Guided hotel tours are generally aggrandising affairs. Choose not to meet beneath the soaring marble columns of Ballyfin’s saloon just before cocktail hour, however, and by foregoing a tour of your historic surroundings you’re missing out on a fascinating insight into the intricacies of this imposing estate.
Here is a sensitively and painstakingly restored Regency mansion, designed by Irish father-and-son architects Sir Richard and William Morrison during the 1820s and set in 614 acres of the greenest parkland.
The country house has been so finely furnished that it’s difficult not to run a finger over every on-site antique, or pepper staff with a plethora of questions pertaining to the house’s opulent furniture and rich paintings. There’s a suit of armour on the inverted staircase, trompe l’oeil wallpaper and damasked upholstery at every turn. A protected Roman mosaic lies protected on the entrance hall floor.
Passionate members of the small staff bring the stories of these pieces to life. But Ballyfin is no museum. A tour merely sets the scene for your stay, taking you into the hotel's 20 individually decorated bedrooms – if unoccupied. A French bed with drapes hanging from a circular canopy might dominate the space in one room, while the walls of another have been transformed into a miniature library.
This property feels lived in and yet somehow still in its prime. The golden Colonial-style drawing room glimmers in morning sunlight (best appreciated by the fireside with a glass of local apple juice and a broadsheet newspaper) and a chandelier from the Parisian townhouse of Napoleon's sister comes into its own at night.
Cocktail hour is well and truly alive – a social occasion retained from days gone by. The dining room offers dishes that are as grand or humble as your desires, as well as a distant view of a landscaped waterfall.
Outside, a more independent sense of curiosity is justly rewarded. The manor’s demesne has evolved over 400 years to include walled, rock and rose gardens, a grotto and a tower overlooking the surrounding countryside.
A formidable lake is also revealed as travellers first wind up the drive, having journeyed the 80 minutes from Dublin or perhaps through the nearby Slieve Bloom Mountains. The crispest air swirls in these hills at Ireland’s heart.
With so few rooms and an emphasis on hospitality, Ballyfin’s strength is to conjure the romance of a horse-drawn past and proffer it – renovated and revised – for the 21st-century. The era of the Irish country house is not yet done.
From €570 per night, ballyfin.com