Ballyfin House, Ireland: What it is like to stay at Conde Nast Traveler's best hotel in the world

Read our writer's views on this property below

Ensconced in a high, velvet-draped four-poster bed in the Butler suite, the pale Irish sun rising over the lake to tickle the exquisite artworks and furnishings, I contemplate my day ahead, to be enjoyed in the world's best hotel.

Perhaps a brisk stroll through the "pleasure grounds", or a horse ride through autumn-coloured woodlands, a spot of clay pigeon shooting, a picnic on the lake, a climb to the top of the Tower folly to survey six counties or a book by the fire.

Certainly a sampling of fine dishes from the Michelin-awarded chef, dishes that in no way resemble the rabbit's foot stew complete with fur and nails that was standard fare when the house was a boarding school.

Ballyfin House in the Irish midland county of Laois, 90 minutes from Dublin, a hotel that tries hard not to be like a hotel, has just won Conde Nast Traveller's 2016 best hotel in the world award, with Australia's COMO The Treasury in Perth coming in second.

Read Traveller's review of The Treasury here

And it says much about Irish hospitality that there are two more Irish hotels in the top 10 – Waterford Castle in County Mayo is seventh and The Lodge at Ashford Castle, also County Mayo is ninth.

It's fortunate happenstance that we're visiting now. We've just completed a pampered journey on Belmond's new luxury Grand Hibernian Train – the first of its kind in Ireland – and this hotel is their recommended post-train hotel sojourn.

Ballyfin, Ireland's already much-awarded grandest home and its finest example of 19th-century neoclassical architecture, wants its guests to treat the house and 248-hectare estate at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains like their own personal family retreat.

Peace and privacy are paramount – a recent guest preferred to take her tea in another stately room as her first choice was "too crowded", with one person sitting by the fire.


Meal times are flexible, staff is predominantly local and devoted to Ballyfin. Guest numbers are small, almost unviable – only 20 guest rooms preserves the magic, peace and seclusion of a private home. There is no golf course and the house is strictly residents-only until the evening meal, when non-residents can try for a booking.

Its history reads like a potted saga of Ireland. Since medieval times, Ballyfin Demesne has been the ancestral seat of the O'Mordha or O'More clan, the Crosbies, the Poles, the Wellesley-Poles – the Duke of Wellington's family – and the Cootes. The English confiscated the demesne during the 16th-century Plantations (occupation) of Ireland. The original castle was demolished and the estate developed to satisfy a refined Edwardian way of life.

Ballyfin was then abandoned and sold when Ireland became independent. The Patrician Brothers used it as a boarding school for 80 years. Finally, a Chicago couple with strong Irish heritage, Fred and Kay Krehbiel and their Irish advisor and Ballyfin managing director, Jim Reynolds, saw its star potential.

With the resurgence of a more stable Ireland, they took eight years to restore this most lavish of mansions, which the ambitious young Sir Christopher Coote and his class-conscious new wife built in the early 1800s to advance themselves in high society.

Many said the Krehbiel and Reynolds vision was mad and doomed to fail, for the GFC hit during renovation. English neighbours scoffed: "What would you know, we have our own grand homes, why bother to visit yours?"

People are indeed bothering, people as disparate as Princes Michael of Kent, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, who honeymooned there in 2014, and Richard E. Grant, who declared that staying there was "like stepping back in the past without the inconvenience of no electricity. The personal attention … the welcome of the people, the setting, the food, I should be their PR manager".

The hotel opened in 2011 with only 15 rooms. Last year, Ballyfin had a 45 per cent increase in occupancy. The charming and tireless French-born general manager, Damien Bastiat, had already received 85 new bookings in just a few days since the award announcement.

The Krehbiels' approach to renovation has been one of gay abandonment, in keeping with the Coote motto – "cost what it may".

The great Irish father-and-son architects, Sir Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison designed the neoclassical, late-Georgian incarnation to be the most lavish, the best, the largest, the most expensive, for there were aristocrats to impress and slippery poles to climb.

The Cootes enjoyed their masterpiece for 100 years before changing times and the fear Ireland was going to be no place for their kind, drove them from the estate. It fell into disrepair during its school days, for the frugal Patricians closed off the grand rooms.

Now refurbished, Ballyfin's indulgences are many and stunning. Jim Reynolds' pride is obvious as he ushers us from one gorgeous room to the next – there are six exceptional reception rooms on the ground floor, including the entrance hall with its first-century Roman floor mosaic, presided over by a pair of enormous Irish elk antlers extricated from a bog after 10,000 years.

The Rotunda's inlaid wooden floor is based on the Lion Court of the Alhambra Palace in Granada. At the centre of the house, the Saloon (somewhat confusing to American guests) has no spittoon but rather a remarkable stucco ceiling and striking scagliola columns – features that appear throughout the receptions rooms. The French-inspired Gold Drawing Room has the ornate chandelier that belonged to Napoleon's sister, Caroline Bonaparte.

After a horse and trap ride around the fine grounds, we join Jim and Damien for champagne and canapes in the 24-metre-long library, with its secret door that leads to Ballyfin's lovely Turner conservatory.

Then there's dinner – a delicate degustation from executive chef Sam Moody, who has plundered the walled vegetable gardens and local produce for inspiration, including tiny, pan-seared scallops with cauliflower puree and caper dressing, squeaky-fresh halibut with baby artichokes and the most sublime orange souffle.

But it's not just a Michelin-quality, museum-worthy butler-fest. Ballyfin is happy to indulge its own eccentricities with a "dress-up box". If a peer of the realm or a reality show star wish to dress up and swan about as Napoleon or Marie Antoinette, it's simply jolly good craic, rather than quelle horreur!




Ballyfin House, County Laois. Doubles from €560 ($803) for bed and breakfast and €840 for full board – breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, mini-bar drinks, pre-dinner drinks reception, VAT and tips.


Belmond's two, four and six-night Grand Hibernian Ireland journeys between April and October start from €3318 a person.

Alison Stewart was a guest of Tourism Ireland, Ballyfin and Belmond.

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