Can you go back to the 1820s? In Ireland, you can. (Don’t worry, there is still great Wi-Fi.)
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, where I imagined myself (Lady Annie) sitting on a bench under a parasol dreaming up the witty remarks I’d use to flirt with my third cousin at dinner. But you can’t sleep over at Highclere — unless you’re friends with the owners.
I finally found a place where you can actually stay that evokes a similar feeling (though it will transport you back even further in time): the Ballyfin Demesne.
When you arrive, it feels as if you’re stepping into a different world — an Ireland without economic problems, for one. Set on 6oo acres in County Laois (just 90 minutes from Dublin), the historic property is now a 5-star hotel. I hesitate calling it a hotel because it’s so much more, but it is indeed a hotel.
As my friend Jonathan Epstein, an Ireland expert and president of Celebrated Experiences, says, “Ballyfin is like a journey to a magical place you think only exists in imagination. It’s a place where history and modern luxuries dance in a perfect waltz.”
Ballyfin is unique in that the original spirit of the 1820s remains; every inch of the place has been restored to feel just as it was in its heyday, without feeling musty or old. The mansion changed hands several times over the years — including stints as ancestral home to several prominent families — until it was bought by the Patrician Brothers, who operated a Roman Catholic school on the premises for much of the 20th century.
Ballyfin wasn’t for sale when Fred and Kay Krehbiel came calling in 2002. “The school was dwindling down, and the house had gotten into very bad repair,” a manager at Ballyfin confided. “The Patrician Brothers minded it very well, but they didn’t have the money to properly repair it.”
Once the Krehbiels had purchased the property, the husband-and-wife team set out to restore Ballyfin to its original grandeur under close supervision. Each detail was carefully sourced to ensure authenticity. For instance, the paintings in the main stairwell depict descendants of the Coote family (their coat of arms can still be seen above the entryway). And in the plush library, a bookcase doubles as a hidden passageway leading to a meticulously reconstructed glass conservatory.
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The result is impressive, to say the least. To someone who has seen her fair share of hotels and resorts, Ballyfin stands alone.
Its new owners have not forgotten that an Irish country house was used primarily for pleasure and entertainment. While a top-of-the-line fitness center and pool allow for a great workout, guests seem to prefer exploring the walled garden, medieval-style tower, and manicured trails on the extensive grounds. And though the property oozes 19th-century charm, it offers every modern convenience you could want (like that free Wi-Fi travelers demand nowadays).
Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a brilliant or unfortunate thing that Ballyfin is open to overnight guests only. You can’t pop by for dinner or tour the grounds unless you’re staying there. But if you’ve ever dreamed of living at an Irish country estate, this is the place where you can do it.