Creighton and I passed each other on the paths at Exeter, had a nice chat in front of the GS hq in NY in 1995, but only started dating in October 1996. We were set up by a friend who had roomed with his sister Anya in college and commuter dated from LA and my life at GS and San Clemente and his life in the Marine Corps. So 20 years together, 15 years married. Fun, adventure, highs, lows, we have seen it all. But we had never seen Ireland and so this is where we celebrate our 15th anniversary. It turns out that I may have accidentally booked the best hotel first. I shouldn’t complain about a five star castle!!!!! But I think we have realized that we prefer the true boutique properties that are small and intimate. And sure enough, as I resume writing this we have abandoned Dromoland after one night to return to Ballyfin. more on that later, but suffice it to say that the dated and tacky country club decor was an assault on the senses that for an obscene nightly rate I could not handle, especially when cancer gives each trip the urgency of once in a lifetime.
Ballyfin Demesne is a magnificent manor house in the middle of Ireland about 90 minutes from Dublin lovingly restored 2004-10 by a Chicago family. It reminds me of the best of Gidleigh Park and is absolutely world class from decor to seevice to food to grounds. Manager Damian is outstanding, and the answer is always yes. You approach up a long road winding through green fields and woods. With a lake on your left the manor house rises up, a simple testament to the glory of classical architecture. Every public room is more glorious than the last and we made use of every one! First we enjoyed tea in a salon of yellow silk with views of the lake. Crunchy outside, soft inside scones with local clotted cream and strawberry jam. Delicate egg and salmon finger sandwiches. Fresh mint tea. Ginger cake. We followed this with a walk up to the stone tower and around the lake. 614 acres of gorgeous land and woods to explore via foot and bike. There are no bad guest rooms. Although varying in size, all are exquisitely decorated in classic decor truly befitting a manor. Lush fabrics, elegant antiques, sumptuous beds, and views of the lake or gardens.
Our Trellis room was hand painted with painstaking care and skill to look like a trellised garden. Coupled with an elegant canopied bed with a sunburst of fabric above head it was a slice of heaven. The bathroom was marble and then 2×4 panels of antiqued mirror. So luxurious and a perfect use of space. Both risked being over the top and instead came together seamlessly for a cocoon of luxury. On returning today we were upgraded to a lake facing suite (as Damian said to help me recover from the decor disaster of the stay that we will forget) which is divine. Blue and white, airy, anchored by a grand canopy bed. The bath has a view too!
Lunch is served in the conservatory, a huge heated greenhouse filled with wicker, enormous baskets of orchids, and China lamps. Carrot soup, a crab and avocado salad, and a just naughty enough strawberry Eton mess. All with a view of the grand staircase fountain that Jim Reynolds designed descending from a small temple. It is fun to dress up for dinner which includes a nice cocktail in front of a roaring fire. I have the sapphire blue bottomed pool entirely to myself on each visit. And Sinead gives a winning massage. This is the epitome of a regency country house and a true escape. We love every minute. It turns out that the exceptional manager spent 7 years at Gidleigh Park prior to Ballyfin. This is our other favorite country hotel down in Devon, right against Dartmoor national park. We have savored every minute at this exquisite house and will remember it fondly and recommend it widely!
Ashford castle dates to 1228 ranging from fortress to chateau to hotel flanked by a gorgeous river and fronted by Lough Corrib and its 365 islands. It is an imposing castle. We are disappointed to find that it is very corporate. The lesson learned this trip is to always ask if a hotel accepts tour groups. If yes then it is not for us. We transferred from a way too gold and in my view super cheese suite to a corner view room with dark period antiques and heavy red brocade which seemed more fitting. The views were fantastic out to the river and the lake and the million tree forest planted in the 1800s. I especially enjoyed our long walks in the woods and along the lake. There and in the sumptuous gardens it felt more like an intimate and exclusive estate away from people. We got a kick out of the wonderful ferry boat driver who was an excellent historian. Tea was served in an elaborate drawing room with full lake views. Great setting but scones were a C+. Scones at Brown’s in London and yes Ballyfin are an A.
The spa at Ashford opened last July and is superb. Moroccan in style with a relaxation pool, steam room, chaises overlooking the river, it is a treat. I try an herb poultice massage using local seaweed which is magical. Creighton tries his hand at clay shooting. We are mesmerized by the regal Falcons who are taken on “falcon walks” where they land on people’s gloved hands. Incredible. We trek many miles here.
On average I would say it veers toward cheesy and is overpriced. The setting is magnificent, the service so warm and capable, but the rooms are very 80s.
Creighton braves the roads in our stick shift and we take in sheep, low mountains, and finally stunning coastline as emerald green as the pictures promise. The Cliffs of Moher live up to expectations for their beauty but are consequently overrun with tourists. Jaw dropping but not serene! We enjoy the coastline and greenery from there to Shannon and pull into what looks to be a lovely Dromoland Castle. The staff couldn’t be nicer. As ever, warm, kind, inviting. They have upgraded us to the cottage suite……ah except that when we open the door it smells like an old persons home and is decorated like a dates Florida country club. Hideous mauve, maroon, and brown velvet accented by crappy furniture. Yes, call me spoiled, but for the exorbitant price this is unacceptable and certainly not what the pictures advertised nor what we looked forward to all these months. I have a heightened urgency around the cancer. I want trips to be perfect. Things feel like once in a lifetime. I do not want to waste time nor money. The manager was very nice and couldn’t help that the decor was so god awful. She did her best and moved us to a slightly more appealing room but with a hideous bathroom that may have been renovated in 1981 at best and with a blind decorator. Seriously. Tacky beyond belief. We begged out of the next night and booked back at Ballyfin. We hope they are classy enough not to charge us another night. We obviously made the most of it and took a nice walk, enjoyed chatting by a fire at dinner, but couldn’t get out of there fast enough this morning. A colossal waste of money. Appalling.
I was practically giddy as we pulled into the gates of Ballyfin. This is what a luxury hotel should be and is. This is the right way to wrap up a special trip. We were welcomed so warmly and we’re thrilled to be back. Tomorrow we head to Dublin for one night. It is time to get home, but we have had so much fun together and enjoyed experiencing this beautifully green and friendly country. We have just learned to never go anywhere where tour buses are allowed!
And I have to add one last section for just when I thought it couldn’t get nicer…..I’m soaking in a gorgeous bath with a giant window looking at the big red and green trees. The rain started just as we finished our walk. They needed to give the Lady Coote suite to a new arrival but we’re kind enough to give us a new room to enjoy our late day departure. I walked into a cozy room enrobed in blue and white toile…my favorite! A full view of the cascading fountain, ever elegant antiques, and a white marble bathroom with a serene shower and this melt your cares away soaking tub with a view. I am seriously in heaven. I can do this. They played right into my fantasy of experiencing many rooms in one stay. Now I wish we could spend the night but we do need to experience Dublin so we will tear ourselves away….but only after tea. Yes. We are forgoing lunch to move straight into a full afternoon tea. Just because we can. And because in limited doses scones with clotted cream in a ridiculously beautiful library are part of the cure for cancer. Or at least for living it up!
As I look back on our week here I have to admit we didn’t do much of what we were “supposed” to do. No pubs. Not many of the tourist sights or attractions. But we did have lots of interesting chats with each other and locals about Irish history. We did relax to the utmost degree. We did savor every minute and experience regal country life. And for once I didn’t complain about the weather, for by Irish standards it was grand. A few days of sunshine, mostly grey, but minimal rain. Lots of walking. Plenty of scones and smoked salmon. I am deeply content. Thank you Ballyfin!