independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Ballyfin: Take a luxury step back in time

Ballyfin Co. Laois

It's not often one extends a dress code to include one's car. But before visiting Ballyfin, I had read a review on their website which mentioned a custom of the staff, led by the butler, of lining up at the hotels entrance, Downton Abbey style, to greet new guests.

Our choice of transport is a Micra, now entering its third decade. Much as we love her for her ability to park in the smallest of spaces, her biggest fan wouldn't deem her worthy of a butler-fronted reception. But with the father having point-blank refused to lend us his more presentable car, the Micra it was.

As it happened, our blushes were spared. It was raining when we pulled up outside the impressive pillared front of what has been described as the country's most well preserved Regency mansion. So one lone butler dashed out with a huge umbrella to usher us in.

We needn't have worried. Such is the professionalism of the Ballyfin staff that, while it may be one of the poshest hotels in the country, they don't labour over this point. The service is relaxed, friendly and never off-puttingly formal despite the grandeur of the setting. We were warmly greeted by our two butlers, Darren and Declan, a former pupil at Ballyfin when it was a school.

Originally built in the 1820s as the home of Sir Charles Coote, Ballyfin was home to the Coote family for around 100 years – they sold it to the Patrician brothers when the political situation changed, who ran it as a school.

While they didn't have the budget to maintain the property – when the current owner bought it in 2001, there was a tree growing up through the middle of the orangery, and a large part of the ceiling in the gold drawing room had rotted and fallen through – the brothers took whatever measures they could to preserve the house.

When American businessman Fred Krehbiel took ownership, they handed him a bag full of pieces of the original floor that they had kept. A floor in the main reception room was so covered in varnish the new owners thought it was a cheap lino. It turned out to be original wooden floors that had been kept in immaculate condition thanks to the many coats of varnish.

Having searched extensively for the right house in which to home his hotel, owner Fred Krehbiel then embarked upon an incredible nine-year restoration project, led by the hotel's managing director, Jim Reynolds. Mr Reynolds had been the landscape gardener of the Krehbiels' Kerry estate – Fred's wife Kay is originally from that part of the world.

Ireland is overpopulated with so-called luxury hotels that were thrown up during the boom and it can be rare to see things done properly. But Ballyfin is a passion project, with a seemingly unlimited budget. Not much of the original remained intact – an Italian mosaic floor in the entrance hall brought back from a grand tour, four chairs, the main staircase.

Every single part of the house was painstakingly and lovingly restored, before being filled with an incredible antiques and art collection including mirrors by Thomas Chippendale and art by Louis le Brocquy.

The house sits overlooking a 28-acre natural lake, on which guests can fish for pike or roach, or hire a gillie for some lessons if they desire.

We had originally planned on availing of one of the row boats before having a picnic lakeside, possibly at the newly refurbished grotto. But the rain put us off, and we decided on lunch in the orangery instead.

This was in such disrepair when work on the hotel began it had to be shipped over to England and reconstructed.

Today, fully restored, with beautiful views of the stepped water terrace feature installed by Jim Reynolds, it is the perfect spot to enjoy the one-minute-splitting-sun, one-minute-pouring-rain weather that is the Irish summer.

Where possible, ingred-ients are local, natural and seasonal. Guests can pick their own fruit and veg from the walled garden, or collect eggs for breakfast from the on-site free-range hens. Honey is produced by bees living in the walled garden.

The food was unfussy, and delicious. The husband had a crab-and-beetroot-salad starter, I had the creamed vegetable soup. He had beef and a glass of red wine recommended by the extremely helpful food and wine manager Richard – another former pupil at Ballyfin. I had the salmon.

Post lunch, we decided to explore the grounds. There's a little more than 600 acres, so instead of walking, we decided it would be much more fun to take a golf buggy. Bikes were also on offer.

The estate, besides the lake, encompasses a small forest full of bluebells, the grotto, tennis courts, and a Famine tower – worth the climb for the enclosed glass upper level with incredible views and a chilled bottle of champagne and strawberries awaiting anyone who bothers to climb the steep stairs.

Activities available in the grounds include horse-riding, clay-pigeon shooting, pony-and-trap tours, falconry, picnics and boating. I had worried slightly that our visit – arriving at lunchtime and leaving after breakfast the next day – might feel a bit rushed.

But one of Ballyfin's most impressive achievements is the sense of peace they've achieved. There are only 15 rooms, so bumping into your fellow guests feels like quite a rare occurrence. Within a couple of hours, I felt we'd been there for days.

After the exertions of pootling around the place exploring, we decided to chill out in the room for a few hours, with some afternoon tea. Our room was situated right at the centre of the front of the house, with incredible views over the lake. Whilst the rooms are decorated mostly in the original style of the house, they are fitted out to standards of modern comfort – warm and cosy, with a flat-screen high-definition television, iPod docking station, DVD player with a selection of DVDs, wireless access, and huge bath and separate rainfall shower.

Before dinner, we decided to take the tour of the house, given by our butler Darren, which gave a rather fascinating insight into life as it would have been in the Cootes' time.

Dinner at Ballyfin fulfilled all my country-house-weekend fantasies. Drinks were served in the library, a 70-foot room separated into three living room areas. A harpist played in the background as we enjoyed champagne by the roaring wood fire. The meal itself was served in a room –formerly the chapel – but now a stunning dining room looking out over the gardens.

Jim had told us 42 per cent of their guests are Irish, the rest are mostly American. At dinner, we heard English, Irish American, and French accents.

The staff told us that the owner's intention had been to create the impression that the Cootes had merely walked out one door, before you had entered by the other. As we sat watching the sun go down over the garden temple, we couldn't help but feel he had succeeded.

GETTING THERE

Through to end of September, Ballyfin's all-inclusive starting rate, per night, for a double room is €975.

Then during October, November and December 2013 the all-inclusive double bedroom rate, per night, starts at €800 (Sunday-Thursday) and €915 (Fridays and Saturdays). Based on double occupancy, these rates include Irish breakfast, lunch on arrival day, tea, coffee and homemade cookies and cake, pre-dinner drinks, dinner, use of most on-site recreational facilities (equipment supplied), VAT and gratuities.

To contact Ballyfin, email info@ballyfin.com or phone 00 353 (0)5787 55866. For more details visit www.ballyfin.com

Irish Independent

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