Cork is Ireland’s largest county, stretching east to west along much of the island’s southern coastline. It is jagged and uneven, interrupted by islands and peninsulas which slide like fingers into the Atlantic. It is a charming and beautiful place. Cork may be known as the Rebel County, but there is nothing rebellious down here. Celebrities mix with Germans, Australians, Americans, British and a patchwork of other nationalities. They are, no doubt, drawn by the relaxed pace of life, the scenery, the food and the outstanding hospitality of those who have lived here for generations.
The town of Bandon bears the inviting title of ‘The Gateway to West Cork’ yet it is 30 kilometres to the west, in Roscarberry, where the beauty of the region starts to invade your senses. Rolling hills and the shimmer of lakes accompany your journey as you drive west towards Skibbereen, the coast and the heartland of west Cork. From here, the wonders of West Cork are within easy reach.
1. Liss Ard Estate
Liss Ard is as relaxing a luxury hotel as you could ask for. There are no airs or graces, just an atmosphere you can lose yourself in. There’s even an honesty bar. Liss Ard is a lot more than a hotel, however, as it boasts a 50 acre lake and 200 acres of woodland which are open to the public. It also boasts a rich history, dating back to the 1860s… yet it is the 1970s that prove most illuminating. Purchased by Colonel Albert Bachman, a Swiss spy, he proceeded to prepare Liss Ard for the day when the Swiss government might have to go into exile. An intriguing thought and he couldn’t have picked a quieter, more picturesque spot.
Liss Ard combines the refinement of the Victorian era with the chic of today’s mod-cons, without ever being anything but guest friendly. It is not a big hotel and 10 of the 25 rooms are in the separate Victorian Lake Lodge. Set deep in the woods and overlooking Lough Abisdealy, the entire lodge can be rented if added privacy is desired. It has proved very popular with wedding parties and with numerous celebrities.
In its 200 acres of grounds you will find the Irish Sky Garden. Some 50 acres of woodland were devoted to this imaginative project designed by James Turrell. It includes a man-made Crater, which explores the relationship between light and the earth.
This is a very child-friendly and family-focused place, where activities and facilities are designed with the family in mind. Step into the front porch and you’ll discover an assortment of multi-coloured boots, walking sticks and jackets, all of which can be borrowed as you venture forth on foot, on bicycle or on horseback. There are many activities to be pursued, both within the grounds and further afield.
Festivals have become a part of the fabric of the West Cork community and one of its biggest attractions. Local towns and villages take the opportunity to show off the best the area has to offer, while also attracting an international audience. The Film Festival in Schull is particularly noteworthy, for Schull doesn’t even have a cinema. It certainly makes it different, yet it attracts the likes of Jim Sheridan, Steve Coogan and Greg Dyke.
Not surprisingly, festivals embrace music, literature, art and food. West Cork is rich in all of these.
Liss Ard hosts a two-day music festival in August, with free camping on the grounds. This is a far more intimate occasion than the massive music events now in vogue. It is a lot more civilised, too, and performers in 2012 included Chic, Lisa Hannigan and Mick Flannery. There’s even a Literary Stage and a focus on local food.
Baltimore, a few miles from Skibbereen hosts the Seafood Festival, and is also home to the enthralling and boisterous Fiddle Fair in May, which sees the greatest Celtic fiddlers perform around the town.
In Bantry, a market town 20 miles to the north west, the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, Masters of Tradition Festival and West Cork Literary Festival keep visitors happy on the shores of Bantry Bay.
Skibbereen itself has plenty to offer, from the Maid of the Isles and Busking festivals, to A Taste of West Cork Food. Roscarbery has the Irish Arts and Literature Festival; Bandon has a music festival, while Clonakilty goes one better with its International Guitar Festival. There’s even a Storytelling Festival on the island of Cape Clear.
Put another way, there’s always a celebration going on – you just have to find it.
3. Food (Part 1)
Artisan food is a specialty in these parts and local producers are treasured. Indeed, West Cork’s local produce is legendary and luxury hotels, restaurants, small pubs and even cafes are passionate about using these ingredients.
Visitors can experience this passion for themselves, thanks to West Cork Food holiday breaks. These take you on a cross-country food trail to visit different artisan producers, watch experts at work, learn new skills and enjoy the hospitality and the food that make West Cork such a wonderful place to stay. If you prefer, you can do it all yourself, dropping into producers to learn about smoking fish, making cheese, brewing craft beer, raising livestock and finishing it off with an indulgent dose of chocolate.
Many of the artisans also sell to an international audience: Sally Barnes’ Woodcock Smokery supplies top international restaurants and her smoked salmon was awarded Best Speciality Product, Best Fresh Product and Supreme Champion in the Great Taste Awards, which is regarded as the ultimate recognition for food producers in the UK and Ireland. She is as passionate today about the quality of West Cork food as she was when she started three decades ago. That enthusiasm has spread and West Cork is now a hive of artisan food producers.
You’ll also find these producers represented at the 30 weekly food markets around the county. There’s always lots of food to sample so make sure you go with an appetite.
4. Food (Part 2)
West Cork is awash with places to eat, making it a food lover’s ideal destination. There is an emphasis on cooking with local produce (see above) and freshly caught fish. Perhaps what is most delightful is walking into quiet, innocuous-looking pubs to be served food you’d expect from a first class restaurant, but with none of the formality. Eat your food at a table or at the bar and pass the time of day with the locals. There are many excellent restaurants too, but what makes eating in West Cork so special is the chance encounters. Nowhere is this more aptly demonstrated than at Mary Ann’s in Castletownshend, on Castle Haven Bay. The village is attached to the world by one of the steepest streets you’ll find and a ski lift wouldn’t go amiss. Halfway up the hill is a small, quaint looking pub that has changed little in 160 years. Inside, with its low ceilings and warm embrace, you will experience a meal that lives long in the memory. Framed awards on the wall show what Fergus and Patricia (the chef) O’Mahony have achieved in this enchanting spot, while photographs bear testimony to the allure of the place. Kevin Costner and Arnold Palmer make for an eclectic mix, but one you can observe as you are served fresh tempura prawns, West Cork lamb or seared scallops. You’ll need to keep room for dessert, though: the chocolate pecan pie should be locked up it’s so sinful.
Mary Ann’s is but one example. According to the Bridgestone 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland, seven reside in West Cork, testimony to the area’s love and art of good food… and great chefs. Glebe Gardens and Casey’s of Baltimore, The Good Things Café in Durrus, Nolans and O’Callaghan Walshe in Roscarberry, Deasy’s Harbour Bar in Clonakilty, The Fish Kitchen in Bantry… the list is as lengthy as it is impressive.
Coastal locations always have that certain wild charm, and West Cork is wilder than most. Jagged peninsulas, enchanting bays, cliff tops and roaring surf. It has a beauty that breathes air into the soul. Only the pretty beaches and islands counter that fabled Irish ruggedness. Even inland, every corner you turn and every road bend you navigate reveals lush landscapes and rolling hills.
West Cork is also blessed with colourful, picture-postcard villages and towns. The heart of places such as Skibbereen, Bantry and Clonakilty reveal a charm and pride that has remained for generations, while Baltimore, Glandore and Castletownbere epitomise Ireland’s deep relationship with the sea.
The region’s three large peninsulas jut out into the Atlantic, each as enchanting and mesmerising as the next. Here there is a sense of isolation, with Sheep’s Head particularly peaceful. The Beara peninsula, to the west, is more mountainous and populated but the 121-mile loop, known as the Ring of Beara, rivals any beauty spot in the country. The route lingers along the coastline and skirts the craggy Caha Mountains, promising captivating views whichever way you look.
Roads are of the quiet, country variety so take your time to enjoy the coves and beaches bathed in solitude. Lighthouses rise along the ocean’s edge, promising the most striking and remote vistas of all. Bright, tall and white they contrast sharply with the blue seas beyond and the barren green landscape at your back.
Other roads take you into the heart of nowhere, while some take you 2,000 years into the past. The Drombeg Stone Circle, east of Glandore, dates back to 900 BC. Thirteen stones still rise from the earth and it is here that ritual ceremonies took place. It is one of Ireland’s best preserved circles and the magical setting, overlooking rolling fields and sea views, adds greatly to its mysticism.
With its beauty, coastline, history and raft of activities there is plenty for the family to enjoy, but, most of all, West Cork promises a people who are as relaxed as they are welcoming. Having you visit their part of the world is a pleasure… and, like so many others, you might never leave.
Kevin Markham is Owner of the Golf Courses Ireland.