Touching down in Dublin after an Aer Lingus direct flight from Miami, I would soon embrace the land of “40 shades of green.” This nickname is in part due to the country’s wet climate, witnessed while driving past sheep-filled farms and old cobblestone towns before arriving at the quite unassuming property in County Laois. There, imposing gates flanked by 5 miles of stone wall acted as a precursor to what I’d find on the other side of Ballyfin.
Once given the “OK” by security, my driver navigated through a winding, heavily forested roadway sprinkled with the remaining bluebell flowers of the season. Then, all at once, the view cleared to a grand 18th century Georgian estate smack dab in a sea of rolling green parkland with an impressive lake laid out before the mansion.
This would be my home for the next several days, but back in the 1820s, Lady Caroline and Sir Charles Coote lived off the land for nearly a century. They built the understated neoclassical mansion that stood before me prior to selling it to the Patrician Brothers who ran a boarding school for close to 80 years.
As I stared at the four massive pillars anchoring the doorframe, it was difficult to believe that the estate nearly became a ruin. An extensive eight-year restoration beginning in 2002 returned the property to its original grandeur with several new features, like a cascading waterfall visible to the west of the mansion designed by Jim Reynolds.
Today, Ballyfin is a top-ranked private Irish country house, earning the No. 1 spot in Travel + Leisure’s “2018 Top Hotel Resort United Kingdom and Ireland” list and receiving the No. 2 spot in its “2018 Top Hotels in the World” list. It’s visited yearly by guests near and far who descend on the 614-acre land in search of peace, grand hospitality and maybe a glimpse into the aristocratic life of years past.
It didn’t take long to get caught up in the lifestyle, especially when first greeted by staff in butler garb who showed me to my room. The scent of an always tended fireplace wafted through the halls.
I stayed in The Dr. Beaufort with serene green and terra-cotta French toile walls that led to an outdoor deck with a view of the recently opened Gardener’s Cottage. The charming new addition includes a spacious living room, kitchenette, two fireplaces, two bathrooms and an airy bedroom overlooking the estate’s gardens.
The 20 rooms and suites inside the mansion vary from the impressive Lady Carolyn Coote Room (formerly her boudoir) that overlooks the lake done in a bold powdery blue wallpaper with a rococo stucco work ceiling, to The Westmeath with a carved French bed positioned in the center of the room with golden accents. They’re outfitted with marble bathrooms featuring walk-in showers, luxurious bathtubs and next-level accessories, including a Dyson hair dryer.
Like the Coote’s famous saying, “cost what it may,” Ballyfin is full of eye candy at every twist and turn. It was my duty as a guest—and a real cultural loss if I didn’t—to appreciate the rich history and architecture.
The head of an Irish elk, once found in a bog in Tipperary dating back at least 10,000 years, stands guard to the Entry Hall with an antique Roman mosaic floor brought in from 1822; life-size paintings of the Coote family hang on walls near the Grand Staircase; and each reception room ceiling is so rich in detail it could have taken hours to study the designs—and that’s just scraping the surface.
Typical of guests, it was easy to befriend the butlers (some attended Ballyfin in its school days) who became our go-to guides for outdoor amusement. My group and I met with Lionel and his two ponies, Ben and Kit, for a jaunt around the estate to view Ballyfin’s hidden gems, like grottos from the 1700s and a tower where you can climb 97 steps to view the green countryside. I tried my hand at clay pigeon shooting with Glenn as a teacher and, surprisingly, did well. I was on my way to becoming an Irish lass.
A special treat was the rare opportunity to get up close to birds of prey with our falconry guide, Tom. There were owls and a falcon, and we even prompted a hawk named Maude to perform a trick.
The ever-so-Irish rain came and went often, but those moments became the perfect opportunities to nestle up and get lost in first-edition books from the 80-foot library. A secret bookcase led the way to an outdoor conservatory, an idyllic place to enjoy tea with bespoke china and a fresh cookie or slice of soda bread. Evenings typically ended with cocktails and a dinner made with fresh ingredients from Ballyfin’s stately gardens.
At our farewell meal, the group and I tried on lavish costume gowns and accessories donated by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It was adult dress-up at its finest and made for a great scene in the Gold Drawing Room (arguably the most elegant room in all of the estate), where we were always greeted with a glass of Champagne and canapés followed by dinner in the Dining Room.
It was difficult leaving behind the magical lifestyle I entertained for a few days, but I find comfort knowing I—like every guest who visits Ballyfin—am now part of a long-standing family tradition. The door is always open. I’ll be dreaming of that princess bedroom until my next stay.