Ballyfin is the kind of hotel you desperately want to hate. It's owned by a billionaire American; it has a room called The Gold Room; the staff form a line to meet you at the front steps when you arrive, and Condé Nast Traveller voted it the Best Hotel IN THE WORLD - it just has to be all in the most appallingly bad taste, doesn't it? But it isn't. In fact, it's the most exquisite and perfect hotel I've ever stayed in. If I could afford it, I'd stay there at least once a month.
The hotel’s billionaire owners, Fred and Kay Krehbiel, may have lavished a fortune on the restoration of this wonderful house but they have done so in the most restrained and authentic way - it truly is a remarkable act of preservation. The staff do indeed line up to meet you, but they are all so universally friendly that any perceived awkwardness never materialises. Manager Damian Bastiat guides us to the check in desk - there's not so much as a mention of swiping your credit card - and then gives us a brief tour of the various lounges that we may choose to loll about in during our all too brief overnight stay. It was as much as we could manage to utter the word 'Wow' repeatedly. The hotels genial Director, Jim Reynolds, is a constant presence and his guidance has been a major part in preventing Ballyfin becoming a gauche temple of excess.
On the advice of a friend we blew the budget for this year’s summer holiday by booking one of the signature suites - a room so comprehensively gorgeous that we could easily have chosen not to leave it at all during our stay. It is at once sumptuous and elegant; antique furniture, comfortable couches, lots of expensive but well-chosen books and discreet modern amenities.
Since our rate is all inclusive (apart from drinks) we head back downstairs for lunch, which can be taken in the stunning Turner conservatory or in the grand dining room, which we choose. The lunch menu comprises a selection of simple food: breaded goujons of cod with chips; Linguine with mushrooms, spinach and rosemary; mushrooms on toast. There’s nothing wrong with the food at all, it just seems slightly surreal to be eating fish and chips in such grand surroundings.
After lunch we take one of the hotel’s golf carts for a drive around the estate, climbing to the top of the great tower, visiting the old church on the edge of the grounds and driving around the lake. There’s a tour of the house, which seems kind of touristy but is fascinating – make sure to try the whispering room! Staff throughout are superb and there’s not a hint of snootiness.
Dinner is preceded by a drinks reception in the Gold Drawing Room (which is included in the rate) and there is generous pouring of fine Champagne before we are seated again in the Grand Dining Room to sample the work of head chef Sam Moody, who had just recently joined Ballyfin from Bath Priory at the time of our stay. Liz O’ Connell, of the Ballymaloe Cookery School O’ Connells, runs the walled gardens, providing fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit and there’s a strong ethos of using local suppliers, all named on the menu. Ballyfin Hen’s Egg with Onion Confit, black truffle and gravy; Pan Fried scallop with radish; Turbot with lemon and broccoli were among the dishes we ate. The cooking was precise and delicate but a signature style had yet to emerge.
Next morning there’s a proper breakfast, cooked to order and nobody mentions what time check out is. We delay as long as we can but eventually we must depart. The cost of an overnight stay here is probably the most expensive in the country, and adding in the all inclusive package of lunch and dinner will certainly push the final bill into four figures by the time some drinks are added. In truth, for us, it was worth every penny to experience the absolute beauty of the house. This would amount to nothing though, were it not matched with world class hospitality, and in Ballyfin that magic combination has been achieved in spades.