My heart pounded slightly as I passed through the gate for Ballyfin, a historic manor house hotel set on 600 acres at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. I’d heard this was the most lavish hotel in the whole of Ireland and was eager to see if it could match the praise.
Ballyfin is only an hour and a half from Dublin, but upon entering the estate, I instantly felt transported to another time and place. The hills were covered with whisper-thin trees and the woodland floor was blanketed with purple-tinged bluebells.
It was a good five minutes before the stately Regency mansion came in to view and as if it were the 19th century—and I was a noble woman arriving for a visit—the staff stood lined up on the steps waiting to greet me. Staff grabbed my luggage and ushered me through the elegant orange Entrance Hall with Italian mosaic floor and passed a grand staircase hung with portraits of the Coote family, who built the house in the 1820’s, before depositing me in my room.
Each room at Ballyfin is unique and filled with Regency period furnishings and other heirloom quality pieces. The property unveiled five new rooms this spring in a wing adjacent to the main house including the Trellis Room with a hand-painted mural and a French Empire inspired room with a coronet-topped bed. My room, the Lady Sarah Pole room, featured red and white floral wallpaper, a corner fireplace and a view of the pleasure ground’s cascading water feature. I later learned Pole lived on the estate during the mid-18th century and helped make the property’s gardens renowned in Georgian Ireland.
I quickly unpacked, and then, like a kid on Christmas morning, rushed out to see what else the estate had in store. Ballyfin’s vast grounds can be explored by bike, by golf buggy or by horse-drawn carriage. I opted for the latter and my guide whisked me around the property pointing out curiosities like a grotto that was once inhabited by an actual hermit, follies including a medieval tower built for the amusement of the owners during the 1800s and a beautiful walled garden where Ballyfin grows much of its produce.
While you could easily pass the time at Ballyfin soaking up the sumptuous surroundings of the manor house, which also has a spa and an indoor pool, the hotel offers a host of outdoor activities including falconry, archery, horseback riding and canoeing on an ornamental lake. To truly channel the well-heeled during the 1800’s, Ballyfin offers a costume department stocked with period garb from the Lyric Opera Company in Chicago. I happily decided to play dress-up and rifled through the racks of gowns before settling on a beaded white dress with an empire waist and a gold sash.
Each night, champagne and appetizers are served in the library and I took the opportunity to explore the property’s opulent public spaces—a glass and steel Conservatory offering views of the grounds and a butter-yellow Saloon with grand piano and landscape paintings by Irish masters. Irish cuisine has made great strides in recent years and food is hardly an after thought at Ballyfin where the chef uses only the best local ingredients from Irish Black Dexter beef to honey produced on site.
After a meal of Kilmore Quay sea trout with garden spinach and potato soufflé, and an Irish whiskey nightcap in the downstairs bar, I begrudgingly went to bed. I found life in the 19th century strangely agreed with me and soon I would have to go back to reality.
Full Board from 475 euros for a single and 800 euros for a double; Bed and Breakfast rate from 335 euros for a single and 520 euros for a double. County Laois, Ireland; 35-30/5787-55866; ballyfin.com.