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Been lamenting the conclusion of “Downton Abbey” since the PBS period soap dried up? Don’t worry, there’s still a chance to step back in time and experience life as turn-of-the-century landed gentry at Ballyfin.
Nestled at the foot of Ireland’s Slieve Bloom Mountains, the magnificent 20-room estate grabbed headlines as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s honeymoon spot in 2014 and as Conde Nast’s No. 1 hotel in the world in 2016.
Even still, part of the luxury here is the sound of peace and quiet. During a casual stroll through the estate’s more than 600 acres of expertly manicured grounds, guests shouldn’t be surprised to hear only the sounds of chirping birds and verdant grasses, undulating like swells of emerald tides.
There’s no shortage of vantage points from which to admire the grand dame, transformed back to her original splendor as a lavish 1820s regency mansion after serving as a 20th-century boarding school and later falling into disrepair. Today, after a nine-year renovation and a few embellishments such as a shimmering cascade waterfall, there are hundreds of stories for each glittering touch.
Delight in a few of them during daily tours of the interior, where the warmth of staff members’ brogues and the crackle of a fire in each room will chase away any hint of a chill. Learn about the Coote family, whose great wealth inspired them to build what was once Ireland’s largest man-made lake on the property, and who filled their home with priceless artworks such as a 2,000-year-old mosaic floor imported from Italy. Stare into the eyes of the generations of portraits in the soaring Stair Hall, and be regaled by family stories as you’re told to “relax like it’s your own home.”
Most of the bedrooms are named for these characters, and like them, each has its own personality. There’s the Sir Christopher Coote suite, which was the largest bedroom in the house, and the soaring canopy bed of The Westmeath Room. Guestrooms and all common areas are outfitted daily in flowers from the on-site gardens, where farm-to-table produce is also sourced.
Although the environs may be posh, it is easy to relax — and particularly fun to break the ice in the Whispering Room. Here, a soaring ceiling makes it possible to stand in one corner and have someone in the other hear words uttered at the lowest of volumes. Or, put your feet up in the library, where plush chairs, comfy couches and stacks of leather-bound tomes call to pass away the time. Kids of all ages will find the secret door particularly fascinating — a shelf that, when opened, reveals the soaring, birdcage-like Conservatory. Enjoy just a coffee and sunshine in this glass-and-wrought-iron masterpiece or taste chef Sam Moody’s mastery during lunch.
The State Dining Room is where much of the magic happens. Pre-dinner canapes portend just a bit of the local produce and proteins and delightful textures and flavors on display during dinner. Think Dublin Bay prawns, Irish farm cheeses and native Dexter beef, paired with an expert wine and cocktail list.
It’s easy to get into the spirit of one of Ballyfin’s highlights: the chance to step back in time and don period attire that delights not only those wearing it, but fellow guests as well. Don’t miss a chance to browse the costumes once worn by performs from the Lyric Opera of Chicago; these outfit guests in turn-of-the-century frills, frocks and finery.
Luckily, it’s back to pants and (provided) boots for the daytime. And if you don’t get your fill of Moody’s savory squab, clay pigeon shooting is the perfect way to work up another appetite. There’s plenty to pass the time with lessons in target shooting, horseback riding, falconry and fishing appealing to all ages. Bicycles and golf carts are available for discovering the property’s hidden treasures such as the ice house, winter waterfall and Ballyfin Tower, whose ascent rewards the intrepid climber with a view over several distant counties.
Opting for relaxation indoors? A pool, a spa, a sauna and a hot tub are just some of the modern conveniences that bring Ballyfin into the modern age in a welcome way.
One of the others is Cellar Bar, which offers up more of a laid-back vibe than the main dining room. Spending an evening here may require an extra hour or two with your room’s blackout shades drawn the next morning. However, the extensive whiskey selection and Guinness on draught are a great way to raise a toast to the best in Irish hospitality.