Driving up the long and winding avenue through Ballyfin Demesne, I felt like a traveller in the golden age of Irish country house hospitality.
My wife and I were stealing 24 hours to ourselves. As the sun-splashed façade of this handsome, neoclassical house came into view, three staffmembers greeted us from the steps. They took our car keys, guided us inside.
Beyond the sandstone, inside Ballyfin, our feet landed on a Roman mosaic dating from the first century AD. Hunter wellingtons stood in a row beside the hall fireplace. Hot towels were placed into our hands.
Ballyfin dates from the 1820s. A Regency era mansion built beneath the Slieve Bloom Mountains by the Anglo-Irish Coote family, it has been dramatically revived as a five-star hotel.
The restoration took longer than the original build, in fact – sparing no expense, from the cast-iron conservatory to the repair and resetting of the Rotunda’s inlaid floor, based on the Lion Court of the Alhambra Palace in Grenada. At over €1,000 per night for a room, it is comfortably Ireland’s most expensive hotel.
The detail is intoxicating.
Stuccowork is lavish and crisp. A sumptuous, 80-foot library (above) conceals a secret doorway leading to a cast-iron conservatory. A cantilevered staircase rises up through a gallery of family portraits in the atrium, and a fountain was moved three feet – in its entirety – so it would align flush with hallway views.
Antique fittings – from the 18th century French furniture in the Gold Drawing Room to an old wooden trunk labelled ‘Sir Charles Coote’ in the library (below) – are exquisite.
There’s an offer to unpack our suitcases. My wife mentions that she is thinking of taking a bath.
“Would you like a glass of champagne with it?” is the reply.
Butlers – butlers! – are prompt and attentive when you need them, discreet and inconspicuous when you don’t. At breakfast, my fresh fruit salad smacks of honey… it comes from the bees in the estate gardens.
Dinner includes hand-dived scallops from Castletownbere, Co. Cork, served with sea kale, Serrano ham and spring truffles. When I ask how a carrot has been cooked, the maître d comes back with hand-written instructions from the chef… including parboiling in orange, ginger, shallot and thyme.
Ballyfin lies at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains in Co. Laois, but many guests never leave the 600-acre demesne. I’m one of them. Fishing, shooting and archery are all options, as are spa treatments and a dip in a cool 14m pool (below). I grab a bike (horse and carriages are also available) to tour the follies, a 120-foot tower and circuit of the steely blue manmade lake on the estate.
Momentarily, I am to the manor born.
Consolidating the sense of luxury is the fact that Ballyfin sleeps just 29 guests. There is always a nook to yourself. There is always a staffmember ready to bring a silver pot of coffee with fresh cookies, or a glass of Picpoul de Pinet. There’s no need to sign for drinks or food, as most of it is included in the price. In a recent interview, Richard E. Grant of Hotel Secrets was asked to name his favourite hotel.
He chose this one, without hesitation.
Taste and money don’t always go together, but when they do, they click like the button on a Chesneau Heltzel clutch. The devil is in the detail at Ballyfin, a pristine mansion that meets our needs almost before we know what they are.
Ballyfin.com; double rooms from €1,025/£858 per night.
This story originally ran in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller UK.