Ninety minutes from Dublin sits Ballyfin, a spectacular hotel that takes comfort and relaxation to another level, writes Olenka Hamilton
Time at Ireland’s most opulent Regency mansion, Ballyfin, is passed, quite simply, in peace and at leisure. On days spent indoors, guests are spoilt for choice in terms of rooms they can lounge in and windows and fires they can bask in front of.
The house has just 20 bedrooms and almost as many reception rooms, including the lavish Gold Drawing Room, a good spot for an early-evening drink, a ‘whispering room’, a room hung with original Flemish tapestries, and a library which would take even the most avaricious of readers a lifetime to get through. And in the basement a swimming pool awaits, the kind which resembles the most polished of Roman baths with its blue mosaics and clean classical white stone with gold embellishments. Guests sleep on pool-side loungers, woken only by the dulcet Irish tones of masseurs and beauty therapists.
No less enchanting are the 614 acres of private land which surround Ballyfin house, including walled gardens, a 28-acre lake, thick woodland, an 18th-century tower, and follies and grottoes for guests to explore on foot or bicycle on a sunny day. Activities range from shooting, riding and fishing to boating and archery, or a ride in the horse and cart with Lionel, the charming head butler who is also a carpenter and worked on Ballyfin’s restoration. Few know Ballyfin better than Lionel, who was married in the church on the grounds, and his tour ought to be obligatory for his knowledge of what makes Ballyfin the magical place it is today.
Much is down to Sir Charles Coote, who bought the land from the Wellesley-Pole family in 1820. He built Ballyfin true to the family motto, ‘cost what it may’, sparing no expense and no detail, and set about flattening hills and scooping chunks out of walls to ensure ‘postcard views’ of his splendid Neoclassical pile (to which Lionel can point you), and he built a peacock garden and a conservatory to grow tropical fruit, and specifically to cultivate bananas. (Today, the conservatory is a wonderful spot for reading the papers over coffee after breakfast.) He also built the lake, which took 18 years to complete and is now the centrepiece of the grounds.
After the Coote family left following Irish independence, Ballyfin became a boys’ boarding school run by Patrician monks and gradually fell into decline. In the early 2000s, American billionaires Fred and Kay Krehbiel set out to buy Ballyfin and restore it, which they achieved with the help of Jim Reynolds, a brilliant archaeological historian from County Meath, who still visits the house every week.
After almost a decade of restoration work led by Reynolds, Ballyfin opened its doors in 2011 with the express intention of resembling a home rather than a hotel, and it is hard to imagine a place on earth more suited to rest and comfort. It comes as no surprise that last year it was voted the best hotel in the world by Condé Nast Traveller.
Taste of luxury
Each bedroom is more stylish than the last, thanks to Reynolds, who sourced each piece of art and furniture, be that a Chippendale mirror, a chandelier that used to belong to Caroline Bonaparte, or a set of Fornasetti furniture all the way from Milan. The result is a tasteful fusion of cultured opulence. The most popular bedroom, the Westmeath Room, has a Fabergé bed, while others are adorned with beautiful tapestries and comforting florals. Another favourite is the Duke of Wellington Room (the Duke himself spent time at Ballyfin), for its views of the conservatory and the colossal modern water cascade, a Reynolds addition which ensures that west-facing rooms also look over water (the east looks onto the man-made lake).
Ballyfin triumphs again with its food, by the devoted, passionate and brilliant chef Sam Moody, poached from the Bath Priory Hotel, where he had earned a Michelin star. ‘The celeriac is a humble ingredient which catches people off guard,’ he tells me, fondly chopping the root to the aroma of butter sizzling in a large copper pan. The result is a creamy, frothy, delectable soup to be eaten with Irish sourdough bread, served in the picnic house a short walk from the main house. As a change from the cosy dining rooms where breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and supper can be taken, guests can request to dine in the private picnic house or on its patio. It is furnished with fine cream porcelain crockery, silver cutlery and a blue gingham tablecloth and looks out over County Laois and its wild and verdant Slieve Bloom mountains.
Every ingredient in Moody’s kitchen is considered, from the locally smoked salmon at breakfast to the goat’s cheese rolled in hickory ash, which is wheeled out at the end of a long and leisurely supper. His pride and joy, though, is the thoroughly Irish mashed potato, which comes with every main course, its creaminess perfected and unparalleled. And the wine cellar is pleasingly extensive.
In many ways, Moody’s dedication to excellence exemplifies what makes Ballyfin uniquely luxurious. Similarly, from Reynolds to Lionel to the discreet waiting staff, everyone who works there is utterly invested in it. The service is singular in that it combines deference and diligence with the disarming charm and informality for which the Irish are loved.
Until now, most guests have been either Irish or American, the latter attracted by the Downton Abbey feel of the place, but Brits are increasingly being tempted across the Irish Sea – and for good reason.
Ballyfin is 90 minutes’ drive from Dublin (there is also a heliport). Rates start
from €560 per night (Deluxe room)
Olenka Hamilton is staff writer at Spear’s