After an overnight stay in Co Carlow (during the heatwave we enjoyed a few weeks ago), I am now convinced: there is no better place in Ireland to visit during sunshiney weather.
I was invited by Carlow Tourism as part of the launch of their “Wander Off the Track” campaign, but – to be honest – I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I had visited Carlow town a few times and, living in North Tipperary, we have taken family day trips to the Arboretum in Leighlinbridge, but that was about the extent of my Carlow knowledge.
In pursuit of a family-friendly visit, I brought along my eight-year-old daughter.
Maeve is a child born for fancy hotels (with indoor pools and posh restaurant dinners). Little did she know, we were going to be staying in restored shepherd’s huts at Blackstairs Eco Trails that night (no indoor swimming pool, but plenty of outdoor space and scenery).
We set off early in the morning and the sun was already shining brightly through the car windows. There is no direct way to get to Carlow from our part of Tipperary; you either have to go via Laois or Kilkenny. We decided to drive through Abbeyleix; along many picturesque hills and pastoral scenes. We arrived in Carlow Town after about an hour and a half.
First, we visited VISUAL Carlow (visualcarlow.ie), which is Ireland’s largest art gallery space. A unique exhibition is currently ongoing, entitled Woman in the Machine (it will run until 12 September). Carlow town was once home to the Braun factory, where many townspeople – mainly women – worked until it was closed down in 2010.
VISUAL Carlow, in partnership with the Carlow Arts Festival, launched Woman in the Machine as a tribute to “the female pioneers in sound, electronics and engineering”. Instalments are from artists from around Ireland and the world and many use elements of electronics, mechanics or technology in their works. Some of the instalments are interactive, making for a fun gallery visit with the kids.
When we arrived, it was a beautiful day, and following our visit to Carlow town, we took the ‘scenic route’ to Leighlinbridge and the Lord Bagenal Inn (lordbagenal.com) for some riverside lunch. This hotel has plenty of outdoor seating and a limited, but kid-friendly, lunch menu (including “the best ham sandwich I have ever had,” according to Maeve). The serene river views from the deck made for a nice, relaxing lunch. From the hotel, you can walk down to the banks of the river and onto the docks, which are mainly used for fishing and swimming.
Speaking of swimming, as we drove along and into nearby Bagenalstown, it was all we could do to resist jumping straight into the Barrow for a swim. The day was hot and the Barrow was the place to be – it seems the entire locality was there with their togs on! We will save the river swim for our next visit (we passed a few nice, safe swimming spots during our trip).
We arrived at our accommodation in late afternoon. Blackstairs Eco Trails (blackstairsecotrails.ie) is run by husband-and-wife team Robert and Mary White. Before retiring, Mary was involved in the Irish Government for many years, and both she and Robert have a background in science. Their plot of land, nestled into the foothills of the Blackstairs Mountains, is all about enjoying the natural surroundings.
Our lodgings for the night were comfortable – the double bed fit perfectly into the converted shepherd’s hut – and we weren’t too far from the main facilities.
Mary and Robert have a pond on their land, which they use for swimming and canoeing, and on a day as hot as the one we had, you can bet we dipped our feet in! They also have a common building they call The Barn with bathrooms, a fully stocked kitchen, a projector, CD player and a comfy lounging area with lots of pillows and books to read.
It was wonderful to be able to sit outdoors and soak up the scenery. This is just what we did – Maeve played in the hammock and on their swing set, and we relaxed until it was time to go to dinner.
We had an outdoor table reserved at the Step House Hotel (stephousehotel.ie) in the nearby town of Borris.
This is a hotel with a lot of history – the building itself is unique as it is the only Georgian building in Borris with steps up to the front door (hence the name). The Foley family have kept this history alive, but have added splashes of their own personality to the building, as well.
Alan Foley is their executive chef and offers an excellent dinner menu featuring local ingredients. Hotels and restaurants sometimes opt to buy in desserts instead of making their own; we were informed by our server that each dessert item (ice cream included) is made in-house.
I had a pithivier of pheasant with jus, Béarnaise and fresh pea purée. The pastry was perfectly crisp; the pheasant not overcooked and the jus so flavourful I ended up stealing some of Maeve’s chips to sop it up. My main course was an in-house aged Hereford sirloin steak. You can tell a steak has been well-aged by the intensity of its flavour.
Dessert was shared: local strawberries, homemade ice cream and a delicate chocolate tuile. After, we were treated to a tour of the hotel by Alan. He told us about the vast amount of work his family have put into the hotel over the years. Their attentive service and delicious food is a testament to this hard work.
It was late when we got back to our little hut and, with a light breeze coming in through the window, we slept peacefully.
The following morning, the sun was once again shining and we made our way to the kitchen at Blackstairs Eco Trails. What awaited us was an impressive spread: homemade sourdough, organic eggs, fresh fruit, berries, juices and cereals. I have done eco-camping before, but this kind of service is a step up (and for a reasonable price of around €75 per night).
After breakfast, we did a quick foraging trip with Mary and Robert. They are very passionate about sustainable living and have invested a lot into their land over the years – they often take groups on day-long foraging trips and, sometimes, teach chefs about the many different wild foods available to us in Ireland.
After making some pine-infused oil and a nettle pesto to take home, it was time to say goodbye to Mary and Robert (and our cute little hut) and hit the road once more. I had two things on my mind: croissants and kombucha – and I knew just where to find them.
The Fermentary (thefermentary.ie) recently opened in Borris (next to the post office) and it specialises in – you guessed it – fermented food and drink. Their kombucha is on tap (similar to beer) and comes in different seasonally-influenced flavours. It’s made by James and Janine (Ludlow) Vine-Chatterton.
They came together with Jenna Black and Séamus Jordan (of Plúr Bakery) and are now serving Borris with delicious food, breads and pastries alongside their organic kombucha. I ordered one of everything, which the whole family enjoyed later at home.
After a refreshing blueberry kombucha, we drove back to Carlow town for their weekly farmers market. The Carlow Farmers Market (carlowfarmersmarket.com) first began in 2004 and has grown over the years – both in size and popularity.
As we made our way into town, this was apparent – we eventually found a place to park a five-minute walk away, which, given the weather, was absolutely fine.
The market was crowded with patrons and, looking at the array of vendors, you can see why it is so popular. I always judge a farmers’ market by whether I could complete an entire weeks’ food shop – and it is very possible here. Bread, meat, fish, prepared foods (I enjoyed a few samosas from one vendor and then had an organic pork burger from another for lunch) and vegetables are all available each week, among plants, pottery and other speciality vendors.
We chatted with James Malone, who is the chairperson of the farmers market and also owns Malone Fruit Farm, and picked up a large punnet of his strawberries before heading on our way back home to Tipperary – completely refreshed.
Considering all we were able to pack in for one overnight stay, it got me wondering what we could have done with a long weekend, or a week – and all three of my kids. Carlow is a wonderful place to spend those lazy summer days – eating, swimming, hiking and relaxing – and, now that we’re in the know, we will be back for more.
Janine and Maeve were guests of Carlow Tourism for this trip. For updated information on visiting Carlow, including special offers, visit carlowtourism.com