Conor Pope’s staycation diary: ‘It’s like I’m staring at a Polaroid of my childhood holidays’
Our reporter and his family discover the highs and lows of holidaying at home
A summer’s day in Kinsale: Photograph: Conor Pope
“Stupid Covid. I should be in Portugal, ” I think morosely as I stare at my overflowing suitcase and wonder what I’ve forgotten to pack for my week-long family holiday to Kinsale, my first proper break at home since the 1980s.
Packing for sun holidays is simple – shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops and you’re away. But now I’m fighting to close a case full of jumpers and trousers and wellingtons and actual shoes as well as coats and all the shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops. Stupid Covid.
With every conceivable space in the car wedged with luggage, toys and food – do they not have pasta in Cork, I wonder – we hit the road just in time for everyone to be staaaarving, so have to find food and with most restaurants along the way shut (thanks again, Covid), we eat on a grassy knoll outside an ugly petrol station. It’s more fun than it sounds.
The sun was shining as we left Dublin but in Cork storm clouds gather infuriatingly. The only reason we’re here is the promise of sun. Two weeks previously I’d looked up the longish weather forecast. Kinsale had the most promising forecast but now it’s cold and damp.
We park outside our holiday rental and find the combination-locked metal box containing the key. I enter the code. Nothing happens. I fiddle with the lock as my wife unloads the car onto the footpath. Minutes pass. The key box stays shut. Mist falls. We call the host who says she’ll send someone around.
More minutes pass. Then the someone sent around phones to see where we are. Turns out she’s at the right house and we’re at the wrong one. Right house number mind you, right door colour, right neighbourhood. It even has one of the key box things. But it is still the wrong house. What are the odds?
As the rest of the Popes walk around the corner to the right house I repack the car like a Tetris wizard and drive after them.
Darkness is falling so we race down Kinsale’s Stoney Steps to Dino’s chipper for fish and chips and onion rings. When we decant them in our new home, they’ve forgotten the onion rings. I’m devastated but too hungry to go back.
The day starts with food in the Lemon Leaf – our first visit to a restaurant since February. Not having ordered off a stranger in months, I panic and screw up, ending up with sweet potatoes and salad. I push the wholesomeness around my plate and eye all the sausages and chips with sad envy.
Then we wander the streets aimlessly for a bit, daring to go into a couple of shops. The mood is weird, with Kinsale stripped of its overseas tourists, leaving a handful of us Irish dancing around each other in doorways.
I’m quietly panicking about how we’re going to fill the day when my wife suggests we walk the 3km to Charles Fort. As we climb the hill we stare nosily into the big glass boxes the well-heeled folk have built on the coast and try and stop the Toddler Pope climbing the walls into their gardens. Eventually we get to the top of the hill just as the sun scatters the clouds. The fort is closed so we wander the walls outside before heading back.
We stop at the Bulmen, order tea and cakes and a pint of stout, the head of which is blown into the sea by a gale before I get to taste it. It’s still glorious. We walk back along the Scilly Walk and marvel at the shimmering water below. Kinsale looks magical at this moment.
Having brought our fridge on holidays with us – or at least its contents – we eat in and go out for ice cream. There’s none to be found. Stupid Covid.
The sun is still with us so we go to the beach for a looksee. Garrettstown is buzzing with swimmers and rock pool explorers and families sheltering behind windbreakers eating hang sangwiches and drinking flasks of tea. It’s like I’m staring at a Polaroid of my childhood holidays.
I look over my shoulder and see the Pope children racing towards the water in various states of undress. The sea is cold and I do well – I think – to get in up to my knees.
I ask a local about the wetsuits her children have. She tells me they came from Dunnes in Clonakilty so when the swim’s done we head off on a quest.
It ends in failure. We drive the 20 kilometres to Clonakilty, but they’ve no wetsuits left. We go in search of food and find a pleasant cafe called Arís. Only dessert is on the menu, so we have cake for lunch. The waitress tells us about the chancer who was just in looking for a piece of pavlova and six pints. I park my plan to order pint with my carrot cake.
Heading back towards Kinsale we’re diverted by a sign pointing to Inchydoney. It’s windy there but the sun is shining. Seconds after hitting the beach I’m overcome by madness and before I can say stop I’m in my boxers racing into the water.
“How cold can it be?” I think as the sea closes in on me.
Really, really cold. Heart-stoppingly, breathtakingly cold. I plunge head first into a wave. I swim for 15 seconds and race back to shore at which point I realise I’m standing shivering on a beach in Cork in my underwear with only a wisp of a towel to protect my modesty. I’m glad this bit of the beach is quiet.
We dress as best we can and head home to the promise of more fish and chips and the chance to regain onion rings lost.
While everyone else goes to the playground I join a long queue outside the chipper. I’m mindlessly scrolling through Instagram when a young woman comes down the line taking orders. Four fish and chips, mushy peas and two portions of onion rings I say, with a stern look that, I think, says “You better not forget the onion rings this time.”
Long minutes pass. Then another woman comes down the line asking who was it who ordered the four fish.
I raise my hand, delighted to be getting special attention and – hopefully – fast tracked to the top of the queue.
“We won’t have any fish left by the time we get to you,” she says.
Panicked, I go in search of my playing family. I break the news and watch helplessly as their faces crumple. My wife meanwhile has disappeared. Moments later I get a text. “In Fishy Fishy. Food ordered and paid for.” I could have married her all over again at that moment.
She reappears with takeaway boxes full of some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted and for not much more than I was about to pay.
The phone gods tell us the day will be windy so, inexplicably, we head for the most exposed part of the neighbourhood: the Old Head of Kinsale. We start at Garrettstown where the dream of another impromptu swim is crushed by waves crashing against rocks. Even the surfers look scared.
Only kidding. The sentries at the gate could scarcely have been less welcoming had we been carrying a suitcase labelled “Covid Spores” on the car bonnet. We are sent on our way with suspicious eyes watching as we turn and drive into the fog.
It’s our last night in the rental house before we move for two nights to a hotel nearby, so we order too much Indian food for dinner.
We move from the Stoney Steps to the Old Bank Town House, part of the Blue Haven Collection. It’s a delight, lovely staff, lovely food and wouldn’t you know a bank would have the best location in town.
After check-in – and with more rain promised – we go foraging with Suzanne Burns who runs Kinsale Food Tours. We arrange to meet her at a beach called Sandycove, which we key into Google maps. It takes us 15 minutes along the coast to a sharp turn off and a cranky sign.
“THE SATNAV IS INCORRECT. PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO THROUGH ROAD,” it shrieks, offering nothing by way of directions to Sandycove which, as it happens, is just around the bend.
Suzanne is nicer than the sign. She talks about the seaweed at our feet and their magical properties and takes us on a mountain walk past all manner of medicinal bushes and flowers. Whether the plants can do all she says they can is open to question. One shrub apparently “cures” male pattern baldness but if it did I reckon I’d have heard of it by now. There’s no question that she makes the tour engaging and entertaining. And at the end she gives us amazing chocolates and seaweed butter. So, what’s not to love about that?
The night sees our return to Fishy Fishy. Normally when the Pope family order food there are winners and losers but Fishy Fishy’s starters are so good everyone’s a winner. It was even Stevens between the calamari, the crab claws, the lobster bisque and the chowder and there wasn’t much between the tuna and lobster mains either. I had to be rolled home.
Finally I’m starting to get the hang of holidays at home. The key is all-weather planning. The morning is spent kayaking at the Oysterhaven Activity Centre. The place is well run with all the Covid safety measures seamlessly integrated.
I pour myself into a wetsuit, as do the other Popes, and we head out in the water, scoffing at spitting rain. I do a ‘moonwalk challenge’ which requires me to run about 20 paces along a green inflatable barrel before diving elegantly into the crystal clear water. I manage one step before bellyflopping into the sea.
Our water guide Tim asks if I fancy being flipped off a swimming deck into the sea while sitting in my kayak. “Sure why not,” I say. He pushes my boat in. I nose dive. And tumble out of my boat. With flip flops in one hand, paddle in the other I struggle to right my kayak.
Conscious of social distancing, Tim asks if I’d mind if he grabbed my buoyancy aid to help me out of the water. Mind? If he hadn’t helped me I’d still be in the sea today.
Hours later and we’re back on water for the Spirit of Kinsale harbour cruise. With the sun shining and a gentle breeze blowing, it’s a pleasant way to pass an hour, even if the Toddler Pope thought she was Kate Winslet in Titanic.
It’s our last night so we go to Hamlets in the Blue Haven. The hotel used the lockdown to reinvent the restaurant and have gone with food truck theme. It works brilliantly. The outdoor spaces are sheltered and heated and there is loads of room for different groups . There are burgers, fries and delicious sundaes all around.
The car is even fuller as we leave, but we still make good time and are on the road well before lunch. We are in Cork gawping at the Bishopstown house this Pope grew up in when the phone rings.
It’s the hotel. We’ve left our winter coats behind us. There is a long summer in Ireland ahead and we’ll need those winter coats, so we turn around and head for Kinsale again – we didn’t even get a chance to miss the place. The missing it bit comes later.