Why just stay in an ordinary hotel when you can stay somewhere with a story? There’s certainly no shortage of stories in Ireland as the country is known for its colourful history and storytelling talent (“craic”), and there’s no shortage of castles here, either. So I couldn’t wait to experience the best of both at Castle Leslie, one of the country’s top luxury castle hotels. The gorgeous 1000-acre estate in County Monaghan that is Castle Leslie is one of only a handful of castles that has remained in the same family for generations, where over the years the Leslie family has hosted politicians, poets, rock stars and rebels. Oh, and the odd ghost or two as well!
Castle Leslie: One of Irelands Most Storied Castles
When it comes to who you know and where you come from, Castle Leslie has a history that is hard to beat, starting with Attila the Hun, reputed to be a Leslie family ancestor. Fortunately that’s not how the family acquired its ‘influence’; instead, that came in 1065 after Bartholomew Leslie rescued Margaret, the future Queen of Scotland, as they both were trying to escape her enemies on Bartholomew’s horse. Margaret fell crossing a river, and Bartholomew threw her the end of his belt advising her to ‘grip fast’ to the buckle. (The family motto has been ‘Grip Fast’ ever since, bestowed to the family by the Queen.)
Bartholomew married into the royal family himself, and their descendants acquired the Estate on Lake Glaslough in 1665, where the family has lived ever since, all the while hosting influential people from poets to politicians. Modern family connections include WB Yeats, Irish revolutionary Michael Collins and Winston Churchill, a Leslie family relative whose ‘baby frock’ is actually on display in one of the drawing rooms in the castle.
And while I’m throwing names around, let’s not forget members of modern-day’s ‘rock royalty’ who have stayed at Castle Leslie as well, from Mick Jagger who used to party here in the 60s with Marianne Faithful, to Sir Paul McCartney who married Heather Mills here in 2002.
Meet Sammy Leslie, Estate-preneur Extraordinaire
Certainly, Castle Leslie has stories to tell, and there’s no better person to share them than Samantha (Sammy) Leslie, who runs the estate for the Family Trust and who is responsible for taking Castle Leslie from a slightly worse-for-wear estate in the 1990s to the successful luxury hotel destination that it is today. Yet despite all of her family’s history, wealth and influence and her own entrepreneurial success, Sammy is about as down-to-earth as you can get.
I got the chance to meet Sammy as I was enjoying an amazing meal in Snaffles, the restaurant inside the restored stone building near the entrance to the Estate known as The Lodge. Between fabulous courses of gourmet dishes, Sammy came over to our group as part of her rounds to greet guests. Within minutes of being introduced it was as if we were already good friends and the stories flowed as naturally as if we had all known each other for years.
Growing up in a castle may seem like something out of a Cinderella fairy tale to most of us, but to Sammy, Castle Leslie was just her home. It was the place where her brother sawed away at the bottom stair of the grand staircase with a new set of carpenter tools he received one Christmas. That same staircase was where she liked to play, walking along the narrow ledge around its perimeter, hugging the pilasters as she made her way around the 2-story landing. (That is, “until the boobs came in’, as Sammy puts it, and she could no longer flatten herself to get around the stairwell safely!)
It’s this kind of lack of pretention that makes both Sammy and Castle Leslie so welcoming, despite their pedigrees. All of the staff here make you feel at home as soon as you arrive, and although the accommodations and dining are top-notch, there’s nothing stuffy about the place. Whether you stay in the Lodge with its large boutique-style rooms or the Castle itself, with its grand architecture and four-poster beds, you can be sure to feel like you belong here, too.
Unless of course, you are bothered by ghosts…
What’s a Luxury Castle Stay in Ireland without Ghosts?
Every castle has its ghosts, and Castle Leslie is no exception. In fact, some guests ‘challenge themselves’ to stay in the haunted Red Room overnight, where over the years, Norman, a deceased family member has appeared to the room’s occupants (but always with benign intentions). His first appearance was actually two days before he died in battle when his mother, who was sleeping in the room, saw him appear beside the dresser. Since then Norman has been reportedly seen many times as a ‘Casper-like’ apparition. I can’t say whether he was a guest ghost at Sir Paul and Heather’s wedding, although the couple did stay in the Red Room ? but more likely because it offers one of the best views out onto the gorgeous grounds of the Estate, not because of its association with Norman’s ghost.
A Mini-Tour of Castle Leslie
We had the luxury of getting a bit of a mini-tour of some other rooms in the Castle proper including the Mauve Room, which has seen its fair share of regal occupants from Queen Margaret of Sweden to rock royalty’s Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful who stayed here in the 1960s.
The Nursery is a charming family-friendly room that has been used by three generations of Leslie children and is a bright cheerful room with a built-in ensuite bath that has been whimsically disguised as a cottage.
Hotel guests or visitors can reserve Afternoon Tea in the Drawing Room on the main floor of the Caslte, a beautiful room with soaring windows that flood the space, and illuminate the delicate Asian-inspired blue wallpaper and impressive Italianate fireplace.
Or have a drink in the gallery with its arched rooms and wall murals decorating the walls. Even breakfast offers views that look like artwork!
Don’t Miss the Men’s Room
If the grandeur of the Castle is starting to overwhelm, come back to reality with a healthy dose of Leslie humour evident in the fixtures in the Men’s Room just off the Castle’s main entrance. If this doesn’t give you an idea of how down-to-earth the family is, nothing will.
Gourmet Dining at Castle Leslie
I briefly mentioned dining at Snaffles earlier in this post, but Castle Leslie’s restaurants deserve a much more in-depth mention, as they reflect Executive Chef Andrew Bradley’s reputation for Michelin-quality cuisine. Bradley has literally taken the Castle Leslie Estate Cook Book and its centuries-old recipes and reinvented them with fresh, modern takes on the traditional, earning his menu two coveted AA Rosettes in 2017.
What hasn’t changed in this reinvention of the traditional, is Bradley’s use of regional ingredients and artisan foods, farm-fresh beef and dairy products, and home-baked breads and baked goods. Anyone who says they didn’t eat well in Ireland hasn’t been to Castle Leslie.
And if you’re looking for the perfect way to start or finish that stellar meal, indulge in Ireland’s drink of the day by perusing Snaffles’ impressive Gin Menu, which boasts over 100 different gins from 13 countries. Guinness may be Ireland’s beer of choice, but when it comes to the spirit that cocktail connoisseurs are seeking, gin is definitely in.
More Than Just Candlelight and Cocktails
I only had a short time to experience a little of Castle Leslie’s charms, but there is much more to explore here than just elegant accommodations and gourmet meals: outdoor enthusiasts can take advantage of the 1000 acres to hike, cycle, or kayak on the sparkling lake. Equestrian getaways of all kinds are huge here as well, whether you come with your own horse or ride one belonging to the estate. And when all that activity is done, there’s even a spa to pamper you and soothe any muscles you might have overworked. (Talk about the royal treatment.)
Whether you come here for the history, the gourmet dining or the bucolic setting and everything it offers, Castle Leslie has all the inspiration you need to make this a fairytale getaway.
All that’s left is for you to write your own story.
Tourism Ireland who hosted my visit at Castle Leslie.Special thanks to
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.