Monday 14 October 2019

Back to nature in Kilkenny - 'one of the best places in Ireland for a family holiday'

'It was good to be alive, with our young children running about, breathing in the clean fresh air and the joyous landscape...' writes Barry Egan

The Downton-esque Mount Juliet
The Downton-esque Mount Juliet
The high life: Castlecomer Discovery Park
The picture gallery at Kilkenny Castle
Ristorante Rinuccini
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Start as you mean to go on.

Our family holiday in Kilkenny began with a day out that left us rejuvenated by Mother Nature. The drive to get to Castlecomer Discovery Park, an 80-acre forest park, was surreal, even with Google Maps to guide us - lots of narrow hilly roads almost vanishing, with trees seeming to bend right over and meet in the middle like something out of a Roald Dahl story.

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Once there, we went for a very long walk among the splendour of nature, exploring the forest. It was good to be alive, with our young children running about, breathing in the clean fresh air and the joyous landscape, with the birds singing in the trees up above them - to say nothing of the sound of the older kids and adults above us enjoying the Zipline and the Tree Top Adventure Walk that Castlecomer provides.

We were happy to take it all in and wander through the Elf & Fairy Village, running around toadstools and fairy-houses before strolling gently down the hill to the lake. Hours appeared to pass in the blink of an eye. My wife and I deliberately left our phones behind in the car. It was exhilarating being away from technology, even more so when we all got on a pedal boat and went out into the middle of the lake, with ducks and swans eyeing us curiously. It was truly magical. My wife was the lady of the lake.

The picture gallery at Kilkenny Castle
The picture gallery at Kilkenny Castle

Then it started to lash rain. And we were in the middle of a lake. There was nothing we could do. As suddenly as it started, it stopped, the sun came out and we continued on our watery voyage.

Once we disembarked our little boat, we found a spot in the forest and played hide and seek among the trees. Lost in the trees. Lost in nature.

Lapping it all up, it reminded us of those lines from The Bell Jar, where Sylvia Plath writes: "I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery - air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, 'This is what it is to be happy'."

Determined to stay in the mood, after a wonderful lunch at the absolutely gorgeous Avalon House Hotel, right in the Square of Castlecomer, we drove to Nore Valley Park, where the kids - and Mum and Dad - got to watch lambs be bottle-fed, and hold a newly-hatched chick and a baby rabbit.

We also had a blast on the go-karts before the highlight of the afternoon: a 20-minute tractor ride around the farm, down the hill - bumpily - to the river and back up again. It was two hours well spent and, above all, fun.

Exhausted after a full day out in the open, we made our way to Bassett's in Thomastown for a delicious tea of gourmet pizza, steak, ice-cream, lemonade and wine (for my wife; I was driving).

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The picture gallery at Kilkenny Castle

There was a playground opposite Bassett's. In between courses I went across with the kids for a play. We all fell into our beds that night - and in such grandeur too at the five-star Mount Juliet Estate. Still a bit tired, the kids had a lovely brekkie from the hotel's sumptuous buffet followed by a long swim in the pool.

What we love about the pool at Mount Juliet is that there is a waterfall that you have to swim through to get to a fairytale-esque cave. We spent the morning in the pool, splashing about. Doing nothing but splashing about. It has to be done. Don't knock it till you've tried it.

That afternoon we visited Kilkenny city. To set us up, we had a perfect lunch of pasta in Ristorante Rinuccini, a fine-dining Italian restaurant run by the Cavaliere family on The Parade opposite the Castle. Our tummies full, we went for a stroll around Kilkenny castle, which was built in 1194 and oozes history (in the 17th Century, the first Duke of Ormonde received the Papal Nuncio, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini during the Irish Confederate Wars here in the state apartments).

First Look: Inside Kilkenny's €6.5m Medieval Mile Museum

While the castle itself is glorious, the parklands and gardens are exceptional. You can see why almost 800,000 visitors a year visit Kilkenny Castle. On April 30, 1904, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra stayed here for two nights. The weather being sunny, we went for another stroll around the much smaller but still magnificent gardens of Butler House nearby, which is the dower house of Kilkenny Castle.

Butler House was the home of Lady Eleanor Butler, the mother of the 17th Earl of Ormonde. She lived here after the death of her husband Walter in 1783.

It is a beautiful house. It would have been sinful not to eat here - the menu and the surroundings looked so enchanting. And so, looking out on the gardens through the large bay windows, we had a late afternoon tea to die for.

There is so much to see and do in the Marble City: a mixture of the ancient and the modern, it is one of the best places in Ireland for a family holiday.

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The Downton-esque Mount Juliet

Exhausted, we got back to our palatial suite in Mount Juliet and flopped into bed. The kids were soon asleep. We ordered wine from room service and watched a movie on Netflix tucked up in a giant bed with the kids fast asleep beside us. What bliss.

The theme of bliss continued with brekkie the next morning followed by a long dip in the pool. We went back into Kilkenny city for a glorious Italian lunch at La Rivista on Parliament Street.

We then visited Grace's Courthouse (a former fortress built in 1210 and turned into a prison in the 1500s) followed by another afternoon in the gardens of the castle. It's free and not to be missed.

We had enjoyed Bassett's restaurant in Thomastown so much that we decided to go again too. They were booked out so we ordered pizzas and wolfed them down sitting in the evening sunshine on the swings in the playground across the road.

Life goes with a certain swing in Kilkenny.

Getting there

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Ristorante Rinuccini

During the autumn, Mount Juliet Estate are offering one night's B&B in the Hunter's Yard with dinner in the Hound from €175 per night for two people sharing.

www.mountjuliet.ie; Phone: 056 7773000

* Butler House & Gardens www.butler.ie

* Avalon House Hotel www.avalonhousehotel.com

* Ristorante Rinuccini www.rinuccini.com

* Bassett's Restaurant, Phone: 056 7724916

* For info on activities and attractions in Kilkenny, go to visitkilkenny.ie.

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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