We've all had the experience of being inspired to visit a place by gorgeous photographs, and then being hugely disappointed by the reality. There's the "perfect" beach, only the brochure shot didn't include the adjacent power station; or the wonderful hotel, whose website doesn't include the grotty room with the view of the car park. But there are still places that live up to their images, and one of these is the Giles Norman Townhouse in Kinsale.
If anyone can beguile with a photo, it’s Norman, whose talents in black and white photography have made a name for him around the world. And if anywhere is pretty much picture-perfect wherever you look, it’s Kinsale, the first stop on the Wild Atlantic Way (travelling from the south). Add the two together, and you’ve got a winning combination.
Together with his wife, Catherine, who runs the business side of things, Norman has worked with Ventura design to transform the top two floors of a classic Kinsale townhouse into just four charming and elegant sleeping spaces, three of which have views of the town's pretty harbour. The best of these is at the very top, where the Studio runs the length and width of the building, with exposed wooden beams, sloping ceilings, a thick thick carpet, and the softest of beds.
It’s a seductive symphony in brown, grey and blue; and touches such as Giles’s own photographs on the walls, the little sachets of bath crystals from nearby Rain, or the hi- vis jacket in the cupboard should you want to take a night-time walk add to the feeling that everything has been thought of. If you like what you see, Ventura have a showroom below, which is open by appointment (ventura.ie).
I grab the jacket, as dusk is falling, and we’re walking around the harbour and over to Scilly for a drink at the cosy Spaniard, followed by dinner at Man Friday, a Kinsale stalwart (manfridaykinsale.ie).
There’s a lively atmosphere and a warm welcome in each, and after burying ourselves in delicious crab, oysters and turbot we decide to walk it all off, and wander further along the Scilly path to Summercove for a nightcap at The Bulman.
In the morning I’m struck by how peaceful it is. I’m right in the centre of town, and yet it’s beautifully quiet. I peer out of the window, and soak up the harbour scene. The Townhouse isn’t quite a B&B, instead you’ll find a Nespresso machine, coffee pods, teas and a supply of biscuits in your room.
This will keep you happily going until you can bring yourself to venture out – which could take some time as it’s just so damn nice inside. Still, once you do step into the street you’re immediately spoiled for choice with a range of fetching cafés.
Kinsale is so picturesque it seems to be screaming to be photographed. Helpfully, Norman has come up with five walking itineraries, complete with suggested pit stops for coffee, snacks and pints, and suggestions of the best places to capture the landscape on camera.
Which is Norman’s own favourite?
He thinks for a while, before opting for the lower road to The Bulman, which we had walked that evening. It is pretty spectacular in daylight as you get views of Kinsale, Charles Fort and James Fort, and the dramatic sweep of the harbour, which must have been a welcome sight to sailing ships of old after having crossed the stormy seas.
Gourmet hot spot
Today Kinsale is a haven for sailors, and also a gourmet hot spot, and Catherine lists the excellent restaurants, from Man Friday, to Bastion, the Black Pig to The Bulman, and that’s before we even get to the famous Fishy Fishy.
Does Norman ever find the landscape too beautiful, I wonder?
While admitting that it’s a challenge to refresh his eye, he says that it’s often the photographs he didn’t expect to work that come out the best.
He came to this part of the world at the age of 15. “I love Kinsale, I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he says. It was a school project on which he was given the role of photographer that started him off. “I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t done that,” he says in his softly spoken voice.
Self-taught, Norman is generous with his photography tips, such as realising that what to leave out is as important as what you put in. It’s a successful method as his Kinsale photography gallery celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. There’ll be some new editions, an exhibition of his work at Cork Airport. And a party, of course a party. The luckiest guests will get to stay at the Townhouse, I’m sure.
gilesnorman.com. Rooms a the Townhouse cost from €140 per night to €225 for the Studio.