Carlow: The Dolmen county's step to heaven
A step up...
A county with a GAA team nicknamed the Scallion Aters had to have a few surprises up its sleeve, and Carlow didn't disappoint.
Often underrated and overlooked in tourism terms, the Dolmen County beckoned for some R&R, with the Step House in Borris our base for the duration.
We arrived on a bitter February morning to be met with a welcome as warm as the real coal fire burning in the lobby of the family-owned hotel. After filling our bellies with organic porridge anointed with cream, we headed up the road to The Old Rectory, the home of Blackstairs Eco Trails (blackstairsecotrails.ie), which is run by former deputy leader of the Green Party, Mary White, and her geographer/mathematician husband, Robert.
The exuberant duo offer a variety of eco trails, guided hikes, foraging and fungi workshops, teachers' courses, children's trails and, in a novel twist on the foraging theme, quirky 'Foraging Hen' parties for brides-to-be.
Mary and Robert are passionate environmentalists, and since the early 70s have painstakingly documented the area's flora and fauna. Sadly, but not surprisingly, their meticulous records show the devastating effect the modern age has had.
We toured the sylvan grounds, picking wild garlic as we went, while Mary waxed lyrical on the plants, the Celts and their reverence for trees - in particular the seven nobles (oak, crab apple, yew, pine, hazel, holly and ash), all of which thrive in this idyll in the shadow of the Blackstairs.
We then repaired to the restored 19th-Century barn - also used for events, yoga and mindfulness - where, under Mary's instruction, we whipped up pesto from our wild garlic haul, and tried our hand at making sloe gin; a cinch. Sloe is the fruit of the blackthorn, and if your harvest is timely, your ruby-red gin can be ready for the Yuletide table.
Warmed by our (tiny) snifters of fragrant gin (from a bottle Mary had prepared earlier!), we headed north-east, where, in a valley just over the Carlow-Kilkenny border, lies the old mining town of Castlecomer, and on its outskirts, the Discovery Park. First, it was time for a bit of lunch in the Jarrow Cafe, named after a deep seam of coal, discovered in the 1700s, that required the services of experienced miners from Durham in England to extract it. The area's proud tradition of coal-mining is illustrated through the interactive Footprints in Coal exhibition, which is open daily. It is hard not to be moved by the conditions endured by the miners, who spent countless hours underground, working in near-darkness, often lying on the flat of their backs in the wet to hack at the coalface. The pay was good, but the job often cost them their health and in some cases, their lives.
There is a delightful walk around the park, dotted at intervals with sculptures, and if you have kids in tow, they will be enchanted by the a cuter-than-cute Elf Village, designed and hand-made by local volunteers, which comes into its own at Christmas. Sadly, the Tree Top Walk, Climbing Wall and Leap of Faith, which looked just as exciting as they sound, were not yet open for the season, but they reopen this weekend, book on (056) 444-0707. There are also fishing and boating lakes, and a variety of craft studios in the Estate Yard. I was especially taken with Eclectic Interiors, see eclecticinteriors.net, which has all manner of painted, upcycled furniture, and such bits and bobs as antique, hand-embroidered French boudoir cushions and pink glass decanters; I wanted everything!
Back in the cosy embrace of our Step House room, which was elegantly decorated in neutrals with duck-egg blue and gold accents, I had what was most definitely a contender for the Best Shower of My Life Award. Acres of cream marble, a sunflower-sized shower head, endless hot water and white fluffy towels. Bliss.
Suitably gussied up, we had a pre-prandial in the 1808 bar - real fire, mark two - before heading downstairs to the Cellar Restaurant for dinner, prepared by head chef Alan Foley and his team. It's difficult to find sufficient superlatives to do justice to the exquisite feast that awaited - far and away the best ham hock I've ever had; a superb rabbit main; a faultless cheeseboard, served at the perfect temperature (so rare); and - delight of delights! - a mouth-watering selection of petit fours, all gluten-free. It's not often you can put mouth-watering and gluten free in the same sentence, I can tell you. We didn't stop ooh-ing and aaah-ing all night.
Next morning, after a breakfast of free-range poached eggs - served by Kathleen, who couldn't do enough for us, which seemed to be the defining staff template - we set off to explore. Directly across from Step House, behind an imposing gateway, set in 600 acres, is the Tudor-style Borris House, ancestral home of the McMorrough Kavanaghs, High Kings of Leinster, and one of the few living estates that can trace its history back to Brehon times. Today, it's home to Sara and Morgan Kavanagh, the 16th generation of McMorrough Kavanaghs to live there. The gorgeous building - also home to a restored Victorian laundry - is a popular venue for weddings, while tours run daily from May to September; at this time of year they are by appointment, tel: (059) 977-1884, or see borrishouse.com.
A little way down the street is the viaduct, an imposing limestone 16-arch railway bridge, constructed at a cost of IR£20,000 in the late 1800s, and now used as a picturesque walking track.The views from it are stupendous.
Next, it was back in the car for a short drive to Altamont Gardens, where they were celebrating Snowdrop Week. As well as its beguiling gardens (the Slaney Walk is a must-do), Altamont is home to the second largest collection - over 100 varieties - of snowdrops (galanthus) in Ireland, started by Mrs Corona North over 30 years ago. From simple bells, to delicate trefoils with elaborately ruffled centres, or miniature pixie's hats, daintily edged in green, the diversity of the flower is captivating. We bought a few specimens in the garden shop and inspired by our visit, made a detour to the award-winning arboretum, in Leighlinbridge, see arboretum.ie, to purchase more plants for our own much loved garden, and for lunch in Rachel's Cafe - which, incidentally, had no less than five varieties of gluten-free cake on offer!
Sure, didn't I tell you Carlow was full of surprises?
Brilliant young head chef Alan Foley, son of the owners, and formerly of Peacock Alley, Sheen Falls Lodge and Chapter One, thinks, talks and breathes food and has a philosophy of using the best local ingredients, organic where possible, in his classical and sophisticated cooking. Enjoy Sunday night accommodation in one of the Step House Hotel's luxurious bedrooms, a delectable four-course table d'hote meal in the award-winning Cellar Restaurant, and a full Irish breakfast the following morning from just €85 per person, sharing.
Tasting evenings, which run on February 27, March 13, and April 3, are an ideal way to kick off the weekend with tantalising tastes by this talented chef, and a eight-course tasting menu in the atmospheric Cellar Restaurant. Tasting Evenings at the Step House Hotel cost €60 per person for the eight-course tasting menu, with dinner, an overnight stay and breakfast the following morning from €100 per person, sharing. See www.stephousehotel.ie