DUBLIN, Ireland - The image of majestic stone castles rising from rolling green fields is a romantic one, a fantasy held by many travelers who dream of Ireland.
But that image is a reality all over the island nation - where castles offer such differing charms and features that visitors can tailor castle stays to their own whims and preferences. Luxury accommodation, resident ghosts, medieval banquets and horseback riding ... all of these can be found amid the smattering of Irish castles.
And regardless of each castle's location, striking views and sightseeing opportunities are never far away.
"There is pretty much everything that you could want - literally everything from a tiny love nest to a huge stately pile, everything from the point of view of price, everything from the point of view of location," said John Colclough, one of the luxury travel specialists at Adams & Butler in Dublin, which books castle stays. "You can have them on the seaside, you can have them in the middle of the mountains."
For top-tier service and extravagant lodging, Ashford Castle in County Mayo and Dromoland Castle in County Clare rank among the finest hotels in the country. Both have played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding at Ashford and the 2004 European Union-U.S. summit at Dromoland.
Each five-star property sits in the picturesque West of Ireland, and Dromoland's 400-acre estate is only eight miles from Shannon
Ashford Castle is a longer drive at two hours, but the route leads visitors on a winding tour of the breathtaking West before concluding in Cong, Mayo, a lush, rural bastion of rolling hills and lakes where "The Quiet Man" was filmed.
Befitting five-star establishments, the castles offer all that visitors would expect from luxury hotels: fine dining, gorgeously appointed rooms, expansive golf courses, a range of specialty pursuits such as falconry.
But visitors may also find castle stays at more economical prices. Belleek Castle, in County Mayo, offers single rooms from just $118 a night and double rooms from $183. Nestled at the end of an extraordinary tree-lined drive, the 15th-century structure boasts rooms that are stately yet not decadent.
Belleek's grounds cover 1,000 forested, river-cut acres dotted with trails and bridges. Guests can tire themselves out strolling the grounds before returning to the castle's enormous heavy doors, walking past the massive front hall fireplace and sitting down to a hearty meal in the elegant, wood-decorated dining room.
Another popular undertaking is a visit - by private appointment only - to the castle museum, which displays everything from fossils to 16th-century armor in its vaults.
Renting out an entire castle is also more affordable than you might expect. Colclough said that certain small castles, encompassing only about three bedrooms, can be rented for $1,575 a week.
Knappogue Castle, a five-bedroom medieval structure, can be rented in County Clare for $6,825 a week. The castle is a short drive from Shannon Airport and close to attractions such as the Cliffs of Moher.
In the high season of April through October, it stages a nightly medieval banquet, open to the public, with storytelling and medieval music.
There are, of course, other castles that can be rented at exorbitant rates. Humewood Castle in County Wicklow, for example, boasts 16 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms - at a price that reaches $99,000 per week. The gray spires and buttresses of Humewood rise from among the Wicklow Mountains just over an hour outside of Dublin, and the rental includes staff to take care of breakfast and daily cleaning.
Some castles claim to be haunted. Castle Leslie, in County Monaghan, has been in the Leslie family for generations - and deceased members of the clan have allegedly turned up on more than one occasion. Leap Castle, in County Offaly, bills itself as the most haunted castle in Ireland.
Sean Ryan, who lives at Leap Castle with two family members, said they hear footsteps, doors creaking and the like, and that one of the other-worldly entities likes to poke people. But he said they've "never felt threatened by any of it at all. It's all quite friendly." The Ryans offer tours to visitors.
Bunratty Castle in County Clare features a folk park re-creating 19th-century Victorian Ireland and a banquet like that at Knappogue. Visitors must have a stomach for medieval kitsch, but the feast at Bunratty is amusing, tasty and easily chalked up to a vacationing guilty pleasure.
And if visitors are determined to hit Ireland's top tourist attractions, Blarney Castle is a must-see. Here lies the legendary Blarney Stone, famed for its ability to bestow the gift of eloquence.
Travelers should prepare for long lines at the County Cork landmark, as well as a precipitous, sharp-angled lean to reach the stone - which can only be kissed by bending over backwards on the top of the castle, held up by Blarney staff.
Yet regardless of the risk and cringe factor, most tourists - especially Americans - wouldn't dream of visiting Ireland without a pilgrimage to this attraction.
But whether you choose a luxury castle or go for the kitschy stuff, all offer Ireland's beautiful scenery and a warm welcome.
"The actual experience of somebody coming to stay in an Irish castle is not just the bed and the view and everything else," said Colclough. "It's the local people, and that really is what makes the holiday memorable."
IF YOU GO
ADAMS & BUTLER: Can book castle stays and tours. www.irishluxury.com; (800) 894-5712.
-- Ashford, www.ashford.ie, (800) 346-7007.
-- Belleek, www.belleekcastle.com, (011-353) 96-22400.
-- Blarney, www.blarneycastle.ie, (011-353-21) 438-5252.
-- Bunratty, www.shannonheritage.com/Bunratty_Day.htm, (011-353-61) 360-788.
-- Dromoland, www.dromoland.ie, (011-353-61) 368-144.
-- Humewood, www.humewood.com, (011-353-59) 647-3215.
-- Knappogue, www.shannonheritage.com/Knappogue_Day.htm, (011-353-61) 360-788.
-- Leap, www.shannonregiontourism.ie, (011-353-57) 913-1115.
-- Leslie, www.castleleslie.com, (011-353-47) 88-100.
INFORMATION:General tourism information: www.discoverireland.com, (800) 223-6470.