Thursday 19 September 2019

Mountains to Sea: 20 great things to do in the Munster Vales

Gavin Caffrey and his wife tour four counties in four days on a whistlestop tour of the Munster Vales

The Comeragh Mountains, Munster Vales. Photo: Jakub Walutek / MunsterVales.com
The Comeragh Mountains, Munster Vales. Photo: Jakub Walutek / MunsterVales.com
Gold coast: The Copper Coast Geopark in Waterford
Axe-throwing at Ballyhass Mallow in Ballyhoura Country
Cahir Castle, Co Tipperary. Photo: Fáilte Ireland
Swiss cottage
Wakeboarding at Ballyhass Lakes in Cork

Gavin Caffrey

Tensions had been raised earlier in the car.

Between the satnav bringing us through a mountain range on the shortest, but not always most accessible, route, a poor phone signal and an irritated wife, we'd been unfashionably late for almost all of our activities so far. Now we had axes.

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Two hours of frustration were unleashed as we channelled our inner Jack Nicholson, picked up our weapons and went head to head in an axe-throwing competition at Ballyhass Lakes in Co Cork. Three bull's-eyes in a row and I was perched on a huge wooden throne wearing a unicorn mask as a reward. That is as weird as it sounds.

Just as weird was the pure satisfaction of launching an axe at a wooden target, therapeutic even. "Two people once stuck pictures of their exes on the target," revealed our instructor, Jack, as my wide-eyed wife put the finishing touches to her REDRUM engraving.

I've a feeling ex-throwing could become a thing.

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Axe-throwing at Ballyhass Mallow in Ballyhoura Country

Ballyhass Lakes was one of our last stops on a "couple's adventure" holiday around the Munster Vales, highlighting the area's five mountain ranges - the Comeraghs, Knockmealdowns, Galtees, Ballyhouras and Nagles - and heritage sites.

If you've four days to spare before the weather turns, here's how to do the four counties of the Munster Vales.

Day 1 - Waterford

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Gold coast: The Copper Coast Geopark in Waterford

First up was one of Ireland's best-preserved 'big houses', Curraghmore House (curraghmorehouse.ie), in Portlaw, the first section of which was built in the 1170s. Our guide took us through grand reception rooms, stunningly decorated by renowned architect James Wyatt. The French carpet beneath our feet had been in situ since the 1780s.

"Should we be walking on this?" an American tourist asked. But it was pointed out that Curraghmore is a "living museum", one in which Lord and Lady Waterford still reside.

Also open to the public is the wondrous Shell House (1754), an uncut stone building in the form of a miniature Greek church that houses thousands of shells from around the world, embedded into the walls with a mixture of ox blood, urine and hooves.

Half an hour south, we hit the breathtaking Copper Coast Geopark, where the variety of rock has given rise to a diverse landscape. We discover the secluded Trá na mBó, a cove reminiscent of The Beach's Maya Bay, and our guide Brian points out the 18th-century copper-mine holes still visible in the rock face.

A 15-minute drive brings us to Durrow car park to meet the Greenway Man, Garvan Cummins, for a cycle along the Waterford Greenway: the off-road bike and walking track that stretches 46km from Waterford city to Dungarvan. Personalised fairy doors add a magical touch to the route either side of the 400m-long Ballyvoyle Tunnel before we cross the Ballyvoyle Viaduct, which was blown up in 1922 during the Civil War.

We depart Durrow clutching a bottle of Garvan's Greenway Man craft beer and head for Hanora's Cottage (hanorascottage.com) in the Nire Valley, Ballymacarbry, a family home/eatery/B&B famous for its personal touch and bread recipes.

Three courses later and it was time to recharge in the idyllic Nire Valley Eco Camp (nirevalleyecocamp.com) - self-catering, sustainable cabins with panoramic views of the valley below. As we awake to a continental breakfast delivered to our balcony on a glorious morning by owners Paul and Ruth Deegan, it's obvious this gem isn't going to stay hidden for long.

Day 2 - Tipperary

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Cahir Castle, Co Tipperary. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Carrick-on-Suir is buzzing in anticipation of the Premier County's Championship clash with Laois as we arrive at Ormond Castle, an Elizabethan manor house with two integrated 15th-century towers. Featuring some of the finest decorative plasterwork in the country, it was the home of the 10th Earl of Ormond, Thomas Butler, who was supposedly Queen Elizabeth's bit on the side.

Across town, it was time to test the Waterford/Tipp rivalry as we rented bicycles from Blueway Bike Hire to tackle the county's version of the Greenway, which stretches for 21km along the River Suir. If the cycle path still needs some work, the scenery is picture-perfect.

We refuel with a carvery at the Carraig Hotel (carraighotel.com) before making what is supposed to be a 50-minute drive to Galtee Castle Woods for a yoga walk with Yoga Walks Ireland. Two hours, a few arguments and a plethora of expletives directed at Google Maps later, we're desperately in need of some tree cuddles.

Our instructors, Caroline and Joan, guide us through lush forestry and rolling hills, stopping to take in the sound of the freshwater streams and scenery, while transitioning into a Downward Dog, Salute to the Sun or clearing the mind of negative energy with a Sa Ta Na Ma chant. A hug from a tree and all is right with the world; our marriage, and road trip, saved.

Caroline gives us directions to Castle Gardens B&B (castlegardensbnb.com) in Cahir, its exterior stone walls, triangular windows, tree-like columns and Secret Garden Gate like something out of a fairytale. It provides the perfect base to explore the town's eateries, the standout of which is Lava Rock (lavarockrestaurant.com).

This award-winning BYO is on the pricey side, but what you save on booze is worth splashing out on the fine dining-quality food, the highlight of which is pastry chef Geraldine O'Donnell's dessert of passion fruit jelly and vanilla yoghurt, marinated strawberries, strawberry streusel, calamansi, orange sorbet and madeleine.

Day 3 - Tipperary/Limerick/Cork

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Swiss cottage

After an evening in navigational purgatory, the satnav gets a chance to redeem itself in what should be a five-minute drive to the Swiss Cottage, only to fail again by directing us to a locked gate. A quick rendition of Sa Ta Na Ma and we're blissfully back on the road, a state that's heightened by the enchanting Swiss Cottage (heritageireland.ie).

Built in the early 1800s to a design by architect John Nash (who worked on Buckingham Palace), the cottage's thatched roof and interiors have been painstakingly restored, the salon featuring one of the first commercially produced Parisian wallpapers.

For directions to the Ballyhoura Mountains (visitballyhoura.com) our next destination, we resort to watching a dog spinning around in circles before stopping to poop (they prefer a north/south axis). The journey to the Ballyhoura Horse Trekking centre is seamless; unfortunately, the same can't be said for my wife's transition from car to horseback, even though she's been partnered with an old gentle sort named Sparkles. Nerves fray and no amount of kundalini can calm the situation. She abandons saddle after about 90 seconds.

My affable instructors John Joe and Kelsey pair me with Montana, a sturdy brown pinto, and after a few tips, we're cantering through the mountains to breathtaking views. John Joe recalls how Kim Kardashian had booked to do a trek with him during her honeymoon, only to cancel at the last minute: "Your man [Kanye West] was upset about the Wi-Fi signal!"

As my knees and butt-cheeks start to burn, John Joe's determined to leave a lasting impression: "Quicken the pace there - we want Gavin to feel it in the morning."

My undercarriage lets out a tepid 'yay' back in the softer confines of the car and we gingerly stop off at Molly's restaurant in Kilfinane for a hearty lunch to set us up for an afternoon at Ballyhass Lakes (ballyhass.ie), where thrillseekers can choose from a host of activities such as the aforementioned axe-throwing, 160m zip line, kayaking, abseiling, archery and cable wakeboarding.

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Wakeboarding at Ballyhass Lakes in Cork

After relinquishing our axes, we attempt the latter, which is essentially waterskiing on a snowboard. A few amusing faceplants each into the lake and we're both up on our boards after about five minutes - the rapid learning curve testament to the overhead cable system.

Luckily, our next stop for dinner at Springfort Hall Hotel (springfort-hall.com) is only 15 minutes away. The house may date back to the 18th century but the hotel's menu is in keeping with the ever-growing need to cater for all dietary requirements. There are gluten-free options aplenty for my wife (coeliac), and my spicy seafood linguine pleasantly restores my taste buds after a few pints of Ballyhass lake water.

That evening, we stay at Park South B&B (park-south.com), where host Eva greets us with a welcoming chat, tea and homemade scones with jam. Her substantial full Irish the next morning keeps chatter in the breakfast room to a minimum as we pack up and depart for Doneraile Park.

Day 4 - Cork

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Doneraile, Co Cork. Photo: MunsterVales.com

At first glance, Doneraile's Main Street is like any other: a splattering of pubs interrupt the rows of traditional dwellings, shops and a petrol station. But through an inconspicuous arch lies the town's hidden gem, and a vast one at that.

Doneraile Park features a 'big house' - Doneraile Court, built in the late 1600s and only recently reopened to the public after 50 years and a €1.6m restoration job - tea rooms, sweeping parkland vistas and the most unique 17th-century gardens in the world, due to their fully intact state.

A walk through 400 years of gardens and ancient trees, and we're in need of sustenance, which is provided by the nearby Café Townhouse, its stunning old-world décor a match for the fare on offer.

The homeward journey beckons and we both leave feeling we've done wonders for Leinster/Munster relations. As for our marriage?

We'll always have axe-throwing.

What to pack

A decent satnav! While Google Maps automatically highlights the quickest route, it's not always the most accessible. We ended up at locked gates to estates and it tried to bring us through the Galtees instead of around them. Bring hiking boots and insect repellent for the yoga walk and a towel for wakeboarding, too.

Do it

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Waterford Greenway. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

After cycling part of the Greenway from Durrow to Dungarvan, you can leave your bikes with one of Garvan's linked-in partners and spend the evening in the coastal town, which is always buzzing on a nice day. Revellers line the pedestrian area near the pier with drinks in hand and there are some terrific pubs (Merry's and The Local) and places to eat (including chef Paul Flynn's Tannery and 360 Cookhouse). Gavin was a guest of the Munster Vales.

For more, see munstervales.com.

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