Ireland

Thursday 24 July 2014

Fota Cork: Wildlife and whiskey galore

TOM LYONS

Published 28/10/2012|05:00

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Fota Island boasts a five-star hotel and spa, which makes a great base for exploring Midleton and Cobh.

The cheetah raced across the park chasing his lunch of rabbit, shaken not stewed. Attached to a zip-line, the dead rabbit raced ahead, triggering an explosive burst from the cheetah as it pursued its dinner which raced ahead of it at 65kph.

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It was here in the beautiful grounds of its famous wildlife park that my girlfriend and I began our weekend break on and around Fota Island, Co Cork. It takes a pleasurable two hours to roam Fota Wildlife Park's 70-acres of land packed with 30 different animals and 50 species of birds. Just 2.5km from the five-star Fota Island Hotel, where we stayed, it was a not-for-the-squeamish start to a relaxing short-break.

Herds of bison and kafue lechwe (a type of antelope) as well as elegant Rothschild giraffes (one of the most endangered giraffe species in the wild) were easy to observe as we strolled through the park towards a series of islands filled with primates.

A quiet ring-tailed lemur called Maud caught our eye; the park ranger told us she had, inexplicably, lost her arm while out in the forest.

Maud was once the queen of the lemurs, but due to her recent disability she had been demoted.

We passed an agile gibbon who was cautiously eyeing up the amateur photographers while guarding her newborn, before we stopped for a lunch of ice-creams at the Oasis Cafe, where we could watch flamingos enjoying some rare Irish sunshine.

Ticking off all the animals we had seen on the map, we visited the harbour seals, who shared an enclosed home with the white-tailed sea eagle. The seals feasted on a diet of shrimps and crabs as we headed to the incubation house to view the ostrich chicks. All in all, the park is a must-visit for anyone in the area.

After exploring the vast wildlife park we turned back to Fota Island Resort, a beautiful five-star hotel and spa, built by developer John Fleming, but now placed on the market by NAMA.

Standards in the hotel have not slipped an inch, however, and we were warmly welcomed at the hotel's modern reception. We stayed in the Oak suite, which has a sweeping balcony, giving us views of official photos being taken of a wedding that was being hosted by the hotel that weekend. The hotel is a popular wedding choice both for its scenic setting and its proximity to Cork. The wedding did not impose itself in any way on our stay despite going on into the early hours.

A pre-dinner swim gave us ample time to work up an appetite doing a few lengths and attempting to recreate -- badly -- scenes from the synchronised swimming events in this summer's Olympics. Dining in the Fota Restaurant followed, where we feasted on starters of West Cork mussels and baked crab cake followed by duo of beef fillet and black Dover sole.

The steak was washed down with a rich tasting glass of Malbec and the fish was coupled with a refreshing New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

We only had room to split a bitter-sweet chocolate tart and have some coffee to fuel our night out ahead.

Our knowledgeable taxi- driver advised us where to go for a drink in lively Midleton. We started in The Maple, which has a mixed crowd of young and old. It was a pleasure for two Dubliners to get plenty of change from a tenner for two pints of Murphys.

After that we headed to the pop music of McDaids bar. Its young twentyish crowd all danced their socks off. After an hour or so we showed our age and sneaked out to get a taxi home -- without even a stop at the numerous chippers dotting the main street.

The following morning there was time to read The Sunday Independent as my girlfriend went for a facial. It was, I am assured, worth going for.

We decided to drive to picturesque Cobh for lunch. After a stroll around town we headed for the Titanic Experience set up in honour of the ship's last stop at land on April 11, 1912, before heading on its fatal Atlantic voyage.

The tour is small but informative, combining real- life tour guides with video projections. We learned about the Irish passengers, mainly travelling in steerage, who lost their lives in the historic tragedy as we moved around recreations of different aspects of the ship. A final interactive exhibition is worth taking the time to explore to discover the epic tale of how the Titanic was explored in its final resting place on the ocean floor.

We took the recommendation of the hotel's concierge to go to the nearby Movie Junction to experience a drive-in film. As we waited for it to be dark enough, we stopped off at the national bar of the year 2010, The Elm Tree, a few hundred yards from the big screen. The restaurant-bar's steak and sea bass were delicious, although we passed on dessert to keep room for popcorn. Movie Junction involves backing your car halfway down a little hill and tuning into a special radio station to see and hear the movie. It's unusual, but good fun and adds a lot of atmosphere to any film!

On the way home, we broke up the journey by stopping off at the historic Jameson Experience in Midleton.

The tour of the 150-year-old distillery begins with a video before moving onto a more personal walking tour which lasts about 35 minutes. We learned a lot about the art and science of whiskey making, with the tour guide eager to impress us that Ireland, rather than Scotland, produces the best variety. Relaxing afterwards with a complimentary glass of whiskey, it was easy to agree, especially as I wasn't driving.



GETTING THERE

Fota Island Resort, Fota Island, Cork. The hotel has 123 rooms and eight penthouses catering for a range of price points. Log on to www.fotaisland.ie to check for midweek, golf, dinner and spa packages. Its spa special: two nights B&B, with dinner, and a facial or massage comes in at €219.

For more information on the Fota Wildlife Park, see www.fotawildlife.ie

Tickets for the Titanic Experience are €9.50 per adult or €24 for two adults and four children.

Tickets for Movie Junction are bought on arrival. Couples pay €16 per car, with entry for three or more people costing €20.

Tickets for the Jameson Experience, Midleton. are €11.70 per adult if booked online, with discounts for students, seniors and children.

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