are the things that get rained out when I’m in Ireland. It happened a few years ago when I drove from Dublin to the west coast to see the Cliffs of Moher and ended up being greeted by a wall of fog. And it happened again recently when, again trekking west, I spent a couple nights at the newly and poshly, to the tune of US$75-million thanks to new owner Red Carnation Hotels, restored Ashford Castle.
Staying in the property is an experience on its own: 82 suites adorned with layers of decor that only the United Kingdom and Ireland can get away with; an expansive 350-acre estate on the shores of Lough Corrib; and more Irish comfort food than a waistband can contain. But what I was most looking forward to was spending half a day cycling around the estate and surrounding area. To me, life on a bike is a grand one. Life on a bike when it’s raining and I haven’t packed appropriately? Well, it’s a wet one.
Ashford Castle is all about the details, and my morning of cycling started with staff delaying the ride a bit in hopes that the clouds would part. I appreciated that this ride was at my discretion, and when it was decided we would hit the road despite the drizzle, I also greatly appreciated that a kind woman at the front desk realized I was not dressed in any way for the weather. She leant me her windbreaker/rain jacket — green, naturally — and I was on my way.
While there is mountain biking to be had in the area, I was keen on the trails, and my guide showed me not only around the estate and along the River Cong, which flows by the Castle and, whatever the weather, is populated by fishers looking for their catch of the day, but also led me through the winding routes of a lush state-owned forest park.
We skirted the border between Counties Mayo and Galway counting sheep as we went, and passed through the tiny town of Cong, thriving now mostly with Castle staff, whose numbers have increased to match the grandeur of the hotel’s restoration, which was completed in spring 2015. I got a brief history lesson at Cong Abbey, as we climbed over ruins and attempted to figure out why particular additions were made to the original structure knowing that aesthetics weren’t a reason. The ruins might be crumbling stone, but it’s still apparent that stone didn’t really make for a great interior layout.
As we rode, we passed by venues for several of the Castle’s other activities — the rolling holes of the golf course, horse riding paths and lake cruising, and we heard shots ring out from someone getting a lesson in clay shooting. Being on two wheels, and in a sense, being behind the scenes, able to pop in and out of the estate’s grounds, provided a peaceful and holistic perspective of the place.
At the end of the ride, I was escorted back to the Castle’s front entrance and was told I could have the bike for the rest of the day if I wanted to explore on my own. Had it been sunny, I likely would have taken my guide up on the offer. Instead, I tucked into afternoon tea.