It took nine years to restore Ireland’s revered Ballyfin Hotel, and the result is the gold standard in grandeur
In the context of luxury travel, it’s not uncommon to be invited to treat your sleeping quarters as if it were your own home. So it was no surprise when the courteous suggestion was made during our post check-in tour of Ballyfin Demesne, an exquisite 19th-century mansion nestled in the serene Irish countryside. Yet, as our tour progressed – through meandering meadows, charming apple orchards, lush walled gardens – this grand Regency estate grew further and further from life at home … in the best possible way.
Ballyfin boasts a rich evolution, one that only adds to the hotel’s sense of grandeur. The current property was built in 1820 by Sir Charles Coote and remained in the family for 100 years before spending much of the 20th century as a much- loved Patrician Brothers School. The property was purchased in 2002 in a state of disrepair and reopened in 2011 following a painstaking restoration. And as we approach the Irish gem, located in County Laois about 100 kilometres southwest of Dublin, those nine years materialise in spectacular form.
As our car pulls up, a uniformed maid and butler greet us in true Downton Abbey fashion. Inside we are offered a choice of Champagne or homemade cider from the property’s 50-year-old Pink Discovery apple orchard. Although it is set on almost 250 hectares – at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains no less– Ballyfin has just 20 rooms, delivering an intimacy that adds to the appeal. The property can be explored by foot, bicycle, horseback, carriage or golf cart. It includes a man-made lake (the largest in Ireland), grassy meadows and ferneries, stables, a Gardener’s Cottage, horse pastures, and a reproduction stone tower (built as a folly) with views of a dozen counties.
Looking up at Ballyfin is just as much of a delight as gazing around, thanks to intricate ceiling and cornices, and stained- glass skylights that let in a dreamy light. The chandelier, meanwhile, once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister. In the library, built-in mahogany bookcases are filled with antique books but it’s the secret door hidden among the shelves that truly delivers on wow factor. The door leads to a sun-drenched conservatory, a translucent dome structure supported by a delicate wrought-iron frame and comprising 4000 sheets of glass.
Activities are offered daily and include falconry, horse riding, archery, air rifle and clay pigeon shooting, fishing, and boating. There is also an indoor swimming pool, gym, and spa. A favourite with the ladies is the Costume Room, where racks of elegant frocks, accessories and debonair garb (acquired from Chicago’s Lyric Opera House) could easily transport you to bygone days of playing dress- ups. I cannot help myself. I select a 200-year-old peacock feather fascinator and a turquoise silk dress with delightfully puffy sleeves. I received much-needed assistance with my corset while my husband begrudgingly put on a Napoleon-esque hat and topcoat. Amid the fun, we wonder what outfits Kim and Kanye selected when they honeymooned here.
The staff at Ballyfin is unparalleled, and not just for the effort it took to tighten the corset! No guest preference goes unremembered; no peat-scented fireplace goes unstoked; no request goes unfulfilled. General Manager, Damien Bastiat, offers some insight: “Skill can be taught, personalities cannot.”
Delightfully, the personality extends to the guestrooms, each unique and titled according to decor. The Marquis de Massigny room, named after a French nobleman with a Coote-family connection, features French antiques, a clawfoot tub, and a toile-draped bed as well as two crystal chandeliers and original 18th-century oil paintings. Modern luxuries are cleverly hidden behind the period armoires and vanities.
Ballyfin’s multi-course dinner menu, designed by Head Chef Sam Moody, features a choice of three, five or eight courses with or without paired wines. The tomato, basil, buffalo mozzarella, and lobster appetizer; pan-fried scallops with Jerusalem artichoke, lemon and purslane; and Freshford spring lamb with barley, leek, goat’s cheese, and sliced almonds won’t soon be forgotten. The Cellar Bar in the mansion basement delivers more casual a la carte options, and fine whiskey pours.
On our final day, we give falconry a try. We meet Tom, the falconer, in the rock grotto and over the next two hours, we eagerly learn to hold, play with, and fly the birds. Watching a hawk take flight, return and land on my hand is exhilarating and terrifying – an experience only topped that day by beating my husband in air rifle shooting.
As we descend the grand cantilevered stairwell one final time, we feel, once again, like royalty. We will remember Ballyfin as the epitome of Irish hospitality. And we hope to one day return to our home away from home, for an experience unlike anything our home could provide.