I had never thought to focus on going to Ireland. As far as I know, I am one of the few Americans of my generation that hasn’t been told they have Irish blood. Scottish, French, English, German and Cherokee I heard about in great detail but no mention of Irish so I had never put it high on my list of places to go. Then someone who had been to Ireland many times over 40 years suggested I visit. WOW! A huge mistake of mine not to have gone before. Ireland is not only the greenest countryside I have ever seen, it is full of friendly, helpful people who like Americans. They like us so much that they fly our flag everywhere next to the Irish and EU flags. They are polite, kind and love whiskey. In addition, they now have marvelous restaurants and pubs that focus on local produce and organically grown food.
Over the next few weeks, I will do a post or two on more of the trip to Ireland but I will start with the middle of the trip for that was spectacular. I refer to a little-known place called Ballyfin. The large house was built in the 1800s but had passed from its original owners to become a boy’s school for 90 years. Imagine what a group of teenage boys can do to a grand house – chaos. The property was bought by an American who completely refurbished the house and the grounds. Only 14 bedrooms are available. It is still owned by the same person who rebuilt it and he does occasionally go there to stay according to the staff.
When one pulls up to the iron gates of the property (over 600 acres) there is a plaque instructing one to buzz reception. Once you tell them who you are (and you have reservations) the gates magically open and you drive on a very long driveway with beautifully manicured green lawn with a forest on each side. By the time the three to four minute drive is done (the time depends on how many times either you or your companion must stop to take a picture) and you arrive at the mansion, the host of the day (in a business suit) and two doormen (one can’t help but think footmen) are standing at the entrance to greet you by name and to take care of everything from then on.
Literally, if you want your bags unpacked for you (as they did in Downton Abbey) that will be done. We had arrived with some very wet clothing due to golf and walking in the rain so we asked if there was time to have it all cleaned since the mildew and smell might overtake us in the car the next day when we left. (Mistake number one – always spend at least two nights at this amazing house.) The laundry was whisked away and returned three hours later not only clean but smelling wonderful – and there had been at least five shirts, pants and golf gloves given to them.
What makes Ballyfin so special – and one of the very best hotels in the world – is the staff, the meticulous decoration to period (the American owner whose name is Fred gathered pieces from auctions and sales so that one feels one is truly in a grand home of the late 18th, early 19th centuries), but also the aura of relaxation. No televisions blare in the public rooms (in the bedrooms there is the most modern equipment with WiFi and Bluetooth, of course). With only 14 rooms, there is no crowding in the spacious reception rooms or dining areas. The evening meal is served in the formal dining room and the tables are as far apart as possible so there is no overhearing of conversations or sneaking behind someone’s chair in order to get to your own table.
And the grounds! Acres of beautiful green grass and lush forest, as well as a rock garden, a flower garden, and a vegetable and fruit garden where guests are encouraged to go pick out their own fresh produce and, if they wish it cooked, the chef will do so. It is fun to take a golf cart and drive throughout the property to find the hidden romantic waterfall or the Folly which is a Norman Tower (built recently though) or the haystacks piled in fields. The best way to see it however is on horseback. The woman who provides the horses, Pauline, is fun and a brilliant rider. She, however, is also perfectly happy to take a long walking tour to show off as much of the property as possible. It is rare to be able to rent a horse for an hour or two and never leave the property on which one is staying and to have good and healthy horses as well.
In addition to all this, there is a wonderful kitchen and wine cellar so that eating is a joy as well. The duck confit and the caramel pot de creme as well as the Croque Madame and the pork belly are amongst the goodies to consume. The milk chocolate chip cookies that are left in a cookie jar outside the dining room are exquisite and probably cost me to gain a few pounds (which hopefully all the walking and riding on the estate erased).
If you want to pamper yourself go there and plan to spend at least two days and ride the property, get a lesson in falconry and totally relax at the spa. (Sinead has magic hands for a massage.)
Next week Dromoland Castle, Ring of Kerry, Cliffs of Moher and more.