Fernhill House Hotel does not make fakes.
This thought occurs to me as I move from vase to vase, kitchen table to lobby display, smelling ferns and flowers, many of which have been plucked from the gardens. they are all real Not a plastic plant in sight.
As I’ve eaten, drank, and slept at the hotel, chatted with the staff, and taken a garden and history tour with Michael Jr. O’Neill, one of the owner family, I feel like this no-fake philosophy stretches far beyond of ferns and flowers.
Local vendors are listed on menus. I learn that couples who marry are invited to plant apple trees and come back to gather their fruit. The staff don’t seem burdened by the world.
“Our country house service is inspired by nature and West Cork,” says a notice in my room. Normally I would raise my eyes at such platitudes, but here I make a point of photographing it.
I’m only staying one night, but the authentic, unpretentious energy puts a smile on my face. It could teach many larger hotels a thing or two about sustainability.
Arrival & location
Perched on a hill just outside Clonakilty, Fernhill appears to have evolved organically from the Georgian house first acquired by the O’Neills in the 1940s. Historical photos and documents line 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 in Fernhill.”
That sense of place pervades my stay, from a Fernhill Forest Gimlet cocktail with the hotel’s own gin and Scots pine syrup (€10) to gardens designed by Mary Reynolds, famous as the youngest gold medalist at the Chelsea Flower Show and later for her Activism as a “reformed landscape gardener” working with nature and native wildlife.
Here the gardens alternate from locations conducive to wedding photos to wild areas and swirling Celtic motifs to a cherry blossom trail, all cultivated for biodiversity.
Speaking of weddings, I walked by a venue on my way to check in. This made me nervous as it can be difficult to mix leisure and wedding business in a small hotel. But thankfully the hotel only does one at a time, with holiday stays mostly reserved for midweek. 7.5/10
service & style
In recent years, the O’Neills have truly embraced sustainability, adding solar panels, sourcing 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 depressing time, so we wanted to do something positive,” says Michael Jr. This includes room renovations, revamped menus, an art trail, a new garden gin, and a “book menu” featuring artists like Louise O’Neill, Reynolds’ garden awakening, several titles about local hero Michael Collins and one about de Valera (“For the Balance”) available for purchase.
The family is visible and hands-on (Michael Sr stops by to say hello over dinner) and I find the sense of place philosophy throughout. There are bottles of hand sanitizer from Castle Freke Distillery, and a reference to native plants links ferns to “marriage and the secret bond of love.”
Local art mixes with prints in the vein of William Morris – the Victorian textile designer focused on craft during the Industrial Revolution, says Michael Jr., who finds a parallel in our own quest for analogue activity in a digital world. The service is just lovely – from a chatty check-in to walking back and forth with the bartender and a breakfast waitress patiently listening to my descriptions of how I like poached eggs, somewhere between soft and medium.
“I know exactly what you mean,” she says. 8/10
27 rooms are named after Irish plants. Mine, “Wild Rose,” is tastefully decorated in deep greens, creams, and nature-inspired tapestries and fabrics.
“We’re trying to find the balance, so it’s not Disneylandy,” I was told. There’s fresh ferns in a vase, vintage wild rose prints and none of those mini toiletries still so common in hotels – bathroom products come in refillable dispensers from Ireland’s Handmade Soap Company.
A bathtub on wooden stands lifts the bathroom up a bit, but I find the shower door difficult to open and towels thinning. You can also book a room with an accessible bathroom (but you’ll have to call for details) and a single room from €75. 7.5/10
The first O’Neill to buy Fernhill House was a farmer and butcher, I understand. ‘Refining locality’ has been a theme of recent changes, and that’s a tasty testament to the menus. Not only do they draw from West Cork’s wicked pantry of fish, meat and artisanal suppliers, but they also feature garden goodies like wild garlic, apples, nettles and sorrel – a new, dedicated kitchen garden is also taking shape.
Guests can dine in the bar or in the restaurant. I start with a gin-smoked Goatsbridge trout (€9) with apple, fennel and an unusual brown breadcrumbs. Served on a ceramic plate, it creates a beautiful play of textures – although the crispy fennel is quite dominant.
Other dishes include Macroom buffalo mozzarella with crispy kale and pickled eggplant, locally sourced fish and Clonakilty ale braised beef jowl. My main course is a Wagyu beef burger from Co Cork butcher Michael Twomey (€18.50). It’s a succulent lump of comfort food lathered with melty cheese and shallot chutney. 7/10
The final result
By nature and design, Fernhill House is a hymn to its hinterland. It’s intimate, looks dated, and the restaurant was quiet when I was there midweek — but its creativity and unassuming authenticity have made it ours Fab 50 list of the best places to stay in Ireland this year. Like other small, forward-thinking hotels in the area like the Celtic Ross and Dunmore House, this is all about West Cork’s unassuming wow factor. No false platitudes here.
Book a guided tour of the gardens in advance. I think by the end of May and June they will be at their absolute best.
Visit westcorkgardentrail.com for over 25 other gardens to explore
Double room from €129 during the week. Pól was a guest of the hotel. www.fernhillhousehotel.com
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/ireland/hotel-review-this-west-cork-wonder-could-teach-bigger-hotels-a-thing-or-two-41531564.html Fernhill House Hotel Review: This West Cork wonder could teach bigger hotels a thing or two