[FYI: This is long, simply because I just couldn’t explain this experience in less descriptive terms. This really is an experience, not just a place to stay. Hence, the story that follows.]
I’ve just returned from a stay at Strongfort Castle. If you are interested in a very select, unique experience for an unbelievably reasonable price, this is the place. If you are looking for literal perfection, as in a five star hotel with every whim catered to, this is not that kind of place. Nor is it even a Marriott. If that’s your idea of perfection, there’s a spiffy new hotel just up the road in Loughrea. But, if you want a truly remarkable stay in Ireland, close to a city, town, pubs, shopping, and places of interest, but secluded and one-of-a-kind, read on….
Strongfort Castle is a three story 14th century tower house, currently rented in its entirety: three bedrooms, two baths, living area and kitchen. I think it's listed as a hotel as it may once have been run as a B&B. If you were looking for a hotel room, you might still want to consdier this, as I rented the castle for less than half the price that I would have paid per night for just a room in other places I looked at (€100 p/night for Strongfort Castle vs. €200 - €350 for other "castle hotels".)
For starters, the town of Craughwell is about 20-25 minutes from Galway City on the N6. As I was still half asleep driving up from Shannon, I can't say exactly how long the drive from the airport was. Maybe an hour or an hour and a half? It's an easy ride (apparently, if an American can do it on only one cup of coffee!) I also can’t say exactly how long it took me to reach The Burren , the Cliffs of Moher, etc., as I took very leisurely drives, stopping frequently as the spirit moved me. There is a new motorway, the M6, just north of Craughwell, which made it a breeze of a drive to Dublin (about two hours).
I believe it was about €40 with tip for a taxi back from Galway City after a late night of pub crawling. The number 20 bus, I believe goes into Galway from Craughwell.
Craughwell itself has a number of good pubs, small shops, a pharmacy, and a late night take away. Just up the road in Loughrea (about 10 minutes tops on the N6 east), there’s a large American-style supermarket with a great discount place next door. The Meadow Court Hotel, about half way between and well-signed, was kind enough to give me their wifi key while I had a couple of pints in the bar so I could check my email. (Note: Although that experience was fantastic, I’d probably break down and buy a USB modem in the city if I did this again…imagine sending email from a castle parapet walk on a sunny spring day in Ireland!!!)
So, on to Strongfort Castle… I found the rental special on the Internet through Rent.ie after A LOT of searching for just the right place for my second trip to Ireland. I’d done the usual B&B’s, quirky old hotels, and even stayed above a pub before. This time, I wanted to put down roots, even if temporarily, and have a convenient home base. When I found the listing for *** €700 A WEEK!!!! **** (the current off-season special!) for an entire castle (well, technically a 14th century tower house) that met every one of my qualifications, I just had to have it!
I flew into Shannon, and had an easy ride north to Galway, even with the patched places on the N18 near Gort. I was able to follow the directions to the place (very fortunately, there are directional signs for other places, a “T” junction, then a “Y” junction sign). When I arrived, I was stunned. Pictures just cannot do this place justice. Picture driving up a winding, hard packed gravel road, turning the last corner and seeing a majestic tower rising before you. All I could think was “I rented this?!?”.
I met the caretaker, David, who showed me around the place. He had been surprised to find that the heat was out when he had first opened the place up, but promised the gas delivery would be made that afternoon (which it was). In the meantime, he had lighted the fire, as well as candles scattered throughout. Oh, and had strategically placed a few space heaters to warm the rooms.
Entering the imposing wooden door, opened appropriately enough with an old fashioned key, you enter the hall. The hall and all the ground level rooms are terra cotta tiled. To the left though a set of double wooden doors is a small, surprisingly sunny little kitchen. The kitchen is equipped with all the basics (and a set of wine glasses!). I must admit though, I do not cook. At all. So I have no idea how that would all work out, but was told that the last group in was of six people, who managed quite well. Note to the cocktail set: the refrigerator apparently does not have a freezer, so no ice cubes for you!
Set off to the right, through another arched wooden door, is the living room. The living room was also quite sunny late in the morning and toasty with a peat fire blazing in the stove. A dining area with wooden benches is fitted into an alcove. All of the furnishings are appropriately chosen to suit the rooms. There were a few issues with drawers sticking from the damp spring air and whatnot, along with some cracks and faults, but everything was serviceable. I appreciated the style and care taken in the decoration, rather nitpicking.
To the direct right is a circular stone staircase the winds the height of the tower. The stairs are a little funky (narrower in places, higher in other places, etc), but the whole effect is completely charming. I did, however, almost launch myself backwards down a flight while dragging my ridiculously overweight suitcase up to the master bedroom. Lesson learned… when leaving, I brought the case down nearly empty, then ferried down loads of clothes to pack in the living room while enjoying the fire!!!
Just before the entrance to the master bedroom, there is a conveniently located W.C. in small closet sized room. I only used this a few times, as the seemingly endless sound of it filling echoed through the stairwell. But, it is useful for anyone staying in the master bedroom or coming up from the living room or kitchen.
And so, to the master bedroom… heavenly, blissful, stunning, amazing… I can go on, and on, and on…. Singularly, the most beautiful room I have ever seen. The floors are polished wood. Red deal, or something, I think. I even happened to meet the man that put the floor in while having a pint at the local pub, Rafferty’s. (You’ve just got to love Ireland!) The carved four poster bed is a sight in of itself. And very comfortable. But what really charmed my socks off was the claw foot tub set in a window alcove. Or maybe it was the tiled shower built into the adjacent turret? There is also a sink set unobtrusively into another corner. The lovely décor just completed the room. Even being by myself, I spent most of my time in this room. If a castle can be considered cozy or inviting, this room is it. I think I could live there! One small note: the low ceiling closet set into another turret in the room dripped condensation the first three days I was there. I’m assuming it’s probably only because the place had been closed up for a while with no heat and it had been a very wet spring. I just switched my clothes to the upstairs closet.
As for the top level, the ceiling of the winding staircase dips low heading up. I am 5’1” and did not have to duck, but I would think any average sized person would clock themselves in the head if they weren’t careful! As you clear the stairs going up, light streams through a stained glass window on the door to the roof walk. I absolutely adored taking my morning coffee up here. It was also the place to make cell phone calls, as the thick tower walls reduced signal. Oh, and I wouldn’t bother the cows. More about the cows later….
The top level is a bit more modern, with a very up-to-date modern bath on the left, complete with power shower. Ahead is the smaller of the two bedrooms on this level, both carpeted, with double beds if I remember correctly (the larger bedroom could have been a queen size -- you'd have to ask the managers). To the right is a slightly larger bedroom, with a larger window and a double closet. As I was there by myself, I can’t attest to the comfort of either bed. These rooms were also appropriately decorated, and had the advantage of being the warmest in the place (as the heat rises).
Surrounding Stronfort is a high stone wall. The courtyard is gravel, with plantings all around. The only near neighbor lives in a farmhouse just behind and set off to the left. They were friendly enough to wave, but did not intrude on my solitude in the least. The cows, however, I learned are overfriendly and a bit demanding. Every time they heard my voice (talking on my cell in the courtyard), the lead cow would start off with a solo then the rest of the herd would join in. (I nicknamed the soloist Bosscow, and had a few interesting conversations about feeding time and cell phone interference.) Family at home got a kick out of the cow choir in the background. Oh, and Bosscow is also an excellent substitute for a watch dog, ratting me out when I tried to sneak in late!
All in all, I ended up very fond of the bunch as they added extra charm to the rural countryside setting. I didn’t even mind the day the wind switched direction and carried a bit of extra scent my way. If you’ve been outside the cities in Ireland, you know you’re going to be getting a whiff of manure at one point or another!
Along with the occasional cow choir practice, the only other sounds heard where the distant bleeping of sheep, birds chirping, and the constant soft babble of the river below. Traffic consisted of one car and one tractor per day. I enjoyed the fantastic long views in every direction from the roof surrounded by the peaceful sounds of the Irish countryside. Utter tranquility and serenity.
Being alone at Strongfort wasn’t in the least bit unsettling. In fact, I felt more than comfortable there at all times. I felt right at home. Odd, for an American city girl at heart. But, the thick solid walls and inviting interior made me feel like the place was just perfect for me. If there are ghosts in the castle, they are as friendly and welcoming are the living Irish are!
All in all, I had the most amazing vacation at Strongfort Castle. The only real downside was that my vacation wasn’t long enough… I could have spent days just lounging about the tower! I was so pleased to have the opportunity to stay at such a fantastic place, to live for a time in a place that had seen so much life. I’ll never forget it and hope that I am lucky enough to be able to return one day.
So, having read this far, I hope you’ll now understand how Strongfort Castle is my idea of perfection. This beats out any tarted up overrated castle hotel. There’s no pretense at Strongfort, instead a charming livability throughout. In a castle. Really.
Most of all, it’s the wonder of having an Irish castle all to one’s self, to be able to feel at home in such an extraordinary settling. Priceless perfection at an unbelievably reasonable price. I couldn't have asked for more.
My thanks to the owners for sharing Strongfort with me. And to the staff who manage the place: Charming Patrick, who fed me breakfast at the Amber House when I went to pick up the keys; Lovely and efficient Anne, who made it all happen; and David, the easy going and helpful gent who gave me the grand tour of Strongfort on my arrival and made sure everything there was working well. Thank you!!!!
P.S. Feel free to contact me by email if you have any remaining questions about the place. Obviously, I love to ramble on about it and hope that others will enjoy staying there as much as I did!
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- currently rented through November/December 2009 ... more less
- Also Known As:
- Strongfort Castle Ireland/Craughwell, County Galway