Sunday 18 February 2018

Thrills, no spills

Canoes, bikes and climbing gear... Anne Cunningham got physical on her visit to Kilkenny

Ican't think of a less likely candidate for an outdoorsy adventure-type weekend than me. It beggars belief that I found myself in Kilkenny, with a schedule involving canoes and bikes and climbing gear. I'm not far from needing arch supports and a hearing aid, for God's sake.

My friends cackled, the couch potatoes and the fit 'n' healthy ones alike. Told me to let them know which hospital I ended up in so they could send flowers. Oh ye of little faith.

I'm back now. No injuries. The fair-weather friends are almost disappointed. And I'm not only blissed out, I'm addicted – to exercise.

My trip to Kilkenny was the most fun I've had in years. The endorphins are throbbing, the feelgood factor is high and my weight-loss mission no longer seems impossible. I may not stick to a diet, but I know I'll be outdoors, working off the calories with gusto.

The Marble City is a charming spot. It had been decades since I'd visited Kilkenny, and I'm really pleased with what they've done with the place while I was away. With seemingly more historical sites per square yard than anywhere in Dublin, it's been carefully and sensitively renewed to become the tourist hub it now is. Kilkenny's no longer just for the history buffs or the craft and design junkies or the culture fiends. It has attractions for everyone, whatever your interest might be.

The Pembroke Hotel in Patrick Street is chic and classy. The lobby widens out, sweeping up to reception and beyond, to feature big marble wall tiles alongside swathes of flock wallpaper, and such a stint really shouldn't work. But it does. Beautifully. The contemporary theme runs through to the bedrooms, adorned with monochrome photos of architectural details in the city. Rooms are comfy and warm, pools of tranquil peace right smack in the centre of town. Only round the corner from Kilkenny Castle and Kilkenny Design Centre (I couldn't resist a mooch around), you just roll out the hotel door, veer right and you're there.

Dinner in the Pembroke's Stathams Restaurant was excellent. My daughter, who believes vegetables to be the sweetbreads of Satan, murdered a vegetarian spring roll. She made pan-fried chicken disappear too, and an enormous chocolate brownie.

My steak came with a marvellously pungent garlic sauce, and the crushed potatoes (not just chef-spiel for mashed spuds, I learned) were fluffy and light – perfect comfort food.

Castlecomer Discovery Park is about 15 minutes away, and my only regret about our visit there was the shortage of time. This really is an all-day venue, there is so much to see and do. For instance, we missed out on visiting the old coal mine, and the trip looked fascinating. But we did manage to scale the heights of the special climbing wall and the treetop walk was brilliant, according to Scallywag. She did it twice. In the interests of truthful reporting, I must admit I lost my courage – at the very last minute – in the treetops. I stepped out and I stepped in again, as the song says. And when I managed to scale about four feet of the climbing wall, I lost my footing and gave up gracefully (well, not very gracefully). But I still enjoyed trying, and I'm going back at mid-term to do it properly.

These adventures are safe. We were in highly trained hands, and meticulously kitted out in hoists and ropes and hard hats. The only danger was in my imagination.

The park's Jarrow Cafe is open all day, as is the Design Village with ceramics, jewellery, textiles and upholstery. I'd gladly have browsed for the whole day in those beautiful little galleries – converted stables where the designers work.

Park manager Liz Nolan told me the entire venture is community-run and led. Photos of the park before and after development should be an inspiration to every community in the country. It is possible to develop and enhance local assets, provide employment and bring visitors thronging in busloads if you have the vision and commitment to do it. The park is consistently voted into the top three family destinations in Leinster. It's easy to see why.

Next stop was Go With The Flow in Borris, about half-an-hour from Kilkenny. Conceived and run by Charlie Horan, this river trip is special. Charlie takes groups of landlubbers into the waters of the Barrow. Two by two, just like Noah. Except Charlie and his assistant, Kevin, provide canoe, wetsuits, lifejackets and hard hats.

We paddled our way through locks and weirs and rapids too, like we knew what we were doing, even though the whole bunch of us were complete novices. Charlie and Kevin's expertise, along with their wonderful sense of humour and endless encouragement, gave us an afternoon of exceptional fun. We can't wait to do it all again.

Later, back in Kilkenny, dinner in the award-winning Zuni restaurant was sublime. It was early in the evening and already the joint was jumping. This is obviously a popular spot.

A starter of little quenelles of crab and squid in aioli was really good, as was the duck main course. My chicken liver parfait was just that – "parfait". The presentation was perfect too.

Zuni manages to balance serious food with a casual and relaxed atmosphere, which is not easy. But that's precisely what this stylish restaurant is – accomplished. We loved it.

We burned off the calories the next morning on a cycling tour of the city. Jason, the owner of Kilkenny Cycling Tours, is a marvellous guide, attentive, informative and witty. I was consistently the slow-coach paddy-last of the group, but I enjoyed it immensely. My biking confidence isn't up to much and neither is my fitness. Nonetheless, I felt safe on the bike as the tour involved very little cycling in traffic. Scallywag was highly amused by my having to walk rather than cycle uphill as we neared the end. My stamina got lost somewhere in the grounds of St Canice's Cathedral, but I managed it and now I'm impatient to get going again on my own bike. This tour is not for serious bikers. Of course, if you'd like a challenge, Jason runs many other tours and provides the bikes, equipment and maps.

We were still buzzing on the way home. I should be exhausted, but I'm quite the opposite. I feel energised and relaxed. We did a lot in the space of a weekend, but there is much more to do. And much to do again. I swore a solemn oath to Scallywag that we'd return, first chance we get. It's near enough to the capital for a day trip but ideal too for an overnight stay. And if it's adventure you're after, it's the perfect spot.

For information on breaks in Kilkenny, visit

Irish Independent

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