Why stunning Cork, Ireland needs to be on every bucket list
The County of Cork, in the South West of Ireland, is fast becoming our favourite place in the whole world! Historic Cork City has oodles of charm with plenty of hidden gems to discover and a foodie scene that holds its own against Ireland’s capital, Dublin. Cork is full of small farms and gourmet producers that are filling plates, coffee cups and beer glasses with the finest ingredients and tastes that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Out to the coast, the scenery takes your breath away and it’s a great place to start an epic journey on the Wild Atlantic Way. From Dublin, it’s around a three hour drive to Cork city or you can avail of regular train and bus services. Public transport is a fine option if you’re looking to simply explore the city, but if you’d like to venture further afield into the rest of County Cork, you definitely need a car or you can take your pick of tour buses to suit your budget/timetable.
House Sitting in Cork
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We took advantage of Neil having a couple of photography contracts in the city by deciding to throw the tent and gear into the car and turn a work stint into an epic road trip after he was finished. We also secured a house sit in the city which worked out perfectly, especially because it was a beautiful old house with two lovely cats, Jasper (perpetually hungry) and Nina (fashionably aloof), to take care of for the week. After our lovely hosts showed us around their stunning home and the amazing view from the back of their house, we were delighted we’d get to spend so much time there. The house is a beautifully decorated, 100-year-old terraced house on Blarney Street which happens to be Ireland’s longest street and only 10 minutes walk from the city centre. We quickly made ourselves at home, as we do, and both cats seemed happy to have us! If you haven’t heard of house sitting yet, we highly recommend it, it’s a great way to travel and cuddle pets! If you want to research it more, read about our first house sitting experience on our blog and other stories in the popular House Sitting Magazine. We also recommend you join trustedhousesitters to find the best house sits all over the world. You can contact us directly to get 25% off your membership fee.
Eat and Drink around Cork City
It was a tremendous base to have while Neil was working and, in between jobs, we walked the feet off ourselves exploring the city streets. Wandering over beautiful old bridges and down cobbled lanes we found some excellent pubs to hide from the rain and saw great street art. In the world famous English Market, which has a history dating back to 1788, and a gem you can’t miss, we sampled O’Flynn’s Gourmet Sausages. They are out of this world and you cannot come to Cork City without trying one while you amble around the amazing food and craft stalls in the market.
It’s going to sound like we visited a lot of bars and it’s true, we did! In fairness to us, the weather was a bit terrible and these cool pubs were just calling to us as we passed by! It was lovely to take our time with no real agenda and we highly recommend anyone who visits to do the same. It’s a great city to just be spontaneous and come across places by pure chance. We were well fed too! CoqBull on French Church St did the juiciest, tastiest burgers we’ve had in a long time and the place was hopping for good reason. We also had to make a stop into the Franciscan Well Brewery Pub as it was only a short distance from the house. In here we sampled a few of their beers (Archway Lager being our favourite) and tucked in to wood-fired pizzas with gorgeous gourmet toppings (all local ingredients of course). We couldn’t go wrong here with a jazz band playing in the beer garden!
We had a couple of late night drinks in BDSM (Black Dog Saloon & Mezcaleria), a really cool bar with comics for wallpaper and the odd burlesque show. Our favourite locals bar was definitely Canty’s and it truly does the best pint of Murphy’s (Cork’s rival to Guinness). We wanted to hear a bit of Irish trad music and got ourselves into a nice little snug in Sin É on Shandon Street. There was a mix of locals and tourists here and it was definitely the right place to while away a couple of hours, listening to great local musicians. We did want to get to Cork City Gaol and the Butter Museum, as they looked really interesting but we kept missing the opening times somehow!
Hostel life in Skibbereen
At the end of our week of pet sitting and after helping out our lovely hosts with some transport logistics, we set off for the coast. We decided to stop first of all in Skibbereen, one of the loveliest and most interesting towns on the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s steeped in history and suffered the hardest during Ireland’s famine, with up to 10,000 victims buried in its cemetery. The Heritage Centre is a must visit for a fascinating and detailed study of one of Ireland’s darkest periods. The town itself is colourful and friendly and there’s plenty of places to eat and drink your fill. About 5 minutes drive out of town, we found Russagh Mill Hostel and we pitched our tent in the grounds for around €20 a night. We had full use of the excellent facilities inside this restored 200-year-old flour mill, which has been lovingly and expertly converted by the very friendly and welcoming owner, into one of the most unique hostels in the country (there’s an edible garden and you can even try bouldering on the back wall of the hostel!). We met so many interesting people and had a couple of lovely nights by the outdoor firepit, swapping stories and gazing at the star-strewn sky. We’d love to keep this a secret but it would be a real shame for people to miss out on its magic.
Lovely Lough Hyne
The hostel is only around a 15 minute drive from Lough Hyne which is...well, it’s very hard for me to possibly transcribe its beauty into words. I’ll just have to let Neil’s photography and drone skills do the talking. It’s breathtaking. We had been there a couple of times before but didn’t get to linger too long for various reasons and we managed to spend two full days this time, swimming, hiking and chilling. It’s a tidal salt water lake fed through a narrow channel by the Atlantic Ocean and it’s teeming with life, making it one of the most important marine habitats in Europe. The water is crystal clear and we found that the perfect way to appreciate it was to hike up the nearby Knockomagh Hill, a steep forest trail that leads to a spectacular viewpoint, 197 m up, and jump in from the little pier near the trail head. There simply are no words to describe it! Between the views from the top of the hill and cooling off in the deep blue water of the Lough, we thought we’d found heaven!
One of Neil’s images from that day was chosen as a winner of Trover’s “Above it All” competition and rightly so, in my humble opinion! We’ve planned an exciting trip for ourselves from the prize Neil won but we won’t reveal anything just yet! Neil’s video contains some of the amazing scenery on offer in this part of the world and the kind of images he captured with his drone, that won the hearts of the fine folks over at Trover! It’s a fantastic platform to share and discover some amazing images from around the world! Neil feels very proud and privileged to be a part of this travel photography community.
Swimming in the stars
On this particular trip, I achieved one of my bucket list dreams and I never imagined it would happen in Ireland. Since I was a little kid I’d heard my aunties talk about water that sparkled as you swam through it, on their various trips in foreign parts (they always fascinated me with their tales of travels abroad) and I vowed I’d get to do it someday. One of the nights we sat around the fire at the hostel, a few guests came over to the fire around midnight with wet hair and described how they’d just been swimming in bio-luminescence in Lough Hyne. The more I listened, the more I grinned. I couldn’t believe that this might be my chance! We left immediately, determined to see if it was for real. Midnight out at the lake, when the sky is clear, is off-planet unreal! Luckily for us the Milky Way was on show, arcing overhead, and as I donned my wet suit, Neil got the tripod out to take some unforgettable images. I was not confident about getting into the dark water so late at night but other people arrived to do the same and once they were in, I went for it. I will never, ever forget the experience. As soon as I got in, I could see millions of the glowing microbes and every move I made seemed like I was swimming in the sky above me! I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was lovely, as well, to share the experience with complete strangers, who were disembodied voices in the darkness, all exclaiming how cold, but how beautiful it was. Neil was delighted with the chance to practice some astrophotography in a most gorgeous setting.
Rugged and wild Sheep’s Head
Having been on a road trip before in this part of the country in our old van (we’ll be doing a retrospective post on that too!) we were eager to seek out places we hadn’t visited before. Having spent summers as a kid in Allihies on the Beara Peninsula I was a bit biased towards it but I had to let it go! We decided to go to Sheep’s Head, a remote and beautiful peninsula stretching out into the Atlantic. We picked up supplies in Durrus and on the road into Kilcrohane we spotted a spit of land between a freshwater lake and the sea that had one or two campervans on it. Down a narrow little boreen we found our way to the narrow strip of land and pitched our tent right on the lakeshore. In Ireland, wild camping, although sometimes frowned upon, can be found but it’s important to make yourself known to locals so they’re aware you won’t be disruptive or leave a tonne of rubbish behind. We got chatting to a lady who keeps alpacas that protect her hens from foxes! Who knew alpacas made good chicken bodyguards?! Our stay here was beyond tranquil. No phone signal, a beautiful beach (perfect for late-night swims in bioluminescence) and clear skies - a sublime place to unplug and immerse ourselves in nature. The local village, Kilcrohane, had lovely fish and chips and great pubs with a very welcoming vibe. The locals here are proud of their little slice of heaven and are keen to tell you all about it.
There are over twenty way marked trails on this peninsula and they are some of the best in the country. From easy 2-hour walks to the full 88 km Sheep’s Head Way, there’s something for every ability. Not far from our tent we enjoyed an easy ramble along the Farranamanagh loop walk, soaking in views across Dunmanus Bay and admiring crumbling, old stone ruins. The ruins are on the site of a medieval Bardic School, run by the Chief Poets to the ancient Gaelic O’Mahoney Clan. It was world-renowned and even a Spanish King sent his two sons to be taught here. Legend has it they sadly drowned in the lake that we camped beside. Locals are hoping to properly restore the site, in the near future, to celebrate its historic significance.
On our last day, in glorious weather, we took in the jaw-dropping scenery of the Sheep’s Head Lighthouse Loop walk. Although it looked like it was going to be very busy, as the end-of-the-road car park beside Bernie's Cupan Tae (great scones and tea) was completely full, the walk itself was long enough to feel remote and empty. Even if you don’t do the loop walk, the views here are worth the journey alone. We drove up and over Seefin Mountain on our way back up to Bantry which is a stunning drive, rivalling the mountain passes in neighbouring Kerry.
We barely scratched the surface here on what Cork has in store, which is a great excuse for us to return another day and share more of it on our blog. We’re so lucky to call Ireland home and get the chance to explore it whenever we want. If you’d like to know more about Ireland, we recommend you read our posts about Ireland’s ancient sites, The Skellig Islands, The Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula and the Comeragh Mountains.