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From ports to forts: Some enchanted evenings in Kinsale

History, culture, food so fresh it practically swims to your plate and 'unicorn horsies'. Barry Egan explores a magical West Cork

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Make the time: Kinesale is magical - Charles Fort

Make the time: Kinesale is magical - Charles Fort

A fish dish at Trident Hotel

A fish dish at Trident Hotel

Ballinacurra House

Ballinacurra House

Kinsale postcard

Kinsale postcard

The Spirit of Kinsale

The Spirit of Kinsale

The Trident Hotel, Kinsale

The Trident Hotel, Kinsale

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Make the time: Kinesale is magical - Charles Fort

A sip of whiskey on the balcony of the Trident Hotel one evening overlooking the port of Kinsale sent my mind all the way back to the 16th century.

It wasn't the strength of the whiskey that did it, though.

The story goes that Hugh O'Neill's men were defeated in the Battle of Kinsale, that started on Christmas Eve, 1601, because his attack plan was given up to Sir George Carew for a bottle of whiskey by Brian McHugh Oge MacMahon. However, according to the history buffs, it's just that - a story.

This magical, and truly historical, coastal town in West Cork has been the source of many apocryphal tales (Stan Gebler Davies, the late journalist, wrote his somewhat colourful Kinsale diary for the Independent; while poets like Derek Mahon and Desmond O'Grady added to the literary allure of the town, as did Patrick Kavanagh's publisher Timothy O'Keeffe, who hailed from here. Molly Keane used to have afternoon tea at Acton's.)

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Ballinacurra House

Ballinacurra House

Ballinacurra House

Which brings me back to the balcony. What allowed me and my wife to enjoy -uninterrupted - the spellbinding views out to sea from our hotel that particular evening was the fact that our two young kids were fast asleep in their beds after a full day of fun.

My five-year-old daughter had spent the afternoon pony trekking at the Kinsale Equestrian Centre in Commoge with her mother. The delight on her face as she trotted off gently into the fields on Wally, her little "unicorn horsie". (Emilia's mother Aoife seemed pleased with herself too as she rode off on the slightly bigger Phantom.)

Ninety minutes later, when the child returned with Wally, I saw a unique beam of happiness on her face. Unicorn horsies are indeed magical.

Afterwards, we drove to the magnificent Ballinacurra House, two miles outside Kinsale, where Emilia and her two-and-a half-year-old brother, Daniel, were given a special lesson on how to make pizzas.

The estate's head chef David Rice taught them how to prepare the dough and put their toppings on before putting their pizzas into a giant outdoor wood-fire oven.

Having worked up an appetite from the pony trekking (Daniel and I were also hungry from the walk around the lovely grasslands of Commoge), we all tucked into the pizzas prepared by Emilia and Daniel.

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The Trident Hotel, Kinsale

The Trident Hotel, Kinsale

The Trident Hotel, Kinsale

After our tasty al fresco feasting, we took a leisurely stroll around the house (the earliest record of Ballincurra House is circa 1770; John Swete Esquire, the High Sheriff of Cork, built it when his cousin Benjamin Swete Esq who worked for the Duke of Marlborough, left him a few bob); and then, through the fairytale woodlands right down to the tributary of the Bandon river.

The gentle silence was broken only momentarily by birds landing on the still water.

An hour later, my family and I were gazing out on bigger waters aboard the Spirit of Kinsale as we explored the harbour and further out to sea.

The charming captain brought us on a wonderful journey that included everything from the sights of seals and otters to a stunning view of the Old Head of Kinsale to James Fort, built in 1603, Charles Fort, built in the late 1600s, and Ringrone Castle, built in the 12th or 13th century.

The captain also told us the tale of the passenger liner, the Lusitania, which lies at the bottom of the sea off the Old Head of Kinsale - torpedoed without warning by a German U-boat in May 1915. Around 1,200 people perished, and it changed the course of WWI.

The marinas harbouring the endless yachts (many of them state-of-the-art, some of them straight out of a James Bond movie) should give you some idea of the wealth in and around this special place in Ireland, only a 35-minute drive from Cork city. Its boating fraternity apart, the wealth of fantastic restaurants in Kinsale is extraordinary, especially for such a small town.

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The Spirit of Kinsale

The Spirit of Kinsale

The Spirit of Kinsale

It is not difficult to see why it is has such a culinary reputation, some even dubbing Kinsale the gourmet capital of Ireland.

The food throughout is world class.

Even a plain bowl of seafood chowder in a local pub in Kinsale is like something you'd get in a swanky hotel abroad. You know you are eating the best of locally caught seafood whenever you're in a restaurant in Kinsale. Something you can't say in every establishment around Ireland, but I digress.

We had a meal one night in the Trident Hotel that was second to none. The fish was so fresh that you'd swear it had swum up on to the plate. The following night we went to Man Friday's up on the hill overlooking the inner harbour and the food was out of this world.

Within 48 hours, my wife and I had two of the best meals we'd had in a long time. We needed it too after months of lockdown with the kids. The wine in Man Friday's never tasted sweeter, too, for the same reason.

We got the taxi to stop off at the playground on the way home so that the kids could have a play before bedtime. The town was relatively bustling, which was great to see after all Ireland has been through during Covid-19. You stop noticing after a while that everyone is wearing masks. All you notice that is they are out, observing social distancing guidelines, trying to enjoy themselves as best they can during all the madness in this great little country of ours.

I felt that Kinsale was a haven from it all… a place where you could have lovely food with lovely views and beaches to match - and your mind, if you let it, would escape thoughts of certain viruses. Early the following morning, we went for a drive along the Old Head of Kinsale. The views, not just of the Atlantic Ocean, but of the sky and the land, are utterly spectacular.

Returning, we spent the rest of the morning at Dock Beach, which is on the other side of the Bandon river near the Castlepark Marina with all its fancy boats.

I read that the Victorians on holidays here used to come to Dock Beach for a swim. Like them, my wife and I and the two kids swam here all morning. It was a beautiful summer's day. The children happily made sandcastles while my wife just as happily sunbathed.

Afterwards, we packed up all our sandy gear, changed in the car and drove to a restaurant I had long heard about, but never been to: Fishy Fishy in Kinsale.

We enjoyed this loveliest of lunches, and the bon vivant/owner, Martin, kept me wildly entertained with stories of the restaurant down through the years.

Less entertaining was that our kids were running to the playground nearby in-between their courses with me following behind them.

There was entertainment for grown-ups later that evening at Hamlet's where our own private cocktail maker taught my wife and I the basics of cocktail making and the like. We also had a beautiful meal in the restaurant.

The kids were exhausted - mercifully - again from all the activities and were asleep as soon as their little heads touched the pillows. It was our last night. Nothing else for it. My wife had a glass of wine. I had a glass of whiskey (in honour of Hugh O'Neill). We sat on the balcony of our gorgeous suite at the Trident and watched the sun go down. The mist hovering over the harbour made Kinsale look like something from The Lord Of The Rings.

Sea and beaches, history and culture - to say nothing of food and hospitality - combine to make Kinsale one of the most wonderful places in the world.

For more, contact the Trident Hotel, Kinsale, Co Cork Phone: (021) 477 9300 or visit tridenthotel.com

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