Great food and intriguing history, glorious scenery and hidden coves, arts, crafts and festivals – you'll find the lot when you explore the town of Kinsale and its surrounding countryside
Warmed by the West Cork Gulf Stream, the coast between Kinsale and Mizen Head is like a great big greenhouse. “You could plant a stick in the ground and it would grow,” we are told. And the bays and coves, islands and capes, points and heads give a jagged beauty to the shoreline.
Ireland’s most southwesterly point is Mizen Head, five miles from Goleen at the end of a stubby green finger of land. We make our way down the ‘99 Steps’ and across the century-old Arched Bridge to the Mizen Head Signal Station. In the Irish Lights exhibition, we learn about lighthouses in general and the Fastnet Lighthouse – five miles offshore – in particular.
On the drive back east, the coast road wriggles its way past solid stone cottages in hamlets such as Goleen, with its tiny harbour. Outside Schull (pronounced skull), the Ferguson family’s cows help to convert the rich pastures into Gubbeen cheese. A signpost to Baltimore is a reminder of Ireland’s links to the rest of the world. But we are heading for Kinsale, 15 miles south of Cork.
Set on a broad estuary at the mouth of the Brandon River, Kinsale has bags of history, including the decisive 1601 battle that ended Ireland’s hopes of independence from England. One of the oldest towns in Ireland, its Georgian houses date from the days when this was an important English naval base. Many are hung with flower baskets, their front doors painted in bright greens and blues, yellows and reds that contrast cheerfully with the grey stone.
Not so long ago, Kinsale was just a historic seaside town. Then, in the mid-Seventies, members of Kinsale’s Good Food Circle decided to throw an ‘end of season party’. They called it a Gourmet Festival – and the rest is history. Instead of spuds, cabbage and Irish stew, the focus was on crab and lobster, turbot and cod, smoked salmon and clams. The success of this annual festival encouraged more restaurateurs to open up and soon the town was dubbed the ‘Gourmet Capital of Ireland’.
Today, as well as the restaurants, the yachting marina and the deep sea angling attract visitors. So does the 500-year-old Desmond Castle. “Back in 1691,” we are told, “the Irish nobility fled to Bordeaux, where many married into the wine trade.” Nicknamed the Wild Geese, they returned to sell wine in Kinsale, one of the few ports allowed to import from abroad. About a century later, the castle served as a prison for American colonists during the War of Independence. Now, the theme is a happier one – wine. As we tour the International Museum of Wine, we learn about the connections between the Irish, now known as the Wine Geese, with familiar Bordeaux wines and cognacs: Barton, Hennessy, Lynch, Phelan, Kirwan.
To see a more imposing fortification, we take a half-hour stroll up to the clifftop. Dominating the entrance to the harbour is the Charles Fort, built back in 1677. On the entertaining, hour-long tour, we learn about the Norman connections and the efficiency of star-shaped defences. Then we walk back along the Lower Road, stopping for a pint at the 350-year-old Spaniard pub in Scilly. This classic watering hole is a reminder that the Spanish fought alongside the Irish in the 1601 battle.
In and around Kinsale is a burgeoning craft community. At 3 Main Street, Granny’s Bottom Drawer sells cashmere, embroidery and Irish linen. Crackpots (3 Cork Street) is a working pottery, restaurant and wine bar. Some ceramics are made for the restaurant, a member of the Good Food Circle; others are for sale.
Kinsale also makes a fine base for exploring. One day, we drift down country lanes that turn into single-lane tracks, then peter out in a field. Switching off the car engine, we hear nothing but high-flying gulls. This is Nohaval Cove: still, peacock green water, black rocks, the grey walls of a ruined fort. And just three other walkers sprawled out on the thick tufted grass.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, autumn arrives slowly, so October weekends are an excuse for more fun: the 33rd Kinsale Gourmet Festival (October 9-11); the Kinsale Fringe Jazz Festival (October 24 to 26). Join in, or just sit in the sun with a pint and a plate of seafood.
Fly to Cork (a 30-minute drive from Kinsale). Aer Arann flies from Southampton, Edinburgh, Bristol, Cardiff, Jersey and Belfast. Aer Lingus flies from London Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester. Ryanair flies from London Stansted, London Gatwick and Liverpool. And bmibaby flies from Manchester.
Where to stay in Kinsale
Blue Haven Hotel has luxury rooms named for the Wine Geese; excellent restaurant.
Old Presbytery B&B is a comfortable Georgian townhouse in the heart of the town.
Actons Hotel overlooks the water; 70 rooms; the hub of the festivals.
Where to stay in Goleen (for Mizen Head)
The Heron’s Cove is a B&B and restaurant overlooking the tiny harbour.
Where to eat in Kinsale
Fishy Fishy Café, with its blue tiling, is all about locally-caught fish and seafood: great seafood chowder, fish pie of white fish, salmon and shellfish, in a creamy sauce. Informal and always busy.
Max’s Wine Bar: 11 years old and as good as ever; again, local produce is the strength, with French recipes and an Irish twist.