My night of luxury in the world's best hotel - Ballyfin Demesne
Published 20/10/2016 | 09:35
Singapore's Raffles? New York's Waldorf-Astoria? London's Savoy or Ritz? It's no mean feat that the world's best hotel is situated in a quiet corner of Co Laois.
It's even more surprising given the fact that less than a decade ago, Ballyfin Demesne was a crumbling ruin of wet mould and overgrown vegetation.
Once a stately home of the landed gentry and later a Patrician Brothers school, the grand old lady had fallen into disrepair after the classrooms shut their doors for the last time.
Now it's on top of the world, as voted by readers of Conde Nast Traveller, a magazine and website dedicated to five-star hotels, hip hideaways and sundrenched tropical beaches.
I enjoyed an overnight family stay just weeks after Ballyfin Demesne opened for business to its first paying guests after being lovingly restored in 2011.
The timing wasn't ideal - Ireland was in the ravages of post-boom recession and a two-night package from €900 per person seemed a stretch too far.
But Ballyfin has a way of enchanting you.
I stayed in the Wellesley-Pole Suite which, like all of the suites, harks back to its landed gentry history (the house dates from the 1820s).
Named after William Wellesley, older brother of the Duke of Wellington, who inherited Ballyfin from his cousin William Pole, it was fit for a king, or even today's fussiest celebrity.
My sitting room overlooked a beautiful water cascade and restored gardens.
The bathroom was bigger than many city apartments, complete with a giant antique bathtub.
With only 20 bedrooms, it's the place to hide away if you want to truly escape modern life or the paparazzi (Kim Kardashian and Kanye West honeymooned here). Its sprawling grounds are the ultimate in privacy, a safe haven from the rest of the world.
Its reception rooms are breathtaking. The entrance hallway floor features a mosaic imported from Italy in 1832; the walls are lined with works of art; you could spend years reading the books in the Library Room; and the Tapestry Room does what it says on the tin, being home to 17th century Flemish tapestries.
There's even a whispering room, where you would imagine ladies of the day speaking softly to their secret suitors, Jane Austen-style.
As for the service? Simply spectacular.
Fancy afternoon tea, sandwiches and cakes, fine dining by night, a wine cellar that would put a posh Paris restaurant to shame and a bar, tucked away by the old servants' quarters, where you can chat with the other (very few and lucky) guests.
When I was there, Americans dominated and word had already gotten out of a luxury bolthole where you could live like a lord.
Food was haute cuisine, with many of the vegetables are grown in the grounds, while the estate's pampered hens lay the eggs and the finest meats are sourced from the best suppliers around the country.
Even the trickiest of customers - young children - are well catered for, and my son loved being whizzed around the sprawling 614-acre grounds in our own golf buggy, complete with a fancy Rolls-Royce grille.
Fishing, clay pigeon shooting, visiting the ground's own round tower and having every whim catered for gives you the feeling of being a lord or lady in your own version of Downton Abbey.
I've been lucky to visit some of the world's finest hotels over the years.
The extravagant Four Seasons overlooking Manhattan's Central Park; the Ritz-Carlton, situated on the white shimmering sands of Aruba in the Caribbean; and the luxurious Four Seasons in the well-heeled Johannesburg suburb of Westcliff.
So why is Ballyfin so special? By my reckoning, it's the mix of English-style country mansion and Irish-style friendliness.
If the budget doesn't stretch to a stay, you can visit for dinner, from €105 a head, to at least say you've been there.
Still a splurge, but worth it to see the best in the world.