Last spring, I got a lucky break when I was invited to spend several days with three other journalists at Ballyfin. If you haven’t heard of this Irish Midlands paradise, you soon will. It was just voted the number one hotel in the world by the discerning, globe-trotting readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
Nestled at the foot of the Slieve Bloom mountains, this gem of a country house is furnished with important Irish paintings and antiques. Each of its 15 guest rooms has a four-poster bed in which you will drown in feathers and fine linens, a huge en-suite marble bath, and opulent fabrics and wallpaper meticulously true to the early-1800s era of the mansion’s final construction.
It’s the perfect escape for a romantic honeymoon or anniversary. But we four ladies had an enormously Bally-brilliant time, as well. Our itinerary included massages and treatments at the luxurious in-house spa; swimming in the spa pool; a pony-and-carriage ride to luncheon at the picnic house across the meadows; exploration of the stone tower; bike riding around the lake; learning both air-rifle target shooting (if I may brag for a minute, I was dubbed Annie Oakley after that one) and clay pigeon target shooting (much more difficult).
But there are multitudes of other great country activities, as well: boating on Ballyfin’s lake, coarse fishing in said lake; falconry with a certified falconer; bird watching and wildlife spotting while hiking in the 614 acres (mink, deer, fox, long-eared owls, pheasant, kestrel); exploration of the stone grotto; and—this being Ireland after all— superb riding. There’s guided hiking in the mountains, or you can be escorted to one of three world-class golf courses nearby.
All our meals were spectacular experiences led by Michelin-starred chef Sam Moody. They were served, of course, on heirloom hand-painted china and antique crystal in the lavish dining room. Lunch in the glass conservatory out by the falling water and statuary of the water folly is also a lovely treat in any weather—especially since you can only get there via a secret door in the library. (I dare you to spot which bookcase hides it.)
A few other activities were particularly memorable. Ballyfin has acquired a cache of splendid costumes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Time was set aside for us to try on period-appropriate gowns and accessories in what they call “Frockage Heaven.” Fully dressed, we began the evening with drinks in the Gold Room talking about food with our chef. That was followed by an eight-course tasting dinner (paired with wines).
Moody likes to use seasonal produce from the many walled gardens on the estate, eggs from Ballyfin’s own chickens, and locally shot venison and Irish wild fish. Beef and lamb are from area farms. We could’ve ended our night with a whiskey tasting in the cellars, but we weren’t up to it.
A flight from Philadelphia to Dublin takes seven hours, where a posh limo delivers you to Ballyfin, The Fair Place.
Do not pass this one by.
Pre-medieval maps show the area as a clearing in a dense wood. It was a settlement as far back as 1563, and there is evidence of a prominent manor house here in 1637. Owned at this time by the ferocious and violent Poole family, the property and house were eventually bought by the great Coote dynasty.
The noble Cootes completely redesigned and extended the house, turning it into the most lavish Regency-style mansion in Ireland. The 12th baronet, Sir Algernon Coote, presided over a large family at Ballyfin until his death in 1920.
His passing coincided with a new era of ever-growing “troubles” that prompted Northern Ireland to separate from the rest of the country. Violence erupted nearly everywhere.
Algernon’s son sold the entire estate to the Patrician Brothers, who turned it into an upper-class boarding school, Ballyfin College, for the sons of nobility. It remained so for 70 years. After the school’s demise, due to the brothers’ poor heads for business, the magnificent mansion at Ballyfin remained empty for half a century, slowly falling into gentle ruin.
It was finally rescued by an American couple with deep pockets. They’d been searching for years for a suitable house to restore and turn into a small hotel in the great tradition of the luxurious Irish country house of centuries past.