I’ve been by fairy tales for a long as I can remember. I saw Cinderella when I was three years old and my mom says I sat absolutely transfixed by the classic rags to riches tale as my friends squirmed in their seats. From then on it was Disney-themed Birthday parties and games of dress-up.
When I was 8 years old, I discovered a book in the library called Chateau of the Loire Valley. I loved thumbing through and looking at the the real life places like Chenonceau and Chaumont-Sur-Loire that so resembled the castles from the stories I’d read like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.
Ofcourse, I live in the 21rst century. I enjoyed an idyllic childhood growing up in Northeast Portland and I met my modern day Prince Charming, but as you grow up, you learn there is no such thing as happily ever after.
Still, one overcast day in the Irish countryside I felt like I had slipped into the pages of one of my favorite fairy tale books. That’s the day I visited Ballyfin, an Irish manor from the 1800’s turned luxury hotel. After entering the large gates of the property we passed through lush wooded grounds covered in bluebells. As we approached the stone manor we saw 11 hotel staff members standing on the stairs waiting to greet us. They ushered us in and I was immediately in awe of the attention to detail in my surroundings.
The neoclassical mansion about an hour and a half west of Dublin, was built by Sir Charles Coote in the 1820’s, but the site had been settled since ancient times by a variety of families including the O’Mores, the Crosby’s, the Poles, and the Wellesly-Poles. The current owner purchased it in 2002 and it took nine years to do the restoration work. The goal was to restore it as closely as possible to how it looked and functioned when it was built. The Entrance Hall has a patterned mosaic floor brought from Italy in 1822, the bright Saloon is painted yellow and decorated with black marble columns, an ornate stucco ceiling and a grand piano. There’s also a French inspired Drawing Room, a light filled Conservatory and a Library with fireplaces and 5,000 books.
I stayed in the Lady Sarah Pole room, named after the daughter of the Earl of Drogheda, who married William Pole in 1789. The room on the mezzanine level featured red floral wallpaper, a corner fireplace with original grate and a spectacular view of the pleasure ground’s cascading water feature. The view is a tribute to Pole herself who was dedicated to the property’s gardens and helped make them renowned in Georgian Ireland.
My companions and I had just enough time to take in our rooms before being whisked off to tour Ballyfin’s extensive grounds via horse drawn carriage. We sauntered through the rolling hills stopping to discover everything including a man made lake, walled gardens, a grotto and follies, like a medieval-style tower built in the 1860s.
One of the more unique aspects of Ballyfin is its “costume department” stocked with period garb from the Royal Opera Company. Originally we were just planning to look but who can resist playing a bit of dress-up? Long beaded dresses in an array of colors from black, to red, to pale pink lined the walls. We immediately started rifling through. I fell for a red and gold sparkling sheath with fitted sleeves that went over a white slip dress, but it was too big. Then I spotted a simple white dress. It had a beaded applique and empire waistline, very Emma, with slightly poofy sleeves. Wrapped around the hanger was a gold beaded sash. It was simple, but elegant. I decided to look for accessories. A heavy wooden vanity contained necklaces and head pieces. I saw a gold choker with a broach at the center that would go perfectly with the sash. I tried on several headpieces- black with feathers, a blue bonnet, but both made me feel a bit silly and none worked with the gold and white ensemble I had put together. When I was about to give up I spotted a gold Romanesque tiara. It was heavy but perfect. In it I felt regal. I went back to my room and put on my outfit. I felt like Cinderella going to the ball. I spied the time. I was late for cocktail hour. Giddy, I tied my hair in a low chignon and raced to the drawing room.
We toured the house and learned more about Ballyfin’s amazing art collection. One of the most important works is a picture of mares and a foal in a wooded landscape done by Thomas Robert. Considered the greatest Irish landscape painter of the 18th century, he died at just 28 of consumption. I stopped to admire the beautiful use of light and the realistic faces of the mares, one silvery grey, the other tawny brown.
Dinner was in the formal dining hall. It was an atmosphere I had only ever seen in movies. An ornate chandelier dripped from the ceiling. The long table was set with four candelabras, fine china and silver. We dined on Ireland’s brand of molecular gastronomy, Irish Dexter Beef fillet carpaccio, and sea trout from Killmore Quay served with Ballyfin garden spinach and potato soufflé. Dessert was a baked orchard apple with vanilla anglaise and chocolate ice cream.
After dinner it was time for cocktails in the bar, a more modern space with bright red walls and contemporary art. We realized we were not the only guests at Ballyfin. A young couple was also taking in the live Irish music. As it turns out, they had just gotten engaged that day.
It was almost midnight but I didn’t want to go to bed. I walked up the grand staircase surrounded by pictures of the Coote family, and traipsed through the upstairs hallway. I caught a glimpse of myself in one of the gilded mirrors. In my ethereal white dress I looked a bit like a ghost. Maybe it was time to call it a night. Reluctantly, I made my way back to my cozy floral suite. I removed my slippers and my tiara and tucked myself into bed.
As I started to drift off, I remembered what someone told me at dinner. From across the table my friend David said, “You look like the nice Disney princess.” I don’t think he realized it at the time, but that was the best compliment he could have given me.