Ballyfin, Ireland’s most exclusive hotel, opens the 2015 season with fresh plans

Designed with wealthy Americans in mind, the Co Laois grand house is attracting a more local crowd as its restaurant opens to non-residents

 

If Carson, the butler from Downton Abbey, were to appear on the steps of Ballyfin in Co Laois it would be no great surprise. The demesne’s mile-long meandering driveway, its private lake, broad sweep of gravel and huge porticoed entrance, all create a tremendous illusion of grandeur into which Mr Carson’s starch-fronted, beetle-browed self would fit particularly well.

Instead, there’s Damien Bastiat the new-ish French manager, who has opened the 2015 season with some fresh plans for Ireland’s most exclusive hotel. Five new rooms have been added to the original 15 and a grand ballroom has been carved out of the dormitory wing that dates from Ballyfin’s time as a boarding school run by the Patrician Brothers. There are other changes too – until now the hotel has been strictly residents-only but now the restaurant is open to the public for the first time.

Another first is that Ballyfin will open this Christmas due to demand from regulars.When the hotel just outside Portlaoise first opened at the height of the recession in 2011, after eight years restoration (longer than it took for the house to be built in the early 1800s) it was assumed that at least 80 per cent of business would come from overseas but in fact the percentage of Irish customers is now approaching 50 per cent, with great demand from previous pupils and their families.

We searched in vain for Kimye’s signature in the visitors book after their fabled honeymoon there last July but couldn’t find one, though we’re told later that Kanye was so impressed by the classical facade of the house that he’d stop the car at a certain point to get the best view of it. Celebrities aside, the book has a tide of messages thanking Ballyfin for the most marvellous service and food and many of them promising to come back again.

“Welcome back, ye were here last November weren’t you, said the maitre’d to the family next to us at lunch. Two parents, four children. Yes, said the mother, we told them this time we were taking them to Wexford but came here instead.” Lucky them.

A typical stay at Ballyfin goes something like this: check-in is any time after one, and I imagine many do as we did – arriving at about a minute past. The room rate – €580 per night for singles and €915 per night for two – includes full board: you arrive in time for lunch, there’s tea in the afternoon, a drinks reception and dinner, then a full Irish breakfast the next morning. Non alcoholic drinks, tea, coffee, snacks and petits fours are all included and you get your laundry done and shoes polished too.

Everyone is formally welcomed on the steps and cars and bags are taken away. The front door opens into a hallway with two standout features – the antlers of a great Irish elk that perished in a bog more than 2,000 years ago, and a Roman mosaic floor brought back from the Grand Tour by its fabulously wealthy owners Sir Charles and Lady Caroline Coote in the early 19th century. He had inherited a £30 million fortune from an uncle, the Earl of Mountrath, and she knew how to spend it. Their personal motto “Cost what it may” is evident everywhere – in the fine plasterwork ceilings, the magnificent windows and door cases, the parquet flooring, chimney pieces and columns that appear to be marble but are painted timber – a process that cost seven times more than than polishing mere marble.

Check-in takes place in the Whispering Room, so called because two people standing in opposite corners can hear each other’s whispers thanks to the curved construction of the ceiling. An inner hallway with the main staircase hung with portraits of Cootes through the ages leads through to the first of the splendid reception rooms where fires burn through the day and guests are welcome to sink down into any number of comfortable armchairs and sofas and refresh themselves.

A cup of tea after our journey? We take it in a grand yellow salon under staggering chandeliers. The Sunday papers are spread around, the air is scented with wood smoke and expensive candle, and though we’re told there’s a full house, guests are glimpsed rather than seen or heard.

“Stop whispering!” the waiter tells us over lunch (smoked salmon on fresh brown bread, Irish cheeses with six types of crackers lined up precisely in a silver tubular container). Everyone whispers it seems, but they shouldn’t, he says. “You must treat it like home,” he says. We do our best but whispers seem more appropriate in the 80ft library which has fireplaces at either end and a concealed door leading into Ballyfin’s famous Turner conservatory now beautifully restored. After lunch we take bikes out – there’s almost 10 miles of paths throughout the 614 acre walled estate – visit the old ice house, pat some ponies in a disused walled garden and snoop through two rooms of costumes that are available for guests to dress up in.

Boating, fishing, shooting, archery and trips through the grounds in a horse drawn carriage can also be arranged at an extra cost, but we were happy to settle back in the house, moving from room to room to try out every single seating arrangement.

At 4pm every day there’s a tour of the house and it’s full of fascinating detail, right down to the basement China room display a dinner service that was made as a gift for Catherine the Great of Russia.

With all that to see there was hardly time to enjoy the bedroom with its polished antique furniture and vast bathrooms – two – before it was time for drinks in the library and dinner in the restaurant where the food is served on wildly extravagant dinnerware. The clientele is low-key and looks to be mostly families, with a single Chanel-clad lady enjoying being fussed over by the wait staff. The food is absolutely delicious with lamb the standout main course and a chocolate pudding with pistachio ice-cream enjoyed down to the very last lick of the spoon. Determined to get the best out of Ballyfin, and also to test the household staff, we were up well before breakfast and, yes, the cushions were freshly plumped up and the diningroom set with the breakfast Spode.

After a run through the grounds it was time to test the kitchen again,and we did so, ordering pancakes – light as air and rather like flat Yorkshire puddings – as well as eggs florentine and a full Irish. Toast was thin and plentiful, the butter fresh and even the coffee is excellent.

By this stage we’d made friends with a mother and daughter from the antipodes who’d checked in for a night but who were still there two days later. “We can’t leave!” they said, from the depths of their fireside sofa. We had to leave, but plans are being hatched to go back, cost what it may.

Dinner at Ballyfin costs €105 pp for a three-course meal, up to €125pp for an eight-course tasting menu.

 

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