You Can Learn to Fly a Hawk at Ireland's Ashford Castle
On this trip designed by the editors of Travel + Leisure and adventure tour operator Butterfield & Robinson, you’ll be able to visit local villages, stay in a 12th-century castle, and even learn how to fly a hawk.
I’ll never forget the first time I flew a hawk at Ashford Castle. I was just 26 years old, and felt incredibly lucky to even be at the hotel — a real, true-life castle, once owned by the Guinness family. Set on 350 acres of woods overlooking Lake Corrib, Ashford became a world-class hotel in the 1950s, and it is sheer fairy-tale magic, with 83 bedrooms, all uniquely decorated in a sumptuous, period style.
Guests can try their luck at archery, fly-fishing, horseback riding, and clay pigeon shooting, but the on-site falconry school, Ireland’s oldest, is in my opinion the hotel’s true highlight. That's why we’ve selected this as the editor’s pick activity on our bookable T+L Great Adventure with Butterfield and Robinson.
The falconry school is set in a little cottage, tucked away in the woods. Guests go out with one instructor and two birds in small groups; everyone takes turns letting the beautiful hawks perch on their gloved hands. With the flick of my wrist, the bird would fly off into the trees, only to come back for a little piece of meat that the instructor placed on my hand. As I learned during my walk, hawks are ruthlessly efficient hunters — they’ll only fly for food when hungry, and to that end, the instructors calibrate their weights down to the hundredth of an ounce. I’ve since visited Ashford several times, and the hawk experience never gets old. (On one visit, I even saw a live kill: Who knew Ireland could offer a safari experience?)
For anyone who appreciates nature and all its intricacies, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the heart of the Irish countryside that you won’t want to miss. And the falconry school is just one part of your incredible trip to Ireland. Here is the full itinerary for the self-driving road trip.
After arriving at Shannon Airport, picking up your rental car and meeting your Butterfield & Robinson guide, you’re off to see one of Ireland’s most beautiful nature sites: the Burren, in the heart of County Clare. This rural area of 250 square miles is filled with alpine, Arctic, and Mediterranean wildflowers. After lunch in a local tearoom, you’ll be able to visit a working perfumery and an ancient ring fort.
Stay: Your hotel for the next two nights is Gregan’s Castle, a family-run, 18th-century manor home with magnificent views onto the Burren and Galway Bay as well as an award-winning restaurant.
After breakfast, your guide will meet you for the journey to the Aran Islands, reachable by ferry. The small island of Inis Oirr is known for sites like Cnoc Raithni, a Bronze Age burial mound; Teampall Chaomhán, Medieval church ruins; and Caisleán Uí Bhríain, a 16th-century tower house built within a Stone Age fort. Following lunch at a local pub, you will take a traditional soda bread-baking lesson in a local cottage. On the ferry ride home, you will cruise below the soaring Cliffs of Moher—one of Ireland’s most famous sites.
Today you will check out of Gregan’s and move on to Galway, the west coast’s charming coastal city, and experience a walking tour with a local guide. Pop into pubs for a pint of Guinness and browse the various shops. From Galway, you will continue your drive into Connemara, a Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking region) known for its landscapes of fields, mountains, and bogs, and the sweet smell of peat fires. This is quintessential Ireland, pure and simple.
Stay: For the next two nights, you will be at Ballynahinch Castle, set against the lovely 12 Bens Mountain Range along the famous Wild Atlantic Way. The luxurious estate is set on 700 acres of private woodland. Tonight, we suggest eating at the on-site Fisherman’s Pub or the fine-dining Owenmore Restaurant for dinner.
A local archaeologist will take you to some of Connemara’s top historic sites. And if the weather cooperates, you’ll get to enjoy a picnic lunch. Then, it’s back to Ballynahinch Castle so you can enjoy all that the property has to offer. You can take a private fly-fishing lesson, or just relax by the fire with a good book. Dinner is at Clifden, a local seafood restaurant (order the oysters if they are in season) followed by drinks and music in a classic pub.
Leave Ballynahinch for another marquee property: Ashford Castle, near the tiny village of Cong. Dating to the 12th century, Ashford has been one of Ireland’s top luxury hotels for years, winning accolades from Travel + Leisure readers in our annual World’s Best Awards. During your magical day here, you’ll have the chance to experience the hawk-flying editor’s pick activity, described above. Also save time for tea or a massage in the newly renovated spa.
Stay: Overnight at Ashford Castle.
If your flight leaves later in the afternoon, you’ll have time to enjoy Ashford’s incredible buffet breakfast, as well as on-site activities such as kayaking, archery, and fly-fishing. Then, it’s off the Shannon Airport for your return flight home.
From $5,295 per person.