Tuesday 23 January 2018

Kilkenny 2.0

It was once dubbed the 'stag and hen capital of Ireland', but Kilkenny has worked hard to rid itself of the dubious accolade... with some success

Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny Castle
The Vintage Tea Rooms are well worth a visit
The Mount Juliet Hotel
The Mount Juliet Hotel
Ian Mallon

Ian Mallon

I had no idea that I needed to visit Kilkenny for a family break, until the clever marketing people told me I did.

"But surely Kilkenny is a hotbed of debauchery, stag and hen groups roaming wild through those once lovely medieval streets?" I inquired. "Nope, not any more, we've changed and we're going to show you just how," was the response.

And by way of proving the point that Kilkenny has now evolved fully from a hive of hedonism to the bedrock of sophistication and class, I took Miriam the marketing-woman's word for it and headed towards the south-east.

You see that's the simplicity of marketing, a seed is planted in the mind's eye, the subliminal message incubates away in the recesses of the brain, and before you know it... POW, you're awaiting delivery of that LCD Smart TV, or striding around in those new trainers, or in this case, packing the family into the car and heading to Kilkenny city.

Kilkenny Tourism have been slowly chipping away at the brain for some time now, but instead of hammer and chisel, press releases and best-in-class awards have been employed as the weapons of choice. Every other week we're being told that Kilkenny is the best, the cleanest, the funniest, the friendliest, the most hospitable, the most populated with Michelin star restaurants, the most historic, the prettiest and the tidiest.

They shout from the rooftops that it's the best place to go for a pint, the best place to not go for a pint, the best place for the old, the most enjoyable place for the young, the nicest place to shop, the tastiest place to eat, and who knows, probably the best place to die. The one award it no longer wants or needs is the 'The Stag and Hen Capital of Ireland' which has blighted this quirky and quaint city.

Kilkenny is now fighting back against the tide of 'kiss me quick' yahoos that used to wash itself up on its land-locked shores every weekend. It has been reborn in the image and likeness that befits such a beautiful and ancient city, with her narrow streets, bookshops, bistros, brasseries, cafes and genuine hospitality.

We started a short distance away in the magnificent Mount Juliet, Ireland's best country estate hotel resort – my personal favourite. I've been lucky enough to stay there at various points and for varying reasons in the past 10 years, but this was the first time I brought the family, which put the place in a whole new light.

What sets Mount Juliet apart from the rest of Ireland's country house resorts is that it retains a natural beauty and splendour which goes back centuries, long before the great businessman and visionary TP O'Mahoney dreamed his dream 30 years ago. There was swimming, nature walks, horse-riding, golf, archery and lots of other side-shows for all the family, which we partook with aplomb.

The hotel itself has recently undergone a dramatic makeover and refurbishment to bring it up to scratch for a house fitting enough to host a Michelin starred restaurant. The Lady Helen Restaurant is a 1 Michelin Star and 3 AA Rosette, which boasts extraordinary views over this fine estate, and serves up a menu based on international dishes prepared with local produce.

We skipped the delights of Lady Helen – having three highly opinionated kids in tow was not conducive for fine dining of a Michelin standard, but we moved our hungry selves across to the clubhouse and Kendal's restaurant. This was a good move all around. Kendal's is a superb French brasserie, informal, yet refined. This was the food highlight of the weekend.

The following evening we dined in the Italian Connection in the heart of Kilkenny, a contemporary restaurant which bases its dishes around simple yet authentic fare.

Kilkenny is now renowned for its food and eateries, and one that needs special mention is the Vintage Tea Rooms, a cosy restaurant which serves an exceptional range of food, and its own home produced sweets and desserts.

Food, or the participation in eating and drinking, is the essential high point of any weekend away especially in a place of gastro renown, which Kilkenny has become.

Mount Juliet isn't all about food and drink, of course. There was the spa and leisure centre, horse-riding for the kids, golfing for the dads (and mums) and hours of wandering around the beautiful large estate.

If you want to venture further, Kilkenny city is just up the road. There is also Goatsbridge Trout Farm, one of the finest trout producers in the world and the only farm in the country producing caviar. Gourmands will enjoy a visit to the Smoking Workshop.

Another weekend highlight was the Reptile Village in Gowran, Ireland's only reptile zoo boasting exotic snakes, lizards, tortoise, turtles, crocodiles, alligators, spiders, scorpions, frogs and salamanders. If you've got kids this will entertain for hours on end, and even if you don't there is a fantastic learning experience for all to enjoy.

After our experience in Kilkenny, a marketing concept became a living reality in all its glory, and the best news is I didn't come across a single hen or stag party all weekend. For more, see visitkilkenny.ie

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