Over the three day President’s Day Weekend in February I opted to head to Ireland for the first time. But I opted to got Cork instead of the usual Dublin. Did not regret my decision at all. Now, despite arriving at the tail end of Storm Dennis, I still thoroughly enjoyed Cork and all the greater region had to offer.
The highlight of my trip was without a doubt the 95 Euro, 3.5 hour Distiller’s Apprentice Tour at the Jameson Midleton Distillery. And risking all viral infections in kissing the Blarney Stone, to date, I am fine. But what surprised me the most was the food scene here. Lots of fantastic things happening with food in Cork, which has become a culinary and gastronomic destination itself, with plenty of restaurants focused on using the rich local ingredients of the Irish lands. Irish people are known to be very friendly, and that was so true, especially loved the vibes at pubs where upon walking in you are treated as an extended member of the pub’s family. Finally, Guinness really does taste better in Ireland.
Cork is easily accessible from major points in Europe by flight, with daily flights to London, Amsterdam, Paris and many more, primarily by Aer Lingus and Ryanair, there are summer seasonal flights that fly to the U.S. as well. It can also be reached by Irish rail, bus or car from Dublin/ Shannon, the other two major flight gateways or Ireland.
Getting around is easy. Upon arrival at Cork Airport, I got myself a Leap Card, which cost 5 Euros to purchase atop any amount you add to the card. You top of the card at any station or kiosk throughout the country. Buses and trains fares vary depending on type of service and destination. I believe the most expensive journey for me was around 5 Euros for the train to Midleton/Cobh. Cork itself is walkable throughout. If you want to go further beyond the main towns or County Cork, you should rent a car.
Weather in Ireland, is as expected. Similar to Scotland. The weather is all over the place. Wet, windy, chilly, but sometimes sunny and warm, and you are likely to experience all of the above in one day. But no matter the weather the scenery is always pretty, mystical and great.
Accommodations are also wide ranging. You can stay at grand luxury castles or fancy bed and breakfasts. Or just a normal bed and breakfast, hostel or comfortable 3-4 star hotel, some offering single short stay bedrooms. This was what I booked at Hotel Isaacs. Over all, cost of travel and accommodation in Cork is average, cheaper than Dublin and a lot of mainland Europe, but not as cheap as say Portugal or Eastern Europe.
- I landed at around 11:30AM in a stormy Cork from London. First thing was to get myself a Leap card at the convenience store.
- The bus runs around every half hour from the airport to Cork bus station in central Cork. I boarded at noon and around 20 short minutes later I was off within the center of Cork. Another 5 minute walk and I arrived at Hotel Isaacs. Thankfully my room was available.
- After freshening up and settling in I walked about 15 minutes to The English Market. The Irish are used to rain and wind, walking around, I was nearly the only one with an umbrella covered in rain gear, everyone else went about as if it were a sunny day. I needed to catch the market on Saturday as its closed on Sundays. The English Market is a large food hall/ fresh food market. It is a central gathering place for locals to do their food shopping and attracts the tourists as well.
- After walking around the market to peruse the various stalls and items being sold, there is a lot and most are local farm to market! I opted to have my lunch at the Farmgate Cafe, and upper level cafe and restaurant in the market. I had some carrot cake and Irish Lamb Stew, both were fantastically delicious and fresh.
- Following a delicious lunch, I power walked a good 20 minutes to the Cork Train Station for my 1:45PM train to Cobh (pronounced Cove). The multi-stop train only took around 20-30 minutes to reach Cobh.
- My main purpose for visiting Cobh on a stormy day was to visit the Titanic Experience. I had just arrived as the 2:30PM tour was about to start so they gave me a boarding card for the 3PM tour. In the meantime I walked up the steep hill for check out the “Deck of Cards” Houses with the St. Colman’s Cobh Cathedral as the background. This is probably the most iconic shot of Cobh. The houses are beautiful and quaint. Intricately built and the varied paints used on each house does create an instagram worthy moment. After admiring the houses and walking around for a nice shot, I headed to the Cathedral. Entry is free and it was open. I believe you can climb up as well when the weather is good. Soon 3PM was fast approaching so I headed back down the hill to join the tour.
- The Titanic Experience in Cobh is fantastic. It is house in the original White Star Line building where Titanic passengers actually boarded the tenders to reach the ship anchored out in the bay from. Each guest receives a boarding card, replica of actual Titanic tickets, and you are assigned to a real life passenger who boarded from Cobh. You either find out your fate during the tour or at the end in one of the interactive displays. Cobh was the last port of call before Titanic sank. The experience not only walks you through the history of the ship and its fateful end, but it also ties in Irish history, especially that of Irish immigrant history, as well as the significance of Cobh as its last port of call. From cabin replicas to original items from the ship and families who either survived or disembarked at Cobh following a crossing from the U.K.. Truly a wonderful and comprehensive experience for anyone fascinated by the ship’s stories, Ireland, and over all history. This was a nice introduction for me to Irish history as well. Oh, my person survived the disaster, he was traveling with his sisters to meet their other siblings already settled in America. He actually ended up in the water following the sinking, his two sisters were on a lifeboat and spotted someone waving in the water, they realized it was their brother, the Titanic crew refused to save him fearing the lifeboat would capsize (James Cameron did indeed do his homework), but the sisters revolted, one holding down the crew while the other saved their brother.
- Next to the station is a museum walking people through the history of Irish immigration as Cobh was the main port out of which Irish immigrants set sail for new life in America. I did not have much time as I needed to catch one of the last trains back to Cork, so I did not get to check this out.
- I was back in Cork at around 5PM, just before sunset. After a quick break, I headed out for dinner. Upon a recommendation from a local, I walked a couple feet down the street from the hotel to The Glass Curtain. It is a relatively new restaurant that focuses on locally sourced farm to table ingredients. The dishes are contemporary fusion with Irish influences. I hadnt made a reservation, but said I was just on person and could sit wherever they needed me to, I was then seated at the chef’s counter overlooking the kitchen and plating station, this was great. The menu is a la carte, and there is also a great bar list. The service was great, true Irish hospitality from the wait staff and kitchen staff who were right in front of me. Price is expensive for Cork from what I gathered but for the quality of each dish, portion and service, I’d say quite a good value. Food description captioned in photos below.
- After a wonderful dinner, I wanted to have beers at the brewery down river, but instead I opted to cash in my free glass of prosecco at my hotel (came with booking direct on their website) as well as a nice cocktail made from Irish Rose gin!
- It was then time for bed in preparation for a full day.
- I woke up at around 7AM, while it was still dark but the sky was slowly lighting up. I headed out for a dawn walk through town to see some sites that despite not being open at that early hour still offered something to behold from the exterior. Primarily, to see the Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral. But in general, I always enjoy a early morning stroll through a city, its really soothing to meander as the city wakes up and people get going with their day, this is the city at its truest rawest form as few influences of tourists are around you. The cathedral itself is quite beautiful, and indeed I do wish I was able to enter.
- Following my hour or so morning stroll through town, I boarded an 8AM bus to Blarney. The buses have a rather spaced out schedule, but the schedules posted online are correct. A 30 minute multi-stop journey later and I arrived at Blarney. The castle was not open until 9AM. So just next to the main bus stop was Blarney Woolen Mills, a hotel, shop, bar and restaurant. I popped in for a full Irish Breakfast.
- After a hearty Irish breakfast, I headed on over to Blarney Castle. During peak summer season when every part of the castle estate is open, you can easily spend between 2-3 hours here. It is also advisable to purchase your ticket online ahead of time, it is valid for a few months after purchase. I spent around 1.5 hours to 2 hours meandering the grounds and climbing up the castle to kiss the famous stone. Given it was low season but also the poor weather and early morning, I was almost the only one at various times throughout my time in the Castle grounds, it was at times eerie but at times peaceful. Thankfully the castle is open rain or shine, some caves and dungeons are closed off if it rains as it gets slipper and sometimes even floods given is subterranean nature. Unfortunately Blarney House, the beautiful estate house, is closed during the winter as the family returns to stay. Kissing the stone does not cost extra, nor does entering the castle or climbing up cost any extra, however, courtesy tip given to the men who assist in hold you by the waist so you done fall to the depths below is highly encouraged as they wait atop the window castle tower to hold on to tourists from the world over to kiss that stone. The stone requires you to bend and reach further out and down that appears on pictures, you really do feel as if you’d fall through at any moment. Thankfully your have experienced staff holding you down and they have since added bars to ensure you can hold on and on the bottom to ensure an adult doesnt fall right through. During my time at Blarney, the weather went from cloudy and windy, to clear and sunny, to rain shower and back to sunny and clear. The castle itself is beautiful, but the grounds are just as beautiful and worth strolling through the various gardens. Whether you want to tempt life, and viral infections (definitely not anytime within the next couple years if you ask me) to kiss the stone to gain unrivaled eloquence (I have not noticed any difference), is completely up to you.
- With about 45 minutes before the bus, I popped back into the Blarney Mills for some souvenirs before then crossing the street to the Muskerry Arms Bar for a pint of Guinness. What they say is true, draft Guinness in Ireland tastes different and is so much better. It is smoother and creamier and oddly feels less heavy when you drink it. The bartender was so friendly, and chatted everyone up in the bar and welcomed each patron. Fearing I’d miss the bus, I had to finish my Guinness a lot faster than I wanted, but turns out the bus as late anyways. Nonetheless it arrived and I hopped right on.
- I arrived back in Cork around noon and walked across town to the train station for my 12:30PM train to Midleton. The train makes one stop between Cork and Midleton.
- From Midleton train Station I made the 15 minute walk to The Greenroom restaurant and cafe. For a simple but wonderful lunch of local brewed Cide and The Cure burger: beef, black pudding, egg, fried onions, aged cheddar, chili mayo. As part of the Sage restaurant, everything here is sourced from within a 10 mile radius of the restaurant.
- At 1:40 I made my way on a shorter 5 minute walk from the restaurant to the Jameson Midleton Distillery for my pre-booked 2PM Distiller’s Apprentice Tour. Jameson no longer does any distilling in Dublin, as such while you can experience Jameson in Dublin you cannot experience their distillation history and process. During peak season, you really should buy your tickets online for any of the tours they have on offer. There is a wide range of tours, from the most basic, to various add-ons and more extensive ones. The most extensive tour that caters to the die-hard whiskey fans and drinkers is the Distiller’s Apprentice Tour, offered 3-4 times a week with a maximum of 7 participants at 95 Euros and 3-3.5 hour duration. Of course it includes the walk-through of distillation process and seeing the historic facilities and learning of Jameson’s history and why and how the main distillery moved from Dublin to Midleton. It includes full behind the scenes access to the fully functioning distillery that is normally closed off to the public and general tours. You get a chemistry lesson on distillation at the distillery’s actual Distiller’s Academy. There is a rare cask tasting, where you sample the whiskey right out of the cask. Dont worry, you get a regular tasting in a fancy room but also a complimentary pour of your choice in the public tasting room at the end, yes this includes pours of the top top shelf rare casks. And your guide is usually one of their veteran master distillers who are a wealth of knowledge and passion. 100% worth the time and money for me. I loved the history, science, Irish culture/pride, gastronomic aspect behind it, and of course the tastings. 1) I had never had Irish whiskey before this trip and admittedly had this Scotch is probably better anyways mentality going in. I am forever a changed man. 2) I understand distilling and the science and nature behind it so much more, and the knowledge gained is applicable to not just whiskey but almost all alcohol. 3) Far greater appreciation for distilling and the people who work behind the scenes to craft the perfect sip.
- I had made a 6:00PM reservation at Sage restaurant. The tour ended around 5:20, and gave you plenty of time to browse the gift shop and continue tasting in the tasting room. Some bottles and gifts are eligible for monogramming as well. After grabbing a few bottles of more unique items, I headed to the restaurant.
- With the focus on sourcing all ingredients from nearby and surrounding areas, Sage Restaurant is another farm to table Irish influenced contemporary cuisine establishment. My 5 course dinner was 65 Euro without drinks, a great value if you ask me. The appetizers really stood out. Sage black pudding, kale, apple, egg yolk, and Hake, ravioli, mussels and cabbage.
- After dinner, I still had almost an hour before the 8:45PM last train from Midleton to Cork. Conveniently located and aptly named bar around the corner from the train station was The Railway Inn, which sadly according to google is temporarily closed. I walked in, was welcomed with smiles, told I could sit anywhere and offered a drink. I had a pint of Murphy’s, the Guinness of Southern Ireland, and the same founder of Midleton distilley. The bar was split between two areas, through a swivel partition you access the other side that was full of locals and was very lively. In my short time sipping my pint, the bar owners got to me and me them, and the lovely couple along with the patrons they were chatting up as I left thanked me, said goodbye and welcomed me back to Midleton anytime. I felt the true Irish hospitality and friendly nature that I had read and heard about right there. I do hope that their closure is indeed temporary only, perhaps due to COVID-19? Truly lovely people running a homey pub.
- At 8:45, the train pulled in and I was off back to Cork, arriving back at around 9:20PM.
- After packing up it was time for bed as I had an early taxi booked to take me to the airport for my 6:30AM flight to Amsterdam.
- I woke up at around 4:15 for my 4:30 taxi to the airport, it was rather a short ride at that hour and if memory serves me correctly cost just under 30 euros with the meter.
- Checked-in, had a quick breakfast at the Priority Pass lounge and boarded my Aer Lingus flight to Amsterdam to connect onwards to the U.S..
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in County Cork, Ireland. It has a lot to offer in terms of sites to see, food and drinks to experience. But the added touch of the friendly Irish really made it special. Along the way from hotel clerk, to restaurant staff, to distillers and museum folks and pub owners, everyone was so nice, asked how you were and about your itinerary and offered help/ suggestions. The distillery tour exceeded all my expectations and was truly a unique tour of a distillery, rarely offered anywhere else. Titanic Experience was full of history and new facts I had not known about Titanic, even if Hans Zimmer’s music played in my head throughout the tour.
I do plan to check out Dublin one day, but from what I’ve gathered I am apparently setting myself up for a wee bit of a disappointment having set of my Irish adventures in Cork. Who knows, we shall see.
Sláinte! (Cheers in Irish).