There’s a reason travelers are fascinated with birds of prey: Falcons are widely considered to be the fastest creature on the planet. Luxury hotels, particularly in the United Kingdom and Ireland, are now working to facilitate falcon experiences for their guests.
For millennia, hunters have trained falcons to stalk wild prey, catch it, and return with it for a shared meal. The origins of falconry are a bit of a mystery. It’s thought to have originated in Asia or the Middle East. As a sport, it rose to popularity in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was a favorite pastime of aristocrats and royalty. In the 1600s, there was even a set of laws enacted that determined which type of falcons could be flown by what social status. The sport of falconry in Europe eventually began to slow in the 1800s, for a few reasons. Plus, hunting with guns was gaining steam, negating the need for birds to catch wild prey.
Meanwhile, though, falconry was catching on in the United States. There are about 10,000 legal falconers around the world. 5,000 of them are in North America. Luxury hotels are offering falconry experiences for their guests. The trend has even caught on in the U.S., with five-star properties from New York State to California.
Originally built in the 11th, Dromoland Castle was home to Donough O’Brien, one of the sons of Irish High King Brian Boru. The O’Briens controlled and lived at Dromoland for 900 years. The castle was rebuilt in 1543, when then owner Murrough O’Brien (chief of the clan and 57th King of Thomond) had to pledge loyalty to King Henry VII. In 1650, the new Sir Donough O’Brien moved in; he was considered to be the richest man in Ireland at the time. Additions were made to the estate, adding another castle, between 1700 and 1730. The current castle was built in 1835. It became a hotel in 1962 when then owner, yet another Donough O’Brien, fell on hard times and had to sell it to Bernard P. McDonough, an American. A member of the O’Brien family, though, still lives next door and uses some of the estate’s land.
The 13-year-old falconry program at Dromoland Castle is an amenity for hotel guests. Participants will walk the grounds of the estate alongside some of the property’s 18 falcons, owls and hawks, and be able to hold them with a falconer’s help. Resident falconer Dave Atkinson cares for the birds. Each falconry experience at Dromoland can be tailored to guest requests. The program lasts a little more than an hour.
Founded in 1999, Ireland’s School of Falconry is located at Ashford Castle, which was first built in 1228 by the de Burgos, an Anglo-Norman family, after they defeated a local Irish family, the O’Connors. In 1852, the Guinness family (yes, that Guinness family) bought the estate, built new roads, planted trees and increased the land size from 12,000 acres to 26,000. The Guinness family then sold it to businessman Noel Huggard in 1939, who turned it into a posh hotel. The property changed hands a few more times and, now owned by The Red Carnation Hotel Collection, it’s celebrating its 80th year of being a hotel this year. The falconry school is still on the castle grounds.
Ireland’s School of Falconry hosts “Hawk Walks,” which are hour-long retreats around the estate where guests of the hotel (and a few non-guests, if they can register on time) get to know the school’s Harris’s Hawks, feed them, fly them and learn about the world of falconry. Extended Hawk Walks are available for people who want more time with the birds.
Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa started falconry tours in 2018 to allow guests to be a part of their vine management experience. The winery uses falconry to stop other birds from damaging grapes during the last few months of the growing season. The falcons and hawks fly over the vines, scaring away the birds that would try to eat the grapes—leading to not just a sustainable method of pest control, but a discrete and organic method as well. The vineyard’s “Falconry Experience” starts in the tasting room, and then takes participants on a tour of the vineyard to learn about its history, how the grapes are produced and sustainable practices. The vineyard’s hawks fly overheard and swoop down to the handler’s arm, followed by a stop on each participant’s arm. The experience ends with a picnic lunch and wine tasting in the garden, when vineyard falconers will bring in other raptors for the guests to meet.
Skywings offers a totally unique experience in the falconry world: parahawking. This sport is a combination of paragliding and falconry. The birds still swoop over to participants’ hands to get a piece of meat, but land lightly because the tandem parahawking teams are flying alongside the birds instead of standing beneath. Skywings developed the sport so participants could experience flight the way these birds do, soaring through the sky.
Parahawking teams fly alongside American Black Vultures and Harris Hawks as part of a conservation effort for birds; vultures in Asia are nearly extinct because of Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory given to livestock that’s poisonous to the birds. One thousand rupees (nearly $14) from every parahawking excursion goes directly to Nepal to help with conservation efforts. Each experience also includes an on-the-ground workshop about vulture conservation. Standard falconry options are available as well for those who don’t want to parahawk.
Southern California may not be the first place you think of for a birds of prey experience. But debuting in August 2020, Rancho Bernardo Inn will offer a private falconry experience, where guests can get up close to the falcons and owls under the guidance of expert handlers. Guests of the 265-acre Rancho Bernardo Inn in North County can also spend their days on the 18-hole golf course, at the tennis courts, biking or hiking the scenic trails around the resort, or luxuriating in the full-service spa. With 287 rooms and suites to choose from, we recommend guests opt for one of the glamorous Estate Suites, which comes with an indoor fireplace, a separate living area, a king bedroom, and a private balcony.
Scotland’s only luxury sleeper train, Belmond Royal Scotsman, takes guests to Dunrobin Castle for a memorable falconry demonstration as they travel through the scenic Northern Scottish Highlands. Belmond Royal Scotsman also lets guests tailor their itineraries to visit Huntly Falconry Center, outside of Keith, for a half-day spent with owls, hawks, falcons, and eagles, or a full-day at Rothiemurchus Estate, located in Cairngorms National Park, which offers falconry, archery, and fly fishing. Each experience comes with a private car transfer and lunch. The Belmond Royal Scotsman hosts only 40 guests onboard to ensure excellence in service and a luxurious sense of privacy. Guests can book two, three, or four-night itineraries on this “Country House on Wheels.”
Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom
A 27-acre English countryside estate, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, teams up with local falconer Wheatley Birds of Prey. Each Sunday, the Wheatley Birds of Prey falcons come to the property to watch over the hotel’s 11 gardens to ensure no rodents or smaller birds are disrupting the garden’s growth. It’s especially practical to have the falcons monitor the two-acre kitchen garden, which produces more than 90 herbs and vegetables used in the hotel’s restaurant, a Chef Raymond Blanc venture with two Michelin stars. Guests of Le Manoir can also get up close to the hawks and owls and even hold the animals—with professional supervision, of course. Those looking to stay at this lavish Belmond property should book one of the four Garden Suites: L’Orangerie, Provence, Opium, or Blanc de Blanc—each feature a private garden terrace.
Troutbeck, Hudson Valley, New York
You don’t have to fly across the pond for an epic birds of prey experience. Troutbeck, a 250-acre Hudson Valley estate, has partnered with TC Bird Management to offer exclusive Falconry Excursions. The excursions take place on Troutbeck’s marked trails and fields, and the property can work with TC Bird Management to tailor the experience to offer handling lessons with gloves, hunting with Harris Hawks, or just general education on the collection of eagles, owls, falcons, hawks, and vultures. Ask the concierge at Troutbeck about arranging this private experience. Beyond interacting with the falcons, guests of the historic central New York property can lounge by the pool, enjoy farm-to-table cuisine, take yoga and pilates classes, and of course, reserve the Sycamore Suite or the Grand Room for truly memorable accommodations.
The Oberoi, Marrakech, Morocco
The Oberoi, Marrakech, situated on 28 acres of idyllic gardens, encourages guests to explore the area’s outdoor offerings during their Moroccan vacation. They facilitate helicopter rides over the Sahara Desert, private tours of the Agafay Desert, and falconry experiences with the local Kwassem Tribe. The Kwassem Tribe celebrates the tradition of Moroccan falconry, teaching guests how they use wild falcons for hunting, and helping guests carry the falcons on their wrists with the appropriate gloves. After a day spent with these Moroccan birds of prey, guests of The Oberoi, Marrakech can retreat to their deluxe villa with a private pool.
Adare Manor, County Limerick, Ireland
Award-winning Irish getaway Adare Manor, in County Limerick, offers a must-try falconry experience on the estate. The hour-long experience introduces guests to owls, falcons, and perhaps even a Harris Hawk or American Bald Eagle, some of which will fly right on to guests’ gloved hands. In addition to their coveted falconry experience, guests of the 840-acre manor can dine on-property at the Michelin-starred restaurant, play golf on the manor’s pristine course, and indulge in a purifying facial at the La Mer Spa.
Chewton Glen, Hampshire, United Kingdom
Touted as one of Europe’s top family-friendly luxury hotels, Chewton Glen, along the New Forest, has no shortage of outdoor activities. They offer family falconry, a 90-minute, private, hands-on experience for up to six guests. For those escaping to Chewton Glen as a romantic getaway rather than a family vacation, book one of their idyllic treehouses. The treehouse hideaway suite is 35 feet above the ground with an outdoor hot tub on the terrace.