Close your eyes and imagine Ireland. Does your mind’s eye conjure up a vision of moody skies, rolling hills and grass greener than any you’ve ever seen before? Can you hear the lovely lilt of that inimitable accent? Me too. And thinking about it just makes me want to pack my bags and head back.
I’d never been to Ireland before and have always desperately wanted to visit. When the opportunity presented itself to visit, it didn’t take long to decide. Yes, yes, yes! My husband and I were visiting to attend the TBEX conference in Dublin but in the interest of seeing as much as we could, we wanted to sneak out of the city for a time to see more of Ireland. And that’s how we discovered Ballyfin, named one of the Best Hotels in the World on Conde Nast’s Hotel List 2012.
Getting to Ballyfin
Ballyfin is in County Laois, about 100 kilometres southwest of Dublin. My husband and I took the train, which is one of my favourite ways to travel through the countryside. The ride from Dublin took about an hour and 20 minutes (although if you catch the express train, it’ll take just under an hour) and our journey was smooth and enjoyable, as we watched the lush landscape whizzing by. The trains also have free WiFi, which was an unexpected and pleasant surprise! Ballyfin is a 10-minute taxi ride from Portlaoise train station.
Ballyfin is so impressive, imposing, pretty and picturesque, it almost takes your breath away.
The history of Ballyfin
Ballyfin is a 600-acre estate, which has a long and storied past. According to the literature about the property, “in the 1820s, the house that now stands at Ballyfin was originally designed for Sir Charles Coote by the great Irish father-and-son architects, Sir Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison. As a result, Ballyfin has long been admired as one of the most lavish late Georgian houses in Ireland.”
The Coote family lived in the house for 100 years before selling it to Patrician Brothers, who turned the property into a boarding school and operated it as such for most of the 20th century. In 2002, the property was purchased by an American who pumped upwards of $60 million into a massive restoration project, returning the buildings and surrounding land to their original glory. That this was a labour of love is immediately recognizable to visitors. Such care and attention to detail can be attributed to nothing else. The property, which threw open its doors to guests in May 2010, is now an intimate 15-bedroom hotel that exquisitely recreates what it must have been like to reside in an elegant manor home, centuries ago.
The property is sprawling, grand and historic. As we approached the house by car, the path winding far ahead of us, the house came into view, growing larger and larger the closer we got. We asked the driver to stop so we could take some photos. It’s so impressive and imposing and pretty and picturesque, it almost takes your breath away. There’s a lake directly in front of the house, the grounds are impeccably maintained and that green, green grass I picture in my mind’s eye when I think of Ireland, covers every inch of the expanse of land.
It was raining as we arrived. The light drizzle prompted apologies from the friendly staff but I didn’t mind in the least. Slightly overcast, rainy and grey … it was atmospheric and utterly perfect.
The bedrooms at Ballyfin
There are 15 bedrooms at Ballyfin and each one is uniquely and individually designed. But each room is swathed in the historic style of the day and oozes elegance. We stayed in the Butler Room, which overlooks the lake and is done up in dramatic red wallpaper and Georgian furnishings. The four-poster bed is the room’s showstopper though quick on its heels in pursuit of its claim for most interesting piece is the George II secretaire, situated between the room’s two large windows. Each room in the house has a completely different design and colour palette, making each feel like a completely different experience from the others.
As hard as it is to drag yourself out of the oasis that is the bedroom, the rest of the house is just as delightful and you’ll want to spend your afternoons drinking tea by the fire in The Saloon or reading peacefully in The Library, an 80-foot space that occupies the entire south front of the house with matching fireplaces and over 5,000 volumes of books. But The Gold Drawing Room (pictured top) is the grandest, most lavish room in the house and quickly became my favourite. With soaring ceilings, luxurious wallpaper and sumptuous furniture in a palette of cream and gold, this room captures an era gone by and if you close your eyes and listen closely, you’ll feel like you can just barely make out the rustle of silk gowns in the hallway, as the women of the house glide to the dining room for their nightly repast.
As I’ve already mentioned, the property is 600 acres so there’s lots of exploring to do. Guests can take a house tour, offered daily at 5pm, to learn more about the history of Ballyfin. But if you want to get outside, there’s the lake out front where guests can go fishing. There are bikes – regular bikes, tandems and a historic penny-farthing bike, which just adds to the charm of the place. You can go clay pigeon shooting or try some archery. There’s a lovely pool and a gym too, if you’re so inclined. There’s also a costume room, filled with period costumes originally from the Chicago Opera. Guests are invited to try them on and even wear them to dinner!
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Irish hospitality at Ballyfin. There are about 40 people on staff at Ballyfin and each and every one embodied the kind of hospitality you would expect from a property of this caliber. The Irish accents alone were like music to my ears but the genuinely friendly staff, really do make you feel like you’re at home. Pop downstairs at any time of day and someone will offer to make you tea and bring you biscuits. At the very front door of the house, you’ll find a row of dark green Hunter wellies in every size for men and women, just waiting to be worn as you romp about outside. It’s homey and lovely and for a property as elegant and refined as Ballyfin, it’s that informal, casual air that puts guests at ease.
I loved every minute of my stay at Ballyfin and was so sad when it was time to leave. I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.