As we proceed up the driveway through rolling parkland, I spy the grand country house of Ballyfin for the first time. Set on a gentle slope overlooking a large lake, it is a picture of neoclassical splendour, the stone of its facade and
columns glowing golden in the late-afternoon sun. "It's like something out of Jane Austen," someone in the back of our minivan breathes.
The impression is only enhanced as we pull up outside the house. The smartly dressed staff members are standing to attention, lined up in a row like a phalanx of liveried footmen from a bygone age. Characteristically uncomfortable with grandeur of any sort, I start to giggle and instantly feel every inch the uncouth Australian.
We are welcomed inside by managing director Jim Reynolds, who shows us through some of the rooms on the ground floor, each of them an extraordinarily rich assemblage of ornate architecture and furnishings. There are detailed parquet floors garnished with rugs, plush furnishings offset by plump cushions and a profusion of lamps on every table top, brocade fabrics, indoor plants, oil paintings of serious-faced ancestors, marble pillars, even the occasional suit of armour, all overseen by the most incredibly detailed plaster work on the walls and ceilings.
In the rotunda we take afternoon tea under the domed ceiling while Jim tells us a little about Ballyfin. Originally built in the 1820s for Sir Charles Coote, a baronet, the house was designed by the famous architects Richard and William Morrison. It was the most lavish Regency home in Ireland.
But approximately a century after the house was built, the Coote family's fortunes changed when Ireland won independence in 1921.
Like many aristocratic landowners of the time, Ballyfin's owner Sir Ralph Coote did not see a future for himself in the new Ireland. He sold the house for Â£10,000 and, apparently, moved to Los Angeles.
The buyer was a Catholic teaching order and thus for much of the 20th century Ballyfin was a school. Its grand dining room became the school chapel and many of its rooms were gradually closed off as they fell into disrepair, the order lacking the resources to maintain or heat them.
Jim and his associates, Ballyfin's American owners, entered the frame in the early 2000s. The house was in a poor state so the priests moved their school and sold up to the current owners, a Chicago- based businessman, Fred Krehbiel, and his wife Kay.
Mr Krehbiel was, Jim tells us, looking for a project as he came up to retirement age and had always wanted to own a small hotel. Kay's Irish heritage prompted the couple to come looking in this part of the world.
Restoring Ballyfin must have seemed an insurmountable project. Masonry was crumbling, ceilings sagging and even collapsing, plants choking the rusted conservatory. The whole process took nine years, longer than to build the house in the first place. Jim is coy about the cost of the restoration: "We just say we've done what was necessary," he says.
The hotel opened in 2011. Guests can book just one of the 15 bedrooms or hire the entire house. I probably don't need to say that it is not cheap - starting from €475 ($680) per night for a single room during the week in the low season. It's popular for special birthdays and wedding anniversaries, we're told.
"We wanted it to feel not like a hotel but like the experience of staying in a house like this 100 years ago - as if the family had driven off and you had their home and staff," Jim says.
After we've taken our fill of tea and sandwiches and scones, we're shown up to our bedrooms. I reach for the handle of my suitcase but Jim is way ahead of me. "We do that here," he gently chides. The uncouth Australian blushes pink once again.
I am staying in the Tapestry Room. Formerly Sir Charles Coote's dressing room, all of the walls of the bedroom are luxuriant with 17th-century Flemish tapestries. The towering four-poster bed is hung with heavy yellow drapes and there's a fantastically over-the-top ensuite with a massive bath and slabs of pink marble on just about every surface.
Having settled in, we reconvene downstairs to compare notes on our rooms - they're all quite different but equally extraordinary - before we head next door to the old stables complex, where we will try on period costumes for dinner. That's right: period costumes for dinner.
I'd had my doubts about this particular element of the evening, thinking it pushed things unnecessarily close to pantomime territory. Jim says he would have agreed with me when the idea was first mooted. He thought it didn't sit well with what he describes as "a serious conservation project". However, he assures us, he's come around after seeing how much even sceptical guests enjoy the experience.
We're led into a room decorated like a ladies' boudoir, with racks of dresses hung along each wall and shelving displaying accessories such as hats, fans and gloves. These are a cut above your regular dress-ups, however, as they come from the costume department of the Lyric Opera in Chicago, of which Mr Krehbiel is a staunch supporter. A few of the more daring members of our all-female group head next door to choose from the men's costumes but I decide on a long black gown with a gold-spotted overlay, with a little silky pouch bag and a black feathered headband.
My glasses look decidedly anachronistic with the Regency-style get up but I have to admit I'm quite pleased with the overall effect.
Our costumes are spirited away to be delivered to our rooms for later and we head out for a tour of the grounds. As is becoming apparent, Ballyfin doesn't do things by halves, so our mode of transportation is a horse and carriage, driven by the amiable Lionel (although a few stragglers content themselves with a golf buggy).
Lionel and trusty steed Billy transport us through the grounds, which were laid out in the mid-18th century in the naturalistic style popularised by Capability Brown in England. We come first to a tower standing in an open area of grassland behind the house. While it looks like as if it has been standing here for centuries, perhaps part of some castle or fortification that has long crumbled away, the tower was in fact completed in 1861, a so-called "famine folly" built to provide employment - and thus some relief - during the Great Famine.
I climb the narrow, curving stairway to the top and Lionel tells me it's possible to see six of the Republic of Ireland's 26 counties from up here.
We explore more, visiting the old ice cellar, a rock garden with a waterfall and the walled garden where flowers, fruit and vegetables are grown for use in the hotel.
Lionel drives us around the back of the huge lake, which he informs us is man-made, before we visit a faux-primitive grotto, built in the 18th century by the estate's owners at that time, the Pole family. Home to deer and other wildlife, the grounds cover some 600 acres (242ha), so we've not time to see it all, but I can imagine you could spend many happy days here, exploring on a bike or on horseback.
In keeping with the country house theme, other activities include fishing, croquet, clay pigeon shooting and archery, boating on the lake, tennis and falconry. There are also a gym, indoor pool and spa rooms.
Back in our rooms, we change into our costumes and assemble for a more extensive tour of the house before dinner. Our guide Declan, in common with quite a few staff, went to school at Ballyfin back in the day. "It was quite tough," he says. "You got a good hiding if you were naughty."
When we'd first been shown around the reception rooms, I'd been a little overwhelmed by their grandeur, by how many elements there were to take in - the artworks, the moulded ceilings, the fine furnishings and old books.
Walking around with Declan gives some context to the splendour and it emerges as a kind of living museum as well as a very fine house. There is, for example, a Roman mosaic floor in the entrance hall which was brought home by Sir Charles Coote from his Grand Tour of Europe in 1822. On the wall are the antlers of an elk which, Declan informs us, are at least 10,000 years old.
In the comparatively homely surrounds of the library, he points out the original bookshelves, recessed into the walls, which hold the hotel's collection of more than 5000 volumes. There's the Gold Room, perhaps Ballyfin's most spectacular, which once had gilded plasterwork and walls hung with silk, and the Whispering Room, which has a curved ceiling allowing a whisper to carry between its opposite corners. At the rear, he shows us the conservatory, an elegant structure of iron and glass.
For dinner, we're met by Aileesh Carew, the general manager of the hotel, who has gamely joined us in period costume.
Unusually, dinner - like all meals - is included in the room price here and it is quite spectacular, a succession of delicate, delicious courses prepared by the in-house chef, New Yorker Ryan Murphy, who has previously worked at the Savoy. Produce from the grounds is used as much as possible. Breakfast the following morning is no less excellent.
Afterwards, I pack my suitcase in the Tapestry Room, remembering to leave it for the porter rather than lug it down the stairs myself. It doesn't take long, it would seem, for an uncouth Australian to become accustomed to life in the lap of luxury at Ballyfin.
Gemma Nisbet was a guest of Tourism Ireland.
For more on Ballyfin, go to ballyfin.com.
For information about visiting Ireland, visit ireland.com.