LUXE TRAVEL: WELL CORKED

South-west Ireland is a gourmet destination and more. Kathryn Armstrong makes a visit to find out what it has to offer.
Cork

We’ve been in Ireland just a couple of days and my kids have turned into Jedward. Their ability to mimic the pair is alarming and we sound like we’re living the emerald cliché.

Worryingly, it soon feels normal and the holiday continues in an Irish-American twang. Just as well they are saying nice things.

The South West of the country – Cork being the big city – is where we’re spending a few days.

None of us really knew what to expect – and we are genuinely impressed and surprised. We’ve done coasts and coves, castles and culinary. Something for all.

As ever, the base for the holiday makes all the difference. We are in a resort called Castlemartyr, a 30-minute drive from Cork.

It is one of those places you really don’t have cause to leave; a five-star resort bursting with activities and hugging its own golf course.

There are masses of activities on site from the classy golf course to cycling, a huge pool and a well-equipped, spacious ‘teen zone’ with snooker, air hockey and computers plus squidey sofas and loads of other games.

The hotel boasts a showpiece restaurant offering impressive menus using predominantly local produce. Impressive.

Indeed, the whole place is grand and large-scale. There’s even a ruined castle in the garden – but the recent addition of a super-glossy, glass-walled extension with a stunning spa really cranks up the glam factor. The spa is a definite retreat and has its own infinity pool on the top floor.

As we sit sipping coffee on the terrace in the sun, families play with giant outdoor games and a helicopter lands, causing a bit of a stir.

It’s a really interesting contrast to the UK where in a similar scenario fellow guests might have a sly glance then pretend they weren’t interested.

Here the owner hops out and sits at the terrace while several guests meander over, asking about the helicopter, asking what the guy does (property), and can their kids have a closer look. He obliges. It’s all matey and unaffected, a bit un-British.

Which is the charm of Ireland. The warmth of welcome, the interest people take in you. In a previous hotel our boys spent a couple of evenings at the owners’ house playing football with their son. It’s an unforced friendliness.

I’m not a motorway anorak by any means but the road system benefitted by Euro money is pristine, fast and largely empty, Getting about is effortless.

The euro is not your best friend at the moment and we laughed at the ‘Everything’s 2euro’ pound shops – doesn’t quite trip off the tongue the same way.

There is value for your euro though, especially in terms of food.

The South West area of Ireland is a real gourmet destination. The town of Kinsale in particular, utterly charming and a foodie pull.

The harbour town is mix of Cornwall-meets-Brittany, with cliffs, creeks and rugged outlines. It was in these waters that the Lusitania was sunk. The coast is full of history – from the magnificent Charles Castle guarding the town to the town of Cohb, a short drive away. This is where the Titanic set sail for America. The White Star office is still there, full of atmosphere, memories and hope. It’s home to a fascinating heritage centre and trail, reflecting engrossing real life stories of those who set sail.

But back to the food. The tourist information centre in Kinsale will despatch you with at least half a dozen leaflets showing food trails, culinary destinations, courses and tasting houses.

It’s easy enough to stumble on them by your own means though. We happen upon a place called Fishy Fishy. A terrace restaurant with an appealing mix of al-fresco diners that suggest it’s the place to be. I feel I have achieved a tick in the right box when I tell our food man Terry Laybourne I’ve eaten there and find he really rates it.

We eat the freshest crab claws, seafood chowder and fluffy-battered fish and feel we’ve hit the food jackpot.

But that’s until the next day. A tour of the coastline near to Castlemartyr brings us to  beachside towns like Ballycotton and we even get some bathing in the warm water.

Then we see signs to Ballymaloe cookery school and organic garden. Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe was one of the first cookery schools. She’s a culinary icon in Ireland and her daughter’s Rachael’s face is everywhere endorsing this, that and the other. They are as hi-vis as Jamie Oliver in these parts.

On Saturday afternoon when we arrive at the organic farm and shop it’s pizza day.

In a restaurant that overlooks the lovely fruit and vegetable gardens, we are compelled to feast. Sounds simple enough – pizza, salad. The reality was the best pizza I have ever tasted – rustic, earthy with soft smoky aubergines, sweet tomato sauce and salty Irish blue cheese. Marvellous. The salad alongside a picture in itself, garden-fresh leaves, nasturtium flowers and scattered herbs. Ballymaloe runs daily cookery courses here and I’d certainly recommend booking into one of those should you visit – the demo kitchen looked excellent – and even on pizza Saturday afternoon Darina was overseeing the kitchens. The area is a beautiful one. There are great beaches with fine swathes of sand, cliff-top walks and plenty of bathing waves. There is a real foodie thing going on – Castlemartyr is a couple of miles from the town of Midleton which is home to the country’s oldest farmers’ market every Saturday. You’ll also find the Jamesons’ distillery. Slainte!

Aveika

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