Tuesday, 12 August 2014
Having travelled the world in his youth, Simon O’Hara is well placed to know there’s no place like home, particularly when home is Coopershill House, the luxury country house hotel in Co Sligo.
Now 45, he began his career working in the City of London only to discover he hated being cooped up indoors. When a friend suggested he apply for a job as a safari guide in Nairobi, he jumped at it, “much to my parents’ concern, what with leaving a steady job and all”.
He spent the next five years driving across Africa, leading overland tours of up to 20 adventurous souls at a time, each looking to get up close and personal with African wildlife. It was, he says, the best job in the world. It was also custom made for him.
“I love open spaces, which is why I hated being in an office. As a safari guide I was driving across the Sahara, with no roads, no tracks, only a compass to guide me and it was terrific fun.”
From there he moved to Mexico, where he set up his own travel business, sending Mexicans on African safari honeymoons and bringing UK tourists on Mayan tours.
He returned to Sligo in 2005, taking over the running of Coopershill House from his parents a year later.
Generational handovers are notoriously difficult but not in this case. “It was actually a very easy transition and, because my parents moved into another house on the property, it was great to be able to ask questions such as ‘Why is this chimney smoking?’ and ‘Why might that light be flashing?’,” he said.
Now in their 70s, his parents went on to set up a thriving venison business on the estate, the end product of which is now on the menu at Coopershill.
The house has been in his family since it was built. “Coopershill is filled with happy childhood memories for me – my grandparents taught me to ride here – and I think what guests appreciate is that, unlike some other big old houses which can be like staying in a cold church, it’s a lovely warm home.”
The atmosphere is warm too. “We get an awful lot of repeat visitors, some of whom have been coming since my grandparents’ time, and what we are told time and again is that, more than a hotel, it is like visiting friends in the country who happen to have a big house,” said O’Hara.
“When you think about it, the place is full of lovely old crystal, antiques and silverware and the fact that no one has ever taken so much as an 18th century silver salt cellar is a testament to that fact – you don’t steal from friends.”
There’s another reason why the house has such a happy atmosphere - it also happens to be where O’Hara met his partner, Christina, an award winning, Ballymaloe trained chef.
“Christina came to work for my mother and was here when I returned from my travels. We always joke that we kept her so busy working she never had time to go and meet anyone else, luckily for me – and our 21month old son!”
Food is another huge part of the appeal for guests here. “It is consistently excellent and fresh. All our muesli, bread and yogurts are homemade, we have our own fresh eggs and of course, the venison sausage on the breakfast menu comes from our own farm.”
Above all, it’s the sense of escape that is most highly prized by guests. “Coopershill is all about the peace and quiet. There are no TVs in the bedrooms. Instead, guests enjoy the freedom and solitude of our 500 acre estate.”
He has added new innovations to the Coopershill experience, introducing, most recently, a half hour hawk walk on the estate for guests. But in the main his mission is all about preserving a recipe for hospitality that has been bringing guests back to this beautiful pocket of the Sligo countryside for generations.
“There are incremental improvements I plan to make, such as clearing lawns down to the river to offer boating. But by and large making very few changes to what we are so lucky to already have here is what is most important to us,” he said.