Relax on Planet Clon
The nickname made her think she'd stumbled into a sci-fi film but Eilis O'Hanlon came to appreciate the other-worldly charms of both Clonakilty and Killarney
'So, what do you think of Clon?" For a moment, I am nonplussed. Is Clon a person? Were we introduced? Or has Disney secretly made a sequel to its Eighties sci-fi film Tron and I'm being asked for an impromptu review? Either way, I'm baffled.
Then I realise the speaker means Clonakilty, the small Co Cork town just down the road from the Quality Hotel where we're spending a few days. I murmur something suitably complimentary, because, a) it always pays to be polite when on another fellow's home turf, and b) I'm liking Clonakilty just fine. Which is a rare treat for me, a woman who usually spends most of any weekend away moaning about how we should've just stayed home.
True, the town really should think about pedestrianising those narrow streets, because the constant flow of traffic makes shopping something akin to an extreme sport. But I can't complain. I've spent a relaxing few hours wandering the locality; enjoyed a tasty lunch at the dinky little Aubergine Cafe in Rossa Street (highly recommended); plus everyone in west Cork has been charming and friendly to a fault.
Must be something in the air down there.
The sense of welcome extends into the Quality Hotel itself, which clearly prides itself on the courtesy of its staff. And they're right to be proud, because if making guests feel at home was an Olympic sport, then the mantlepiece would definitely be weighed down with gold medals. Little wonder that the hotel has been named the Family Friendly Hotel of the Year for 2010 in Georgina Campbell's Ireland Guide. The place has terrific leisure and spa facilities, but this place would deserve the accolade for the service alone. A smiling face costs nothing, but it makes a big difference.
On the weekend I stayed, the place was bustling with guests, but the sense of unhurried helpfulness was everywhere in evidence.
They have proper-sized family rooms at the Quality Hotel too, easily comfortable enough for a couple and four children to kick their heels in without winding up kicking one another. As for the kids' dining scheme, that's a definite winner, leaving children free to nip back and forth for unlimited refills while older guests sit down for a more sedate meal. My children basically want to eat like that for the rest of their lives. So did I actually, but sadly I was expected to behave like a grown-up. (Well, there's a first time for everything.)
Clonakilty's the perfect base from which to explore the region. There's plenty to do across west Cork, but the distances aren't too onerous. Kinsale's a short hop, with the craggy cliffs of the Old Head nearby -- best avoided by those with vertigo, or indeed by those who believe that the right order of the world is for the seabirds to be flying overhead, rather than you looking down on them, dizzily, from above. That's where Icarus went wrong, after all.
One pretty village follows another along each route: the lights of Glandore and Union Hall blinking at one another across the bay as night falls; Baltimore perched contentedly on the edge of the glittering water.
At Schull, we stood on the harbour in a light rain, polishing off some of the irresistible goodies picked up in the local Gwen's Chocolates, home of French chocolatier Gwendell Lasserre, while watching a seriously chilled-out seal munching on a fish as seagulls dive-bombed in messy squadrons, determined to snatch a titbit.
All that cliched guff Tourist Ireland gives out about a different pace of life outside the Pale may be seriously corny, but it does contain an undoubted grain of truth. Time moves here at a different pace. It's hard not to be regretful at having to leave it behind.
From Cork, it's a picturesque trek up through Bantry and Glengarrif and across the spectacular MacGillicuddy's Reeks to Killarney for the next part of our stay at another Quality Hotels resort a short walk from the lively centre of town. This time, we're staying in a house on site, which offers even more space and privacy for a family of five. To be honest, the only disappointment was the food situation. No kids buffets here (boo!), and not much for vegetarians either. Happily, the chef did rustle up a few nice vegetarian dishes, after some back-and-forth negotiations.
Still, Co Kerry more than made up for any complaints. It's great cycling country. A lovely man by the name of Noel Grimes also gave up his time to take us on a guided walk through Killarney National Park. A mine of information about the area, its history, wildlife and former inhabitants, grand and not so grand, he also spun a few tall tales about the islands of Lough Leane and the apparently bottomless pool on the summit of Carrauntoohill, Ireland's highest peak. Oh, and I also discovered that I've been mispronouncing MacGillicuddy's Reeks for years. Which was an education.
Then it was off along the winding roads to Dingle, which effortlessly shows the competition how it should be done, with its abundance of quaint buildings, quirky shops and yummy eateries -- no shortage of scrumptious fare for vegetarians here. (Mad prices, though, it has to be said. Forget any ideas about getting away for a few days in Ireland without blowing the budget.)
Still, it has to be said that a few days in the south west only scratches the surface of what the region has to offer, and what an incredible surface it is.
Usually I come home from holidays thinking: "Never again." This time, I came back eagerly wondering: "When again?" There's no better compliment.
Quality Hotel Killarney, Cork Road, Killarney, Co Kerry, has family rooms from €78 per night B&B for up to two adults and two children. Family suites from €109 per night B&B for up to two adults and two children; see www.qualitykillarney. com For information on the Clonakilty hotel see www.qualityclonakiltyhotel.com For details of Killarney National Park, visit www.killarneynationalpark.ie