Story by Anne Z. Cooke, photos by SteveHaggerty/ColorWorld
As the carriage circled the hill, Billy the Irish cob glanced back at Lionel Chadwick, the coachman at Ballyfin manor, as if to say, “I’m ready, old son. What about you?”
“Chirrup,” clucked Chadwick, twitching the reins, the answer he invariably gives when they reach this spot in the road, near the Slieve Bloom Mountains, in central Ireland’s horse country.
Until that moment, Billy had been clopping leisurely through the woods and beside the lake. Now he took off like a steeplechaser over a fence, galloping uphill with the carriage swaying behind. In the shake of a lamb’s tail – as my Irish grandmother often said – he’d hauled the carriage – and the dead weight of Lionel and four visitors – up and over the crest.
“Come round, Billy, come round, that’s a good fella,” said Lionel, guiding the horse to a half-turn stop so the passengers out for an introductory tour of the 680-acre estate could get a good look at the manor house where they’d be spending the next four days.
“It’s a picturesque setting, so it is,” said Lionel, gazing at down at the late-Georgian manor set on a swath of green lawn, on a gentle hillside in County Laoise (as in “leash”). Built in 1826 by Sir Charles Coote, Ballyfin is a neo-classic pile with a creamy-grey sandstone façade, wide front steps and an entrance tall enough to admit a horse and rider. Designed to impress, it succeeded. And it still does, beyond Coote’s wildest dreams, if only he were there to see it.
Since 2011, when the restored property opened as a boutique hotel, guests have lavish with accolades, praising the manor on personal blogs and newsletters, and recommending it on travel sites. Hotel reviewers lucky enough to have stayed in one of the house’s 15 named, uniquely furnished bedrooms have done the same, rating Ballyfin as Ireland’s finest luxury inn. Is it? I haven’t seen every historic house on the Emerald Isle, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Not only did owners Chicago residents Fred and Kay Krehbiel spend seven years and millions restoring the 35,000-square foot house, but they duplicated the original interiors with period and reproduction furnishings, 19th century-patterned toile and damask fabrics, and original colors and wall coverings.
Grand it is. But Ballyfin is no stuffy six-star hotel managed by a corporation and run by a bean counter. And after a couple of days here, I wonder if the outpouring of acclaim hasn’t missed the real secret of Ballyfin’s success.
The clue, according to Managing Director Jim Reynolds, is that the Krehbiels restored Ballyfin as if it were “a private home, where guests would feel like friends invited down for a weekend.” Most of the staff is local, mostly native Irish, people who not only know the neighborhood but bring color and character to their jobs.
Listening to fellow guests gush about a favorite waiter or sous-chef, it was plain that those brief but personal connections meant as much as the silk-draped, four-poster beds. I was greeted with a warm welcome, offered a cup of tea and a cookie and toured around the house. At breakfast, the waitress remembered my name, asked if I’d adjusted to the inevitable jet lag, and took my breakfast order promptly. “Tis no trouble a’tall,” she insisted, when I asked about a side of grilled tomatoes and mushrooms.
The “lads” on staff – Lionel, Glen, Declan, Brian and the rest –were never too busy to find a map, suggest a pub, find the photo albums documenting every step of the manor’s restoration, show the way to the kitchen garden or to share an anecdote about the mid-19th-century years when Ballyfin was a private boys’ boarding school, operating on a shoestring.
Today the staff to guest ratio is one-to-one, but some jobs are shared, either from choice or necessity. Chadwick, the head butler, takes over as coachman when a carriage ride, because he knows the horse and the rig. Billy belongs to Chadwick’s family, as it turns out.
When I headed down the valley to the trap and skeet range to shoot clay pigeons, Chadwick showed up again, this time wearing khakis, a shooting vest and a “flat cap.” With Glen Brophy assisting, the two young men, experienced bird shooters and willing volunteers, set up the range, organized the shotguns and shells, passed out ear plugs and coached the beginners in the group.
For first-time visitors, especially collectors, the house and its treasures deserve a leisurely look. Besides gold-leaf candelabra, Chinese porcelain, bronze statuary and Regency clocks, there are decorative plaster-work, parquet floors, an original Roman mosaic floor imported from Italy, stained glass dome, crystal chandeliers, Italian marble pillars, Empire mirrors, and a collection of paintings by Irish artists.
On a four-day visit you can fish in the lake, row around the perimeter, cycle on the estate’s 10 miles of roads, work out in the gym and swim in the indoor pool. With five days you can add a breakfast served at the top of the folly (the Norman-lookalike tower), a horseback ride and a neighborhood jaunt. You might even take the reins for a carriage ride around the lake; that is, if Billy the cob agrees.
THE NITTY GRITTY: Ballyfin is in County Laoise, 60 miles west of Dublin. Rent a car and drive or ask the manor to arrange an airport pickup. Prices start at $1,000 per night and include all meals, snacks, tea, picnics, and most estate-provided activities. Some guided activities cost extra.
To add several days in Dublin, the attractive and moderately-priced Fitzwilliam Hotel is ideally located in the city center, minutes from restaurants, pubs, museums and parks. At www.fitzwilliamhoteldublin.com.
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