Beautifully located in the heart of Ireland, in the foothills of the tranquil and unspoilt Slieve Bloom Mountains, this lavish Regency mansion re-opened as a luxurious small country house hotel in May 2011, following eight years of restoration.
It's set on a 600 acre estate, with not a golf course or a cluster of 'townhouses' in sight - just parkland, a lake, ancient woods, and recent landscaping by renowned gardener Jim Reynolds (who is Managing Director of the demesne).
This most unusual small hotel has only twenty rooms (five of which were new for the 2015 season) and offers an exceptional level of discretion and privacy for guests thanks to its reservations-only, full-board policy (relaxed just a little in 2015, see below) and discreetly hospitable hands-on management by General Manager Damian Bastiat and his team.
The property is owned by Chicago man Fred Krehbiel and his Irish wife Kay, whose aim has been to restore Ballyfin as closely as possible to the way it originally functioned, so guests are invited ‘to enjoy these splendid interiors in the same spirit of refined elegance as visitors to the house did in the 1820s when Ballyfin was built’.
The level of service offered is on the same lines - beginning on arrival when, on request, ‘staff will be pleased to unpack for you and store your suitcase in our luggage room’. But if that sounds snobbish, it is not: prepare yourself to fall in love.
The main ground floor rooms - which include a grand yet homely Saloon at the heart of the house, where guests meet and mingle around a huge open fire, and an eighty-foot Library which runs the length of its south facade and looks out onto a beautiful Cascade - combine ‘magnificence and intimacy’, with interiors recognised as being among the finest of the Neoclassical and Empire periods in Ireland.
Yet, despite the many impressive features of Ballyfin and the extraordinary collection of antiques and artwork of the period that it now houses (including portraits of former owners, adorning the stair well, and some period uniforms purchased at a major sale of items from the House of Hanover, which are a talking point in the first reception room that arriving guests will see), the tone of the house is unexpectedly warm and welcoming on arrival, and there is none of the stuffiness so often associated with exclusive properties.
The same applies to the sumptuously furnished guest rooms and suites, which are decorated in period style - sometimes dramatically, as in The Westmeath Room, which has a carved French bed complete with coronet, positioned centrally in the room - but also have a homeliness that is very welcome.
While having many fascinating period details (The Sir Christopher Coote Suite, for example, is decorated with original panels of eighteenth century wallpaper, also formerly in the collection of the Prince of Hanover), they offer all the modern amenities too (flat screen, HD television, WiFi, iPod docking station, radio alarm clock, DVD player with DVD library available), and have wonderful bathrooms without any of the gimmicks that have taken over Irish hotels of late.
When viewing the house, each room seems more wonderful than the last, and one can imagine getting settled in and staying here for some considerable time...Some of the 'lesser' rooms are especially appealing, notably the cosy Little Library, with its book-lined walls and lovely bathroom overlooking the Pleasure Garden and Cascade.
Guests with an interest in china will find their visit particularly rewarding incidentally, as this is Kay Krehbiel's passion and some of her private collection has found its way here; drinking tea from Fabergé cups in an original (and meticulously restored) Richard Turner conservatory in rural Co Laois may sound like a dream, but it is one that could come true at Ballyfin.
Ballyfin is convenient for outings to places like Kilkenny, Emo House, Birr Castle and Heywood Gardens, and offers walking in the unspoilt Slieve Bloom Mountains and golfing at top courses like Mount Juliet, The K Club and The Heritage among its activities.
But, with its own lake (complete with boating), woodland walks, bikes at the door, a grotto and even a tower to explore (complete with seating at each level, and a telescope to make the most of the extraordinary view from the top) there is also plenty to do on the estate, and many guests will never feel the need to leave at all...Interestingly, although it might not be the first place to come to mind for a family break, Ballyfin is proving a hit with teenager guests who, to the delight of their parents, find so much of interest around the estate that their digital devices seem to lose appeal while they are engaged in activities on the estate.
The restoration of this beautiful property is ongoing, and developments that have been completed since the hotel opened include the addition of an elegant party room that is bathed in natural light and makes a stunning wedding venue; five extra bedrooms, within the main house and completed to the same exceptional standards (one has the walls decorated with exquisite hand painted artwork); and renovation of the walled garden, which not only supplies the kitchen with a significant amount of seasonal produce but, thanks to a sensible barter arrangement with a local supplier, excess produce is exchanged for exotics which can't easily be grown here. There is even a picnic house in the grounds (picnics are popular but the weather can't be guaranteed) and this is proving such a hit that more of these little treasures are planned.
While it may seem expensive in comparison with other hotels, Ballyfin offers good value when you break down the components of the all-in daily cost, which includes all meals and an exceptional amount of other extras. It would make a very special venue for groups, such as family get-togethers, incentive trips, weddings, anniversary celebrations, high-level corporate meetings, or a house party gathering of friends.
Before Ballyfin opened as an hotel, a beautifully produced book "Ballyfin: The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne", by architectural historian Kevin V. Mulligan, was published: (Churchill House Press, www.churchillhousepress.com, €50). This sumptuous introduction to the property is available from Ballyfin (from their boutique or online), and from good bookshops. All proceeds go to the Irish Georgian Society.
The nightly room rates are based on double occupancy and are inclusive of daily breakfast, lunch, tea, coffee and pastries, pre-dinner drinks reception, dinner, drinks from the minibar and use of most on-site recreational facilities (equipment supplied), VAT and gratuities.