Nestled in the serene countryside outside Dublin, awaits the most brilliant gem in Ireland, a nineteenth-century mansion named. A drive onto the property begins with a green meandering meadow and ends at an opulent soft grey sandstone Irish Regency country estate. As our car pulled up, a uniformed maid and butler greeted us in true Downton Abbey fashion. Once inside, we were offered a choice of champagne or home-made cider from Ballyfin’s fifty-year-old Pink Discovery apple orchard. Initially built in 1820 as a family home for British Lady Caroline Coote and her husband, Sir Charles Coote, it remained in the Coote family for a century. After Ireland gained independence, Ballyfin fell into the hands of Patrician Monks who turned it into a boarding school for boys. Fred Krehbiel, an electronics magnate, and his wife, Kay, along with landscaping expert, Jim Reynolds, purchased the property from the monks in 2002 and worked painstakingly for nine years to create a 20 room luxury hotel and grounds for guests.
When given a tour of the property, each guest is requested to “treat this home as if it were your own.” In other words, enjoy a seat by the fireplace in the Saloon, as one sips a Guinness underneath the five-meter high gilded Chippendale mirrors and the Carrara marble chimneypieces. Walk across the patterned Moorish marquetry floor that was created by the same artisans who designed Buckingham Palace. Go for a stroll through the ten miles of pathways that lead to the grotto, ice cave, walled garden, and a stone castle turret.
After breakfast on the Spode china, (included in the cost of one’s room) it is time to enjoy the morning sun as it shines brightly in the French Empire Gold Room. Looking up at Ballyfin is just as much of a delight as gazing down, thanks to intricate ceiling and cornice relief carvings and stained glass skylights that let in the light from above. The ceiling chandelier once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister.
If reading is on the agenda, the library features built-in mahogany bookcases filled with antique books and scagliola (faux marble) columns. Behind a secret bookcase, lies a hidden door. Enter it, and one finds oneself in the sun-drenched conservatory, a translucent dome structure supported by a delicate birdcage-like wrought-iron frame made of four thousand sheets of glass. Sip afternoon tea here, or anywhere else one desires on the property.
The property is 614 acres and can be perused by foot, bicycle, horseback, carriage, or golf cart. It includes a man-made lake (the largest in Ireland), grassy meadows and ferneries, stables, a Gardener’s Cottage, horse pastures, and a reproduction stone tower (built as a folly) with views of a dozen counties and the Slieve mountains. Activities are offered daily and include falconry, horseback riding, archery, air rifle and clay pigeon shooting, fishing, and boating. In addition, there is an indoor swimming pool, gym, and spa. My favorite activity consisted of a trip to the Costume Room, where racks of elegant frocks, accessories and debonair garb (acquired from Chicago’s Lyric Opera House) awaited my perusal. I selected a 200-year-old peacock feather fascinator and a turquoise blue silk dress with delightfully puffy sleeves. I received assistance with my corset from a ladies’ maid right out of Downton Abbey. My husband begrudging put on a top hat, vest, and coat for our photographic portrait. We opted not to wear the garments to supper that evening, but we understood that it was most certainly an option. We wondered what outfits were selected by Kim and Kanye when they honeymooned here.
Through the advice of friends, we signed up for the private picnic cottage luncheon. At breakfast, we selected our favorite dishes for our upcoming picnic. Then at noontime, we ventured across the property to the picnic cottage perched on a scenic hill. Upon opening the simple wooden door, we gasped at our perfect picnic table adorned with petit finger sandwiches, mushroom soup, hot tea, and a roaring fire in the brick fireplace. Between the silver platters and domes, we noticed a discretely placed cell phone in case we desired anything additional.
The staff at Ballyfin is unparalleled. Lionel Chadwick, butler and tour guide, one of 82 staff members servicing the 20 rooms (39 guests) previously had a career as a carpenter working on historical projects throughout Ireland. He went to school on the property as a young boy and later married in the church on the grounds. Like many of the staff members, he did not have prior training in hospitality. Manager, Damien Bastiat, believes, “Skill can be taught, personalities cannot.” The staff is quick to remember one’s favorite cocktail, turn-down requests, and room temperature. No peat-scented fireplace goes unstoked, or request goes unfulfilled. Each guestroom is unique and titled according to décor. The Marquis De Massigny room features French antiques, a marble encased claw foot tub, and a toile draped bed. The room houses two crystal chandeliers, original eighteenth-century oil paintings, hand-crafted soap, and luxurious bathrobes. Hidden behind the period armoires and vanities were all the modern luxuries; television, wifi, and telephone. When glancing outside, one can view the cascading stair-step waterfall topped by its neoclassical façade, created by Jim Reynolds to add a touch of interest to rooms situated at the back of the house.
Dinner fare is designed by master chef Sam Moody, who acquires his fruits, vegetables, eggs, and honey from the numerous gardens on the property. The dining room features a multi-course gourmet menu where guests are offered a 3, 5, or 8-course tasting menu, with or without paired wines. The cellar bar in the mansion basement delivers more casual a la carte options, and fine whiskey pours. Menu standouts were the tomato, basil, buffalo mozzarella, and lobster appetizer, the pan-fried scallops with Jerusalem artichoke, lemon and purslane, and the Freshford Spring lamb with barley, leek, goat cheese, and sliced almonds. The dessert of choice is the chocolate ganache with hazelnut crunch and milk sorbet.
On our final day, we gave falconry a try. We met Tom, the falconer, in the rock grotto. As he stood up to greet us, we noticed six different bird species, all perched on their stands waiting patiently behind him. Over the next two hours, we eagerly learned to hold, play with, and fly the birds. Watching the hawk fly back and land on my hand was exhilarating and terrifying. Falconry was only topped that day by beating my husband in air rifle shooting.
Upon our departure, as we descended the grand cantilevered stairwell, painted Tiffany blue, we nodded farewell to each portrait of the patrician Coote family. We strolled through the “Whispering Room” with the domed ceiling to whisper our good-byes. We felt like royalty, and we knew that Ballyfin would remain in our hearts as the epitome of Irish hospitality. We crossed underneath the 10,000-year-old elk antlers in the entry hall, and we vowed to return to our home away from home, our Irish country estate.