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Hotel Review: This West Cork wonder could teach bigger hotels a thing or two

Green-fingered guests will love the small, family-run Fernhill House Hotel in Clonakilty

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Fernhill House Hotel, Clonakilty, Co Cork

Fernhill House Hotel, Clonakilty, Co Cork

One of Fernhill's newly refurbished rooms with nature-inspired textiles

One of Fernhill's newly refurbished rooms with nature-inspired textiles

Some of the O'Neills celebrate their 'Fab 50' inclusion

Some of the O'Neills celebrate their 'Fab 50' inclusion

A Goatsbridge Trout starter at Fernhill House. photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

A Goatsbridge Trout starter at Fernhill House. photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Fernhill House Hotel and its gardens

Fernhill House Hotel and its gardens

The 'Wild Rose' room at Fernhill House. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

The 'Wild Rose' room at Fernhill House. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

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Fernhill House Hotel, Clonakilty, Co Cork

Fernhill House Hotel doesn’t do fakes.

It’s a thought that strikes me as I move from vase to vase, from kitchen table to lobby displays, smelling ferns and flowers, many plucked from its gardens. They’re all real. Not a plastic plant in sight.

By the time I’ve eaten, drank and slept at the hotel, chatted with staff and taken a garden and history tour with Michael Jr O’Neill, one of the family that owns it, I feel like this no-fake philosophy goes far beyond ferns and flowers.

Local suppliers are listed on menus. I learn that couples getting married are invited to plant apple trees and return to collect their fruit. Staff do not seem weighed down by the world.

“Our country house service is inspired by nature and West Cork,” reads a notice in my room. I’d normally raise my eyes at such platitudes, but here, I make a point of photographing it.

I only stay for one night, but the authentic, unpretentious energy puts a smile on my face. It could teach lots of bigger hotels a thing or two about sustainability.

The rating: 7.5/10

Arrival & Location

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Fernhill House Hotel and its gardens

Fernhill House Hotel and its gardens

Fernhill House Hotel and its gardens

Set on a height just outside Clonakilty, Fernhill seems to have evolved organically from the Georgian house first acquired by the O’Neills in the 1940s. Historic photos and documents pepper the walls, and a family photo of Michael Sr, his wife, Teresa, and their adult children takes pride of place near reception. When Michael Jr replied to an email, he introduced himself as “one of the fourth generation of the O’Neill family at Fernhill”.

That sense of place infuses my stay, from a ‘Fernhill Forest Gimlet’ cocktail made with the hotel’s own gin and Scots pine syrup (€10) to gardens designed by Mary Reynolds, famed as the Chelsea Flower Show’s youngest Gold Medal winner and later for her activism as “a reformed landscape gardener” working with nature and native wildlife.

Here, the gardens veer from wedding photo-friendly spots to wild areas and swirling Celtic motifs to a cherry blossom walk, all cultivated for biodiversity.

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Speaking of weddings, I walked past a venue en route to check in. That put me on edge, as it can be tricky to mix leisure and wedding business in a small hotel. But thankfully, the hotel only does one at a time, with leisure stays mostly reserved for midweek. 7.5/10

Service & Style

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Some of the O'Neills celebrate their 'Fab 50' inclusion

Some of the O'Neills celebrate their 'Fab 50' inclusion

Some of the O'Neills celebrate their 'Fab 50' inclusion

In recent years, the O’Neills have really committed themselves to sustainability, adding solar panels, drawing water from an on-site well, planting trees and reducing single-use plastics.

A new wave of changes followed several lockdown brainstorming sessions. “It was a kind of depressing time, so we wanted to do something positive,” as Michael Jr says. They include room refurbs, revamped menus, an art trail, a new garden gin and “book menu” with the likes of Louise O’Neill, Reynolds’ Garden Awakening, several titles on local hero Michael Collins and one on de Valera (“for balance”) available to buy.

The family are visible and hands-on (Michael Sr stops by to say hello at dinner), and I find the sense-of-place philosophy throughout. There are bottles of Castle Freke Distillery hand sanitiser, and a note on native plants links ferns with “marriage and the secret bond of love”.

Local art mixes with William Morris-style prints — the Victorian textile designer focused on craft during the industrial revolution, says Michael Jr, who finds a parallel in our own search for analogue activities in a digital world.Service is just lovely — from a chatty check-in to back-and-forths with the bartender and a breakfast waitress who listens patiently to my descriptions of how I like poached eggs, somewhere between soft and medium.

“I know just what you mean,” she says. 8/10

The Rooms

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One of Fernhill's newly refurbished rooms with nature-inspired textiles

One of Fernhill's newly refurbished rooms with nature-inspired textiles

One of Fernhill's newly refurbished rooms with nature-inspired textiles

Twenty-seven rooms are named after Irish plants. Mine, ‘Wild Rose’, is tastefully done in deep greens, creams and nature-inspired tapestries and fabrics.

“We’re trying to find the balance, so it’s not too Disneylandy,” I’m told. There are fresh ferns in a vase, old-fashioned prints of wild roses, and none of those mini toiletries still so common in hotels — bathroom products come in refillable dispensers from Ireland’s Handmade Soap Company.

A bath on wooden stands lifts the bathroom a little, but I find the shower door hard to open and the towels to be thinning. You can also book one room with an accessible bathroom (though you’ll need to call for details), and a single room from €75. 7.5/10

Food & Drink

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A Goatsbridge Trout starter at Fernhill House. photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

A Goatsbridge Trout starter at Fernhill House. photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

A Goatsbridge Trout starter at Fernhill House. photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

The first O’Neill to buy Fernhill House was a farmer and butcher, I learn. “Refining the localness” has been a theme of recent changes, and that’s in tasty evidence on the menus. As well as drawing from West Cork’s wicked larder of fish, meats and artisan suppliers, they list garden goodies like wild garlic, apples, nettles and sorrel — a new, dedicated kitchen garden is taking shape too.

Guests can eat in the bar or restaurant. I kick off with a gin-cured Goatsbridge Trout (€9) with apple, fennel and an unusual brown breadcrumb. Served on a pottery plate, it creates a lovely play of textures — though the crunchy fennel is quite dominant.

Other dishes include Macroom buffalo mozzarella with crispy kale and pickled aubergine, locally landed fish and a Clonakilty Ale-braised beef cheek. My main is a Wagyu beef burger from Co Cork butcher Michael Twomey (€18.50). It’s a juicy lump of comfort food lathered with melty cheese and shallot chutney. 7/10

The bottom line

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The 'Wild Rose' room at Fernhill House. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

The 'Wild Rose' room at Fernhill House. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

The 'Wild Rose' room at Fernhill House. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

By nature and design, Fernhill House is a hymn to its hinterland. It’s intimate, old-school in look and feel, and the restaurant was quiet when I stayed midweek — but its creativity and unassuming authenticity saw it make our Fab 50 list of the best places to stay in Ireland this year. As with other small, forward-thinking hotels in the area like the Celtic Ross and Dunmore House, it’s all about unassuming West Cork wow factor. No fake platitudes here.

Insider tip
Pre-book a guided tour of the gardens. Late May and June will, I think, see them at their absolute best.

Local 101
Find more than 25 other gardens to explore on westcorkgardentrail.com

Rates
Doubles from €129 midweek. Pól was a guest of the hotel. fernhillhousehotel.com


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