1 Paint at the Pottery Shed
How do you encourage visitors to linger longer in your county?
The 'Made in Kilkenny' crafts trail is a prime example. Pick it up and you could spend days whizzing from goldsmith Rudolf Heltzel to ceramicist Karen Morgan, or Nicholas Mosse's pottery in the old mill at Bennettsbridge.
All that creativity gives us an urge to craft a little something ourselves, so we stop into the Pottery Shed at Kilkenny's McDonagh Junction.
The shelves here are loaded with bisque ware -- hearts, stars, frogs, owls, crocodiles, princesses, you name it -- and the idea is that you choose a piece, paint it and return to collect it (or have it posted) after it has been glazed and fired.
Our five-year-old gets to work painting a seahorse, quickly learning that the trick is to use lots of paint, let it dry a little, and get going again.
A little over a week later, the smooth, shiny, rainbow-coloured creature arrives in the post.
Made in Kilkenny, indeed.
Details: Tel: 056 772 3053; the potteryshed.ie; visitkilkenny.ie.
2 A Lost Town at Jerpoint Park
You may have heard of Jerpoint Abbey, the old Cistercian complex outside Thomastown. But did you know there's a 12th-century Norman settlement just up the road?
Set in Jerpoint Park, its ruins are slowly being reclaimed by the land. But it's a much more interesting visit. "We'll go down the town," says Joe O'Connell, on whose farm the treasure is set.
In its heyday, a LIDAR survey of underground structures has revealed, Newtown Jerpoint boasted 500 souls, 14 taverns and a fording point on the River Nore.
Today, there are only ghosts.
Walking towards the old main street, which Joe keeps freshly mown, we pause among tombstones sticking like dentures from the soil.
He pulls a horse blanket back off one slab to reveal an effigy of Saint Nicholas of Myra, the 3rd-century saint said to have inspired the story of Santa Claus.
As legend has it, the saint's remains were brought here by a pair of crusader knights.
Whatever the truth, it's a good story.
And there are plenty more back at Belmore House, where Joe's wife Maeve serves tea and scones in her elegant tearooms.
Visitors can sup here as their kids play on a tyre-swing and tree house out front, or watch a surreal demonstration of Joe's border collie, Cap, herding geese.
It's Kilkenny's best-kept tourism secret.
Details: Guided walks daily at 11am and 3.30pm; €5. Tel: 056 779 3186; jerpointpark.com.
3 Subterranean secrets in Dunmore Cave
Imagine stumbling upon a horde of Viking treasure. That's exactly what happened to a Dunmore Cave guide in 1999.
Stooping to pick up some litter, he chanced on a priceless stash of silver coins, bracelets, bronze buckles and rare, purple-dyed silk.
It's only one of many tales associated with the cave.
Entered through a huge hole, sunk into the earth like a portal to a Lost World, a tour takes me past the biggest known stalagmite in Ireland, rock formations older than the dinosaurs, and the legend of a monster -- somewhat aptly for Kilkenny -- the cat-like luchthighearn.
Treasure, however, eludes me.
Dunmore Cave is also mentioned in the Annals in relation to a massacre in 928AD, when Vikings "demolished and plundered Dearc Fhearna, where 1,000 persons were killed". Bones have been found in the inner recesses of the cave, supporting the theory.
At the end of the tour, lights are briefly turned out, turning the place pitch black and leaving it all to your imagination.
Details: €3/€1. Tel: 056 776 7726; heritageireland.ie.
4 Catch an early bird at Zuni
A decade ago, the idea of travelling to Kilkenny purely -- or even partly -- for its food may have gotten short shrift.
Today, it's a different story.
The Savour Kilkenny festival and a seriously tasty trail of restaurants, artisans and markets have created a real gastro buzz.
At Zuni, on Kilkenny's Patrick Street, a slight splurge of €23 buys two early-bird courses cooked by one of the top chefs in the southeast, Maria Raftery (pictured) -- not to mention a couple of hours in its classy little dining room, and a whooping board of freshly baked breads.
Dinner begins with a warm chilli chicken salad, served with sweet potato and parsnip crisps.
A creamy dish of pumpkin and chickpea risotto follows, with falafel and red pepper dressing.
For an extra €5 you can stretch to dessert, a tempting proposition when treats such as a gooey lemon meringue Alaska and tiramisu presented like a potted plant, complete with chocolate soil, float past. Definitely worth a detour. For lunch on the run, don't miss gorgeous Glasrai and Goodies in the village of Gowran.
Details: 056 772 3999; zuni.ie.
5 Through the Hole in the Wall
After half an hour scouring the streets of Kilkenny, I finally find the bar I'm looking for.
Hidden down a tiny lane off High Street lies the inner house of a Tudor mansion, dating from 1582. Two words are written on a piece of paper taped to the door: "Knock Hard."
Following the instructions, I find myself in the Hole in the Wall, surely the weirdest and most wonderful wine bar in Ireland.
"It took you half an hour to find it," says its owner, Michael Conway, pouring me a glass of plonk. "It takes most people who live here two generations."
Michael, a cardiologist by day, wears a blue suit, black-rimmed glasses and fedora hat. He bought the neglected property in 1999 and restored it to include a moody little music venue upstairs (Freddie White plays on April 5, Juliet Turner on April 13; €20).
Apparently, Captain Arthur Wesley, future Duke of Wellington, supped here in the 1700s.
It's an extraordinary place. I'm one of just five customers in the inner sanctum and still it feels crowded.
The bar counter is a single, uneven block of timber. The shelves are crammed with bric-a-brac, foreign banknotes, a Fez, a stuffed rabbit.
There are two choices of wine: red or white. But the most important choice is to keep searching. You'll find it in the end.
Details: Tel: 087 807 5650; holeinthewall.ie.
6 Castlecomer's adventure park
Ever heard of Megalocephalus pachycephalus? Before pitching up at Castlecomer Discovery Park, I certainly hadn't.
The lurking amphibian, whose name translates as "big-headed thick-head", was just one creature crawling the swamps here millions of years ago, and whose era is evoked in the 'Footprints in Coal' exhibition.
More recently, of course, Castlecomer's history has centred on miners who toiled beneath the old Prior-Wandesforde estate for coal.
The exhibition remembers those, too, telling the story of the area and displaying paraphernalia such as the gigantic spade belonging to John 'The Slonny' Nolan, famed for shovelling 50 tons in a single shift.
Take that, Megalocephalus!
Afterwards, we eat lunch in the Jarrow Café, before hitting the craft courtyard for a look at Tia and Dani (pictured) Vellani's jewellery and Susan Boland's ceramics.
The park is home to several free woodland walks, a trout-fishing lake and a playground too. It could easily eat up an afternoon.
Details: €7/€5. Tel: 056 444 0707; discoverypark.ie.
7 Overnight at Newlands Country House, Kilkenny
It's a sign of the times in 2012 that a visitor to Kilkenny can not only stay in a five-star B&B, but also have their breakfast cooked to order by a former hotel manager who opened the door of the Shelbourne Hotel to Princess Grace, for just €35pp.
Whilst the price is rock bottom, however, Newlands Country House is the opposite.
Run by Nicola and Eamonn Murphy, the six-bedroom bolthole is a premium product as B&Bs go, offering afternoon tea on arrival and rooms with country views, free Wi-Fi, mineral water and bath robes.
Eamonn is the former hotel manager, having worked not only at the Shelbourne but also the Burlington and the Royal St George Yacht Club. Nicola is the hostess, overseeing the rooms and emailing guests with travel tips.
Recently, a visitor thanked her by sending a charm bracelet from Texas.
With hotel rates in Kilkenny among the most expensive in Ireland, the result is an attractive alternative, just 10 minutes from the city. A sign of the times, indeed.
Details: B&B from €35pp. Tel: 056 772 9171; newlandscountry house.com.
All prices are calculated per person, and include one night's accommodation, two meals (breakfast and lunch/dinner), and all activities. We've also added €15 for petrol costs within the county.
NB: Prices were correct when going to press, but are always subject to change and availability.
The Kilkenny Culture Card offers 20pc off many heritage attractions around the county.
Blasta, Kilkenny's new tapas-style food trail, has a range of taster dishes at select restaurants from €4-€8.
For more see discoverireland.ie/Kilkenny.