Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, a bit of Irish charm in Cork, Ireland.
Cork was named as one of the Top 10 Cities in the world to visit this year in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2010 and although you may not immediately think of it as a vacation destination, this city has a lot more to offer than kissing the Blarney Stone and getting a fresh pint of Beamish.
On my last trip to Cork earlier this month, the weather was unseasonably sunny, giving me an excuse to explore by foot. First stop is always the covered English Market (30-36 Grand Parade, http://www.corkenglishmarket.ie/), which has been the site of a market since 1788, selling fresh produce, farmhouse cheese, soda bread and local meats and seafood. The sight of all this food made me hungry and luckily the Farmgate Café and Restaurant is right in the market and takes all its ingredients from the vendors, serving traditional Irish food overlooking the market at very reasonable prices.
After lunch, I strolled through the winding streets of Cork to St Patrick's Street, the main shopping district with old and new stores intermixed. Hard to miss are the modern street lamps designed by Beth Gali, the metal poles resembling sails of the trade boats that used to come into the city by the Lee River.
Feeling like I had accomplished something, I decided I deserved a beer and since you can't come to Cork without trying the local specialty Beamish Stout, I headed to a pub. The Beamish and Crawford Brewing Company (tel +353 2149 11 100; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.beamish.ie) located on South Main Street offers tours to witness firsthand the making of their famous stout (a one-hour tour costs €7), but you can find a good pint at many pubs in town or in the surrounding area.
Cork lies in a valley with green hills surrounding it on all side. The huge Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral is visible from anywhere. Cork really is a pretty city, but there is something a bit edgy about it too. I would never describe Cork as quaint. It is real. The people in Cork are incredibly friendly, willing to talk about and show you firsthand what makes their city so special. And the taxi drivers are hands down the nicest I have met anywhere in the world. Try to plan a trip around St. Patrick's Day and you'll see how seriously they take the preparations for their favorite holiday.
What to Do
There is a lot to see in Cork, but the surrounding area offers a taste of relaxed, small town Ireland, so if you can get your hands on a rental car, plan a day out of town.
Blarney Stone - Just five miles away from Cork, in the Blarney Castle, is the famous Blarney Stone. Legend has it anyone who kissed the stone will gain eloquence in speech. What no one tells you, however, that you will need to lay down and have someone hold you upside down to kiss the right part of the stone. The grounds are beautiful, especially in the spring when thousands of daffodils are in bloom.
Kinsale - This darling seaside village, 20 minutes from Cork, is set on a harbor where boating, water sports and great seafood are to be found. The drive from Cork offers a pleasant view or rural life with rolling hills and roads winding through farmland. Stop at The Spaniard (+353 021-4772436, info@TheSpaniard.ie, http://www.thespaniard.ie/) for a perfectly pulled pint of Beamish before exploring the town.
Golf - Cork, and all of Ireland for that matter, is a golfers paradise. Some of the most famous links courses in the world are found along the cliffs on the coast of the country, but there are plenty of more affordable options around Cork. I played at Fota Island in early March when the season was just beginning and I almost had the entire course to myself, except for a few swans that lingered around the pond.
Where to eat and drink
Cork embraced the "eat local" food trend early. The local meats, farmhouse cheeses and produce are outstanding, but the seafood is the real treat with fresh fish readily available and excellent seafood chefs. Many restaurants also bake their own Irish soda bread, not to be missed.
Farmgate Café and Restaurant (located inside the English Market, 30-36 Grand Parade, +353 021 427 8134), which takes all its ingredients from the market below, and serves traditional Irish food overlooking the market at very reasonable prices.
Isaac's (48 MacCurtain Street, +353
Ó Conaill Chocolates (16 French Church St, +353 021 4373407) – For the best cup of hot chocolate you will ever have according to me and dozens of reviews I read, stop in this tiny chocolate shop for a steaming cup of liquid praline cocoa.
Where to Stay
Jurys Cork Hotel (Western Road, +353 (0) 21 425 2700, email@example.com) - A modern glass hotel right on the river offers big rooms with a full gym (complete with yoga and spinning classes as well as a pool) and a spa on-site.
Fota Island Hotel and Spa (+ 353 21 467 3000, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.fotaisland.ie/) - A short drive outside of central Cork, Fota Island offers a hotel, spa and golf club with good dining options and a beautiful course. A great option if you plan to spend a day or two golfing.
Note: There is an airport shuttle service that makes multiple stops throughout the city so there's a good chance it will get you close to your hotel - SkyLink coach from Cork Airport departs from outside the main Terminal, 7 days a week and runs from 04:20 – 00:45hr, 5€ one-way, 8€ round trip.
Ireland Guide - http://www.ireland-guide.com/