Thursday, August 9, 2018

Five-star Falconry

Maya was being particularly stubborn that morning. 

She had made a grand and majestic entrance, floating past our group of admirers looking every bit the brilliant matriarch. But she quickly lost interest. Maya dawdled along, only paying mind when it suited her.

Her handler apologized profusely. We were told Maya’s lethargy might have been because she was nervous, but more likely because she recently gained a bit of weight. It was a blunt admission and had Maya not been a good distance away, could have ruffled some feathers.

Instead, in the next instant, Maya proved why just being in her presence was a rare enough experience to warrant her ambivalence and our complete infatuation.

She scaled an enormous pine tree and then, without hesitation, launched from its peak like a sprinter off the blocks. Her delicate body gathered unfathomable speed as it plunged into the clear blue Irish sky. But then, against any laws of physics my lay brain understood, her body snapped level, and darted parallel with the gravel.

My family and I observed the aerial acrobatics in awe, not comprehending the considerable momentum Maya continued accumulating as she rocketed silently towards her predestined target: me.

Before I could blink twice, Maya slammed into my outstretched arm with the force of an all-star fastball. Her power was wholly unexpected and my shoulder recoiled as if I had just fired a rifle.

But then Maya the Harris Hawk settled comfortably on my forearm, consuming her reward of raw chicken bits.

Flying a hawk at the Ireland School of Falconry – or a Hawk Walk, as they call it – is a rare, nostalgic joy uprooted from Irish tradition to engage and excite modern families.

Located on the grounds of Ashford Castle in Cong, County Mayo, Ireland, the School of Falconry is tucked away in a shady wooded glen. For an entire morning, my family soaked in the finer points of hunting with hawks, falcons and other raptors, during our falconry session. Led by our falconer guide, we strolled through Ashford Castle’s expansive gardens and forests.

When not on our arms, our three selected hawks Maya, Chico and Aztec, followed high above. The birds kept constant eyes on our group, but were otherwise invisible, except when they shot between tree perches like lightning bolts playing hopscotch.

With its veritable menagerie of predator birds, falconry is one of the more whimsical and intimidating adventures one can have at Ashford Castle, but it is not solitary in its distinctiveness. This luxury resort boasts numerous unique Irish experiences, such as clay pigeon shooting and archery. Golfers enjoy the resort’s lush links, while ferry tours whisk visitors out onto the adjacent lake for a panoramic view of the castle estate and the surrounding mountains.

Nestled on 350 acres along the shores of Lough Corrib, Ashford Castle, a Thirteenth Century estate, is itself reason enough to trek to the west coast of the Emerald Isle, about an hour north of Galway.

Luxury can mean a lot of things, from lavish accommodations to decadent cuisine to overflowing hospitality to adventurous activities. At Ashford Castle, luxury means all of those things.

Regularly discussed as one of the top hotels in Ireland if not the world, and with a list of recent accolades resembling a royal lineage (2016’s top hotel spa in Ireland, best 5-star hotel in Ireland, ranked number two on Travel + Leisure’s 2017 list of the best resort hotels in the UK and Ireland, one of the top 5 hotels in Europe), Ashford Castle needs only to open its history-worn doors to enrapture guests. A stay here cannot be replicated.

Just approaching the resort via car is a trip back through time. After pulling off the country road at the guardhouse, a winding path spills over green hills, past a country home doubling as a golf center and tea shop, over a rushing river via old stone bridge, and through an open-armed fortification.

Within the walls, history melts into modern day. The castle retains all the charm of a medieval estate, complete with suits of armor and period paintings. The castle’s illustrious history dates back to 1228, and has been home to the noteworthy, including the Guinness family.

But today, Ashford Castle is a fully modern 5-star Red Carnation resort, where lush common spaces and lavish rooms with heated bathroom floors could satisfy royalty of any era. Plenty of Hollywood royals have visited, catalogued in a photo-adorned hallway, some pictures decades old. The castle and grounds even provided the setting for the 1951 film, “The Quiet Man” starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.

But even with such grandeur, the little, more personal things were what made Ashford Castle unforgettable. For example, the estate’s two enormous wolfhounds greeted families in the lobby each afternoon, their reward being a good belly scratching. And on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, the staff placed a bowl of real shamrocks with shears in the lobby so guests could cut their own Irish adornment, all while a bagpiper welcomed the morning with music in the courtyard outside.

Then there was breakfast – a sprawling, sumptuous affair spilling over with fresh salmon and fresher scones. While those treats were delectable, it was the humble granola that shined, when doused with the provided bottle of Connemara Peated Irish Single Malt Whiskey. The little placard urged guests to have their morning meal like the locals.

These thoughtful touches helped elevate the Ashford experience. But nothing at Ashford Castle gets as elevated as its raptors.

I had never held a Harris Hawk before, or any other bird of prey for that matter, which was why I was so enamored with my falconry experience. But nothing prepares you for the juxtaposition of the invisible power resting inside these birds. Maya weighed nothing at all. If I closed my eyes, I would have thought a few leaves or bag of cotton balls was perched on my arm. How could such a delicate creature exert such ferocious impact?

Then Maya reminded me that, despite her recreational purpose at the Ireland School of Falconry, she was a wild predator concealing intense strength within that airy, feathered frame. Her talons squeezed as she shuffled seeking a more comfortable position, and I could feel their points through the thick protective leather glove. The series of rapid, dog-bite grips scattered up and down my forearm were unaggressive but absolutely intimidating.

I was captivated, unable to take my eyes off this massive, weightless, powerful, terrifying, and stunningly beautiful creature. Maya must have sensed me looking. She snapped her head around; her obsidian eyes stared directly into my own.

The falconer said she was sizing me up. I must have met her standards because the release of tension in her body was noticeable. She turned her head frontwards and as much as a hawk can, she relaxed.

But then the falconer told us to prepare for the release. My brother and father nearby stepped forward and swept their outstretched arm outwards and upwards. Their hawks popped into action.

When my body too began to move, Maya instinctively, immediately tensed. I stepped along the gravel and threw my gloved hand forward, electrifying the bird. Her body burst from my arm like a firework, rocketing forward with such force I was knocked slightly off-balance.

Maya overtook the other two birds, Chico and Aztec, soaring past them while still low, buzzing the emerald grass. She gracefully arched upwards, cutting through the wide tunnel of pine trees and soared high into the blue Irish sky.