The cool, late mid-May evening draws to a close at Ireland’s Ballyfin Demesne, a lavish 19th century late-Georgian estate hotel. Two refined ladies, clutching crystal sherry glasses, creak open the tall oak front doors for a last look at the lushly groomed grounds before retiring.
Suddenly, they stop chattering. A flickering white shape shimmers at the foot of the park. Is that … can it be … is there something floating out there, clad in a full-length Napoleonic cape? One of the women gasps.
Clearly, an explanation for this phenomenon is called for. First, though, some context.
The wayback machine
Let’s dash back to the 1820s, when immensely rich Sir Charles Coote, ninth baronet of Mountrath, commissioned famed Irish architects Sir Richard and William Morrison to create a grand family home and acreage (that’s the “demesne” part).
Tearing down a prior heap owned by the Duke of Wellington’s family, the Cootes filled their grand sandstone home with treasures from across Europe and called Ballyfin home for 100 years. But during the uncertain time of Irish independence, they sold the estate to the Catholic Patrician Brothers for use as a boarding school for boys.
You can well imagine what 70-odd years’ worth of boyish exuberance did to the place. By 2002, the once-proud home hadn’t just fallen on hard times, it was literally falling in on itself.
Enter another immensely rich patron, this one from the colonies — Chicago business executive Fred Krehbiel and his charming Irish wife, Kay. Always harboring a desire to own a “small” hotel, Fred assembled a crack team of 100 craftsmen who spent nine years painstakingly restoring the 35,000-square-foot mansion, as well as the 614 acres of grounds and the 28-acre lake, to their former grandeur.
The overarching idea — create the impression of a typically Irish country house from which the family has just departed, leaving their eclectic paintings, sculptures, furniture and decorative motifs for guests to discover and enjoy.
History lesson over.
The revitalized Ballyfin Demesne opened in 2011 offering a genuine yet un-cummerbunded 19th century country manor experience graced with 21st century conveniences. No less an authority than Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s 2016 Readers’ Choice Awards honored Ballyfin as “Best Hotel in the World.”
IN … THE … WORLD. So yeah, it’s pretty great.
Open the 400-year-old oak front doors and you’re standing on a 2,000-year-old Roman tile mosaic floor. Raise your eyes and you’re greeted by the enormous antlers of a long-extinct Irish elk, found preserved in a bog and mounted just right for a hilarious selfie.
Then you’re off to tour Ballyfin’s other first-floor public spaces, which whisk you back in time to an eye-popping wonderland of uncompromising gentility. The Rotunda, for example, features wood flooring based on the Courtyard of the Lions at Granada’s Alhambra Palace. (The Coote children set up their toy train sets on this exquisite artwork.)
The Saloon, smack-dab in the middle of the house, serves as the oh-so-elegant gathering place for guests before dinner. The intricate wood flooring, created by Morel & Seddon — the same artisans who decked out both Buckingham and Windsor palaces — was saved from the wrecking ball by a visionary former school worker. She painstakingly peeled up and numbered the hand-carved, jigsaw wood pieces in hopes that, one day, the whole would be restored. We thank you.
Then pop into the 80-foot long library, bookended by two crackling fireplaces and stuffed with oversize chairs, couches and more than 5,000 books. It’s the ideal spot to while away a drizzly Irish morning with a cup of tea.
A hidden door in the library leads to the exactingly restored, glass-enclosed Conservatory, built in 1855 by Richard Turner, who also designed the Palm House at Kew Gardens. The garden views are simply spectacular.
The winding stone cantilevered staircase, lined with original Coote family portraits, leads to the 20 guest rooms, finished with chintzes in traditional patterns and lavishly decorated with Irish, English and French antiques, paintings and porcelains. It’s like being in a lovely museum, except you can touch stuff and not get yelled at.
Each room bursts with personality. The best is the Sir Christopher Coote Suite (and in the world’s best hotel, that’s saying something). A big, bowed sitting window overlooks the south portico’s vista and the room is decorated with a series of 18th century Chinese wallpaper panels from the collection of the Prince of Hanover at Schloss Marienburg.
To me, however, the most appealing room is the quirky, first-floor Sir Charles Coote Room, accessed via a hidden door near the staircase. It’s a curved room, with curved wooden doors — how’d they do that? — that served as Coote’s office where he received tradesmen and domestics. A narrow passage with an industrial iron door leads to the stone-floored bathroom and seems like a mistake — until you find out that it’s there, in his fireproof vault, where Coote kept the loot.
A marble Roman sarcophagus, transported from Italy for his grand tour collection, now serves as the room’s resplendent bathtub (the prior occupant thankfully having taken its leave long ago).
New accommodations are also on the way. Ballyfin plans to open a Gardener’s Cottage early next year with a bedroom separate from the main house — great for families or couples who want a little more privacy.
The important part — food!
Meals at Ballyfin are a celebration of fresh, beautifully harmonized ingredients. Everything’s either grown in Ballyfin’s eight-acre organic garden or sourced locally. Most meals (other than picnic lunches) are served on period-correct Spode china accompanied by massive silver settings and gorgeously set tables with fresh flowers.
Breakfast will bring out the blarney in even the groggiest guest. If it’s in season, don’t miss the estate-made Pink Discovery apple juice — it’s a refreshing, tart-yet-sweet, palate-pleasing revelation unlike any apple juice you’ve ever tasted. You’ll use store-bought as windshield-wiper fluid from now on.
Hearty oatmeal, fluffy egg concoctions, crisp bacon or sausage — it’s all familiar, yet so much more delicious when you’re in Ballyfin’s stately State Dining Room. Decorated with colorful scagliola columns (plaster painted to look like marble), the room’s formal vibe brings out manners you never knew you had, much less used.
At lunch in the Conservatory, enjoy salads fresh from the garden, or hearty ham-and-cheese sandwiches on dense breads, or smoked ravioli or any number of exquisitely prepared options.
Burn off all that fabulousness with a tour of the grounds. Bikes and golf carts are readily available to aid your exploration. A literal high point — a tower “folly” overlooking the pristine acreage. Who knew green came in so many different shades?
Take a moment and breathe — this is what they mean by sweet-smelling air.
Another worthy stroll leads to the once-functional ice house and sawmill, rock caves, grotto and aviary, where peacocks strut proudly while chickens scurry.
For the more ambitious, there’s archery, horseback riding, fishing, skeet shooting, falconry and croquet. There’s also a gym, indoor pool and spa treatments to soothe those aching tootsies.
Prior to dinner, pop into the clubby, informal Cellar Bar in the former servant’s hall and enjoy a pint or three of Guinness, or a whiskey, to whet your appetite.
Then head back to the State or check out the Van Der Hagen room, named for the 19th century father of Irish landscape painting, and savor scallops or sea bass or St. Tola goat’s curd with apple jam and walnut toast, surrounded by his art. Other options during my visit: squab pigeon, or south coast turbot with gnocchi, or Shellumsrath duck with beets, or Duncannon cod with smoked eel. My favorite: the velvety Dexter beef — and I’m saying that as a Texan, mind you.
Don’t forget dessert. Bitter chocolate ganache, orange and almond cake, salted peanut parfait, mango and passion fruit mousse, and vanilla mousse with garden rhubarb are just some of the pastry choices. My standard response — yes to all.
Really, it never ends at this place.
Back to that ghostly caped figure
Ballyfin’s collection of 40 period costumes from Chicago’s Lyric Opera company are on hand so guests can liven up dinner with panache. I chose a voluminous white cape and, after dinner, opted for an evening stroll as I reflected on how cool it must have been to be a member of the peerage. (I would’ve been outstanding, by the way.)
So, when the ladies came outside to watch the soft Irish moon shimmer over the lake, then gasped at the ethereal vision of a caped figure on the lawn, I couldn’t help myself.
I turned to them slowly and in my best booming voice, demanded, “Who disturbeth his lordship?”
Much hilarity and photo-bombing ensued. Sorry, ghostbusters — no spirits at Ballyfin, other than those from a bottle.
But given the magnificent setting, the bonhomie, the moonlight and the luminous cape, it was a truly magical moment all around — in a truly magical place where grace, romance, tranquility, splendor and whimsy abound.
Get in touch with Ballyfin Demesne
Located about 90 minutes from Dublin, a stay at the 5-star Ballyfin Demesne is akin to staying in a private home — the entire property is yours to enjoy. Meals and most activities are included in the room rate: please inquire about specific activities. Room rates vary with the season but generally start at 640 Euro and top out at 1,870 Euro (about $715 to $2088 American at press time).
Ballyfin, County Laois, Ireland