Vagabond Tales: Everyone wants to stay in a castle, even presidents

I doubt there is anyone in the world that, if given the chance, wouldn’t want to stay in a castle.

It’s a shame that modern architecture has strayed away from castles, because there are few structures that possess the innate ability to be stoic yet romantic, welcoming and yet terrifying all at the same time. Castles conjure images of a bygone time of messengers on horseback, swords in stones, and fantastical mystery and lore.

They are the realm of princesses, knights, and royalty who swap principalities, fiefdoms, and duchies all with a flick of the wrist, a gnaw on an oversized drumstick, and a quaff from a jewel encrusted goblet, most likely made of solid gold. These are the people who spend nights in castles.

And now, apparently, so can you.

While planning a road trip across the northwestern reaches of Ireland, I stumbled upon a site like no other I had ever seen before: Celtic Castles — an entire site devoted to helping you live like a medieval badass while making your journey across England, Wales, Scotland, France, or Ireland.

Plus, they were offering steep discounts, which brought the price just low enough to make a one night stay a feasible splurge.

For those who have never visited the Emerald Isle, there are few places more stunning than the forested and perpetually soggy reaches of Connemara, the region located in the island’s northwestern corner. Connemara is the type of place where you throw on a flannel shirt and enjoy a hot cup of seafood chowder in a pub made of gloriously dark wood. Maybe have a Guinness, sit by a window, and watch the mist roll over the golden slopes of the Twelve Bens.

The only thing that would make it more perfect would be if you were wearing that flannel, drinking that Guinness, and eating that chowder from the cozy confines of a restored 18th century castle. Oh, and maybe if you were staying in a room that once housed a former U.S. president.Pulling into the driveway of Ballynahinch Castle was like pulling into a rural Irish utopia. A long,meandering ribbon of asphalt, which twists its way amongst deciduous trees and passes over stone bridges situated over gently babbling brooks — it almost looks fake.

Entrenched in a secretive plan to surprise my wife, who was certain we were staying in the hostel in the nearby town of Clifden, I chalked the foray down the driveway up to simply wanting to photograph some castles. Luckily, she bit, and the ruse was still alive.

Not more than ten minutes later we found ourselves ambling amongst the fireplace warmed interior of the Ballynahinch Castle lobby, black and white photographs of anglers adorning the walls of the adjacent pub.

As I attempted to check in on the sly, my wife found her way to the restaurant overlooking the 26,000-acre property and began discreetly taking pictures of the silverware. That’s what you do when you live a life of a traveling vagabond. You don’t own fine cutlery, but rather, you photograph it. Such is the life.

Finally, the exquisitely dressed woman occupying the reservations desk handed over our key for the evening and pointed me in the direction of one of their “classic” rooms upstairs.

“What are you doing?” questioned my wife, suddenly back from her foray into the dining lounge.

“I’ve gotten us a room for the night.”

The fireplace in the nearby living room crackled as a bearded gentleman read a newspaper in an overstuffed chair.

“No you haven’t. There’s no way we could ever stay here. Why do you have a key?”

Catching on for the first time that this was a surprise endeavor, the fine woman at the desk interjected with what to this day I consider to be one of the finest interruptions I have ever experienced.

“It appears as if this is a surprise,” she wittily quipped in a perfect Irish brogue. “Tell you what. We’ve just had a cancellation in another room. Would you perhaps prefer an upgrade? It’s on us.”

Now there were two sets of googly eyes occupying the dark wood foyer, those of my still baffled wife and my own face mystified at our dumb luck.

“Follow me. Our staff will grab your bags.”

For the record, when you backpack around the globe on endless walkabouts, never, ever, do you have people offer to carry your bags. This, it appeared, was beginning to be a window into how the 1% live.

Navigating a labyrinth of sunken passageways, narrow hallways, and simple staircases, I felt the only thing missing was a torch, a cloak, and a secret agenda. I couldn’t believe it. We’re in a castle being led to the best room in the house!

Finally reaching our destination, our castle chauffeur inserted a long brass key into a modern looking door and casually swung it open.

Before us lay a room of a substantially higher caliber than I feel most twenty-something international wanderers are accustomed to. A four-post bed and ambient lighting highlighted a room, which featured ground floor window views out onto the banks of a gently flowing river.

Stunned, and for lack of a proper display of my gratitude, my attention shifted to an old photograph I had seen hanging in the hallway en route to the room.

“Who was that guy in the photo we passed on the way here?” I asked out of the blue.

“Oh you don’t recognize him? I figured since you were American you would know. That was President Gerald Ford. He stayed in this same room. Have a good night and we look forward to seeing you both for dinner.”

Want more stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales here