As Ireland’s largest county, Cork is difficult to place into a specific box. Does it have castles? Yes, in fact one of the most famous in all the land is located here. Does it have sheer stone cliffs that tumble into the pounding ocean? Yes, and the most dangerous areas are topped with picturesque lighthouses. Does it have mountains draped in purple heather, valleys with lakes so clear you can see the deceptively deep bottom, or brightly colored cottages lining seaside village streets? Yes, yes, and yes.
Trying to sum up Cork with 6 highlights is a difficult task, so my best advice is to use these points as just a beginning to your adventure in Ireland’s “Rebel County”.
Activity 1: Explore Blarney Castle’s Extraordinary Gardens
Most people want to visit Blarney Castle to lay their lips upon the mystical stone set high in the ruined tower wall. And while that is fun, it’s what lies beyond the ‘stone of eloquence’ that makes a visit so much fun.
Throughout the vast estate you’ll find beautiful walks that lead to gardens, caves, a baronial manor, and even a bit of magic. Follow the pathways to places like the Poison Garden, where the apothecary grew the herbs you’ve read about in Harry Potter books, and the Rock Close, where standing stones tell a story of seven sisters and the wishing steps lead you to the Witch’s Kitchen. Sit beneath a Stone Age dolmen- if you dare- before wandering through the Fairy Glade.
Whatever you do, don’t rush through your visit. You’ll need at least 3 hours to explore Blarney Castle and Gardens. To get all the legends and tales be sure to purchase a souvenir audio guide, it will enhance your visit exponentially.
Activity 2: Wander through Kinsale’s History
The tiny seaside village of Kinsale is most well-known to tourists for it’s incredible dining, but long before the ‘foodies’ discovered this port town it was a final stop for provisions before ships set out on long voyages. British Naval Ships, Spanish military expeditions, and even pirates, left their mark in Kinsale.
Don & Barry’s Historic Stroll leads you from the remains of the medieval walls to the sinking of the Lusitania with intriguing stories, local legends, and amusing jokes that will keep the kids engaged.
Continue the ‘hands on’ history lessons with fun stops at the Courthouse & Regional Museum to see the Kinsale Giant, massive Charles Fort where you can explore nearly every nook and cranny of its ‘star fortification’, and a harbor cruise to give you the ‘ships eye view’ of arriving in Kinsale harbor.
And be sure to grab a bit to eat while you’re here- the options are nearly endless.
Activity 3: Go South to Mizen Head
It’s a beautiful drive along the cliffs of the Wild Atlantic Way to Mizen Head, Ireland’s most southwesterly point.
Plan to spend at least 45 minutes exploring Fastnet Hall, an engaging museum filled with all things maritime – from lighthouse keeper rolls and tide clocks to lighthouse models and marine wreckage.
The wind whips across the narrow peninsula as you venture down the cliff-side pathways (all safely fenced) to cross the concrete bridge that spans the chasm separating the end of the peninsula from the mainland. Look down- if you dare- you may see seals basking in the sun or whales swimming just off the rocky coast.
Follow the pathway to the world’s second radio transmission beacon, then the Old Fog Signal House (also a museum), before reaching the “light at the end of the world”–next stop USA.
Activity 4: Make a Warm, Fuzzy Visit to the Donkey Sanctuary
Looking at the fuzzy, trusting faces of the donkeys that greet you one would never guess that, once, these friendly beasts were abandoned, neglected, many unable to walk due to overgrown hooves.
Operating first as an individual rescue organization, then joining with The Donkey Sanctuary UK, The Donkey Sanctuary Ireland has rescued nearly 4000 donkeys and mules across Ireland. A staff of 70 welcomes the skittish animals, caring for them in the on-site hospital, feeding them, giving them a warm, safe place to sleep, and offering unconditional love.
The farm in Cork is free to visit and has a few miles of walking paths for visitors to enjoy. Along the route you’ll see the donkeys that require special care, young donkeys that will come to the fence for attention, a ring fort, 13th century castle, a field of mothers with their foals, and even some horses that have been saved from neglectful owners.
A stop in the visitors center is a must, to learn more about the donkeys and their care. You may even wish to ‘adopt’ your own donkey before you leave.
1 Great Place to Stay : Top of the Rock Pod Pairc
The hills of West Cork are a walkers’ paradise, with pathways that have been trod for centuries by the religious faithful and tourists alike. At the top of one of the hills sits Top of the Rock Pod Pairc, the ancestral family farm David and Elizabeth Ross turned into a pod-camping park.
Camping pods (think small cabins) situated behind hand-built stone walls overlook the beautiful Castledonovan hills. A small farmyard has goats, sheep, and cows, which welcome petting and hand-feeding. Nearby is a small play area for the kids, as well as a community fire pit where families gather nightly to share s’mores and stories of the day’s adventures.
Families wanting to glamp should choose a Luxury Pod, which includes a comfortable double bed, futon couch, mini kitchen and toilet. Larger Family Pods and smaller Standard Pods are also available.
Each pod includes the use of the full kitchen in the Walking Center, as well as complimentary wifi, access to the laundry room, game room, and showers.
Nearby walks from the Pod Pairc lead you across the hills and into valleys with waterfalls, river crossings of stone, and a 16th century castle. Hop in the car for walks further afield that will lead you to places few tourists will ever see.
1 Great Place to Eat: Farmgate Café at The English Market in Cork City
Sitting above Ireland’s oldest and most historic food market, the Farmgate Café has first choice of the freshest food in County Cork.
Open from 8:30am- 5pm the café serves beautiful breakfasts and delicious lunches, as well as lovely baked treats perfect for an afternoon pick-me-up with coffee or tea.
Entrees change daily; after the chef has chosen the best meats, fish, and herbs in the market below, he creates an experience that is so uniquely Cork, embracing the traditional and while weaving in flavors of international spice.
The café is incredibly busy before 10am and during the lunch rush, which can last from 11am to 1pm. You can make a reservation for the dining room by phone, or arrive and add a reservation. If there is a wait, while away your time at The English Market below. If you speak with the vendors you may just find out what’s being served upstairs.
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