Sunday 4 December 2016

Cork: Fota Island impresses with family-friendly mix of fauna and food

Ring of Cork

Emily Hourican

Published 04/04/2016 | 02:30

Cheetah cub at Fota Wildlife park
Cheetah cub at Fota Wildlife park
Emily and sons inspect the wildlife
Fota Island Hotel pool
Fota Wildlife Park has enough varieties of animals to see to keep children interested, and, unlike larger zoos, it doesn't feel overwhelmingly vast.

Emily Hourican takes her sons for a twin treat at Fota Resort and Fota Wildlife Park in East Cork.

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"It's not an island."

"It is. Look, it's entirely separated from the mainland by water. It is an island."

"That's not water. It's mud."

The eldest is refusing to believe that Fota, in Cork Harbour, is an island.

I guess it falls short of his expectations - you could indeed almost walk across to it at low tide, with a very stout pair of wellies (I do not actually recommend trying this, I'm using it as an indication) - but technically he is wrong and I am right. It is an island, albeit a small one, and with a heap of fun things to do.

Arriving at Fota Island Resort, the boys are initially devastated to find that we are just a couple of weeks too early to see the Irish football squad, who are due for a pre-Euros training session.

The facilities here are so good (there is a training pitch the size of the one at Croke Park, with the same grass specifications as the Emirates Stadium) that the Irish ladies senior soccer team, Cork, Tipperary and Kerry GAA teams, and Birmingham City FC have all previously availed of them.

Emily and sons inspect the wildlife
Emily and sons inspect the wildlife

But they (the boys, not the teams) eventually submerged their sorrows in the pool, in looking at the exotic animals and in many fine meals.

We stayed in one of the Course Side Lodges, a row of spacious houses overlooking the rolling green acres of the golf course. Inside, the houses are properly appointed - you could easily spend a self-catering week or so here as opposed to just a quick visit.

Ours had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, three TVs (the kids were in heaven) and a large kitchen and dining area. Not that we made any use of the last two.

On arrival, we headed straight for Fota Restaurant, where the children distinguished themselves by saying, loudly and pompously, things like, "This is a really good hotel. You can tell by the way they lay the tables," and, even more loudly, "She's really nice," as the waitress departs after seating us.

The dinner menu initially set off alarm bells. I confess that seeing elaborately described food in hotel restaurants makes me fear a triumph of style over substance, or ambition over execution. It is, sadly, often the way. Not here, however.

The food at Fota is really, really good.

Fota Island Hotel pool
Fota Island Hotel pool

Between us, we covered much of the menu: pan-seared scallops with slow-braised pork and parsnip puree, rare Szechuan-crusted tuna with green papaya, chilli, peanut and coriander, herb-crusted venison with caramelised figs and brandy cherries, followed (gluttonously) by fillet of Irish beef with smoked sweet potato, oyster mushroom, aubergine puree and truffle jus, and roast loin of venison with confit venison pithivier, braised beets, roasted garlic and cacao jus.

In between were some amuse bouches and palate cleansers - mousse of salmon, a lemon sorbet with vodka and Champagne (virgin for the kids, who couldn't believe they were getting dessert in the middle of dinner).

Everything we ate was perfectly cooked, perfectly judged and arrived looking more hearty and less fiddly than the description suggested, which is a good thing in my book. Even the spaghetti Bolognese off the kids' menu was excellent - so good that we were all leaning with forks aloft over the youngest's dinner.

The next day was designated Fota Wildlife Park day. We had breakfast at the Clubhouse (I'm sorry to keep going on about the food, but the porridge was the most delicious I have ever tasted) and turned up nice and early for the animals.

The park was bitterly cold and semi-deserted, which was perfect. We wandered through what is a manageable, boutique-sized wildlife experience, and saw some skittish zebras, giraffes, ostriches, cheetahs - we arrived in time to see them doing their thing at the cheetah run - rhinos, monkeys and a hint of Sumatran tiger.

There is exactly enough to keep little ones interested, across enough distance to give them a good walk, but without the overwhelmed feeling of "so many animals, so little time and energy," that larger zoos can give.

Almost more exciting than the penned animals are those roaming free - a magnificent peacock, some furtive-looking wallabies - because of the way they appear suddenly and close to you; nature unleashed, as it were. There is also a dinky little train, a playground and cafe, if the animals start to pall.

Back at the hotel it was pool time. At Fota, the hours are carefully regulated so that families with kids get a good run but without dominating the experience for those without.

This makes perfect sense - the hours are generous, and the structure eliminates that faint bad feeling that comes with one's progeny shrieking at the tops of their voices in excitement while others are trying for a more subdued and relaxing time.

Clearly well-versed in catering for children, the pool has a big basket of inflatables for them to chuck around and hang out of, as well as a small walled-off shallow section for the very young. A good hour of splashing was followed, for me, by a wonderful massage at the very tranquil Fota Spa.

The massage was specifically geared towards those recovering from radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and was both subtle and deft, leaving me floating lightly on air as I returned to our lodge. That Fota offers this kind of service, along with all the more usual treatments, is a great thing, and shows what a long way we have come in catering for people with all kinds of requirements, not just the more usual de-stress types of massage therapy.

It's a pity none of us plays golf; it seems a shame to have wasted the three championship golf courses. I have no doubt they are brilliant - if the pace of activity at the Clubhouse is anything to go by, they are certainly popular - but for us, they simply provided a pleasant backdrop of green to the rest of our activities.

However, I can foresee a return visit, and perhaps lessons for interested parties. On the basis that golf seems to earn one hours and hours of time away, wandering across greens, rather than the one crammed hour needed for a gym session or Pilates class, this seems a useful kind of sport, one worth investigating.

Getting there

Two nights in a two-bedroom lodge at Fota Island Hotel and Spa starts from €385 (fotaisland.ie). The Amber Lounge has just been extended and refurbished.

Touch Therapy Treatments:

Facial Treatment (60 minutes) €80

Chemo Comfort Therapy (60 minutes) €80

Touch Therapy for radiation clients (60 minutes) €80

Fota Island Spa is donating €5 from every treatment to Cork Cancer Research Centre.

For more details on Fota Wildlife Park, visit fotawildlife.ie.

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