Ireland’s midland counties have rolling hills, lakes and bogs, monastic sites, and ancient towns and castles, and are among the Emerald Isle’s hidden gems. They are also home to Ballyfin Demesne, a lavish heritage mansion that, having perfected the art of amassing the industry’s top luxury awards, glitters in the galaxy of the world’s most prestigious hotels.
On a 614-acre estate in County Laois (pronounced leash), and just over an hour from Dublin and its international airport, Ballyfin is as sumptuous and magnificent today as it was when the wealthy British Coote family built it 200 years ago.
The Demesne — which means land belonging to the lord of a manor house — opened as a hotel in 2011 following eight years of restoration by an American businessman, whose vision was clearly to create the ultimate in rarefied luxury, and who took to heart the Coote family motto: “Cost what it may.”
We got a hint of all this on the mile-long driveway through the grounds up to the massive Regency façade, where general manager Damien Bastiat ([email protected]) and a lineup of smiling staff greeted us and whisked away our luggage. Before Bastiat brought us to our room, we were checked-in by one of the butlers who are not exclusive, but are on call 24/7. Head butler Lionel Chadwich ([email protected]) said their knowledge of the surrounding area, and much further afield, matches their expertise on everything regarding the old house and the estate.
Fun Fact: The Morning Room, next to the entrance hall, is a whispering gallery that magnifies sound thanks to its curved ceiling. As we whispered softly into one corner a friend in the opposite corner could hear every word as loudly as if through a microphone.
The 20 Suites, Junior Suites, Staterooms, Deluxe Rooms and the only Single — the Morrison Room, which was once part of the nursery — are in the main house, many with four-poster beds and fireplaces and all with exquisite period furnishings and beautiful views over the grounds.
The largest suite is Sir Christopher Coote, which measures over a 1,000 square feet and has a sitting room and bedroom with Chippendale furnishings and views of the fountain from its handsome curved windows.
Our room was the charming Marquis de Massigny Deluxe, named after the French nobleman who married the daughter of the house. With delicate blue wallpaper and matching drapes, it has tall windows looking out on the water cascade that tumbles down a grassy hill from a Greek-style temple. The Wellsley-Pole and the Mountrath suites also have this charming view.
For large families the Lady Kildare and Lady Mornington Junior Suites interconnect, as do the Dr. Beaufort State Room and the Trellis Deluxe Room. These four rooms are in the same wing of the house and, as they are beside the Duke of Wellington Suite, they are the perfect solution for groups and extended families. The Viceroy Room, which enjoys extra seclusion as it looks out on the courtyard, has twin beds and two bathrooms, one of which is accessible for guests with disabilities.
The Sir Charles Coote Suite is on the ground floor, looks out on the lake and has a magnificent Roman marble sarcophagus bathtub Sir Charles brought back from a European grand tour. The Little Library is our suggestion for younger guests for its stacked bookshelves, the small balcony overlooking the courtyard and the bathroom with cascade views.
Deputy general manager Martina Yearsley ([email protected]; 011-353-578-755-8661) is the person to reach out to for all special enquiries. When we asked her for the names of VIPs who have stayed, she smiled and said that all Ballyfin’s guests are VIPs. However, according to reports in Irish media, Kim Kardashian and Kayne West had spent their honeymoon here.
Yearsley said the Sir Christopher Coote Suite is popular with bridal couples for its views over the fountain and the gardens and for its beautiful Chinese wall panels that belonged to the Prince of Hanover. Our choice as the most romantic was the Westmeath Suite, with its massive carved French four-poster bed which, unusually, stands in the middle of the room and has a regal canopy and luxurious ivory drapes. For all its lavish grandeur Ballyfin ticks all the right boxes when it comes to the amenities today’s high-end travelers expect, from complimentary soft drinks and laundry service to flat-screen TVs, iPod docking stations and handmade soaps.
Ballyfin Demesne is a garden lover’s paradise. Shown here is the Conservatory at the 614-acre estate.
Last year, the Gardner’s Cottage was added to the room inventory. This is a charming romantic escape beside the main house with an airy living room that has fireplaces at both ends and a small kitchen. The large upstairs bedroom has views over the walled vegetable garden and a king-size bed. There are two bathrooms, one with mirrored walls and a free-standing chrome bathtub, and there is also a private patio with a Jacuzzi.
The public rooms are truly magnificent, but they never make you feel you are in a museum. The Saloon, the 80-foot Library that runs the entire length of the house and has over 5,000 rare books, and the Golden Drawing Room are packed with antiques and Irish and American art, and have plenty of comfortable and intimate seating areas. The ornate Conservatory, which is used for small receptions and dining, is reached through a secret door hidden behind the books in the Library.
There are two dining rooms, the State Dining Room and the smaller Van Der Hagen room. Executive chef Sam Moody ([email protected]) uses the best of local produce, much of it from Ballyfin’s walled garden, for his three-course à la carte menu, and his more elaborate five-course and eight-course tasting menus. The Irish breakfasts are an inspiring way to start the day, and come with all the trimmings like homemade jams, honey from the estate’s beehives, eggs that guests can collect themselves, stacks of toast smothered in golden Irish butter and designer teas and coffees.
The 45-foot heated swimming pool overlooks the courtyard garden and there is also a sauna and a cavern-style Irish bar with contemporary Irish art on the walls. Yearsley says it is best to discuss spa treatments and appointments with the reservations team ([email protected]; 011-353-578-755-866) before arriving to ensure availability. With only 21 rooms, Yearsley also recommends early booking. Note: Ballyfin closes every January for general maintenance and redecoration, reopening in the middle of February.
Guests can step back in time for heritage evenings, wearing the original theater costumes donated by the Chicago Lyric Opera they choose from the dressing rooms in the old stables. When the entire property is taken for weddings, family celebrations or corporate gatherings, the State Dining Room can accommodate up to 70 guests, and the Ballroom up to 130. Good to know: Children over the age of nine are welcome, but when the house is reserved exclusively by one group or family there is no age limit for younger guests.
Chadwich told us there is so much to do on the estate that many guests are happy to remain shut away from the world behind its high stone walls. On-site activities include fishing on the lake, clay pigeon shooting, archery, tennis and falconry. Mountain bikes, golf carts and a horse-drawn carriage are available to tour the grounds, and, in the warmer months, picnics can be arranged by the lake or in the woods.
Golfers are well-catered-for with the famed Jack Nicklaus Mount Juliet and Arnold Palmer K Club championship courses just 50 miles away, and the Ballesteros Heritage Course 20 minutes down the road. Shopaholics will want to head to the Kildare Outlet Shopping for luxury designer brands, or to the lively town of Kilkenny, which is just an hour away and has an ancient castle, the famous Kilkenny Design Centre, good restaurants and traditional Irish cafes.