Checking in to one of Ireland’s most luxurious hotels
STORY: Jan Schroder
Forget sailing the high seas or engaging in a constant battle against evil. When I fantasize about being a character in a novel, it involves a historic setting, acres of land to explore and elegant multicourse meals. I got all of those and more during a stay at Ballyfin, a lavish five-star property in central Ireland.
The Relais & Châteaux resort was built in the 1820s by Sir Charles Coote, and the family owned it for 100 years before selling it to the Patrician Brothers, who ran a boarding school there for many years. After a massive restoration, Ballyfin opened in 2011 with 20 guestrooms. It has been called the most lavish Regency mansion in Ireland.
Every room is unique, opulently furnished and identified by names rather than numbers. Our room, The Maryborough, was exquisitely decorated in shades of green and coral. My favorite part was the bathroom that boasted a fireplace and a large window with a view of the lake.
Included with a stay at Ballyfin are multicourse, beautifully presented meals prepared with seasonal and local ingredients, many grown in the eight-acre kitchen garden. After being greeted with a glass of Champagne and a warm towel upon our arrival, we dined in the conservatory, which offered magnificent views of the gardens at the back of the estate. We enjoyed dishes that included squash soup, fried hake, goat cheese and onion tart, and Irish cheeses. Another option for lunch is to arrange for a picnic to enjoy anywhere on the grounds.
We opted to spend our afternoon exploring the 614-acre estate on the complimentary bicycles. Armed with a rudimentary map and an unwarranted conviction that we couldn’t get lost, we headed out for a delightful afternoon of perusing the scenic property, set at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. We wandered through a rose garden, rock garden and grottos with lush fernery, and climbed 97 steps up a tower set on the top of a long, steep hill, from which a butler told us we could view “13 counties and two-thirds of Ireland.
We rode through two large, walled gardens, pausing to take a peek at the chicken coop, and ended our bike tour at the boathouse, where two wooden rowboats are housed for guests to use. My husband skillfully rowed us around the small lake, but if you prefer, you can hire a butler to do the rowing for you.
Other activities at Ballyfin include nature walks, fishing, tennis, falconry, birdwatching, Gaelic games, clay pigeon shooting, archery and horseback riding. There’s also an indoor pool, sauna, small spa and fitness center.
Just like in the classic novels of old, we dressed for dinner and enjoyed pre-meal cocktails in the stunning 80-foot-long library lined with more than 5,000 books. Relaxing by the fire, we sipped ice-cold martinis and nibbled on canapés. At our leisure, we proceeded to the dining room, where we were spoiled rotten while being treated to an eight-course gastronomic experience. White-gloved waiters brought an array of dishes that included apple gazpacho, Wexford monkfish, roast lamb sweetbreads and blue cheese with gooseberries. Guests can also opt for a more informal dinner in the Cellar Bar downstairs or private dining in the Porcelain Room or the Wine Cellar.
Breakfast the next morning was a special treat, including porridge, omelets or the full Ballyfin Irish breakfast with eggs, mushrooms, black and white pudding, and sausages made for the hotel by butchers in the nearby town of Portlaoise.
A stay at Ballyfin proved to be a perfect, luxurious start to a week in Ireland prior to setting off for the bustling city of Dublin.