Blame it on the jet lag, but I fall asleep as we drive through the Irish Midlands from Dublin. When I awaken suddenly into what looks like a painting, I find myself in a dreamlike setting.
At first glimpse, Ballyfin, a country house hotel an hour from Dublin in bucolic County Laois, is totally delightful. But it’s the exterior details of the historic mansion, built in the 1820s, that I swoon over: twin sphinxes on guard at the front door, immense Greek columns, the vast surrounding lawn, and a lake so glassy that it reflects the clouds. I practically leap from the car to start exploring this captivating portal to the past.
As I amble toward the front door, the scene further improves. A coterie of staff appears – some in tuxedos; others in sweaters, corduroys, and Dubarry boots (the casual uniform of rural gentry). They usher me in, offering flutes of Champagne, their voices trumpeting a hearty welcome. I pinch myself and stand a little straighter. Ballyfin has that effect. Restored to its former grandeur, the hotel offers guests an alternative reality from city life, just as it did in its heyday as a destination for yesterday’s blue bloods.
I had heard about Ballyfin’s history as an Irish “great house,” a home constructed to boast of family wealth. As a guest today, you understand that once you explore its diverse gardens, grand public spaces, and folly tower with views of 16 counties. In the shadows of the Slieve Bloom green mountains, the mansion drew nobility and celebrities, storied guests who stayed for weeks, months, or more – much longer than I have the fortune to linger. Built by Sir Christopher Coote and his shrewdly social wife Caroline, the house showcased the extravagance of the early nineteenth-century. The family was led by the motto Coûte que Coûte(no matter the cost) and spared no expense as they built it.
They loved to show off Ballyfin, with its ornate wooden floors and exquisite stucco, rotundas throughout, a whispering room, secret passageways, and priceless art and furniture.
After a century of swank and largesse, Ballyfin fell into hard times. It decayed as it was used as a boarding school for boys in the 1930s. Much of the great artwork and furniture was lost. But the essential architectural bones remained intact.
It took an American businessman and his Irish wife to restore Ballyfin. Fred and Kay Krehbiel purchased the mansion and grounds in 2002, vowing to bring the estate back. The restoration took nearly a decade.
“It was a labor of passion,” says general manager Damien Bastiat. He introduces me to Jim Reynolds, the renowned landscape architect and archaeologist who served as right hand man to the Krehbiels during the restoration.
“We wanted to maintain the atmosphere of a house. That was our guiding principle,” Reynolds tells me. He and the Krehbiels worked to replace the lost art and furnishings and even managed to recover original Ballyfin objet d’art, accoutrements, and paraphernalia at auctions and galleries. When they could not find original pieces, the Krehbiels imagined what the Cootes may have bought, with pieces appropriate to the era and the opulence of the house.
With just 20 spacious rooms and the new stand-alone Gardener’s Cottage, the hotel is a symphony of extraordinary moments. Take the 10,000-year-old elk antlers on the wall in the foyer (withdrawn from the bog that preserved them), or the Scagliola columns in the library.
I explore the Gold Room, a gilded salon with Napoleonic mirrors. Later, I lounge in the 80-foot library (where there’s a secret room), book in hand, then sip tea from china cups in the sun-dappled conservatory, the outdoors pouring in through the planes of glass.
At night, I sleep in former owner Lady Caroline Coote’s own suite, a damask-lined, sky-blue ode to elegance, which connects me to her ethos, something that comes in handy later as I gallivant through Ballyfin’s halls, channeling her in period costume, a game most Ballyfin visitors play.
“Sooner or later, everybody dresses up here,” says Bastiat. On his command, as any guest may, I’ve plundered Ballyfin’s costume room, set in a separate wing, brimming with period clothing and accessories. I eventually find something that I believe Lady Caroline Coote might have worn. My skirts are massive. My wasp-waist dress has to be zipped by a staff member. I have feathers in my hair, and pearls looping from my neck.
Bastiat, effortlessly elegant, wears his favorite costume. Together, with other guests equally attired, we nibble over a garden-to-table menu and plan the rest of our days at Ballyfin. At Ballyfin, each of us tend toward lazy pursuits – picnics on a ridge, bike rides, tomato picking with the gardener, walks around the lake, croquet, and games of cards in the drawing room.
Ballyfin takes you to that other dimension – a place where the past meets the present.
Travel Advisor Tips:
“Ballyfin is stunningly beautiful and feels like a stately manor house rather than a ‘hotel.’ Most of all, I love the dress-up room! The attention to detail is wonderful – think lavender sachets under your pillow at night, fresh daffodils cut from the gardens all over the property, and speedy room service. With so many wonderful venues, the hotel is also perfect for guests wanting to host an engagement party or milestone birthday. Months after my stay, I can still picture the Conservatory lit with candles at night.”
~ Ellison Poe, Virtuoso travel advisor
“Guests are immediately impressed by the sheer beauty of Ballyfin, the quality of the restoration, and the warmth of the people. You feel entirely at home in such a historic location – it’s easy to sink in, relax, and appreciate the ambiance whether or not your personal taste is historic or contemporary. I book my clients for a minimum of two nights, or else they demand to know why they had to leave so soon!”
~ Carrie Wallace, Virtuoso travel advisor