OPENING a luxury resort hotel in recession-blitzed Ireland right now would seem unwise. So opening one which can accommodate fewer than 30 guests with two-night packaged room rates at around €900 per person would look like madness.
But that's the bold mission of the latest entry to the ultra-luxurious end of the Irish hospitality industry. It's an area that has had its ups and downs -- notably with the difficulties faced at Castlemartyr before it became part of the Dromoland group. Like Castlemartyr, Ballyfin's a sumptuous stately home restored to its former grandeur. But Ballyfin's already got tongues wagging on the international travel industry grapevine and, despite the price, despite its niche market, it's doing quite nicely, thank you.
A decade ago, Ballyfin was a sad testament to how the ravages of time can strike a building if the money's not there to care for it. Luckily, the high-maintenance old lady had two knights in shining armour, Chicago-based Fred and Kay Krehbel, who, in partnership with leading landscaper Jim Reynolds, took on a project that would have Grand Design's Kevin McCloud salivating. The mansion is situated on a sprawling demesne, overlooking a lake outside the village of Mountrath in Co Laois -- it's a pity that the general public can't get to see the stunning makeover. That's a joy reserved for hotel guests.
Not that, as you drive up the winding driveway, you feel like a guest -- more like someone who's discovered filthy-rich relations who want to make their home your home for the weekend. The staff are waiting to greet you, valet park the car and make you feel welcome.
It's as if you are entering the 18th century -- everything impresses. The entrance hallway floor is antique mosaic imported from Italy in 1832. To the right is the whispering room -- and then there's the stair hall. Straight out of Hogwarts, it's lined with antique paintings of the Anglo Irish Coote family, who once owned Ballyfin, from the 17th century to more modern times.
And the bedroom? Well, there isn't one. While some of the most elegant five-star hotels offer identikit accommodation, here every room is a suite. And each one is unique, from the Library Room, filled with books, to The Tapestry Room, covered in 17th-century Flemish tapestries, to our one, which was something extra special.
Facing a cascading water feature, the Wellesley-Pole Suite boasts fabulous views over the manicured gardens beyond. The enormous bathroom -- with amazing antique-style tub -- is a work of art in its own right, while a separate seating area completes the enormous room, sorry, suite.
And there's something special about sleeping in rooms that have played host to dowagers and duchesses down the ages.
The grounds need to be explored. Not many places boast more than 600 acres of enclosed parkland, a lake and ancient woods, with restored Ascendancy gardens, follies and grottos. And with a maximum of 29 guests at any time, it's easy to feel like you have it all to yourself.
And whatever your whim is, the staff will bend over backwards to sort it for you. They'll know your name, know your interests and while the service is polished, the smile is genuine.
Checking out the sprawling grounds, there's no need to walk; simply saunter down the main steps, jump into a golf cart (extra posh with a Rolls Royce-style grille at the front) and you have the demesne to explore.
The round tower is straight out of a Famous Five adventure. They say you can see five counties from the top. On the way back, you can play tennis on the private court, or head for a dip in the pool or work out in the gym.
If you want to while away a few hours, fishing rods are available and you'll get expert advice on how to catch one of the fish in the lake that is teeming with trout -- even though I didn't get a sniff of one; which is a pity, as the chef can cook it for you.
Fred Cordonnier spent a decade as the head chef of a two-Michelin star restaurant, and his creations are presented in a room that's fitting for haute cuisine. The State Dining Room, with its early Georgian paintings and fine china, is an intimate setting.
The estate is old, but has great eco credentials. The breakfast eggs are collected daily from the henhouse, traditional gardens are being revitalised and many of the vegetables and herbs you'll eat will be picked that morning from them.
Later, you can retire to the Ballyfin Bar, where we enjoyed a night with a couple and their daughter over from Washington DC who'd been around Europe, but who had been blown away by Ireland. Ballyfin was their last stop -- and their highlight. It's easy to see why.