Secret Ireland: South Dublin
Pol O Conghaile discovers urban oases and country cottages hidden.
The outdoor dip
The depth of colour on Ireland's beaches never ceases to amaze me.
Granted, this is another sluggish summer, but all it takes is a momentary parting of the clouds for bright coves to explode from hedgerows, sandy expanses to turn white and inviting against grassy dunes, or sandy harbours to stand out against granite harbour walls.
Sandycove is a prime example. I arrive in a mesh of rain to find the tiny cove deserted. A single lifeguard wears long trousers inside his hut.
On sunny afternoons, it's a completely different scene: buckets and spades abound on a canary-yellow sickle of sand.
Then I notice bubbles. Two heads surface -- a pair of scuba divers, looking like seals in their hooded wetsuits. Beyond them, I spot a couple of kids picking their way through the rock pools closer to the village.
Beneath the Martello Tower overhead, an adventure company van pulls up, discouraging a gaggle of teenagers into the Forty Foot.
Maybe the colour doesn't depend on the weather, after all.
Details: Sandycove is a short Dart ride (irishrail.ie) from Dublin.
The summer skill
BBQ cookery classes
As a red-blooded male, cooking meat on a barbecue is in my DNA. Or at least that's what I thought.
Like so many others loading up on charcoal and steaks at the first hint of summer, my enthusiasm is rarely matched by the end results.
Luckily, Lynda Booth is on hand to help. "It's about a lot more than steaks and burgers," the brain behind Dublin Cookery School tells me.
"Barbecuing is an extraordinarily versatile way of cooking if you make interesting choices. Ducks, Dublin Bay prawns, butterflied legs of lamb, halibut in banana leaves... the trick is to think outside the box."
Booth's summer classes encourage participants to do exactly that. Hidden away in Blackrock, her school is set in a bright and airy warehouse, and I'm drawn the length of it, from demo stations to dining tables, by a series of mouth-watering smells.
Lynda's most useful barbecue tip, I think, is to figure out the right amount of coals to use, and then arrange them into a mix of direct and indirect heat.
Direct cooking works well for steaks, for instance, but not for whole fish. "There's a difference between nicely charring and burning something to cinders," as she tactfully suggests.
Don't be put off by the weather. Cookery classes go ahead rain or shine.
Details: Classes from €70. Tel: 01-210 0555; dublincookeryschool.ie.
The picnic stop
People's Park Market
Our plan is simple: bring a picnic rug to Dun Laoghaire's People's Park, browse the stalls for a bite of lunch, find a spot beneath one of the sycamore trees and tuck in.
It starts swimmingly, too. Punters mill around, and the kids and I forage with the best of them, gathering dumplings from the Chinese Dumpling House (five for €3), a falafel box from Suha's (€5 for five, with hummus, various spreads and leaves), a hot dog (€3) and a square of Man of Aran fudge (€1).
Grandad even joins in with a cup of miso soup.
First to disappear are the dumplings. The falafels are grand, but Suha's lettuce has seen better days and gets left behind.
Everyone likes the fudge and the miso soup, including two-year-old Sam, who is fascinated to be told he has just eaten seaweed.
Then, in time- honoured fashion, comes the rain, forcing us to adapt our plan.
Instead of an hour in the playground, we huddle under grandad's huge umbrella, waddling down the road to Teddy's for a quick ice-cream cone, before making a dash for it on the Dart.
Details: Sundays from 11am-4pm. See dlrcoco.ie/ markets.
It's hard to miss Dublin's Pigeon House towers. Visible from Dalkey to Donabate -- not to mention flights coming in to land at Dublin Airport -- the 207m-tall, red and white striped twins are to Dublin, I often think, what Battersea Power Station is to London.
We've all seen the towers from a distance, but it's worth getting up close, too.
To get there, you have to run a gauntlet of industrial lots and waste-water treatment plants, but just as you fear driving into a scrapheap, you're delivered into the middle of Dublin Bay.
Around the generating station, a surprising series of urban oases unfolds. There is Irishtown Nature Park, a windy wilderness on the site of a former dump.
There are the Shellybanks, which in turn give way to rippling sandbanks picked at by oyster-catchers. It's a wet day when I arrive, but the car park is full of kite surfers making the most of an offshore wind.
Several strips of sand reveal themselves as the road winds towards the Great South Wall. You wouldn't call them pretty, but there's a strange beauty to the backdrop, and the very notion of a Special Conservation Area in the city's industrial backyard.
Details: See visitdublin.com and discoverireland.ie/Dublin.
The Canal Way
Cycling has taken an evolutionary leap in Dublin. Not long ago, tourists took their lives in their hands on two wheels, braving a teeming mass of trucks and traffic pollution.
Today, Dublin is the ninth best cycling city in the world, according to Copenhagenize Consulting.
The latest boon for bikes is the Canal Way Cycle. Kicking off from Portobello, the dedicated 3.6km route runs to Sheriff Street, includes its own souvenir-sized traffic lights (amber means yield to pedestrians), and is the first part of ambitious plans for a cross-city route.
It's a lovely, leafy stretch, passing barges, bridges and the famous statue of Patrick Kavanagh on his bench as it saunters towards Samuel Beckett Bridge.
Cruising along the canal banks, I make a mental note of several potential picnic spots.
Turning south before the River Liffey, cyclists can continue along the southern seafront, passing Sandymount Strand, Booterstown Marsh and Blackrock Park, before finishing up with a cuppa or an ice-cream cone on Dun Laoghaire's Windsor Terrace.
Details: See dublincycling.ie.
The pit stop
Tearooms, Cabinteely Park
If you're an Irish child (or, indeed, parent), you haven't lived until you've climbed, jumped, swung, bounced, slid and zip-lined around the playground at Cabinteely Park.
It's not just one of the best playgrounds in Dublin, it's one of the best in Ireland.
After an early visit, I repair to the tearooms by 18th-century Cabinteely House for breakfast. They're set in a former stable yard, with arched windows and patches of exposed stone forming a breezy backdrop to a plate of re-fried pancakes with Cheddar and creme fraiche (€7).
There's easily enough for an adult and child in the generous, gungy serving -- especially if the soft-serve ice-cream cone machine is beckoning for dessert.
Other breakfast choices include short-stack pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, or organic porridge with honey and blueberries.
There are paninis, bagels and sandwiches, too, and, of course, a display case lined with cakes, muffins, cookies and other treats.
Curiously, there's also a Japanese garden outside. If weather permits, sit on the wooden deck by its stepping-stone path, winding stream and heart-shaped pond outside.
Apparently, the gardens celebrate the relationship between Dun Laoghaire and Izumo City, where the Irish soccer team was based during the 2002 World Cup.
Details: Tearooms open daily from 9am-6pm. See dlrcoco.ie.
The overnight suggestion
Think of Dublin and country cottages don't exactly spring to mind. But that's exactly what I find squirrelled away in the mountains above Kilternan.
Set on Ballybetagh Hill, the 200-year-old cottage has been sensitively restored by Howard and Hilary Knott, and stepping through clumps of lavender to have a look inside, I find a plum mix of old world and mod cons.
Thick stone walls, latch doors and waist-high windows frame a modern country kitchen, slick Italian tiles, Wi-Fi and a small flatscreen TV.
It's a cosy set-up, with two small bedrooms sleeping three people (though you could squeeze in a cot), and brightened up enormously by clever skylights over the living area.
"At the end of the day, it was just as cheap to do it right," Howard says.
I like his style. Heritage colours lend a feeling of class, there isn't a hint of the tacky pine that bedecks so many Irish self-catering properties, and views pour down the Dublin Mountains, stretching from Dun Laoghaire out to the Rockabill lighthouse.
On the downside, there is no bath.
Howard and Hilary live right next door, which you could either see as a convenience or a little close for comfort, but the mix of country charm (Johnny Fox's pub is a mile up the road) and city proximity (the Luas, M50 and Carrickmines are all a five-minute drive away) works wonders.
It's a peach of a property.
Details: €100 per night; three-night minimum. Tel: 086 846 2450; thecottagedublin.com.