It was my Downton Abbey moment. Grasping the folds of my vintage tangerine lace gown, I descended the spiral staircase to join other guests for a pre-dinner glass of champagne in the gold drawing room, whose color scheme set off my gown beautifully.
I made my grand entrance into the salon, where a pianist played; black-frocked staff bearing trays of bubbly weaved and bobbed gracefully among guests, and worldly travelers engaged in witty repartee. Later, we would all head into the formal dining room for an eight-course tasting menu.
There was no Lord Grantham, Dowager Countess or a trouble-making Pamuk, but I got a glimpse of what it was like to be Lady Mary — if only for a night.
As glamorous as the evening was, it was not an anomaly. This is standard fare at Ballyfin, located in County Laois (pronounced Leash), about an hour-and-a-half drive from Dublin, in the midst of central Ireland’s Slieve Bloom Mountains.
When you pull up in front of the house — either by car from the Dublin airport or golf cart after a ride around the ornamental lake — smiling staffers line the steps to greet you. It was probably my imagination, but the cheerful woman with the broad grin did look a bit like Anna, and one of the gents bore more than a passing resemblance to Bates (again, Downton Abbey references for the uninitiated).
Long, eloquent history
Ballyfin, whose name in Gaelic means “a fair place,” has been a showcase from the Middle Ages, when the O’More clan held title. A proper castle, meant to repel rapacious invaders, occupied the site during their tenure.
Later families who lived and loved it here were the Wellesley-Poles, who counted the Duke of Wellington among its members, and a formidable 19th-century couple, Sir Charles Henry Coote, one of the richest men in the country, and his wife Caroline.
It was the Cootes who completed the transition of Ballyfin from a forbidding pile of rocks into the present Regency manor, called the finest in Ireland. Charles oversaw the building process, while Caroline, checkbook in hand, traveled across Europe on a buying spree.
She spent Charles’ money with abandon, and guests can thank her for much of what they see at Ballyfin today. It was no longer necessary to have narrow slits in the walls — the better to pour boiling oil or discharge a rain of arrows on those who came calling — so Caroline insisted on French windows for better viewing of the surrounding landscape.
Interiors featured floor mosaics and fireplaces from Italy, chandeliers and furniture from France, antique mirrors from England, tapestries from Belgium, and artwork from Ireland and the Continent.
Life was good for the Cootes at Ballyfin until the 1916 Easter Rising resulted in a move for Irish independence, making it unpopular to be a member of the Protestant land-owning gentry. In 1920, the property was sold to the Patrician Brothers (Brothers of St. Patrick), who opened a school here that remained in operation until 2009.
Ballyfin Enjoys a Revival
Today, Ballyfin is again a grand manor that the civilized Cootes and Wellesley-Poles would approve of, and the rambunctious O’Mores would not recognize. The credit for this transformation goes to Fred and Kay Krehbiel (she’s Irish; he’s a Chicagoan with Irish sensibilities).
It took eight years and millions of dollars, but when Ballyfin opened to the public in 2010 as a 20-room luxury hotel, visitors were — as they like to say across the pond — “gob-smacked.”
The Krehbiels, like the Cootes before them, had spared no expense in restoring the property. Exhaustive research allowed them to find the original paint palettes for the decorative columns in the 500-volume library, to reproduce the incredibly intricate detail on all the plasterwork, and to meticulously re-create the delicate design on the original marquetry floors.
Guests at Ballyfin stay in gorgeously appointed bedrooms named after historic figures, including Sir Charles and Caroline Coote, and Lady Sarah Pole (the room I had, overlooking the sloping back lawn with its impressive cascading water feature and statue of Neptune).
They enjoy the 614 perfectly landscaped acres that can be explored on horseback, by golf cart or on foot.
They experience the inspired cuisine of executive chef Michael Tweedie, a youthful kitchen maestro, who presides over all meals, from those eight-course extravaganzas in the two formal dining rooms to casual lunches in the glass-enclosed, plant-filled conservatory (reached through a hidden door in one of the Library’s bookshelves).
Tweedie extols the virtues of everything Irish, but I couldn’t get past the salmon. I had it at least once every day — at breakfast, eggs royale (English muffin, smoked salmon, truffle Hollandaise sauce) — or at dinner, accompanied by white asparagus and a selection of Irish farmhouse cheeses.
But perhaps what defines Ballyfin most is the incomparable staff, a genuinely friendly lot who can’t do enough for you, especially the discreet butlers. I might not have had Downton’s Carson or Thomas, but I did have Declan and Glen, who surely deserve a TV series of their own.
This “tell us what you need and we will make it happen” tone is set by general manager Damien Bastiat, a charming Frenchman, and managing director Jim Reynolds, an amiable Irishman. The two get to know all the guests and treat them as if they were attending a weekend house party, which no doubt is the way the Krehbiels want it.
As for the guests, should they tire of sipping a glass of Jameson in front of a roaring fire or lying on a massage table in the deluxe spa, there are plenty of other options.
They can climb a stone tower for a panoramic view of the estate, from which seven counties are visible. They can play croquet or shoot clay pigeons; go fishing or learn falconry; arrange for a gourmet picnic in the charmingly isolated Picnic House; or take a tour to nearby Birr Castle, home of the Earl of Rosse, for a look at its award-winning gardens.
But one thing they’ll surely want to do is spend an afternoon in Ballyfin’s vintage costume room, where an array of costumes bought by Fred Krehbiel from Chicago’s Lyric Opera are available for those who wish to dress up and party like it’s 1915.
This brings me back to my aforementioned grand entrance down the grand staircase in a gown any duchess would be proud to don. As I took in the scene around me, I found myself agreeing with another American visitor who wrote in the guestbook: “Ballyfin has quite possibly ruined every future hotel experience for me. I would come back to Ireland just for the chance to stay here again.”
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.
If you go
Location: The 20-room luxury property is situated on 614 acres of manicured parkland with a lake, woodland gardens, follies, a grotto and a walled garden.
Amenities: Each the guest room is individually decorated and features elegant touches such as four-poster beds, 17th-century Flemish tapestries and rococo ceilings.
FYI: Ballyfin is closed in January and February.