Luxury Explorer Review

Luxury Explorer review

Ballyfin

Ireland

Live the dream in one of the most exceptional historic country house hotels in the world

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Ballyfin
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Ballyfin

Location

The lush and verdant County Laois with views of the Slieve Bloom mountains

Travel Information

Dublin airport - 1 hour 30 mins

Top Tips

If you have something to celebrate, exclusive use of Ballyfin is an experience you'll never, never forget!

X-Factors

Absolutely everything!

Luxury personified

There are few hotels in the world, I guarantee, that will impress you as Ballyfin impresses. This is not because of a single outstanding feature, of which there are dozens, it’s because they got everything absolutely right. The blend of grandeur with 5-star hotel, the merging of 21st century necessities with its resplendent Regency pedigree, and, above all else, the seemingly seamless engagement of high-end luxury with friendly, homely hospitality.

This is your Irish ‘Downton Abbey’ for the duration of your stay, regardless of the other guests. However you can, like we did, also enjoy it exclusively for a landmark celebration.

Accomplishing such a successful luxe-hotel recipe was achieved in part by an ‘open chequebook’ approach to getting things right, as well as an extraordinary and cherry-picked (many local) team of staff members. Some of the craftsmen who helped restore it, now help you to enjoy your stay. It’s a tight-knit, loyal, warm and wholly genuine ‘family’ of employees, who really do want to give you something to treasure for a lifetime.

Glorious grandeur

The house was built in the 1820s for Sir Charles Coote, a descendent of the Elizabethan adventurer of the same name, who came to Ireland in 1601. A prominent and outstanding coat of arms is displayed above the fine entrance to Ballyfin. The Coote legacy, in all its glorious grandeur, remains evident at Ballyfin, even though the Patrician Brothers ran the house as a school for a few decades in the 20th century.

Then along came a discerning gentleman from America with a razor sharp vision for pristine and authentic restoration, and after many years effort Ballyfin was reopened in 2011 as a 5-star luxury country house hotel that raised the bar worldwide. So again, I have to stress, Ballyfin is in a league of its own. There is only one other hotel that has moved me in the same transporting fashion and that was Chateau de Bagnol in the beautiful Beaujolais Valley of France, in the days when it was run by Aman for Lord and Lady Hamlyn.

Outstanding details

The unwavering hand of the best of Irish hospitality is offered in a way that only romantic novels, or films have ever conjured. The house was built for entertaining and indulging prominent guests and this meant designing reception rooms to provide the senses with an all-consuming sense of privileged pleasures. The sheer scale of the reception rooms is awesome, but the decoration and period furniture, the revamped fixtures and fittings all in keeping with the neoclassical and Imperial periods of Ireland are truly sumptuous.

It’s hard to say which reception room makes you gasp the most, but most likely they all will. After an endearing and wonderfully warm ‘staff line up’ welcome, beneath the soaring ionic columns of the wide sandstone entrance, it takes some time to absorb the magnificence of the place. You are received as though entering a private residence, rather than a hotel, and you can choose how to begin this timeless journey.

As a couple on our first visits, we chose to sip a glass of champagne pretty promptly in the breathtaking Gold Drawing Room, still my favourite, and forever will be. While there are several other options, for my special party we, again, decided to welcome our guests with a drink in this formidable room.

The Gold Drawing Room is styled perfectly, just as it would have been. A soaring Beauvais tapestry is hung together with gilt framed important portraits and remarkable landscapes on handmade, sunset-toned silk walls. There are twinkling 18-arm chandeliers, an enormous detailed marble fireplace with fine maidens carved on either side, dressed with gilt twisted candelabras flickering beside a magnificently ornate Chippendale over-mantle mirror.

Plumped-up camelback Regency sofas sit on a finely-aged pastel Aubusson carpet while the classic floor- to-ceiling windows frame alternately the whimsical lake, often cloaked in a veil of mist, that sets the scene of the grounds from the house for the period of your stay. You are frozen in time here, another time perhaps, but what a glorious one it is. Every piece, every detail, is authentic. Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill 1996 and canapés go down a treat in this grand room.

Stately pleasures

All the grand reception rooms are individually special, all gifted with fine antiques, original oil paintings, staggering stucco plasterwork and fantastically-revived floors, including the Roman mosaic tiles in the entrance hall and the exquisite parquet floor made by the same craftsmen who supplied Buckingham Palace, to mention only two. From the enormous saloon to the 80-foot library (complete with many first edition books), God is truly in the detail. But one other room of splendiferous note is the alluring cast iron conservatory built by Richard Turner - the architect of the famous Palm House at Kew Gardens - in around 1855, which is reached through a hidden door from a shelf in the library. It is decorated in 70s-style cane furniture, which is fun and easygoing and faces the magnificent tiered fountain that gushes it waters down 50 wide steps before reaching a pool beneath a vast stone sculpture of Neptune.

Though a recent feature of the property, the fountain was an inspired design choice and is up there with some of the museum worthy features. Lunch in the conservatory is a must. We enjoyed this à deux as well as a stunning venue for our party for their arrival lunch.

When it comes to the bedroom chambers, it’s hard not to brag. Not only have I seen them all, I have also had the exquisite pleasure of staying in three. Is there a favourite? Not really, because each one is individually stamped and decorated in perfected period style with antique furniture and out-of-sight furnishings. All of this comes with the restored original features from the time of conception; thus, quite honestly, you are spoilt whichever room you choose.

We stayed in the grandest of all, the Sir Christopher Coote Suite, a 'Stateroom' with curved windows overlooking the fountain, the lake, and the pleasure grounds. More like a residential apartment, with a separate boudoir and grand formal sitting room, it bares a distinctly Chinese Chippendale theme, panelled in revered wallpaper from the 18th century.

All the bathrooms in all the rooms and suites are fabulously clad in marble with deeply decadent cast iron baths. But perhaps my favourite boudoir of all is The Westmeath. I want the bed, the view, the fabrics, the paintings. I want it all…for all time. The room derives its name from the beautiful portrait above the fireplace, depicting the angel-faced Marianne Jeffreys of Blarney Castle, County Cork. I want to be her as well.

Other favourites are The Little Library and The Butler, both Junior Suites, but the smaller Deluxe rooms are also all beautiful.

Culinary creations

The meals and menus are prepared with the seasons. They are also, in many instances, sourced not only locally, but from their own grounds. Newly arrived executive chef, Sam Moody, previously Michelin-starred and Catey Chef of the Year 2013 at the Bath Priory, will continue the focus on fine cuisine based on the freshest local ingredients, many grown in the hotel's vegetable garden.

His approach to what grows behind the walled gardens, to what comes out of the nearest waters, to local livestock, to even producing honey, is not only commendable – the result is delectable. I can still taste the sweet flesh of lobster landed from the boat at Castletownbere and the butter-soft pink lamb from the Connemara Hills.

There are several options for eating: two dining rooms (one more intimate, the other more stately) as well as the conservatory, the grounds (in the warmer months) and, of course, in-suite.

There is a well-stocked and temperature-perfect wine cellar at Ballyfin and we certainly enjoyed our tasting down there with the sommelier, who then decanted some of our wines for the tasting menu ahead. Wining and dining here is an integral part of the Ballyfin experience; and because you are not only invited, but encouraged, to be involved in the process, you feel even more connected to this magical place.

The great outdoors

You could ride a penny-farthing around the lake, however the likelihood is that you will fail. But, you can also choose a modern bike that suits you far better and take off, not only for a lake circuit, but around the grounds to some of the remarkable sites and outbuildings. These include ancient woods, grottos, follies, walled gardens, rock gardens, water features and towers. Or, simply sit yourself down after a few pedals and marvel at the Capability Brown-inspired landscape that, quite genuinely, shimmers emerald green.

You may wish to take a horse and carriage around the estate or even request your own horse be saddled up and brought to the front entrance. Whichever way you choose to traverse this spectacular estate, you will be captivated, and you may even wonder when the director will shout, “It’s a wrap!”

There are several other outdoor pursuits including: archery, fishing on or by the lake, clay pigeon shooting, horse riding and – something that went down a storm with our guests – rides around the estate in a golf-style buggy. Perhaps the best mode of transport is the simplest: on foot. Ballyfin is a walker’s paradise.

We have now stayed at Ballyfin on three occasions. Once was to be one of the first to review the hotel for Luxury Explorer, the second was to organise our landmark celebration party, and most recently was for the actual party, enjoyed over three days. I haven’t seen the guest book since that time but I do have our letters of appreciation. Let’s just say, I have never seen or read such high praise from so many for a weekend away, the world over. Not ever. Thank you Ballyfin (and, err, my husband too).

P.S. We are not alone in rating Ballyfin as one of the best hotels on the planet - readers of Condé Nast Traveller agree and have just voted Ballyfin 'Best Hotel in the World 2016'

Sophie Marchant
Sophie Marchant


Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer