Fernhill House Hotel is no fake.
It’s a thought that hits me as I move from vase to vase, from kitchen table to hall display, smelling of ferns and flowers, many of which are picked from her gardens. They are all real. Not a plastic factory in sight.
At the time I ate, drank and slept at the hotel, chatted with the staff and took a tour of the garden and history with Michael Jr O’Neill, one of the family members who own it , I feel like this non-infringement philosophy goes far beyond ferns and flowers.
Local vendors are listed on the menus. I learn that couples who get married are invited to plant apple trees and come back to reap their fruits. The staff doesn’t seem weighed down by the world.
“Our country house service is inspired by nature and West Cork,” reads my room. I would normally look up at such platitudes, but here I want to photograph it.
I’m only staying one night, but the genuine, unassuming energy makes me smile. This could teach many large hotels a thing or two about sustainability.
Arrival and location
Situated on a rise just outside Clonakilty, Fernhill appears to have evolved organically from the Georgian house first acquired by the O’Neills in the 1940s. Historic photos and documents dot the walls, and a family photo of Michael Sr, his wife, Teresa, and their adult children takes pride of place near the front desk. 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 pervades my stay, from a ‘Fernhill Forest Gimlet’ cocktail made with the hotel’s gin and Scots pine syrup (€10) to the gardens designed by Mary Reynolds, famed as the youngest medalist in gold of the Chelsea Flower Show and later for his activism as a “reformed landscape gardener” working with nature and native wildlife.
Here the gardens go from wedding photo-friendly spots to wild areas and swirling Celtic patterns to a cherry blossom promenade, all cultivated for biodiversity.
Speaking of weddings, I passed a venue on my way to check in. This got on my nerves as it can be difficult to mix leisure and wedding business in a small hotel. But luckily the hotel only does one at a time, with leisure stays being mostly booked mid-week. 7.5/10
Service and style
Over the past few years, the O’Neills have been really committed 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 containment brainstorming sessions. “It was kind of a depressing time, so we wanted to do something positive,” as Michael Jr. says. They include room renovations, revamped menus, an art trail, a new garden gin, and a “menu of books’ 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 for purchase.
Family is visible and convenient (Michael Sr stops by to say hello at dinner), and I find the ethos of a sense of place everywhere. There are bottles of Castle Freke Distillery hand sanitizer, and a note about native plants links ferns to “marriage and the secret bond of love.”
Local art mixes with William Morris-style prints – the Victorian textile designer focused on craftsmanship during the Industrial Revolution, says Michael Jr, who finds a parallel in our own pursuit of analog pursuits in a digital world . The service is just lovely – from a chatty check-in to back and forth with the bartender and a breakfast waitress who patiently listens to my descriptions of how I like poached eggs, somewhere between mild and medium.
“I know exactly what you mean,” she said. 8/10
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 was 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 the company’s refillable dispensers. Irish Handmade Soap Company.
A bathtub on wooden supports lifts the bathroom a bit, but I find the shower door difficult to open and the towels thin. 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 learn. “Refining the local” has been a theme of recent changes, and it’s prominently featured on menus. As well as tapping into West Cork’s ugly pantry of fish, meats and artisan purveyors, they list garden produce like wild garlic, apples, nettles and sorrel – a dedicated new vegetable garden takes also shape.
You can eat at the bar or in the restaurant. I start with a Goatsbridge Trout with gin (€9) with apple, fennel and unusual brown breadcrumbs. Served on a pottery plate, it creates a lovely play of textures – although the crunchy fennel is quite dominant.
Other dishes include Macroom buffalo mozzarella with crispy kale and marinated eggplant, locally landed fish and braised beef cheek in Clonakilty Ale. My main course is a Wagyu beef burger from butcher Michael Twomey in Co Cork (€18.50). It’s a juicy piece of comfort food covered in melty cheese and shallot chutney. 7/10
The bottom line
By nature and design, Fernhill House is a tribute to its hinterland. It’s intimate, old-fashioned, and the restaurant was quiet when I stayed mid-week – but its creativity and unassuming authenticity made it our Fab 50 list of the best places to stay in Ireland This year. As with other small, edgy hotels in the area like the Celtic Ross and Dunmore House, this is West Cork’s unassuming wow factor. No fake platitudes here.
Pre-book a guided tour of the gardens. Late May and June, I think, will see them at their best.
Discover over 25 other gardens to explore on westcorkgardentrail.com
Doubles from €129 midweek. Pól was a hotel guest. fernhillhousehotel.com