Thursday 20 October 2016

A family foodie trip to East Cork

East Cork

Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30

Fota Island with the self-catering lodges beside the golf course.
Fota Island with the self-catering lodges beside the golf course.
Playful zebras at Fota Wildlife Park

Since having a child, I have two personal rules for all holidays. If at all possible, travel nowhere that is more than a two-and-a-half-hour car drive away. This ensures the child will nap for the majority of the journey. Second, bring numerous family members - otherwise holidaying with a child, your usual childcare obviously left behind, is a lot like hard work at times.

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So our trip to East Cork to stay in Fota Island Hotel and Spa was something of a group affair. My mother is from Cork, so we visit relatively regularly, but the family home in Cork City was temporarily uninhabitable, so we needed somewhere that would accommodate a big group, a large family home for the weekend. I wouldn't dare suggest that Cork people are difficult to please, but the standards of our party, made up of the Cork side of the family, were high.

We were staying in one of the self-catering lodges in Fota Island, and as homes from homes go, they would meet even the most exacting of tastes. The ground floor is mainly a large open-plan room including kitchen, breakfast bar, dining area, and a large living room. The patio doors off the dining room look out over the rolling greens of the golf course. We hosted a lunch for the extended family on the Sunday, and the house was more than up to a large group of children running riot, the adjacent small hills of the golf course came in particularly handy once the weather cleared.

Upstairs were three very spacious double bedrooms, one twin, two en suite, and a single room. If you are going to holiday with a large family group, this house offers just the amount of space everyone will need to get through the weekend.

Holidays with children below the age of two tend to be somewhat ruled by the nap trap - your day is still divided up into pre nap, and post nap sections, and you may not want to travel too far on daytrips in case you don't get home in time for said nap; they sleep for 20 minutes in the car and then spend the rest of the day tired and cranky. As such, East Cork is perfect for a holiday with small children, in that there is plenty to do without travelling too far.

First up, Midleton Farmers Market. The first of its kind in Ireland, it was founded by Darina Allen and local farmers. You can pick up everything here from rotisserie chicken, to organic vegetables, to homemade pesto and all sorts of gorgeous desserts. Little ones will have a great time running around the place and checking out the occasional farm animal; feeding the goat kept us going for a good half hour. The market opens every Saturday from 9am-1pm. We were lucky enough to visit on a day when Midleton was hosting a fair, so the main street was decked out in stalls and bunting, but Midleton even on a normal day is a lovely market town.

Next stop has to be Farmgate Restaurant and Country Store for breakfast or cake and coffee. Again, if you're travelling with small children who are likely to reach peak restaurant time and get a bit antsy, ask to be seated in the back room, it's slightly more private, and could lend itself to a busy toddler having a little walk around. It also sells a range of its own food - special mention needs to go to the cakes - handy for the self-catering traveller like ourselves.

This will take you up to lunchtime, so it's back home for herself to have a nap. Post snooze, the pizzas at Ballymaloe Cookery School are the perfect blend of chewy base and crispy crust. Open every Saturday, 12.30pm - 4pm, it serves wood-fired pizzas, using ingredients from the farm, made by the students. The atmosphere is pleasant and relaxed, and the premises spacious, perfect for toddlers to have a ramble. There are usually some small children from the extended Allen clan wandering around; Herself befriended a mini Allen and illegally breached the inner gardens on our most recent visit. It's a very stress-free atmosphere in which to dine with small children. Another lunch option, with potentially some shopping thrown in, is the Shanagarry Irish Design Centre with Kilkenny Shop and Cafe. Lunch is excellent, the cafe looks out over the surrounding pastures and it stocks some of Ireland's top designers.

To walk off all this eating, head next to Ballycotton village. Having children involves doing all sorts of things you would previously never have contemplated. I now find myself to be the kind of person who relishes a good walk, and on this occasion had even brought one of those rucksacks in which the child sits on your back. The cliff walk in Ballycotton is spectacular. It's fairly rocky terrain, so toddlers would need to be carried. Post walk, in case hunger pangs have set in, Skinny's Diner in Ballycotton does lovely fish and chips. The Blackbird pub hosts live music and is a very atmospheric spot for a pint afterwards.

An expensive evening meal with children is a waste of money. We found Fota quite handy in this sense; we dined in the restaurant of the golf club on the grounds. Situated by the lake, it's a pretty spot, and the staff couldn't have been more accommodating of a toddler. We ate in the lobby, a huge room, with comfortable Chesterfield couches, and not strictly part of the dining area. There was plenty of space for Herself to roam, and you avoid that feeling that you're ruining other diners' night out with a possibly tired and fractious child. If you can find a babysitter though, a meal at Ballymaloe House is a real treat, get there early and enjoy a glass of wine on the terrace beforehand. In terms of proper child-friendly entertainment, the grandfather and Herself were set on a trip to Fota Wildlife Park. I tagged along, not overly enthused, but ended up enjoying it hugely. This is how zoos should be - lots of big open spaces, with the occasional small animal roaming across your path.

We enjoyed our weekend so much we repeated it on pretty much the same schedule a few months later. Holidays with children may not be the most adventurous of your life, but some light pre-planning can yield a fairly comprehensive gastronomic weekend tour.

Sunday Independent

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