Travel
Feb 4, 2016

Somewhere in time: Stay at one of Ireland's most luxurious manor houses

By: Ciara Rickard

Author: Elle Canada

Travel
Feb 4, 2016

Somewhere in time: Stay at one of Ireland's most luxurious manor houses

By: Ciara Rickard

The feather in my hair is a foot high and the sleeves on my corseted gown are voluminous enough to hold a litter of kitens, yet I've quite forgotten about feeling ridiculous. In fact, my outfit feels more appropriate in this 19th-century setting than the leopard-print skit and oversized knits in my suitcase.

It’s dinnertime at Ballyfin Demesne, Ireland’s best-preserved Regency mansion and now a luxe hotel, and I’ve raided the period-costume closet along with the other guests. I might look like Keri Russell in Austenland, but this is not a Pride and Prejudice theme park. I have not, thankfully, been paired up with an actor beau, and dress- up hour is optional – although it is a lot of fun. “We want guests here to experience life as it might have been 100 years ago if you came to stay with a grand family,” says Jim Reynolds, the hotel’s managing director.

That feeling begins at the property’s gates. At the end of a long driveway, in a pretty wooded setting, the enormous stately and elegant house looms up suddenly. Smart-looking staff are lined up along the front steps to greet me, as they do all guests. (“Just like Downton Abbey!” I think.) After receiving a warm welcome, I’m ushered into a beautiful hall lit with a roaring fire. Tea is offered, and it’s quickly delivered with buttery-soft cookies.

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Built in the 1820s, Ballyfin, in County Laois, started life as home to Sir Charles and Lady Caroline Coote, one of many wealthy English families who lived in Ireland in that era. They owned much of the local area and collected rent from tenants – natives weren’t allowed to own land at that time. But with the arrival of Irish independence in 1921, the Cootes, like many resident Brits, returned to England. The property was then used as a school for boys until it was bought in 2002 by American businessman Fred Krehbiel and his Irish wife, Kay. Together, they pains- takingly restored the house over the course of nine years.

 

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Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The house

Majestic Ballyfin Demesne, built in the 1820s by a wealthy English family, is one of Ireland’s best-preserved Regency mansions. I had three relaxing days at this stunning property last spring, feeling as spoiled as Lady Mary. #downtonforever READ MORE: The full story of Ciara Rickard’s stay at Ballyfin

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The staff

The staff at Ballyfin is exceptional – warm, welcoming and always on hand for whatever you need, be it help with your bags, afternoon tea or an interesting tidbit about the area. I was by a roaring fire with a pot of tea and delicious cookies within 10 minutes of arrival. #agoodstart READ MORE: A foodie retreat in Quebec

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The Roman mosaic floor

This stunning mosaic floor – one of the first things you notice as you step into the entrance hall – originally came from a 2,000-year-old Roman villa. It was purchased in Italy in 1822 by honeymooning Cootes, who seem to have had a limitless budget. READ MORE: Travel to North Carolina: Hollywood East

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Ciara Rickard Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The Saloon

The Saloon, a large, grand reception room, is the centre of the house: It’s the site of pre-dinner cocktails, post-dinner digestifs and anytime lounging by one of the fires with a book or your iPad (there’s good wifi throughout the house). READ MORE: The most beautiful hotel rooms with a view

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The Library

The library, filled with both antique and authentic replica furnishings, is super-cozy and another great spot for fireside relaxation. The best part? There’s a secret door at one end. Push in the right spot on an inconspicuous-looking bookcase, and you’ll find yourself in an impressive glass conservatory. READ MORE: A-Z top travel guide of Canada

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Ciara Rickard Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The Gold Drawing Room

The Gold Drawing Room is maybe the grandest room in the house. As its name suggests, nearly everything is gold or gold-coloured, and its large windows offer views of the lake in front of the house. READ MORE: A culinary journey through Vietnam

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The stairs

The cantilevered staircase is a standout feature of the house, and it’s made all the more impressive by original portraits of various Cootes lining the Tiffany-blue walls. The lovely low-hanging chandelier will make you want to take picture after picture. READ MORE: Travel memoir of 22 hours in Cairo

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The Westmeath Room

The guestrooms are all individually decorated, with many thoughtful, unique touches. The four-poster beds, beautiful fabrics, deep bathtubs and massive windows will make you feel like you’re staying at Downton Abbey. READ MORE: Set-jetting in Iceland

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The Lady Caroline Coote Room

This room was Lady Caroline Coote’s boudoir in the 19th century. Today it is one of the prettiest guestrooms at Ballyfin – and, in a house full of beautiful rooms, that’s saying something. READ MORE: Inside look at Dexter and Byron Peart's travel guide

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The bathrooms

I’m not usually a bath person, but this one inspired me to sink into it each evening before dinner and enjoy the lovely scene through the window. All of the en suites are so pretty and spacious, it’s easy to spend far too much time in there and be late for dinner. READ MORE: 9 of the best travel gift ideas

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Ciara Rickard Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The pool, spa and gym

Should one wish to return to the 21st century temporarily for some exercise or spa treatments, there’s a 14-metre heated indoor pool, a gym and relaxing treatment rooms. READ MORE: An inside look on how Lyndie Greenwood travels

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The wine cellar

Oenophiles shouldn’t miss the opportunity to do a wine tasting in the cellar. The atmospheric, dimly lit room with vaulted ceilings is the perfect setting to try some vintages with in-house sommelier Richard. READ MORE: A travel guide to Dubai

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The setting

There are several ways to see the property, but one of the most charming is by horse-drawn carriage. Irish cob Billy took us through the woods, where we were surrounded by vivid colour: a carpet of spring bluebells and a few of Ireland’s 40 shades of green. READ MORE: 7 things you need to sleep on a plane

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Ciara Rickard Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The folly

This may look like a crumbling medieval tower, but it is in fact a folly – built in the 19th century for no purpose except to look like a hundreds-of-years-old ruin. You can go up to the top to see the Slieve Bloom Mountains in the near distance and even arrange to have a picnic brought up. READ MORE: 5 stylish passport covers

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: Horseback riding

Another lovely way to see the property is on horseback; experienced guides will take you around the lake and through the woods and fields at whatever pace you choose. (My horse looks tiny, but he seemed rather large at the time!) READ MORE: Travel guide to São Paulo, Brazil

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin by night

A nighttime stroll around the property provides an impressive view of the mansion. Ballyfin is well into the countryside, so the glowing house is the only light you can see and the happy voices inside the only sound you can hear. READ MORE: 10 travel essentials for a good night's sleep

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Ciara Rickard Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: Period-costume fun

On our last evening there, myself and some other guests raided the period-costume room to complete our 19th-century experience. (That's me in blue.) I felt self-conscious at first, but before long I started to like the look and even felt a little sad that I couldn't rock 19th-century fashion more often. READ MORE: Maria Giulia Maramotti's travel must-haves

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ciara Rickard Credits: ELLE Canada

Enter another era at Ballyfin

Ballyfin: The pub

After-dinner fun takes place in the Ballyfin pub, in the basement of the house. Small, cozy and warmed by the requisite fire, it’s the perfect place to pass the evening. I enjoyed live traditional Irish music and dancing and some Irish whiskey here – and it was the perfect end to a delightful escape. READ MORE: The full story of Ciara Rickard’s stay at Ballyfin

By: Ciara Rickard Source: Courtesy of Ballyfin Demesne Credits: ELLE Canada

Towering ceilings, enormous fireplaces, faux-marble columns (they used faux because it was more expensive than real marble when the house was built—and that meant it was better) and antique furniture truly make me feel like I’m in another era. The 15 guest rooms are lavish and individually decorated: Canopy beds, beautiful fabrics, deep bathtubs and massive windows with stunning views are all Lady Mary-worthy.

Many touches, from old leather-bound books in the library to intricate replica rugs, lend authenticity – I’m half expecting to see Lady Coote sashay into the drawing-room as I relax with a glass of wine before dinner. Opulence was the order of the day back then, and the Cootes could afford it: “Anything they wanted, they could have – money was no object whatsoever,” says Declan, one of the wonderful butlers.

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Among the family’s prized acquisitions is a stunning mosaic floor that originally came from a 2,000-year-old Roman villa; two centuries after being transplanted to Ballyfin’s entry hall, the tiles are still in perfect condition and give the room an exotic air. Less exotic, but still charming, are neat rows of wellington boots, large umbrellas and raincoats laid out for guests (because this is Ireland – it will rain), and I avail myself of these when I head out to enjoy some of the outdoor pursuits on offer – activities suited to the aristocratic lifestyle of which I’m now having a taste.

Although I’ve never shot a gun in my life, I spend an enjoyable hour trying clay-pigeon shooting; after some coaching from the capable and very patient head butler, Lionel, I eventually manage a satisfying hit on one of my targets, square in its centre. Next is a gourmet picnic lunch – delivered and set out by staff alongside a wood- burning stove – in a rustic cabin with sweeping views of the property. And when the sun breaks through the rain clouds in the afternoon, I seize the opportunity to go horseback riding around the property’s lake and through the bluebell-carpeted woods.

But it’s not just the chance to feel like Elizabeth Bennet (after she marries Mr. Darcy, of course) that has me excited to be here. I have a connection to the area: My mother is from a town only 20 kilometres away from Ballyfin, and her father grew up even closer to the estate in the late 1800s. (“Your grandfather would have paid rent to the Cootes, so you have a stake in the house,” jokes Reynolds.) My mom immigrated to Canada when she was in her late 20s; Toronto ended up being the last stop on her pursuit-of-adventure tour (through a nursing career that took her to various cities in Europe, North Africa and North America) after she met my dad. Most of her family are still in Ireland, so we have made many family trips over the years – I have happy memories of playing with feral kittens at my uncle’s farm by day and listening to ghost stories by night – but I had never heard of this grand house, just a short drive away.

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My godfather, Des, was a boarding student at Ballyfin when he was a boy in the late 1960s – and he describes it as a world away from the comforts now enjoyed here. “We ate the same meal five nights a week: ground beef in gravy and potatoes,” he tells me. “And sometimes it got so cold, the pipes would freeze. Life there was tough – but you came out prepared for anything.”

Today, Ballyfin is cozy, despite its vastness, and the food is so good it makes me rethink things I thought I didn’t like. (As it turns out, monkfish is delicious.) Chef Ryan Murphy is devoted to using all of the hotel garden’s bounty, which includes everything from carrots and onions to apples and kale. From afternoon tea by the fire to pre-dinner bubbles with a harpist playing softly in the background, every moment feels quite perfect.

I can’t help but think of the stark contrast between my experience here and the humble life my ancestors lived as local farmers when the Cootes owned the area. What would my grandfather think if he knew that, only two generations later, a member of his family would be a pampered guest at his landlords’ grand estate? Ireland has come a long way since then and has been reclaimed by its native people. But the legacy of the Anglo-Irish is places like Ballyfin, bringing people together in a celebration of history and luxury – surely a silver lining.

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Somewhere in time: Stay at one of Ireland's most luxurious manor houses