SUITABLY situated in the heart of Cork City lies a hotel with as much history as it has personality and a healthy dash of luxury to boot.
First opened over 200 years ago, the Imperial Hotel is the city’s first such establishment and it’s one that remains highly regarded as the Grand Dame of Cork.
Steeped in historical importance, its early days saw a river running right outside its South Mall location, allowing merchants to moor their boats at the front door and load their goods into the cellar while they talked business in the upper floors of the building before resting their heads for the night.
One hundred years later it would welcome Irish revolutionary hero Michael Collins, who, unknowingly, spent the last night of his life in the hotel before his assassination in 1922.
Many more important names line the guest book of the unique Cork venue over the years, from author Charles Dickens to anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass and even the Princess Grace of Monaco.
Fast forward many more decades to today and the river has long gone but the importance of the hotel to the city it serves remains.
For little over 18 months the hotel was closed to all but key workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, while its rooms were largely empty, its team remained as busy as ever.
The staff at the Imperial, which is part of the family-run Flynn Hotel group, spent lockdown supporting the community they are so used to welcoming through their doors.
When their regulars couldn’t come to the building – be it for their daily coffee; lunch or dinner - the hotel reached out to them instead, providing a food delivery service, bringing supplies to the doors of their more vulnerable or isolating customers, or simply keeping their spirits up during lockdown with phone calls.
The Flynn family also spent lockdown refurbishing their historic venue.
It’s a listed building so there’s a limit to what they can do.
But they have invested great time and money into restoring some of the most important original features of the property – including an impressive marble floor which reaches right from the entrance through to the lobby and as far back as the ground level goes.
And the result is impressive, as we recently found out.
That grand marble floor is the first great swathe of luxury that greeted us when we visited the Imperial for a short stay in Cork last month.
And it’s an entrance to be reckoned with. One that takes you from the hustle and bustle of Cork – the hotel is, conveniently, just metres away from the shopping district of Oliver Plunkett Street, and a short walk from the must-visit English Market – to a city central haven, which demands you sit back, relax and resign yourself to being waited on hand and foot.
It quickly became apparent that there is luxury and elegance to be enjoyed at every turn in this boutique offering, and at all levels of the hotel, right up to its very rafters.
For that, specifically, we can certainly vouch, as, with our young family in tow, we found ourselves staying in the Penthouse Suite.
Now that is a room with a view.
After exploring the vast apartment – consisting of two large bedrooms as well as a sprawling open plan living, dining and kitchen area – we made our way out onto the rooftop terrace.
This, which wrapped itself around the perimeter of our temporary home, offered a simply stunning panoramic view of the city of Cork below.
To be quite honest we would have been more than content staying put in our penthouse, with that view and those surroundings, for the duration of our stay, as comfortable and homely as it was, but there is so much more to explore within the hotel and the city itself that we dragged ourself away to get out and about to soak it all up.
Here are five reasons why a trip to the Imperial Hotel is something you too should put on your to-do list…
There is more history than you shake a history book at the grand Imperial Hotel.
It dates back to 1813, and as such has welcomed many important historical figures through its doors over the years.
Among them are Princess Grace, JFK, Maureen O'Hara, Michael Collins and Frederick Douglass.
When author Charles Dickens visited Ireland in August 1858, he too paid the hotel a visit.
Dickens was on a book tour that also included England and Scotland, and his fans packed the theatres wherever he read in Ireland.
He travelled to Cork via Dublin and dropped his bags off at the Imperial before going on to read from his works at the Athenaeum, which is now known as the Cork Opera House.
After that he did a private reading at the Imperial Hotel for a few privileged guests.
Upon leaving the city, before which he made a final quick stop to kiss the Blarney Stone, he said of his time there: “Cork was an immense success. We found upward of a thousand stalls let for the three readings. A great many people were turned away too on the last night.”
Over 100 years later, on June 24, 1961, Prince Rainer and Princess Grace of Monaco stayed at the hotel, along with their children, while on their state visit to Ireland.
The hotel admits the occasion was one of their “grandest affairs” to date, which saw thousands of locals flock to the South Mall to catch a glimpse of the royal family, particularly of the Oscar-winning actress turned Her Serene Highness, Grace Kelly.
There are references to those historic occasions and many more to be found throughout the hotel, so look out for them when you visit, or ask a member of the always attentive staff – who will be able to furnish you with all the fascinating details.
Also look out for a delightfully romantic wall in the lobby area which is dedicated to the many couples who have married at the hotel over the years – it features photos of their wedding days displayed against a photo of the happy couples taken more recently when invited back to the hotel to mark their anniversaries.
There is so much on offer when it comes to eating and drinking at the Imperial that it’s hard to know where to start.
The best option? Try everything.
Flagship restaurant Thyme at 76 on The Mall offers a local, sustainable menu with ingredients sourced from the world-famous English Market.
It was a buzzing little nightspot which was full of the chatter and clatter of people delighted to be back out again after an extended period of lockdown when we visited.
From an extensive menu we were more than happy with the choice of Brill with Fennel and a Hazelnut Crust, which was flavoursome, tender and quickly devoured, as well as the signature Thyme Burger, made up of a Hereford beef burger with crispy bacon, crispy onions, Ardsallagh cheddar, jalapeños and a beef tomato in a brioche bun.
The children’s menu was also a winner – boasting all of our brood’s favourites, (think pizza, pasta and chicken nuggets).
And a member of the Thyme team of staff always seemed to be nearby when needed too, to help with those regular extra child-based requests - from more tomato ketchup to more chips and, even, more peas. Yes, they were surprised at that one too.
Elsewhere in the hotel you will find Sketch, the light and airy sister to Thyme, with its Art Deco inspired design and pretty pastel colours.
During our stay this was the venue for breakfast – which is an utterly delightful affair.
Your yoghurts, fruit and pasties are delivered to the table in a birdcage, which was as pleasing on the eye as the food was on the palate.
While you attend to those delectable delights, your cooked breakfast order is taken and then delivered in next to no time.
What more can you ask for really?
With wicker chairs and plentiful floral arrangements, Sketch is an entirely relaxing space in which to eat breakfast.
I would have happily gone back there for lunch, afternoon tea and cocktails too.
To compete the trio of fine eating establishments, at the front of the hotel is Lafayette's Brasserie - a popular spot with Imperial residents and locals alike.
It serves breakfast, lunch, and the hotel’s famous Grace Kelly Afternoon Tea, inspired by the Hollywood star herself, in honour of her brief stay at the hotel in June 1961.
But if you simply want a coffee and a cake this is the perfect spot - take a seat and lose yourself in the grand decor and warm atmosphere that permeates every corner.
Guests of all ages receive a very warm welcome at the Imperial, but particular attention was paid to ensure our children had as luxurious an experience while staying there as we did.
Very cute welcome packs were found on each child’s bed, which included activity booklets, a range of edible treats and also children’s toiletries - a very nice touch, not lost on our six-year-old who proudly displayed her pamper products in ‘her area’ of their shared bathroom.
There was also a strategically placed play tent put up prior to our arrival and a huge teddy bear ready and waiting to go ten rounds with our youngest in the living room.
Our son is only two, so the bear won, of course, but we couldn’t have asked for a softer landing when the usual play-fighting got underway.
More than making our children’s hotel experience entirely comfortable, the Imperial went above and beyond to advise us on local activities that would keep them entertained while showing us all a bit more of what Cork has to offer.
We opted to visit Rumley’s Farm in nearby Liberty Hill, which was only a 15-minute drive from the hotel, and after enjoying a hearty breakfast, we were ready to get out and explore.
The hotel’s always obliging Guest Experience Manager had booked our tickets and given us directions, he even furnished us with individual picnics to take on our outing - which included tasty sandwiches and chocolate brownies made in the hotel’s excellent kitchen, as well as locally produced chocolate bars, crisps and fruit juices.
I mean it was worth leaving the hotel just to eat the picnic, but the farm also proved a great day out.
Rumley’s is a working farm, which comes with all the usual cows, pigs, sheep and goats as well as a few more exotic residents, including llamas, parrots and emu.
There were regular feeding and petting opportunities, which all the children loved, as well as a multitude of play areas as well as tractor rides and go karting on offer too.
It goes without saying that we spent several happy hours there without even trying.
It’s well worth a visit if you are staying in Cork with young ones.
The Imperial is also perfectly located for those who want to indulge in Cork city itself.
There is no need for a car really as its prime position on South Mall puts you directly in the centre of the action.
Whether it’s shopping, sightseeing, socialising, or people watching you are after, you’ll find it right on your doorstep.
A very short walk from the hotel’ s front door is the English Market, which is a good place to start for any or all of the above.
This space is something of a food emporium boasting traders of all sorts offering wares to suit all tastes.
And it’s as much a tourist spot as it is a functioning market.
So, expect to see people like me pottering through its covered lanes slowly taking in all the sights, sounds and smells, alongside resident Corkonians popping in to purchase the items on their shopping list.
Despite the name, the market’s offerings are as Irish at it comes, including locally produced cheese, meats and freshly caught seafood, among the goods lining the stalls.
So why the name?
Well, the Market’s website explains: “The Market was created in 1788 by the Protestant or “English” corporation that controlled the city at that time.
“It was a new flagship municipal market located at the heart of the new commercial city centre.
“When local government was reformed in 1840, and the representatives of the city’s Catholic, “Irish” majority took over, they established another covered food market, St. Peter’s Market (now the Bodega Bar on Cornmarket Street), which became known as the “Irish Market” to distinguish it from its older counterpart which remained associated with its English creators.
“It is thus that the name “English Market” dates from this era of transition.”
So, there you have it.
EXPLORE THE COUNTY
If you’re in Cork for more than just a taste of city life, or passing through while touring Ireland’s south west, the Imperial also offers a great base from which to explore the county.
We were driving when we stayed and so used the opportunity to visit Bantry.
It took us roughly an hour to get there - but the drive through the lush greenery of Cork was so pleasant it felt like no time at all.
Bantry is a picturesque waterside town with a bustling centre built up around the mouth of Bantry Bay.
The waterside is flanked by a row of multicoloured houses, so it couldn’t get more picture postcard worthy, but, while it looks still and serene from afar, it’s actually a working fishing port and a hive of activity.
While there we took a walk to the water’s edge and enjoyed joining the locals in a spot of paddling.
They were better equipped than we, of course, and had pots and lines for crabbing too.
But we had fun watching them make their catches, before throwing them back into the water.
Over in the town centre there is an abundance of places to eat and drink.
Many of them offer views across the bay, and so when the teim came to retire from the water for some refreshment all we had to do was choose a good spot and sit back and enjoy some great local food and a little people-watching.
When our brief visit was over, we headed back to the Imperial.
Following a final night of rest and recuperation, we left Cork the next morning having made many great memories and with a newfound affection for the city’s Grand Dame and all that she had to offer.