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Cork, the home of fine food, culture and a spectacular untouched coast

Jo Kerrigan lists some of the reasons why people who visit Cork are so keen to return

Whatever it is you are hoping to discover on a staycation, you are guaranteed to find it in Cork.

It’s the largest county in Ireland, and one of the most varied, whether you are searching for pretty little towns and fine dining or spectacular landscapes and mountainsides; winding rivers and waterfalls, or relaxed fishing and forest walks; sailing, kayaking and horse-riding or historic sites and that perfect beach for the children. The list of possibilities and temptations is endless.

And the weather? We’ll let you into a closely-guarded secret. If it’s dark and cloudy at one end of the county, just drive towards the other end.

Guaranteed, the clouds will lift and the sun will shine before you get there. The hills in between act as a sort of watershed, making two entirely different forecasts possible. Go on, try it and see for yourself!

It’s not difficult to see why Cork is one of the most popular destinations, both for Irish residents and for tourists from abroad. From Youghal in the east to Mizen Head and Crookhaven in the far south west, there is something for simply every taste and interest.

The important thing is to decide what you most like doing on holiday, and then select the area you are going to explore. Drag out that atlas (or bring up Google Maps on your screen) and start planning. It can be almost as much fun as the staycation itself, this armchair travelling as spring slowly moves towards summer.

Heritage highlights

Are history and stories of ancient times your favourite thing? Then there is a multitude of options from which to choose. Youghal in the far east of the county, for example, steeped in history, from Sir Walter Raleigh’s one-time home at stately Myrtle Grove to the quays which saw the making of the classic film Moby Dick back in the 1950s. Every laneway leading to the harbour has its own tales to tell, and it’s an ideal place to wander round and soak up the atmosphere of yesteryear.

Kinsale was for many centuries a fashionable garrison town, and it still bears much of the atmosphere of those days as well as being both a gourmet paradise and one of the best-known yachting harbours where boats from all over the world tie up. Crosshaven is the home of the Royal Cork, which proudly holds the title of the oldest yacht club in the world. There was even a little railway line to Crosshaven back in the day, bringing crowds of holidaymakers down to the sun, sea and sand and bringing back the fish catch to the city.

Enchanting architecture

If you’re from Cork, you already know your good luck. If you aren’t, then it will enchant you, with its many steep hills (Rome is only trotting after us, as they say proudly), its branching river which confuses the first-time visitor as he encounters yet another bridge and another quay, and its definitely Mediterranean atmosphere. St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, lovely Trinity Church reflecting its spires in the Lee, the historic Coal Quay, serenely elegant UCC – it’s a city which has managed to retain the feel of the past while moving energetically into the future.

Where Dublin is packed and crowded, Cork strolls relaxedly and stops in the middle of the street for a chat. Very addictive. You won’t want to leave.

Legendary West Cork

West Cork, ah, West Cork. Justifiably legendary, with heartstopping views at every turn in the road. If you are travelling with a young family, there are wonderful beaches at Garrettstown, Inchydoney, Castlefreke, where the kids can play all day and you relax. Standing stones, circles and dolmens abound for the keen archaeologist, and you can have a very good time tracking them down. Baltimore is the ancient home of the O’Driscoll clan, and the jumping-off point for Sherkin and Cape Clear. Catch a glimpse of actor Jeremy Irons’ perfectly-restored medieval castle near Skibbereen, and take in the wonderful landscape of Roaring Water Bay and Carbery’s Hundred Isles (there aren’t actually a hundred of them, but it sounded good in the poem, The Sack of Baltimore). Rosscarbery in ancient times housed a learned school for pupils from all over the known world. Skibbereen’s Famine Museum is a stark reminder of harsher days.

Mizen Head juts out aggressively into the Atlantic as Ireland’s most south-westerly point, and out to sea the Fastnet lighthouse warns that this is a dangerous stretch of coast, evidenced by the many wrecks recorded. A bridge crosses a dizzying drop to the surging waters below to the very point of the Head, where a museum tells the story of the signal station keepers here in olden days.

Brow Head has had many industries over the centuries: the traces of copper mining can still be found here in the ruined cottages which once housed the miners. Later, Reuter, that great man of news, kept a lookout for ships bringing mail from America, so that he could send it on by telegraph to Cork and thus get the latest stories to London long before the ship could arrive there. Not long after that, Marconi came here, searching for the ideal spot to experiment with radio signals to America.

Crookhaven village, tucked into its long sheltered inlet, must be one of the happiest little harbours in West Cork. Visitors crowd into its cheerful pubs or enjoy delicious seafood sitting on the sea wall. Crookhaven was in older times the last port of call for transatlantic shipping, while coming in the opposite direction, boats were glad to see land and know they could find fresh water and food.

Sweeping back around the north side of the Mizen, Dunmanus Bay is truly beautiful in its calm grandeur. Sheep’s Head offers wonderful walking, and Bantry has long been home to classical festivals of music, literature, and folk. Inland, through the dramatic Pass of Keimaneigh lies lovely Gougane Barra, a place of pilgrimage for countless centuries and offering forest walks amid timeless peace.

Glengarriff has been visited by famous tourists since the 18th century, among them Thackeray, who stayed at the Eccles Hotel. This village has its own almost-tropical microclimate, evidenced by the lush vegetation as you drop down into its valley. Offshore, there are beautiful Italian gardens on Garinish Island, lovingly maintained. If you’re lucky you might see a white-tailed sea eagle perched on the rocks as you pass.

Beara Peninsula

And then comes the wonderful Beara Peninsula, leading out through Adrigole to Castletownbere with its lively fishing quays where hundreds of trawlers tie up to process their catch. Eyries, Allihies, Hungry Hill, with its fascinating history of copper mining, and at the very tip, Dursey Island, connected to the mainland by Ireland’s only cable car. (You might well find yourself sharing the little swaying cabin with a sheepdog and a few lambs.) Don’t forget to pay your respects to the Cailleach Beara, an ancient rock which gazes out over the ocean at Kilcatherine, pondering age-old secrets.

Enough! As any local will tell you, one holiday is not enough to discover all the joys of Co. Cork. But have a try anyway. You can always find some more on your next trip…