A taste of the tropics


GO IRELAND: For gardeners, the best holidays are a combination of eats, shoots and leaves, not to mention flowers. At this time of year, you can find them in the subtropical south-west, writes SANDRA O'CONNELL

SPRING AND GARDENS go hand in hand, so if you’re planning a short break in the coming weeks, head for Cork and Kerry. Thanks to various microclimates enjoyed here, spring often comes that bit earlier, which means you’re in for a blooming good time.

In the gardens of the five-star The Dunloe hotel ( thedunloe.com) in Killarney, for example, you can walk around the world in an hour thanks to Chilean fir trees, Australian gums, South African lilies, Japanese maples and North American dogwoods.

The gardens have been laid around the shell of a medieval keep, in a dramatic setting with views of the Gap of Dunloe and, at this time of the year, a flourish of camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons.

The hotel currently has a two night BB package, including dinner and a guided tour of the gardens, for €207 per person sharing, including complimentary horse- riding, indoor tennis and fishing on the River Laune.

Further round the Ring, check out Ard na Sidhe Country House ( ardnasidhe.com), a sister property which reopens for the season this Sunday, and not a minute too soon for garden lovers. The beautiful medieval-style house (it was built in the early 20th century) sits amid 32 acres of hidden pathways and secret glades, giving way to the lake and mountains beyond.

The name translates as Hill of the Fairies, and certainly the gardens are of fairy-tale kind. Originally designed by Lady Edith Gordon, a keen gardener, traveller and writer, her spectacular rock garden is still a central feature. Make the most of them with afternoon tea on the terrace, or BB rates starting at €80 a night.

For something even more special, head for Garnish Island ( arnishisland.com) in Bantry Bay. Access is via boat boarded at the pier in Glengarriff, which brings passengers out past a small seal colony, before arriving at what has to be one of the most beautiful gardens in the country, with stunning specimen plants many of which you wouldn’t think could survive our climate. On a sunny day you could think you’d been whisked to Capri.

The 15 hectare gardens here are the result of a creative partnership between an architect and a garden designer, Annan Bryce and Harold Peto.

The fruit of their labours was bequeathed to the Irish people in 1953, and a very nice gift it makes too, complete with clock tower, Greek-style temple and Martello tower, possibly the country’s first.

The island is open to the public from March to October and while it is at its most dramatic in May and June, as the rhododendrons and azaleas reach a crescendo, it is planted in such a way as to have fresh shows of colour throughout the period, including a terrific autumn display of heathers.

If it’s a more wilderness experience you’re looking for, back on the mainland is Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve ( glengariffnaturereserve.ie), a 300-hectare oak forest that in recent years has been cleared of non-native conifers. At one time the woods were part of Lord Bantry’s estate and you’ve a couple of options open to you if you want to enjoy them.

First up is Glengarriff Lodge ( glengarriff-lodge.com), a former hunting lodge and now a luxury villa right in the thick of it which has been beautifully restored and is available to rent. Capable of accommodating up to eight people, rates range from €1,600 to €2,400, with three-day mid-week special offers from €450.

If you fancy having someone else do the cooking, nearby Bantry House is a terrific alternative and one which comes with 18th-century formal terraced gardens so beautiful that, alone, they well reward the visitor. But of course you can stay here too, with BB accommodation available in the East Wing of the house from April to October and per-room prices starting at €169 a night based on two sharing.

If you have the car, don’t leave the region without visiting Kells Bay Gardens ( kellsgardens.ie), on the northern slopes of the Ivereagh Peninsula overlooking Dingle Bay. The 17-hectare plot is a showcase for southern hemisphere exotic plant species, with trails through its Primaeval Forest, Ladies’ Walled Garden, Palm Garden and Bamboo Glade.

Kells House is yet another former hunting lodge, this time of the Blennerhassett family, and has a tea room for visitors. If however you fancy staying over and having the gardens all to yourself, book one of its three self catering apartments, each of which has its own access to an adjacent blue flag beach, via a 200m walk through the Palm Gardens. Rates from €395 a week.