Where to stay: Ballyfin, Ireland
Hidden away in the middle of the Irish countryside is Ballyfin, a Georgian country house set in the middle of a spectacularly beautiful estate. Twenty years ago, the property was all but derelict – rain dripped in through holes in the roof, a large tree had taken root in the middle of the orangery and the old dining room had been transformed into a makeshift chapel by the monks who ran a boarding school on the premises for much of the past century.
Today, however, the house has been transformed into one of the world’s most luxurious hotels, the august building painstakingly restored to its former glory, and filled with the finest furniture, antiques and art, much of it Irish. With only 20 rooms, it feels more like a private home than a hotel, and the party of uniformed staff that greets each new arrival makes you wonder if you’ve stepped into a real-life version of Downton Abbey.
The illusion doesn’t stop there. Everything in this remarkable hotel runs like clockwork – there appear to be more staff than guests – and yet the atmosphere is relaxed and convivial. Roaring log fires warm the grandly decorated rooms, and guests are encouraged to wander about, rather than being confined to their bedrooms. The library is filled with magazines, books and an assortment of comfortable sofas and armchairs, and it’s all too easy to while away an afternoon there, fortified by a plentiful supply of tea and shortbread.
Dinner is of Michelin standard, from the pre-supper canapés to the tasting menus that showcase the best local produce. Individual requests are catered to, and everything is as fresh and delicious as you could wish for – the heavenly soda bread offered at the start of every meal, rich and dark with a hint of molasses, was particularly heavenly.
The dining-room, like so much of the house, is a sunny, egg-yolk yellow, with the most spectacular set of china plates decorating the wall – the remains of a dinner service used by the former owners, the Cootes. It is this phenomenal attention to detail that sets Ballyfin apart. Its spectacular restoration was a labour of love by its American owners, who bought the hotel as a place to house their extensive collection of Irish art and antiques. They allowed the restoration to progress at its own pace, employing skilled artisans to repair and regild the incredibly ornate plasterwork, as well as carrying out other mammoth tasks such as re-roofing, rewiring and replumbing the entire edifice.
The interior designer Colin Orchard was brought in to advise on the decoration. Formerly of the legendary English decorating company Colefax & Fowler, Orchard’s touch pervades each room of the house, where each of the bedrooms have their own individual character, from the blue-chintz confection of Lady Caroline Coote to the Tapestry Room, which is hung with 17th-century Flemish tapestries.
The bedrooms are so charming that you never want to venture outside, but there is plenty to see across the estate. A line of Dubarry boots are lined up on one side of the entrance hall, for those who have forgotten to pack sensible footwear, while cupboards are stocked with waterproof jackets, a practical consideration given the Irish weather. There are miles of tracks to explore without ever leaving the property; you can row across the lake or climb up the four-storey round tower that was built as a folly, surrounded by a moat in the middle of Ballyfin’s sweeping parkland.
Throughout our two-day stay, we felt as if we had the hotel to ourselves, despite it being almost at full occupancy. And even though we were only there for a weekend, it was like being transported to a different world; a charmed idyll that captures all the romance and history of the grand old country house and brings it wonderfully to life.
For more information, and to book, visit www.ballyfin.com.
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