Walking through the doors of the Park Hotel in Kenmare always makes you feel like you are going back in time, but since it reopened to guests on Tuesday, it has the atmosphere of another era entirely.
You would be forgiven for expecting to see Jay Gatsby saving you a seat on the gleaming terrace or a jazz band tuning up by the new cocktail bar. Yes, the Roaring 20s are back in one corner of Kerry thanks to an Art Deco renovation of the historic hotel. It’s not a task the Brennans took lightly, they tell me.
In true 'At Your Service' style, John and Francis Brennan are still keeping a watchful eye for any slight imperfections, especially in their own hotel - after all, the hotel's reopening happened just days after the furniture finally arrived following an unavoidable months-long delay due to the pandemic.
During our chat, John readjusts a chain over a painting before a picture is taken out of the room and Francis snips a loose thread from one of the drawing room's curtains, before admitting there is a scuff on a wall over our heads that he doesn't yet know how to remove. It happened when a curtain rail slipped while being installed and left a mark in the new stucco plasterwork that was painstakingly applied by a team of specialised tradesmen flown in from Venice. There are no quick fixes for that, but the overall renovation is a stunning success. It’s not a task the Brennans took lightly, they tell me.
“We embarked on it last October, and it's been in the planning for about five years at this stage,” John says, adding the greatest review of their new look comes from returning guests who sense a difference but can’t pinpoint what changes were made.
“It's really nice. One of our regular guests came in the front door yesterday and walked over to me and said ‘it's much nicer, it's much fresher... What did you do?’ That was absolutely fantastic, music to my ears. It meant we didn't change the place drastically. There's a totally different vibe in the whole house, it's much fresher, much younger. Two people said yesterday that it's actually like a London hotel, which isn’t far from the truth."
Francis adds: “It was funny, we had another lady in for dinner last night and she asked me ‘did you do this room?’ They were the first couple to eat in the room after it had been done from top to bottom.”
During my visit, I had an opportunity to experience that exact feeling. I checked in on Tuesday to review the new-look hotel and, having stayed there before, I had a sense of almost-déjà vu walking into reception.
There is a feeling of it being the same but different - it took me a while to realise the lightness and brightness of the entrance area was not just a result of brighter paint on the walls but some new windows in the hallway that allow light from the dining room to flood the area. The new windows were designed to complement the original glass of the hotel’s front doors and tie in very nicely with the Art Deco setting. The hotel was built in 1897 so their choice to bring that design into the building works well.
“The building itself was built in 1897, just before the Art Deco period so it was quite in keeping with that. To make it lighter and fresher and, as John says, ‘London style’ to a certain extent, and to keep the country feel, it was ideal to do what we did,” Francis says.
The renovations, which cost over €1m, got underway last year after John and Francis finally found an interior designer based in London that they clicked with - and he happened to be from across Kenmare Bay.
“We had spoken to various different architects and interior designers, and none of them spoke the language I wanted to hear,” John says.
“Until we spoke to a lad called Bryan O’Sullivan, who just happens to be from across the bay and has been in the hotel since he was this high, so he knew exactly the history and the market position of the hotel and what was required. He came in and it was just a beautiful collaboration between us.”
O’Sullivan was named Elle Décor Interior Designer of the Year 2020 and his fingerprints can be found on designs in Paris, New York and at Berkeley and Claridge’s hotels in London, so it’s little wonder two of the Park’s regular guests felt like they were in a London hotel.
“A complete transformation and some people didn't notice,” Francis says with a laugh.
The Park’s new lease of life as a country hotel with a city feel will stand to it, the Brennans believe.
“It's very different from what you would normally expect in a hotel of this nature in the country. It gives us an extra edge that is different from anywhere else. That's always important,” John says, noting the restaurant, in particular, has been “totally transformed” and now offers guests equally appealing tables to dine at.
“We would have probably had five good tables in this restaurant before we closed, now there’s 26. There's actually no ‘bad’ table in the restaurant, which is fantastic, because this S shape in the middle creates individual spaces. If you didn't have that, you’d have individual tables in the middle of the room which no one wants to sit at because everyone's looking at you from every angle.”
They transformed the drawing-room, dining room and outdoor terrace and added a champagne bar, wine cellar and a completely new kitchen, which head chef James Coffey tells me he is very excited to use.
The new Morrone kitchen came from Italy and is the first of its kind in Ireland. The kitchen uses both gas and electric heat and Coffey’s joy at his new playground is evident as he shows me each cleverly concealed gadget and gizmo within.
There’s even a chef’s table at the entrance of the kitchen, where guests will have an opportunity to dine for a course or two for special occasions.
From a diner’s point of view, I had no impression later that evening that the dishes we were being served were among the first from that new kitchen. Each arrived promptly with the food on each tasting and looking perfect, no sign of any early days hiccups that might be caused by learning to navigate a new space.
Breakfast too the next morning went off without a hitch. Both full Irish breakfasts were cooked to perfection. Our setting, looking out over the terrace and onto the bay and mountains which unfurled in the foggy haze of the morning, was utterly idyllic. Francis mentioned their afternoon tea will be served on that extended terrace too and I’ve already promised my mother a trip to Kerry for just that on some sunny weekend.
One area not in need of renovating is the hotel’s Sámas spa, where I went during my stay for an hour-long massage as well as a dip in its heated outdoor infinity pool. Truly, I couldn’t have picked a better spot for a relaxing first trip after lockdown.
If my pandemic-induced worries weren’t eased away in the spa, they would have been banished anyway by the warm welcome, safety-first measures and, as always, old-world charm of the Park and its staff, both of which remain as comforting as ever.
John says the important thing for them was that their returning guests are still at ease within the hotel’s revamped areas and he says O’Sullivan worked his magic to ensure that.
“When you sit here in the restaurant, and listen to it, there's a whole feel to the whole place that would not be traditional Park Hotel, but it's very comfortable for everyone who’s here, it's not threatening,” he says.
“That was the greatest thing that Bryan O’Sullivan did from a design point of view, he refreshed the whole hotel but he didn't make it objectionable to any of our regular guests. That's a very hard thing to achieve with the history of the Park Hotel and the clientele that we have here.
“A lot of the clientele wouldn't like change but the first few couples yesterday said ‘Did you do anything to this room?’ That was brilliant, we were delighted. They walk in and say, ‘was that always here on the floor?’ And that's lovely.”