When you think of New Year's Eve what do you think of? Where do you think of as the perfect place to ring in a new year? Until New Year's Eve 2010 I hadn't found a special place, a place to which I would love to return every year - but on December 31st, 2010, I found my special place. That place is Ashford Castle, County Mayo, Ireland.
When the touring company (Ireland Chauffeur Travel) we used to book our tour of Ireland suggested celebrating the new year at Ashford Castle we were intrigued, but we truly had no idea what a magical experience this would become. It was perhaps in many ways the ultimate defining moment of a holiday that held dozens of defining moments. It encompassed all that we found delightful in Ireland, from the beautiful setting to the wonderful people, both staff and other guests. Ashford Castle epitomizes all that is special about Ireland, and perhaps it was here that I first realized how deeply in love I had fallen with this country.
Ashford Castle is a magnificent hotel, but calling it a hotel seems almost demeaning. It is a resort of the grandest style, with acres of land around it and natural beauty that astounds. The staff are professional and helpful without being obsequious, which is a charming trait I found in people all over Ireland. They have an uncanny way of making you feel at home even if you are surrounded by 5-star luxury (and I contrast this to London, where in many places the goal seems to be to make you feel a bit out of place).
The New Year's celebration at Ashford is a 2-day standard package, meaning that for those two days you will be with a defined number of other guests. What is so lovely about this is that there is a finite number of people present and over those two days faces become familiar and you begin to chat and make friends. It begins to feel less and less like a hotel stay and more and more like you are celebrating a holiday in the midst of a very large and diverse family.
When you arrive at the castle you are greeted with mulled wine, and over the course of two days kept supplied in copious amounts of champagne that are included in your package. Servers with trays of champagne flutes just appear, and who was I to decline? I've never drunk so much champagne in my life and came home with a decided taste for the stuff, which could become an expensive habit. Food appears at regular intervals - tea time snacks of finger sandwiches and scones, and breakfasts of the hugest variety. There are activities to participate in - falconry, boat cruises on the lake, archery - or you can just kick back and hang out in the lounge.
New Year's Eve in particular is an amazing event. It kicks off with cocktails in the lounge, followed by dinner in the hotel's lovely dining room,. The fare is of the highest quality, and carefully prepared and served. The afternoon prior to dinner you are invited into the hotel's wine cellar to select your wine for the evening meal, which my husband did with glee (I think he's waited his entire life for this sort of invitation). The dinner and following dance are a black-tie event, so my husband had a tuxedo tailored in London and I purchased a floor-length evening gown at Selfridges - the first such designer gown I've ever owned. My daughter had a lovely black velvet dress and feather capelet, and when we swept downstairs for the meal I think we felt the grandest we've ever felt, anywhere. With all the other guests similarly attired the atmosphere is festive indeed. After finishing the wonderful dinner we moved into the hotel sitting room area where a wooden dance floor had been installed and a band was beginning to play. The band played a medley of big band, swing, and even rock music (us Canadians were delighted when Michael Buble songs were added to the mix). My daughter, a budding trumpeter, was especially taken with the handsome blonde lead singer who also happens to play a wicked trumpet. As midnight grew closer they announced that the countdown would be led by a special guest. It turned out to be a gentleman we had met earlier that evening who had modestly told us he is a "performer". What he had neglected to mention is that he is the puppeteer who has been behind Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird on Sesame Street since the show began. So, it was Oscar who counted in the New Year, and at the stroke of twelve there were balloons, champagne, and kisses. Almost immediately we began to see flashes and hear popping noises and realized that the fireworks display over the lake had begun. We rushed outside, me in my long gown and Jimmy Choo strappy silver sandals, champagne flute in hand, to stand in the damp grass and ooh and aah with everyone else as 2011 began.
The rest of that evening is a bit of a blur of champagne and laughing and dancing until 2 am. The rest of that hotel stay was packed with boat rides, archery, falconry, more wine, more champagne, Irish coffees, new friends, Irish music sing-songs (at which we were welcomed as "special guests from Canada"), and a general feeling of goodwill and anticipation about a new year. I imagine Ashford Castle is lovely at any time of year, and I know I will visit it again, perhaps in the summer next time. I am so very happy, though, that my first experience of Ashford was for the beginning of a new year - because it is a very special place to celebrate a very special occasion.