A luxurious Irish estate-turned-hotel transports you to another era.
by Erin Breeden
As my driver navigated down the winding driveway in the early hours of the morning, I saw Ballyfin for the first time. Awestruck, my mouth opened slightly as we pulled up to the front of the hotel — a house, actually — as the Irish fog began to lift. Four pillars flank the entrance of the former estate built in the 1820s that would be my home away from home for the next few days. As the staff came out to greet me by name, I couldn’t help but think I had accidentally stepped right into an episode of Downton Abbey.
About an hour and a half outside of Dublin, Ballyfin is located in County Laois at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. The 614-acre private estate built by Lady Caroline and Sir Charles Coote operated as a boarding school during much of the 20th century. It was converted to a 20-room luxury hotel that opened in 2011.
Ballyfin is a throwback to a bygone era, when the pace of life was much slower. The art throughout the hotel is from the 1800s or earlier, and many paintings, found at auction or estate sales, feature members of the Coote family.
Known for its beauty and impeccable service and dining, the 5-star hotel has earned the No. 1 spot on Travel + Leisure’s list of the Top 10 Resort Hotels in the United Kingdom and Ireland for three years running. It’s been a choice for some notable celebs, too. Kim and Kanye honeymooned here in 2014. In April, George and Amal Clooney spent the Easter holiday here with family.
It didn’t take long for me to understand the appeal. Upon my arrival, staff members introduced themselves and offered me a complimentary glass of champagne — never mind the fact that it was barely 7:00 a.m. Glass in hand, I was directed toward check-in — a spot I would soon learn was called The Whispering Room: The curved design of the ceiling allows two people standing in opposite corners to hear one another’s faintest conversations.
My luggage was waiting for me when I arrived at my room, which was situated above the library with a view of a fountain and the lake. Named for Henry VIII’s daughter Mary, the Maryborough room featured a grand bed that I didn’t want to leave and a marble bathroom with a walk-in shower, fireplace and a large tub for soaking. All 20 guest rooms — each are decorated in a different style — also offer modern-day amenities, including a coveted Dyson hairdryer.
After a brief rest, I was famished and headed downstairs to the dining room for lunch. While I was admiring the view of the cascading waterfall feature, a man with twinkly eyes and lovely Irish accent approached my table and asked if he could join me. As we talked, I learned that my lunch companion was Jim Reynolds, the landscape designer (and a shareholder of Ballyfin) who oversaw the nearly 10-year restoration of the property, including the waterfall I had been admiring moments ago. The estate is owned by Fred Krehbiel, an American businessman whose family once owned a Chicago electronics manufacturing company, and his Irish-born wife, Kay.
During my stay, I had the opportunity to enjoy the grounds Jim had painstakingly designed on daily walks and bike rides around the manmade lake. But my favorite way to explore the estate was via horse-drawn carriage. Lionel Chadwick, head butler and coachman, took my group on a tour of the grounds in a carriage led by Ben and Kit, two of the estate’s horses, where we saw blooming bluebells, a 400-year-old tree and relics of the property’s different iterations, such as a grotto from the 1700s and a tower built in the 1860s that visitors can still climb.
Back at the hotel, dining at the Ballyfin is a foodie’s dream. Chef Sam Moody incorporates fresh ingredients from the gardens and works with local butchers, organic farms and fishermen to develop his seasonal menus. Eggs are sourced from hens right on the estate, and honey is produced from on-site bee hives. If you don’t want to miss a minute of exploring the grounds, Moody and his team will prepare a picnic of sandwiches, housemade chips and canapés for you to enjoy at the grotto, by the lake or at other locations throughout the property.
One of the most memorable experiences I had during my stay at the Ballyfin was a falconry session, where I was introduced to owls and a peregrine falcon — but the true star was Maeve, a beautiful hawk and treated us to one of her signature tricks. When released by Tom, a professional falconer, she came barreling toward me and landed on my arm with the weight of a feather.
As my stay was coming to an end, I was in for one last treat. At our farewell dinner, the members of my group got to dress up in gowns and accessories that had been purchased from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. For about $65, plus an additional fee for optional photography, guests can choose from 40 different period costumes to wear for an evening. I selected a dress that made me feel like a heroine from a Jane Austen novel.
Our dresses rustling with every step, we headed to the Gold Room for a glass of champagne before a dinner that felt straight out of a period drama. While we were enjoying our drinks, our favorite head butler, Lionel Chadwick, turned up dressed as Ross Poldark, the title character from the BBC period drama series based on novels written by Winston Graham.
The next morning, after I put my Austen-esque dress away and prepared to return to real life, I took one last walk around the grounds and one more look around the house. “Goodbye, Miss Erin,” I heard as I approached my waiting car.
Impeccable service, luxurious accommodations, delicious food, memorable excursions and views that truly showcase the inspiration for the Johnny Cash song “40 Shades of Green.”
The Ballyfin was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. SP
Direct flights from Charlotte to Dublin are available at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. From Dublin Airport, you can either call a car or a cab, or arrange for a car service with the Ballyfin.
Eat and drink
There is an endless supply of fresh-made cookies and soda bread throughout the main part of the house, along with coffee and champagne. You can enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining room or privately in your guest room. For an alternative setting, take your tea or coffee in the glass-enclosed conservatory just off the library.
Sign up for the sporting clays, archery, falconry or fishing to enjoy the grounds and the beautiful scenery. The Ballyfin spa offers a gym, an indoor pool and a full menu of spa treatments.
Peruse the first-edition books in the library, or explore the rolling hills of the property. Or visit the gardens at Ballyfin, including where fresh vegetables and herbs are grown.