Recently, Natalie and I both spoke at the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) conference in Dublin. She has always wanted to go to Ireland and since her birthday was the same week, I wanted to take her somewhere over-the-top special. I contacted a few Irish friends and learned that Ballyfin is arguably the nicest hotel/manor house in all of Ireland so with the help of their PR team, I was able to set up a two-night stay.
Train to Ballyfin
Ballyfin is located in County Laois and from Dublin, it’s 61 miles southwest so you can either rent a car or take the train. We did the latter, taking the train from Dublin’s Heuston Station. Trains depart almost every hour and on the way there, our local train took an hour and 20 minutes. On the way back, we took the express train, which was just 55 minutes. The trains are clean, efficient and have free WiFi.
The closest station to Ballyfin is Portlaoise and from there, it’s a 10-15 minute drive to the hotel. A taxi costs around 25 euros.
History of Ballyfin
The official name of Ballyfin is Ballyfin Demesne. According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, Demesne means “the land attached to a mansion” (yes, I had to look it up!) Ballyfin Demesne is a 600-acre estate, which was “successively home to the O’Mores, the Crosbys, the Poles, the Wellesley-Poles and the Cootes. Over the years, several houses have stood on the site but the present building is a neo-classical mansion built by Sir Charles Coote (1792–1864). The house is considered the most lavish Regency mansion in Ireland.” Read more here. But in 1928, Cootes sold the land to a Roman Catholic teaching order and it was turned into a boarding school. In 2002, it was purchased by a wealthy Chicagoan who has an Irish wife from Kerry and he decided to restore this home to its original beauty and glory.
Knowing he was going to lose money, the owner has pumped in around $60 million and in May 2010, it opened its doors as a small hotel with 15 rooms.
The whole house is available for single bookings and many have booked it for weddings, corporate functions and even celebrity retreats. I heard that Jay-Z and Beyonce rented it out. So if it’s good enough for them, it’s probably good enough for you. It was more than good enough for us. It was like a dream.
Here are 10 reasons why I loved Ballyfin:
1. It’s stunningly beautiful
After you drive through the front gates and go up the long dirt road driveway, I can promise you your jaw is going to drop the moment you set eyes on the house. We asked our driver to stop immediately so we could get out and take pictures. He obliged, saying, “You aren’t the first.” Nor will we be the last, that much is certain.
2. The decor
Our jaws didn’t snap back into place for hours because the home’s interior is even nicer than the exterior – if that’s even possible. The entryway has a fireplace (like most of the rooms), there’s a whole row of Hunter boots in every size, making it really feel like home and there are amazing paintings everywhere. Speaking of paintings, I could spend hours on the main stairwell admiring all the portraits along the wall, framed by unforgettable, beautiful blue walls.
3. The incomparable service
Of course the service should be amazing at an expensive hotel but here it was not only top-notch but genuine, too. There are 40 staff members and since the place is so small, they’ve learned every guest’s name and their drink choices by the second day. Most of the staff are Irish but we also met a few people from Hungary – all were professional and friendly.
4. The Costume Room
You’re already going to feel like you’re on the set of the hit PBS show Downton Abbey but wait until you hit the costume room in the adjacent building. Guests can choose an outfit for dinner so you really will feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Unfortunately, neither Natalie nor I decided to dress up for dinner even though there were only three other couples staying in the house. We later learned one of guests had chosen a period dress for dinner and we regretted not doing it ourselves. However, had we been there with a group we most certainly would have. FYI: The costumes are originally from the Chicago Opera.
5. There are lots of activities
Most guests spend two nights at Ballyfin thinking they may get bored but trust me — you won’t get bored here. For starters, every day there’s a house tour at 5pm for new guests. Then there are all sorts of activities, from shooting clay pigeons and fishing to swimming in the pool and enjoying tea and biscuits in any of the incredible rooms on the main floor. There’s a gym, a small spa, archery, fishing, boating, whiskey and wine tasting and many more things to do including going on a picnic on the grounds of this beautiful property. Note: Some of these activities have an extra charge.
6. Riding Bikes / Golf Carts
One way to explore the property’s 600 acres is by taking one of their covered golf carts to roam around in. Or if you’re feeling active, grab one of their many bikes –including a tandem bike or a historic penny-farthing (pictured above).
7. The Incredible Views
The view of the estate when you pull up isn’t the only view that will blow your mind. The views from the breakfast/lunch table (inside and out) are unreal as well but my favorite was just lying in bed and looking out over the front yard and the lake. Since it’s Ireland, everything is ridiculously lush green, just as you would expect.
8. The Tower
On the way to the shooting range we passed a folly, which was in the form of a ruined medieval tower. It was constructed during the famine to put the locals to work so they could have pride in earning money instead of taking handouts. It’s the highest point of the estate and it’s 95 steps up to the top. At the top is a fireplace, which would be perfect for a romantic picnic. There’s also a bathroom at the bottom.
9. The Food
All meals are included at Ballyfin and so is alcohol during the meals and at happy hour, usually around 7pm. All rooms also come with a complimentary, stocked mini bar.
10. The Peace and Serenity
Without a doubt, the best part about coming to Ballyfin is the peaceful atmosphere, perfect for relaxing and soaking in the property. The estate is so nice you’ll never want to leave the house, let alone the property. One of your highlights will probably be sitting in front of the fire with a good book, sipping a cup of Irish Breakfast tea. Ballyfin is so stately, Natalie and I constantly found ourselves whispering to each other, even in our room. There’s a quiet serenity here that you just don’t want to disturb.
As you can see, this place is special and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that it has won all kinds of awards including Robb Report’s Best of the Best 2012, The World’s Best New Resort and that it’s been named one of the Best Hotels in the World according to the Conde Nast Hotel List 2012.
Good to know:
-Rates begin at 815 euros per night.
-Ballyfin offers free laundry, pressing and shoeshine.
-There’s free WiFi throughout the property with no sign on required.
-46% of the guests are American.
-Ballyfin is closed during January and February so plan accordingly!