Waterford: Luxury, gluttony and beauty in the sunny southeast
Adventures in luxury
Aine O'Connor is royally surprised by the adventures, food, pampering and heritage towns of West Waterford.
The lady in Lismore reckons there has been a change.
Where once Irish tourists flocked west, there have been more of us heading south in recent times, to the other and no less sunny part of the South East, Waterford. Two and half hours motorway from the capital makes it a very handy weekend destination for Dublin dwellers - and this one really enjoyed driving around discovering some of the gems off the main roads. Though lads, the potholes!
Ardmore, believed to be the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland, is around thirty minutes from Waterford city. A narrow roads leads into the village which is Tidy Towns-winning pretty. The road climbs along the sea to the Cliff House Hotel (cliffhousehotel.com), which was, jammily enough, my five star destination.
And it is gorgeous. My room, complete with sitting room, two fires, huge bed, sound system, rainfall shower, gigantic bath and two balconies overlooking the sea, was the sort of place I could imagine holing up in for a few days. I was lucky with the weather so it made for a beautiful view from the balcony set into the planted roof but it must be spectacular on a stormy day too.
The Cliff House, Ardmore
As befitting somewhere with such a great location, the sea is an integral part of the Cliff House. It is present too in the range of Irish seaweed-based therapies in the spa, The Well. It offers the usual range of spa therapies at the usual hotel prices, but, because I was in the middle of exercising for Ireland I opted for a massage. There's a beautiful room - overlooking the sea - in which couples can have a massage at the same time.
I also needed the massage because I'd spent the morning sea kayaking with Kilian from Ardmore Adventures (ardmoreadventures.ie).
My fear when donning a wetsuit and becoming a fat, black, shiny yoke in the sea is that I will be harpooned. But the lifejacket and boat undid the whale look somewhat and, whilst not exactly a skilled boatwoman I got the hang of it enough to spend a couple of hours going along the coast. The from-the-sea perspective made the somewhat complex corridor / lift combos required to get around the Cliff House that bit more comprehensible.
Read more: 10 great reasons to visit Waterford
We also visited the rather precarious looking wreck of the Samson Barge, sea stacks and sea caves (reverse in a kayak proved challenging.) There were no seals or dolphins that day alas but there were birds, mussel colonies, anemones and starfish and it's just really nice, even with no experience, to be out on the sea like that.
I got to see the same view, with seals, from a different perspective, doing the cliff walk with local guide Andrew Malcolm. From the hotel, along the cliff, past the round tower and back down to the village, it's perfectly doable on your own but Andrew, who also works for the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, font of information and great company, made it all the more interesting. One of his interests is in using plants for medicinal and food purposes - I made my daisy-as-a-snack debut on the walk - and some years ago had an idea to provide restaurants with naturally sourced local ingredients, like mushrooms.
No-one was interested, but when the O'Callaghan family reinvented the Cliff House in 2008 and current general manager Adriaan Bartels took over, Andrew went to see him. He, and the Dutch then head chef, were very interested and since then Andrew works as the hotel forager. A few times a week he sees what is blooming, delivers it, and many of the ingredients make their way into the menu of the hotel's Michelin star restaurant, The House.
Smoked salmon at The House
The House, naturally, overlooks the sea so you can watch the sun set as you eat. Each course has a palate cleanse or amuse bouche as delicious as the main events and every plate is explained carefully by attentive staff. I had West Cork Scallops (Seared and accompanied by ceviche, Jerusalem Artichoke, Sea Spinach, Black Garlic, Red Pepperberries, Dutch Salad and Irish Caviar) and Helvick Monkfish (Loin & Pie, Black Olive Crumbs, Garden Pea, Bacon, Egg Yolk, Purple Basil, Saffron Jus).
The portions are not huge, but with the amuse bouches and because I had just been hypnotised into thinking I had a gastric band fitted, I perhaps didn't do justice to my monkfish main and stalled entirely at dessert. But the food was beautiful in both look and taste. Two courses cost €65, three €75 and there's a three-course wine tasting menu for €27.50 on top of the food if you wish.
I also utterly failed to do justice to the breakfast, also served in The House, but there is yogurt and fruit and breads as standard, you then order from the hot menu if you can fit it in. The whole trip was, whilst a foodie's delight, a dieter's nightmare. To work up an appetite for the next dinner I, er... drove a lot. There are lots of hidden gems like Tallow which was pretty in the sun and with a lovely old alms house. I drove some more, pothole and baby bunny dodging, just around and it was lovely to do.
Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford
Lismore has an amazing history for somewhere so small, not for nothing it's a Heritage Town. The Castle is impressive, the cathedral is beautiful and there was a lovely sunny walk along the Blackwater river. All the better to work up a hunger for the next amazing dinner, this time in Dungarvan.
The Tannery (tannery.ie), which also has a cookery school, has been run by chef Paul Flynn and his wife Maire since 1997. Quay Street is narrow, the entrance subtle but inside it was buzzing on a Wednesday night. Upstairs is bright and atmospheric, the staff again were friendly and helpful. I had scallops to start , again, sorry, but this time served with the roe and girolles, pea puree and smoked pancetta. (€14.40) Very good. Then Pan-fried Cod, petits pois, mussels and parma ham (€27). There was a lot of food, all of it lovely, and despite stalling on the savouries I ordered a dessert, dark chocolate mousse with blood orange and salted caramel (€9). I just wanted a taste, a spoonful or two. I ate it all. Without remorse.
A lovely evening to end a lovely trip. I have visited Waterford before but feel vaguely daft for not knowing that there was so much, so lovely, so near.
Sunday Indo Living