West Cork isn’t just a staycation destination for me. It’s a place that brings me peace and at the same time makes me feel alive.
There are twists in the roads that are bursting with memories and yet each time I’m there I discover somewhere new – a bohereen lined with red fuschia and purple foxgloves which leads me to the most fantastic view. West Cork is my happy place.
Of course, it is a huge area stretching from the coast of Kinsale to Castletownbere, but it is the townland just outside Clonakilty that I love most.
There is always a moment on our trips, usually over a glass of wine, where my husband and I have that dreamy chat about buying a little cottage with a sea view in Ardfield. Until that lotto win, however, there are plenty of excellent places to stay.
Dunmore House Hotel has one of the best hotel views in the country, overlooking the glistening ocean that sweeps across to Inchydoney Island.
On a sunny day, there is nowhere better to sip a glass of wine (and have the cottage chat). However, it is equally stunning on a stormy winter’s day. There I’ve sat perched with a steaming pot of tea watching the sea battle with itself, creating voluptuous waves. It’s a fascinating scene to savour while warm and cosy inside.
Across the bay is Inchydoney Island Lodge and Spa. Again, sea-view rooms are the pièce de résistance and one of my favourite parts of the stay is anticipating what view you get. Going down the bedroom corridor, rooms on one side overlook the beach just left of the Virgin Mary headland while the other overlooks the right. It’s like a completely different experience on either side of the corridor, making every stay unique. I’ve been known to be one of the first in the dining room to get one of the tables that overlook the beach and I have, on occasion, had to wear shades – so beautiful is the sun coming in the window. Although the bar food in Inchydoney needs improvement, the breakfast has never failed to impress – the kippers are a personal favourite.
If you’re looking for something a little bigger, Dunowen House certainly has capacity with eight luxury bedrooms.
But for a smaller family, their three-bed cottage is an oasis of calm. As you’re just a three-minute drive from the beach, the subtle and tasteful nautical theme is fitting throughout. The main bedroom is reached through a spiral staircase and overlooks a garden bursting with colour. Downstairs, there is a twin bedroom with another double room just off the main sitting area. Fresh flowers from the garden adorn the kitchen table when you arrive, with freshly baked goods prepared by owner Kela Hodgins. A perfect home away from home.
Very close by is another excellent self-catering option, Ballynoe House. Run by Mark and Felicity Grace, the guesthouses were opened in 2018 but you’d be forgiven for assuming they only opened this season given how new and contemporary everything is.
Spacious and overlooking beautiful gardens lovingly cared for by Mark, the houses are surrounded by wildflower fields and meadows that are perfect for little explorers. There is even a fairy trail decorated with stones of cartoon characters, hand painted by Felicity. There is a four-bedroom house and two mews – which are two-bed houses – all connected by a courtyard. The rooms are en suite, the living areas are spacious – especially in the big house – and with a subtle palette of colours that creates a relaxing atmosphere, this is a holiday home you’ll be sad to leave.
One of the best ways to enjoy the wildlife of west Cork is on the water and sea kayaking is an amazing opportunity to get up close and personal with seals, dolphins or, if you’re lucky, whales. Atlantic Sea Kayaking runs a selection of kayaking experiences – you could do something different every time you go to west Cork.
It’s the night kayaking at Lough Hyne, however, that I found magical. Northern Europe’s only inland saltwater lake, Lough Hyne is filled each day by the tides, creating a unique ecosystem of marine life. Just as the sun sets is when nature really comes alive here. Herons glide overhead while otters poke their heads out of the water.
While the sun paints a beautiful canvass of red on the sky overheard during the summer months, it’s equally enjoyable during the winter. Wrapped up warm, when the sun sets, you delve into a remarkable darkness with the odd twinkling of a car or house light aiding your sense of direction to the shore. It is a perfect silence, the only sound being the paddles slicing through the water and the soft words of our guide Jim Kennedy telling the stories of the sea. There was a time when everyone on our tour stopped, laid back and savoured the wonderful moment.
The highlight, though, is when the stars shine high above the lake and the water comes alive with a bioluminescence shimmering – a chemical energy that comes from an aquatic algae. It might be science, but it’s also just magical.
Next up on my west Cork to-do list is a daytime kayak as Jim leads groups on seaweed foraging tours or through some of the caves and hidden coastal gems that you simply can’t access by foot.
The beaches in west Cork are just as beautiful when you’re walking them.
While Inchydoney beach is the most famous spot for a day of surfing, there are many hidden gems to explore. I almost don’t want to write about Red Strand as I don’t want it to be crowded with Irish Country Living readers but it is a beautiful and quiet beach. Because it isn’t very exposed, it’s great for a swim – with Galley Head lighthouse standing proudly in the distance. Duneen Beach is also a little cove great for a swim but for those who love a good beach walk, Long Strand is a mile and a half of pure beauty.
A day trip to explore is always on my to-do list and this summer I finally ventured to Mizen Head. To be honest, the journey is as good as the destination, driving through Schull and Goleen, detouring to Crookhaven and then passing the glorious beach of Barleycove. When you finally arrive at Mizen Head, it feels like the end of the world. Even though we arrived on a beautiful day, there was a power to that Atlantic wind that feels raw and free. There are plenty of different lookouts along the path and though you may be discouraged by all the steps, I assure you the workout is worth it as you’re rewarded with a different dramatic view on each route, some out to Fastnet Rock lighthouse. The history of Mizen is well presented in the visitor centre, although I may have skipped the last bits in my rush to get to the gift shop.
I haven’t made a trip to west Cork without going to Dunmore House for a meal or two.
The food never fails to be of exceptional quality but it changes with the season so it’s never boring. New favourites were the crab and cheddar fritters – the cheese oozing on the inside – as well as the mussels and chorizo bake, with a subtle spice that was washed down with a creamy glass of Guinness. Old favourites, such as their fishermen’s pie and the dry-aged Hereford steak served with the crispiest onion rings, are also always a welcome constant. The bar is one of my favourite places to eat. It’s relaxed and casual yet the food is restaurant quality – the perfect fusion. On a nice day, however, sitting on the balcony with a steaming bowl of chowder heaving with fresh fish that just landed in Union Hall can’t be missed.
In nearby Ardfield, the Mountain House has embraced outdoor dining with gusto. A very trendy star marquee was erected in their beautiful gardens to provide shelter when serving up fresh and local food. Fish and chips, smoked salmon and crab fishcakes and ribeye steaks are all regulars on the menu but one of the best meals of our holiday was the kataifi monkfish with new potato salad and a homemade chilli salsa. Kataifi is a very thin, crispy pastry which added an elegance to the moreish and delicious monkfish but it was the potato salad served slightly warm and creamy which elevated this memorable meal.
Sometimes, though, you just want some good fish and chips and the Fish Basket on Long Strand has to be one of the most scenic chippers in the country.
Run by husband-and-wife team, Peter and Elaine Shanahan, I was actually relieved when one day they were sold out of scampi and chips. Their scampi is so delicious that for a long time I couldn’t bring myself to order anything else – plus it’s a generous portion, which scampi lovers know can be hard to come by. So fish tacos were the order of the day along with the Allshire’s Gourmet Steak Burger. Going outside my comfort zone was worth the venture, with the floury wrap encasing a crispy fillet of fish with a zingy tomato salsa. The only problem is now it has me perplexed about what I’m going to order the next time. They also serve breakfast and savouring one of Elaine’s cakes with a coffee on a quiet morning while overlooking Long Strand is just another one of those moments that brings me back to west Cork time and time again.