Growing up on opposite coasts, my husband and I had parallel fantasies of leaving our suburban childhoods behind for the “civilized” life: We would be rich and European, ideally with a manor thrown in. These (now slightly embarrassing) imaginings may be in check, but the pull of a life right out of the pages of The World of Interiors is still strong. So, while on a trip to Dublin with our 4-year-old daughter, Clara, we made a detour to Ballyvolane House, a regal 1728 family estate and inn located in Ireland’s East County Cork—and seemingly plucked straight from our dreams.
It turned out to be a fairly serious detour—a little over three hours. But our perseverance paid off. At the end of a hedge-lined road, beyond pastures of grazing cows and fly-fishing-ready ponds, we came to the Georgian mansion. We were greeted by the owners, Justin and Jenny Green, a chic thirtysomething couple who live at Ballyvolane with their three kids. Jenny immediately read our minds and asked if we would like to have supper there—a huge relief, as we hadn’t made plans and dreaded the idea of strapping Clara back into the car to find a restaurant. We passed through a sitting room, where a fat 20-year-old cat named Archie lounged on a tufted couch, and then we climbed the mahogany stairs to the bedrooms. With a view of astonishingly green fields, our room had crisp bedding, a claw-foot tub, just the right amount of heavy antiques for the setting, and none of the more cloying B&B frills (stinky potpourri, cross-stitched anything).
After mixing our own drinks downstairs and taking a walk around the walled garden, we sat down to supper in the dining room. A wood fire roared, and the long table had been set just for us, complete with candelabras, linen, and formal silverware. Clara’s place had been made specially, with plastic utensils laid out just like ours. She was served a hearty shepherd’s pie, with ketchup on the table, while we made our way through a four-course meal that included duck confit and a sampling of Irish cheeses. Ten minutes into the meal, when Clara had finished and was getting fidgety, Jenny offered to put on a Charlie and Lola DVD in the TV-and-toy room next to us. I was dumbstruck: How could this be? Was I actually having dinner alone with my husband? Without paying a sitter? An hour later, we were all full and happy.
And that’s when I realized how much our definition of luxury has changed since we had our daughter. Duck confit by candlelight is great, certainly, but the ketchup (without needing to ask!), the DVD (for which we weren’t paying an $11.95 room-service charge!), and someone else playing the role of Mom by anticipating everyone’s needs—those are the kinds of amenities that, as parents, we fell in love with.
Justin’s and Jenny’s professional backgrounds in the world of big-name hotels, along with their status as parents (of Toby, 8; Jamie, 3; and Fleur, 1), make them incredibly thoughtful proprietors. The couple met in Hong Kong while working for Mandarin Oriental and later co-managed England’s country-glam Babington House (she ran the spa; he ran the hotel). In 2004, they took over Ballyvolane, Justin’s childhood home, which his parents had been running as an inn. Today, Ballyvolane combines the service of a well-run hotel and the ease of staying with fellow parents who just get it.
During our stay, Jenny and Justin directed us to all the sights they visit with their own kids, sending us off with a picnic lunch or the address of their favorite pub. Ballyvolane is within close driving distance of several castles, medieval towns, and the beach (the area is also a destination for foodies, thanks to its seafood and small farms). On many days, though, we just stayed put. We borrowed wellies and raincoats to explore the grounds, hoping to spot a fox. In the afternoons, my husband fished and I read on the couch while Clara sprinted across the endless lawn with the Green kids and their dogs.
Every evening, we ended up abandoning plans to go out in favor of a night in. On our last day at Ballyvolane, we fed Clara and put her to bed early so we could eat dinner with the other adult guests. We kept a baby monitor at the table, and not a peep came out of it. But just having it there—and getting an understanding look from Jenny when I asked for it—may have been the most luxurious perk of all.
You can fly into Cork, a 45 minute drive from Ballyvolane, or you can do a big Ireland road trip, and include this along the way. We rented a car with a GPS, and everywhere we went, it took at least a third longer than we imagined, with all the windy roads and roundabouts. May to September are probably the ideal months to go, when it’s warmest, but always be prepared for rain.
Each of Ballyvolane’s six rooms can accommodate parents and one child in a crib or cot, and all except the Blue Room have bathtubs. While there are no adjoining units, the Yellow and Big rooms and the Blue and Grans rooms are opposite each other, making them good for larger families.
The honest country fare is made with local and organic ingredients, many from Ballyvolane’s garden. Meals are eaten communally at a big table, creating a real family-party vibe. In the morning, you can opt for muesli and yogurt or a full Irish breakfast (you can even fetch your own eggs). Arrange for picnic hampers or seated lunches the night before. Kids can have an early supper at 5:30 p.m. or eat later with their parents.
It’s a major relief to stay with a family with three kids: They have almost anything you forget to bring—raincoats, toys, etc. You also have full run of the grounds, from the gardens (basically unchanged since the 18th century) to the lakes, where fly-fishing lessons are offered for grown-ups and kids.
Photos: Matthew Hranek