CONG, Ireland — Deeper into the moss-scented woods we walked, until the dense tangle of foliage parted to reveal a cut-stone gatehouse.
Passing through the medieval portal, we crossed a bridge over a blue-black river teeming with leaping fish. Pausing in a grassy glade on the other side, we half-hoped to see Norman knights standing vigil against Gaelic attackers, just as they had eight centuries earlier.
A glimpse of ruins of an old abbey beyond the glade cut short our fancy, replacing it with another. In the murky shadows of the dying day it took little imagination to conjure up the ghosts of the Augustinian monks who had once lived there.
A strange magic had been working on us since we entered the iron gates of Ashford Castle that afternoon. One guidebook describes the 82-room castle-hotel by the village of Cong in County Mayo, Ireland, as a Disneyland-like resort, and big kids that we were, my companion and I couldn't wait to go exploring.
Ironically, it was children who returned us to reality during our exploration of Cong Abbey. While we surveyed the 13th-Century ruins with the reverence Americans have for old things, two young spalpeens amused themselves by dropping a baby doll from a Gothic-arched window and scudding around centuries-old gravestones.
The spell had begun when we were welcomed silently that afternoon by two suits of armor. Waiting to be shown to our airy, tastefully appointed room, we looked into a display case near the reception case that boasted photos taken during President Reagan's 1984 stay at Ashford.
The rest of the hotel's interior was plush. Intricately carved, wood-paneled lounges filled with antiques and huge paintings provided a comfortable setting to have a chat and tea, coffee and cocktails.
Through the huge windows, Lough Corrib, Ireland's second-largest lake, called to us.
"They say it contains 365 islands, one for each day of the year," the hotel's managing director, Rory Murphy, told me. We could see several from our vantage point, but those who wish closer inspection can ply Lough Corrib in the hotel's 65-foot motorboat, the Corrib Queen.
Murphy said fishermen like to come to Ashford in May, to rent boats and guides to look for the salmon, brown trout, pike and perch in the vicinity. A salmon hatchery is just down the river.
But it's autumn that attracts hunters. The castle holds fox hunts, but its most famous hunting event is the annual woodcock shoot in early November, for 8,500 pheasants and 1,000 ducks as well as the native woodcock.
The castle has a nine-hole golf course (one sand pit is shaped like a shamrock), tennis courts, jogging trails and horseback riding, but for some, exercise is flipping the pages of a historical novel. The hotel's gift shop obliges by furnishing a booklet on Ashford's past.
The oldest part of the castle dates from 1228 when the castle was the stronghold of the De Burgoses, a Norman family that four years earlier had vied with the O'Connor clan for control of the Connaught region on the castle grounds. The De Burgoses held the castle until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. A year ago 70 investors bought Ashford.
Ashford remains proud of the Reagans' visit, but Murphy was quick to point out the castle's bipartisan appeal.
"Ted Kennedy has been here a number of times," he said, and so have numerous other Kennedy clan members. Murphy said the senator's son, Edward M. Kennedy Jr., was at the castle not long ago to film a documentary about his fight with cancer.
Although it was featured on the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" TV show, Ashford isn't exclusively for the well-heeled and well-known.
"A lot of people come to Eire for a two-week stay and the last night or two splurge at Ashford Castle," Murphy said.
My traveling companion and I fell into this category. We were drawn by a two-for-one special, 145 Irish pounds for two nights. There is also a "Live Like a Lord" promotion--two nights' stay, dinner and breakfast in a twin-bed room for 129 Irish pounds a night.
The low-season standard twin rate is 100 Irish pounds a night, the high-season rate 145 pounds (an Irish pound is about $1.50). Rates include tax but not service.
Medieval feasts, complete with roast pig, have been served to groups under the gleaming crystal chandeliers in the hotel's dining room, but the usual table d'hote dinner was more than enough for us.
One meal combination was pate, gazpacho, poached salmon and vegetables, a pudding made of Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur and coffee. The price is 27 Irish pounds, wine and service extra. Breakfast ranges from 5.50 to 8 pounds and luncheon is 13.50 pounds.
The romantic meal was followed by a trip downstairs to the Dungeon Bar, where we joined in singing such traditional Irish tunes as "The Wild Rover" and "Molly Malone." Glasses of Guinness stout, a dark, creamy brew that seems twice as potent as lager, filled a table shared by two older, ruddy-faced gentlemen who entertained bar patrons with a cappella renditions of Irish songs.