2004: Destination - King of Irish Castles

Cong, Ireland

Eating breakfast in an Edwardian-style drawing room in Ashford Castle, I gaze through the massive picture window and across Loch Corrib. There is a timeless feel to this ancient spot, with its overstuffed chairs, lush drapes, rich oak paneling, dazzling chandeliers and its soothing fireplaces, the latter of which are all burning this crisp day. And that sense is only enhanced by the sight of limestone turrets outside the window, covered with ivy, and the revelation that stones for a fortress on this site were first laid in 1228.

It is not hard to get slowly lost in the history of Ashford, thinking of knights, moats and damsels in distress and believing things could not possibly be better. After all, what once was the home of the Guinness brewing family is now a sumptuous, 83-room hotel. In addition, the day’s schedule includes a late morning tee time at the acclaimed Carne Golf Links and an afternoon appointment to fish with a local ghillie (guide).

But then a tall Irishman dressed in a sleek morning coat approaches and says, “Sir, your helicopter will be here at 11 o’clock.”

Now, that is the way to go, and it also offers a sudden return to the 21st century. Even though it has been more than 500 years since Ireland was last ruled by a king, people can still be treated royally here, especially if they have a penchant for golf, fishing and castles.

And helicopters, too.

It was with a shameless affection for those four luxuries as well as an unabashed pleasure in over-the-top hospitality that I arranged a weeklong journey to the Emerald Isle. The plan was to stay at both the Ashford and Dromoland castles, tee it up on a handful of the country’s best links, wet a salmon fly or two and enjoy a couple of helicopter rides. And the hope was to discover a compelling variation of that timeworn theme – golf in Ireland.

It’s easy to believe all that is possible as I gather my clubs and walk to the landing pad at Ashford, which is part of a 350-acre estate and offers guests everything from horseback riding to falconry. Soon after, a blue EC-130 chopper swoops over the tallest turrets of the castle and hovers above the beautifully manicured lawn before settling onto the ground.

Moments later, the pilot, John McDermott, a former search-and-rescue flyer for the Irish Coast Guard, lifts the French-made seven-seater off the ground and banks sharply toward the coastal town of Belmullet and Carne. Normally a two-hour drive, it is going to take us less than 30 minutes, even as we battle a stiff headwind.

Saving time is one reason helicopter travel in Ireland is so enjoyable. The narrow lanes that run throughout the land and the frequent encounters with sluggish lorries and horse-drawn carts can make a 60-mile drive feel like 600.

Another is the sheer magnificence of air travel and the fabulous vantage a trip some 700 feet above the ground, at 140 mph, provides. Sheep and cattle graze this day in verdant meadows cordoned off by mossy stone walls as well as thick patches of yellow gorse and vast peat bogs where farmers had cut long swaths of that natural fuel and laid them out to dry.

The visuals change as the chopper approaches the coast and Glew Bay, which is dotted with more than 350 islands, some of which are abandoned except for skittish flocks of sheep scrambling about the fertile sod. We also fly over salmon farms and oyster beds set up in the water between the islands before coming upon Carne, a layout so spectacularly natural, locals say it was God who made the course, and all man had to do was tidy it up.

McDermott thinks it would be fun to take a closer look at the links, so he drops down to 200 feet and skims over the course, so close at times it seems the grain in the greens is visible, before coasting down to the helipad by the clubhouse as a dozen or so Irishmen watch.

Stepping out of the chopper, I feel more movie star than golfer, and that feeling continues througha rather ragged round during which I struggled with my swing as well as a wind that blew 20 knots or so. But neither of those dampened enthusiasm for the course, especially as we headed into the dunes for the back nine and a brilliant bit of architectural variety.

First came No. 10, a straightforward par 5 requiring three precise shots, and then the 11th, a testy par 4 that doglegs to the right. No. 12 is another par 4 that doglegs, only this one to the left.

Architect Eddie Hackett’s genius is as obvious as it is enjoyable. The stiff breeze forces us to keep our shots low, the yellow and white wildflowers grow in windswept patches among the sand hills, and cows and sheep graze in the background as we head back toward the sea.

The green at the 13th overlooks the water, and the 166-yard, par-3 14th may be the most enjoyable play of all this day. The wind is finally at our backs and the flag stick is tucked precariously in the back right of the green.

The golf professional buys us a couple of pints when our round is done, and then we head back to Ashford. I quickly stash my bag at the front desk and head to the dock to meet my ghillie. Waiting there is Frank Costello, a thirtysomething, second-generation fishing guide who is said to be the best ghillie in the area.

Corrib is the second largest lake in Ireland, covering 64 square miles. It is full of Atlantic salmon this time of year and regarded by many anglers as the best wild brown trout fishery in Europe.

Judging by the number of fisherman plying its waters this afternoon, it also appears to be one of the most popular, scattered with boats of sportsmen who have traveled from all over the continent.

No one is feeling particularly lucky this day, however, as a brisk wind from the northeast makes the prospects of a full creel unlikely.

“Part of it is that the fish don’t bite as well in this wind,” Costello says. “And it is also a bit early in the salmon run, so we are not likely to do much with them.”

We don’t do much with anything, but it doesn’t really matter. In between casts and conversations, I happily gaze across the sparkling waters and keep admiring the sight of Ashford in the background, its charcoal-grey walls looming majestically in the distance. Small groups of mallards fly by, and fish occasionally rise. I change flies every 10 minutes or so, hoping each different style of nymph will produce a strike.

Nothing seems to work, however, and at sunset, we return to the castle. I take the sting out of my failures on both the links and the loch with a dram of whisky and then take a casual tour of Ashford.

There is the marvelous suit of armor in the lobby as well as classic oil landscapes adorning so many of the walls. Arranged in one corner is an exhibit of photographs and memorabilia dedicated to the 1905 visit of the Prince of Wales, who came to Ashford for a driven woodcock shoot, and another celebrates the fact that the castle was one of the locations for the John Wayne classic “The Quiet Man.”

It is the history of a place like this that makes a castle so enticing. Add to that the comfortable formality of a place where people still dress for dinner and carry themselves with courteous regard, as if they really were part of a bygone era. To be sure, a daily binge of 36 holes and a cozy Bed & Breakfast can be an excellent Irish experience. But so can a morning 18, followed by some first-rate fishing and a bit of castle touring thrown in.

Another thing that makes Ashford work for a golf trip is its proximity to the wonderful courses in Ireland’s northwest region. Carne, of course, is near the top of any must-play list. The last links designed by Hackett is a rugged gem with towering dunes, windswept bunkering and wild undulations. It fits so seamlessly into its surroundings that the holes are barely discernible from the air until you are right on top of them.

Connemara in County Galway is another example of Hackett’s work. Laid out on a desolate point of land frequently buffeted by gales off Ballconneely Bay, it has earned the hearty praise of countless golfers, among them Tom Watson, who made a pilgrimage there in 2000. Connemara is about a 90-minute drive from Ashford and often described as being on the edge of Europe. But it seems so delightfully removed from civilization that the course might have well been the edge of the earth.

Another classic within easy range of Ashford is Enniscrone in County Sligo, with its massive dunes, blind shots and fabulous ocean views. It blew hard the day I ventured there – alas, by car (also 11/2 hours) and not chopper – prompting one of my playing partners to comment on the “lazy wind.”

“Why do you call it that?” I asked.

“Because it doesn’t go around you,” he explained. “It is so lazy it goes right through you.”

Enniscrone has excellent fishing possibilities as well, and a local club member, Judd Ruane, also happens to be a fishing guide who had taken Mark O’Meara and Nick Faldo, among others, onto the famed River Moy. The nearby Moy is regarded as a top salmon and trout producer, and its presence outside Enniscrone opens the possibility for yet another blast (as in golf) and cast (as in fishing) experience.

But it is time for me to move on Ashford’s sister property, Dromoland Castle in County Clare. It, too, has a grand Gothic feel that is enhanced by splendid wood carvings and antique furnishings. Built in the 16th century and transformed into a 100-room luxury hotel in 1962, the castle once served as the royal seat of the O’Brien family, descendants of Brian Boru, the former High King of Ireland. It also is a wonderful jumping off point for golf – and a great place from which to fish.

However, there were no plans to do either of those the day I arrived at Dromoland, so the afternoon was spent lounging on a small couch in front of a roaring fireplace in one of the small libraries, a book in one hand and a glass of claret in another, taking in the immeasurable pleasure of doing next to nothing. There is an elegance to the high ceilings and fabulous stone carvings of the castle, and a wonderful curiosity to the slightly spooky portraits of the various O’Brien clan members on the walls, some of whom are so sketchy in appearance they would seem to be ideal candidates for one of those television makeover shows.

It wasn’t until the next day that golf was back on the agenda, first with a round at the Dromoland, a delightful parklands routing that has been expertly revamped, and then 18 at the Old Course at Lahinch. Once again, transportation to the latter came with rotors, with McDermott flying in for a morning pickup.

McDermott and his bride-to-be Carmel Kirby, another former search-and-rescue pilot, have a company called Links Helicopters, in which the majority shareholder is Wayne Huizenga, the American business mogul and owner of the Miami Dolphins. Their primary business is shuttling golfers around Ireland, providing easy access to all the great golf the country has to offer. Their two choppers each have a range of 300 miles, which works perfectly in a nation that is only 190 miles wide and 300 miles at its farthest point top to bottom. Plus, the copters offer a fabulous way to see the countryside for roughly $2,200 per hour of flight time.

Another classic within easy range of Ashford is Enniscrone in County Sligo, with its massive dunes, blind shots and fabulous ocean views. It blew hard the day I ventured there – alas, by car (also 11/2 hours) and not chopper – prompting one of my playing partners to comment on the “lazy wind.”

“Why do you call it that?” I asked.

“Because it doesn’t go around you,” he explained. “It is so lazy it goes right through you.”

Enniscrone has excellent fishing possibilities as well, and a local club member, Judd Ruane, also happens to be a fishing guide who has taken Mark O’Meara and Nick Faldo, among others, onto the famed River Moy. The nearby Moy is regarded as a top salmon and trout producer, and its presence outside Enniscrone opens the possibility for yet another blast (as in golf) and cast (as in fishing) experience.

But it is time for me to move on to Ashford’s sister property, Dromoland Castle in County Clare. It, too, has a grand Gothic feel that is enhanced by splendid wood carvings and antique furnishings. Built in the 16th century and transformed into a 100-room luxury hotel in 1962, the castle once served as the royal seat of the O’Brien family, descendants of Brian Boru, the former High King of Ireland. It also is a wonderful jumping off point for golf – and a great place from which to fish.

However, there were no plans to do either of those the day I arrived at Dromoland, so the afternoon was spent lounging on a small couch in front of a roaring fireplace in one of the small libraries, a book in one hand and a glass of claret in another, taking in the immeasurable pleasure of doing next to nothing. There is an elegance to the high ceilings and fabulous stone carvings of the castle, and a wonderful curiosity to the slightly spooky portraits of the various O’Brien clan members on the walls, some of whom are so sketchy in appearance they would seem to be ideal candidates for one of those television makeover shows.

It wasn’t until the next day that golf was back on the agenda, first with a round at the Dromoland, a delightful parklands routing that has been expertly revamped, and then 18 at the Old Course at Lahinch. Once again, transportation to the latter came with rotors, with McDermott flying in for a morning pickup.

McDermott and his bride-to-be Carmel Kirby, another former search-and-rescue pilot, have a company called Links Helicopters, in which the majority shareholder is Wayne Huizenga, the American business mogul and owner of the Miami Dolphins. Their primary business is shuttling golfers around Ireland, providing easy access to all the great golf the country has to offer. Their two choppers each have a range of 300 miles, which works perfectly in a nation that is only 190 miles wide and 300 miles at its farthest point top to bottom. Plus, the copters offer a fabulous way to see the countryside for roughly $2,200 per hour of flight time.

Our trip this day was a short one, only 10 minutes to that awesome seaside links of Lahinch that initially was designed by Old Tom Morris and then revised by Alister Mackenzie.

It is a masterful layout, and each hole is superb, especially the short par 5 called Klondyke, for the massive dune players must clear with their second shots. Another highlight is the stunning par 3 called the Dell, which plays about 155 yards from the back tees to a green nestled in the surrounding sand hills.

Upon a return to Dromoland, I amble down to the “lough” below the castle for another try at fish. My ghillie in this case is 70-year-old Dennis Exton, a congenial bloke wearing a tattersail shirt, a worn silk tie and an aged Barbour jacket. He assures me that I should do better this time around, in large part because, unlike Ashford, Dromoland stocks its lough with rainbow trout.

“But it was stocked a couple of months ago, so there is still plenty of challenge,” he says as he ties a woolly bugger fly onto my line.

After several casts, I am onto a fish. The first one is a two-pounder, and then in comes another as a slight rain begins to fall and fog starts to envelop the castle in the background. Then a third and a fourth, which offers such a good fight that I decide it is a keeper. So, Exton slips it into the creel for Dromoland’s head chef to prepare for my dinner that night.

“Shall we head back to the castle?” he asks as the sky begins to darken and the hits come with less frequency.

I nod yes, because it is indeed time to go. And then I chuckle at the question in a broader context, because I know that whenever I visit Ireland in the future, I always will want to head back to one of the castles.

Provided, of course, I have my clubs and a fly rod.

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