- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

DUBLIN — The image of majestic stone castles rising from rolling green fields is romantic, a fantasy held by many travelers who dream of Ireland.

That image is a reality all over the island nation — where castles offer such differing charms and features that visitors can tailor castle stays to their whims and preferences. Luxury accommodations, resident ghosts, medieval banquets and horseback riding — all of these can be found amid the smattering of Irish castles. Regardless of each castle’s location, striking views and sightseeing opportunities are never far away.

“There is pretty much everything that you could want — literally everything from a tiny love nest to a huge stately pile; everything from the point of view of price, from the point of view of location,” says John Colclough, one of the luxury travel specialists at Adams & Butler in Dublin, which books castle stays. “You can have them on the seaside; you can have them in the middle of the mountains.”

For top-tier service and extravagant lodging, Ashford Castle in County Mayo and Dromoland Castle in County Clare rank among the finest hotels in the country.

Both have played host to myriad high-profile events, including James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan’s wedding at Ashford and the 2004 European Union-United States summit at Dromoland.

Each of these five-star properties sits in the picturesque west of Ireland, and Dromoland’s 400-acre estate is just eight miles from Shannon Airport — allowing guests to enjoy pampering, golf and woodland wanders less than half an hour after landing.

Ashford Castle is a longer drive at two hours, but the route leads visitors on a winding tour of the breathtaking west before concluding in Cong, Mayo, a lush rural bastion of rolling hills and lakes where “The Quiet Man” was filmed.

Befitting five-star establishments, the castles offer all that visitors would expect from luxury hotels: fine dining, gorgeously appointed rooms, expansive golf courses and a range of specialty pursuits such as falconry.

Castle stays are available at more economical prices. Belleek Castle in County Mayo offers single rooms from $118 per night and double rooms from $183. Nestled at the end of an extraordinary tree-lined drive, the 15th-century structure has rooms that are stately yet not decadent.

Belleek’s grounds cover 1,000 forested, river-cut acres dotted with trails and bridges; visitors can tire themselves strolling the grounds before returning to the castle’s enormous heavy doors, walking past the massive front hall fireplace and sitting down to a hearty meal in the elegant wood-decorated dining room. Guests also can make private appointments to view the castle museum, which displays everything from fossils to 16th-century armor in its vaults.

Renting out an entire castle is also more affordable than travelers might expect. Mr. Colclough points out that certain small castles, encompassing only about three bedrooms, can be rented for $1,575 a week.

Knappogue Castle, a five-bedroom medieval structure in County Clare, can be rented for $6,825 weekly. The castle is a short drive from Shannon Airport and close to attractions such as the Cliffs of Moher. During the high season, April through October, it stages a nightly medieval banquet, open to the public, with storytelling and medieval music.

There are, of course, other castles that can be rented at exorbitant rates. Humewood Castle in County Wicklow, for example, boasts 16 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms — at a price that reaches $99,000 per week. The gray spires and buttresses of Humewood rise from among the Wicklow Mountains a little more than an hour outside of Dublin, and the rental includes staff to take care of breakfast and daily cleaning.

Some castles claim to be haunted. Castle Leslie in County Monaghan has been in the Leslie family for generations, and deceased members of the clan reportedly have turned up on more than one occasion. Leap Castle in County Offaly bills itself as the most haunted castle in Ireland.

Sean Ryan, who lives at Leap with two family members, says they hear footsteps, doors creaking and the like and that one of the otherworldly entities likes to poke people. He says they’ve “never felt threatened by any of it at all. It’s all quite friendly.” The Ryans offer tours to visitors.

Bunratty Castle in County Clare has a folk park re-creating 19th-century Victorian Ireland and a banquet like that at Knappogue.

Visitors must have a stomach for medieval kitsch, but the feast at Bunratty is amusing, tasty and easily chalked up to a vacationing guilty pleasure.

If visitors are determined to hit Ireland’s top tourist attractions, Blarney Castle is a must-see. Here lies the legendary Blarney stone, famed for its ability to bestow the gift of eloquence. Travelers should prepare for long lines at the County Cork landmark as well as a precipitous, sharp-angled lean to reach the stone — which can be kissed only by bending over backward, held up by Blarney staff.

Regardless of the risk and cringe factor, most tourists, especially Americans, wouldn’t dream of visiting Ireland without a pilgrimage to the gift-of-the-gab attraction.

Whether you choose a luxury experience or go for the kitschy stuff, all of the castles offer Ireland’s beautiful scenery and a warm welcome.

“The actual experience of somebody coming to stay in an Irish castle is not just the bed and the view and everything else,” Mr. Colclough says. “It’s the local people, and that really is what makes the holiday memorable.”

For general tourism information on Ireland, go to www.discoverireland.com or phone 800/223-6470.

Adams & Butler can book castle stays and tours: www.irishluxury.com or 800/894-5712.

CASTLES:

Ashford: www.ashford.ie or 800/346-7007.

Belleek: www.belleekcastle.com/ or 353/96-22400.

Blarney: www.blarneycastle.ie or 353/21-438-5252.

Bunratty: www.shannonheritage.com/Bunratty_Day.htm or 353/61-360-788.

Dromoland:www.dromoland.ie or 353/61-368-144.

Humewood: www.humewood.com or 353/59-647-3215.

Knappogue: www.shannonheritage.com/Knappogue_Day.htm or 353/61-360-788.

Leap: www.shannonregiontourism.ie/individual_results.asp?sID=49116 or 353/57-913-1115.

Leslie: www.castleleslie.com or 353/47-88-100.

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