After 2 years of being locked down from any international travel, finally uncorked the bottled-up traveler spirit in Cork, Ireland! This was not my first visit to Ireland. I had been to Dublin before. However, I had been advised by many friends and those who lived in Ireland that Dublin does not do justice to it, and I should visit again to see the beautiful Irish coastline and enjoy the Irish weather. So, when the opportunity came to visit Cork, I made the most of it.
The river Lee runs through Cork giving it an Amsterdam like feel. Just before entering Cork, the river splits in two for a short distance, creating an island on which Cork’s city centre is built. This ends up creating omnipresent river views across most hotels and a great opportunity to walk alongside the river or sit across one of the bridges and enjoy the view.
The initial part of my stay was at the hotel River Lee which is one of the best hotels in the city. It has a very corporate and formal vibe to it. The hotel staff is very helpful and friendly as I would experience across from the Irish. The service was good, rooms were very spacious, and food was great. It was by the north channel of River Lee and at a walking distance from the main hubs of the city center including pubs, shopping malls etc.
I later moved to the Metropole Hotel, a heritage hotel which is about 125 years old. The Metropole had a much more European feel to it. It was right in the city center with everything at 5 minutes walking distance. The room was much smaller but decent sized for a solo traveller and the staff was as helpful and food was good. The restaurant looked over the southern channel of the river and they had ample seating space in the common areas that made it very lively. The shopping malls including the Merchant Quay shopping center were just across the road from it. I would recommend it if you were on a holiday as you could just walk to anywhere you needed from there.
Cork has a lot of life and is resplendent with cafes and pubs. One could just stay there for a few days, enjoy leisurely walks by the river or hang around enjoying their hot cup of coffee or pint of Guinness. The Fitzgerald Park and the Bishop Lucey Park are ideal places to enjoy the sunshine amidst the greenery. If you want to explore the city specifically and are with a group of people, then would highly recommend the treasure hunt. We did it during our visit and it was not only well organized and enjoyable but also helped us explore and know a lot about the city in a fun way. The best part was that people of Cork were so friendly and cooperative, be it the pub owner who allowed us to take picture pouring ourselves a pint of beer at the counter or the taxi driver who just let us into the cab and pose for the picture as we tried to get more scores in our game. The friendliness of complete strangers as we went about the treasure hunt was a delightful experience. They even helped us guess a few of the answers to score more points!
I did a few excursions outside Cork as well to explore more of Ireland. My first trip was to the Blarney Castle and Cobh. This was a combination tour which was of around 6 hours. You can book this tour though Paddy Wagon Tours which is the most popular tour operator. The pickup point was hardly 3 minutes of walk from the Metropole hotel. You can also take direct buses to these two places but given that I was on a short trip, I preferred taking the tour instead to manage time.
The Blarney Castle has massive grounds. While the Blarney stone is a popular attraction and those who kiss it are hopeful of getting the gift of the gab, none of their marketing strategies attracted me enough to climb all the way to the top of the castle to kiss a stone. I rather enjoyed walking across the gardens and other trails. If you get tired of exploring the gardens, you can spend time at the Blarney Woollen Mills shop which is the largest Irish Shop in the world. There are cafes, toilets, and ATMs available in the area and could see that it was a popular place for locals as well. The stuff in the shop was made in Ireland and not from China, India or Philippines.
The next place of visit after Blarney was Cobh (pronounced as Cove) which was earlier called Queenstown, home to Ireland’s only dedicated cruise terminal and at one time a major port of embarkation for immigrants to North America. It was also the last port of call of the Titanic on its unfortunate maiden voyage which attracts a lot of tourists. I did go to the Titanic Experience which is a small museum trying to recreate some experiences from the ship. The experiences and real stories of the people on board the ship brought me up close to the tragedy. Post the sombre experience I walked to one of the cafes across the road for lunch. The cathedral is also beautiful to explore. Walking by the harbour is an enjoyable experience itself and you can see a lot of people enjoying time with their families there.
The next day I did a tour across the Ring of Kerry. The tour may feel like a touch and go to some and if you have a lot of time, would recommend renting a car and driving around yourself. But when on a short trip, this tour provides a good comprehensive view of the Irish coastline. The bus stopped at Sneem which is a charming colourful village for a quick coffee break. The next stop was at Killorgin known for the ancient Celtic festival called Puck Fair. We took a quick look into a historical Irish village set up there along with trying out the Irish coffee. I was specially looking forward to meeting the Irish Wolfhounds there.
As the bus drove across the Dingle Bay there were some amazing views of the Atlantic coast. The driver would stop for quick photo opportunities. The lunch break was at the picturesque village of Waterville, more popular for Charlie Chaplin’s frequent visits. The break was long enough for us to have lunch and to also stroll by the beach and explore the village a bit.
Our next stop was a viewpoint between Caherdaniel and Waterville where a statue of Virgin Mary stands overlooking Ballinskelligs Bay. The weather was benevolent, and I would say this place was one of the high points of the tour.
As we headed back, we crossed the three lakes of Killarney and visited the Torc Waterfall which was a perfect end to the trip. On the way back we unintentionally gate-crashed a wedding photo shoot at one of the viewpoints, but the family were happy to share their special moment with us and we also had the opportunity to watch a livestock guardian dog herding the sheep and making them walk in queue!
After a long day, I decided to spend my last day which happened to be a Sunday as well visiting the Jameson’s distillery in Middleton. You can travel by bus, train, or taxi to the distillery but unfortunately on Sunday the frequency really reduces so plan the time of visit in accordance with limited buses and trains plying. It was insightful to experience the whole whiskey making process at the distillery and indulge in whiskey tasting, learning the difference between Scotch, Irish and American Whiskey. Visiting the actual barrel room where whiskey is being matured for over 16 years was intoxicating. Beware, you might not be able to walk back straight to the bus and maybe that is why they make winding roads!
Like any place, there is always a lot more to see and do in Cork and nearabout. Given the resplendent restaurant and pub culture, here are some of my recommendations based on experiences:
- Tradehouse Central in Ballincollig – a contemporary suburban bar with an assorted menu. Tried the Massaman Chicken Curry and the Cream of Mushroom soup there. Both the items were quite good.
- Old Town Whiskey Bar at Bodega – right in the city centre, a good place to enjoy the drinks and food as well as soak in the street sights and sounds.
- Sophies – rooftop restaurant offering panoramic views of the Cork City center. They make great Margaritas!
- Dwyers – a vintage style gastropub near the English Market. Try the Guinness or Old Fashioned there. The warm chocolate brownie was lip-smacking.
- Cornstore – an upscale restaurant in the city centre that offers amazing sea food sourced locally. The Prawn tempuras and seabass were amazing. The staff is young and may not relate to some old school terms. When my friend asked for a “Hot Toddy”, they thought she was asking for spice in her whiskey! But eventually she got what she wanted.
- Clancy’s – A colourful rooftop pub at Princes St. The staircase strewn with glaring red lights might make you wonder where you are off too till you reach the rooftop, but the experience is lively and warm.
- Thali Nepal – If you crave for Indian food, would recommend this restaurant to try some authentic Indian food. The thali and lamb biryani were amazing!
A few tips to keep in mind when travelling to Cork.
- Taxis at the airport take cash mostly so carry some Euros for your first trip out of the airport. Otherwise, ask them to stop by an ATM to help you withdraw cash.
- ATMs are easily available across the city.
- The mobile app used for calling cabs is Freenow and is very effective. Uber does not work in Ireland. You can use credit cards for payment on the app.
- On Sunday, the frequency of buses and trains reduces very significantly so make plans accordingly. Most shops are closed on Sunday though all pubs and restaurants are open.
- All hotels do not have Air conditioning as it hardly required in that weather. However, on sunny days or during a heatwave, they would provide fans on request.
- One can experience four seasons in one day in Cork so layer up instead of carrying heavy woolens.
Ireland had a very nice, safe, laid-back feel to it. People were extremely helpful and in no rush. Evenings are lively as you find all the pubs and restaurants full. I would have strangers stopping on the street to elaborately help with directions and recommendations. Even the lady at security check-in at the airport helped me pack all my liquids in one bag and was in no rush as she went about sorting my things. Of course, amongst other things, I carried back fond memories and a significant amount of Irish charm and warmth.