Discover the essence of Irish Charm at Ballyfin Manor
This sprawling Georgian estate in the Irish countryside is an oasis of rural calm – perfect for a Valentines getaway
Ever since Downton Abbey hit our screens in 2010, exposing the glamorous world of 20th century British aristocracy, stately homes have received a renewed burst of interest from travellers. But England isn't the only place one can discover magnificent manor houses. Deep in the rolling countryside of the Republic of Ireland, visitors with a penchant for history can find Ballyfin, a five-star country house hotel located in a historic family residence.
Awarded the accolade for the world's best hotel in the Condé Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Awards in 2016, the manor continues to carry the same prestige as it did in its heyday, thanks to the devotees who restored it to its former glory. The estate of Ballyfin, located at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, was originally founded as the ancestral seat of the wealthy O'More family, followed by the Crosbies, the Poles, the Wellesley-Poles – the family of the Duke of Wellington – and finally, the Cootes.
It was the Cootes who, in the 1820s, built the house as it currently stands, in late Georgian style. In the dawn of the Irish Independence, the estate was sold and turned into a boarding school, which it remained for most of the 20th century. Then, in 2002, it was purchased by a wealthy businessman. He originally intended to keep it for himself, but, in order to sustain the upkeep of the building and preserve it for future generations, the decision was made to tranform it into a hotel. The manor underwent an eight- year restoration and, in 2011, it re-opened to the public for the first time, as Ballyfin, the country house hotel.
Arriving at Ballyfin, which is just 90 minutes by car from Dublin, is like stepping back in time. The manor is home to 20 uniquely-designed bedrooms, each of which has the ambience of a private residence, despite being in a hotel. The reception rooms, which are open to all guests, are decorated in a traditional yet classic fashion, with fine art adorning the walls. The Coote family coat-of-arms stands proudly at the entrance, giving an honourable nod to times past. >>
The sprawling 614-acre estate within which the house sits provides ample opportunity for entertainment, from fishing on the 28-acre lake to clay pigeon shooting. Falconry was a particularly interesting experience during our visit - it was incredible to watch majestic Harris hawks fly over our heads, swooping so low we could almost feel the wind beneath their wings before they landed on the trainer's gloves.
While the grounds of Ballyfin were undeniably magnificent, my highlight was the people. The hotel's team were very much hands on, giving a personalised approach to every single guest. Interestingly, many of the staff were locals - some even attended the school that once laid claim to the estate. One man we spoke to was a local carpenter who helped with the restoration. He fell so deeply in love with the house that when it reopened, he returned and now holds the prestigious position of head butler. Another person of note is head chef Sam Moody, a Michelin starred British chef who, since his arrival in 2016, has transformed Ballyfin's restaurant into an excellent gastronomic hotspot.
After just two days at this country escape, the stresses of city life are guaranteed to melt away. As for the time of year that best suits a visit, this depends on personal preference. Winter with its cosy fires and snow-topped trees has just as much charm as summer with its verdant gardens and bubbling streams. Ballyfin is also an excellent option for a Valentine's getaway with a partner this February. While Ballyfin is certainly a romantic destination, its charm lies not just in its beauty but in its history and the love that the locals have put into preserving this magnificent manor.