Extra, Extra! Forging a family adventure in Kilkenny

From swinging through treetops to swigging rare whiskey, a break in Kilkenny was all about that ‘something extra’, and it’s easy to see why a travel magazine this week named it ninth friendliest city in the world, writes Gary Quinn

Sat, Aug 10, 2013, 00:00

You probably shouldn’t start a family holiday story with a glass of whiskey, but it was in the Dylan Whisky Bar in Kilkenny that I captured the sense of what we had been enjoying so much all weekend. They didn’t just have my favourite – Mitchell and Son’s Green Spot – they had its 12-year-old brother, Yellow Spot, an Irish whiskey that hasn’t been bottled since the 1950s and is on strict allocation.

I was delighted and sat into a snug and tried to figure out why we hadn’t come to enjoy Kilkenny’s medieval splendour before. We’d been getting this “something extra” throughout our weekend. We always got what we wanted, but somehow everyone was able to offer just that little bit more – and that’s quite a feat in a city that is used to tourists. They could be jaded by the busloads coming through, but Kilkenny people really seem to enjoy the business of tourism.

Kilkenny has more choice and higher standards than we have found in any one Irish town. The night we arrived we walked through the centre to get our bearings. It was a Friday and we were a bit wary for our three children, expecting the kind of stag-night mayhem we’re used to in Dublin. The pubs were packed but the atmosphere on the streets was relaxed, and the medieval alleyways and arches had us circling for a good hour before the kids called it a night.

We stayed at Butler House, in the castle grounds. Being a family of five makes hotels difficult, so finding the superior family rooms in Butler House was great – four beds in our beautiful curved turret room. Once the home of the Dukes and Earls of Ormonde, it has sweeping staircases and wonderful high ceilings. Swallows swooped and cried in the gardens of this dower house, and the bedroom window looked out on to Kilkenny castle.

Waking up in this idyllic location, in the centre of everything, we strolled through the gardens to breakfast each morning at the neighbouring Design Centre, where our children lapped up the terrific choice and great service.

We thought our 10am start the next day was a bit early, but people of in Graiguenamanagh begged to differ: they certainly love their river. By the end of our 25-minute drive through the lush Kilkenny countryside, the River Barrow was in full swing The rowing club was already out on the water, families were setting up along the bank and queues of children and teenagers were pushing the public diving boards to the limit.

Patrick McCormack of Pure Adventure took us paddle boarding (or “SUPing”: stand-up paddling). It is a strange sport – calm and Zen-like.

My youngest daughter took to it like a pro while my eldest found standing on the board a challenge, but she, too, conquered the bizarre feeling of walking on water and we all paddled up river.

McCormack unravelled the story of the Barrow and its nature, landscape and wildlife. Fish darted in the shallows and a family of swans kept watch on our progress.

He also offered tips on how to paddle and turn. Despite its calm rhythm, SUPing turned out to be a terrific workout, like a pilates class.

Back in Kilkenny we had lunch at the smart, modern Pembroke Hotel, in the heart of the city. The view from its rooftop is wonderful, looking down on to the castle grounds. We would have stayed for hours, but we had plans to burn off the calories from the great lunch and go cycling.

Jason Morrissey runs Kilkenny Cycle Tours from the old teahouse on the river. We had heard great things about his group tours through Kilkenny and its history, but we wanted to go it alone. Instead we hired bikes for the afternoon and Morrissey gave us a selection of routes to follow.

We could have headed into the countryside but we wanted something more central. We followed two lovely trails, both traffic-free, along the river, winding through trees and parkland, passing sculptures and fantastic graffiti.

Kilkenny has a name for art and design, but it’s great to find it in such unusual places, such as the huge artwork by Mick Minogue on the underpass of the New Bridge over the river. Taking this concrete intrusion on the landscape and turning it into a canvas is an inspired idea. Never more than minutes from the city centre, we had a terrific afternoon.

Dinner was in the popular Cafe Sol. Its menu, a flavoursome Mediterranean twist on local food, fits perfectly in this medieval town. Children are welcome and the choice great. They also have a bistro in the thriving nearby village of Thomastown.

I had promised my son we would get up close with an alligator, so we headed for the Reptile Village in Gowran, 15 minutes’ drive from Kilkenny.

The sight of so many large reptiles – alligators, huge pythons, cobras and rattlesnakes – in one place, alongside tarantulas and scorpions, was slightly disturbing, but the children loved it.

The animals aren’t there just for show, the staff tell us. The guides get calls every week from members of the public looking for new homes or help caring for their ill-advised pets.

They teach you about the threats to the animals in the wild and then, the most exciting part of the tour, you can watch some of the animals being fed. Want to see a python eat a mouse or hold a snake in your hand? How about sitting beside iguanas?

Nearby Castlecomer Discovery Park, in 80 acres of woodland at the former Wandesforde Estate, comprises forest, lakes and parkland.

The coal-mining exhibit is at the heart of the centre, but taking top billing is the terrifying and exhilarating treetop walk, 10 meters up.

It comprises a series of complicated rope walkways that are as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Safety is paramount, but you can’t help but feel on the edge of terror as you grapple with each new challenge.

Children love it, and adults find themselves laughing with fear. My daughter has a fear of heights and we didn’t expect her to try it. But she’s brave and always pushes herself so when the staff spotted that she wanted to go they did everything to help her complete it.

A staff member went around the course with her, encouraging her, making her figure out every new step and giving a huge boost to her confidence.

The level of professionalism was superb and I would recommend that anyone who has a fear of heights or a lack of self-belief try it out. Or if, like me, you think you’re Superman, give it a go – when you freeze mid-air and need a daughter to talk you through it, your ego will come back to earth with a bang.

Leave some time to visit Jarrow Cafe at the visitor centre. They have particularly good soups, salads and wonderful breads.

In the courtyard are craft shops, and if you’d like to try something a little calmer book a fly-fishing session on the lakes. Open all year, you can hire equipment or have an expert session.

Back in Kilkenny that evening, we finished our trip with dinner at the award-winning Zuni restaurant. With its relaxed fine dining, it’s a special treat. Everything about it is subtle and elegant, from the menu to the service and the decor. (Zuni also has a boutique hotel upstairs and a great cafe bar facing on to the street, each with its own different yet complementary atmosphere. )

The restaurant feels at one with itself, just like we did with the rest of Kilkenny.With so much left to see and do – the Kilkenny Way hurling experience, Dunmore Cave, fishing in Jerpoint Park, the medieval theatrical walking tour, the miniature train city tours, climbing St Canice’s Tower – we’ll return without doubt.

And I still haven’t found any other pub but Dylan’s Whisky Bar that serves Yellow Spot. I’ll be back for that alone.

Follow Gary Quinn on Twitter @theseadroad

Email: gquinn@irishtimes.com



Cafe Sol,
William Street restaurantskilkenny.com,
Tel: 056 776 4987

26 Patricks Street
Tel: 056 7723999

Jarrow Cafe,
Castlecomer Discovery Park, Estate Yard, Castlecomer,
Tel: 056 444 0707

The Dylan Whisky Bar
5 John Street, Kilkenny City, Ireland.
Tel: 056 772 1616

Butler House,
16 Patrick St butler.ie
Tel: 056 7722828

Pembroke Hotel,
11 Patrick Street
Tel: 056 778 3500

SUPing/paddle boarding at
Pure Adventure
Tel: 087 226 5550

Kilkenny Cycling Tours
The Tea Rooms,
Bateman Quay, Kilkenny
Tel: 086 895 4961

Reptile Village
Demesne Road, Gowran, Co Kilkenny
Tel: 056 772 6757

Treetop Walk
Castlecomer Discovery Park, Estate Yard,
Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny
Tel: 056 444 0707

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