They are the places we visited as kids on Sunday drives, where we savoured 99s and rides on the ‘merries’. Three writers revisit their childhood haunts and experience Kinsale, Crosshaven and Cobh through grown-up eyes. Some of them travelled back with their own kids in tow, to explore what our local holiday destinations have to offer the next generation
There’s a special appeal and joy to revisting childhood haunts, and rambling back down real and remembered memory lanes.
I’ve just returned from a weekend down the back streets, quay walls, amusement arcades and even dungeons of day-trips of decades past. A metaphorical flash-back, it took just 20 minutes to get there. You’d spend as long in an airport security line, or the Jack Lynch Tunnel, at peak times.
I revisited Kinsale, a place known and circled around for 50 years from ‘Sunday drives,’ somewhat wilder teens and twenties years, and also, in the book-ending scheme of life and generations, took my own kids to Kinsale too on spins as smallies.
It sounded daft for, oh, 30 seconds; then, the gears of memory and recollections of days at the seaside engaged. The thought of a weekend break, free from the grind of drives and flights and schedules and airport shuttles won out.
The notion stuck in my head after an acquaintance living and working in Cork city spent three midweek days in Kinsale, ‘a tourist on her own doorstep’, ambling around bookshops, galleries, bars and restaurants… the sort of stuff others fly in to Cork airport and skip down Kinsale to do, all year around.But this time, instead of heading home for ‘the supper’ after a family day out, we stayed over, two nights in the thronged tourist town just ‘down the road’: it was, easily, the most relaxing weekend break you could wish for.
We stayed a weekend in this Irish beauty spot with the strongest memories of carefree youth: it was as alluring as back in the distant days when the sun always shone, short pants were summer-long attire, and the merries never stopped. Back then, you could ramble around any part of Charles Fort, and scare yourself witless in the dank and dripping cells…. aaargh, dungeons, they be, me hearty.
Back then, a 99 was the day-out acme of culinary sophistication, in a place that now breezily describes itself as the gourmet capital of Ireland.
Lodged more forcibly in my memory banks, and almost certainly in my arteries, is the recollection of the Lusitania Grill, a tiny chipper in a weather-beaten cabin on the pier, where burgers came with fried onions and the sheen of grease.
Apart from recall of beach and dock swims, the next powerful Kinsale recall was the image of sharks, real ones but recently dead ones, on display at the angling centre at the then ‘fledgling’ Trident Hotel, a cutting edge 1960s design built at the water’s edge by the Rank Organisation.
Deep sea anglers came from Continental Europe with great success, in an uncommon fisheries policy, that helped put Kinsale on an international map.
We opted for the recently revamped Trident Hotel which, thanks to frontage by the pier and looking up the Bandon estuary, is ever-steeped in Kinsale’s maritime and fishing lore. A sailing school and yacht charter business, Sovereign Sailing, now occupies the hotel marina’s one-time shark weigh-in slot, owned by sailor James Lyons.
Dipping a toe in the water, I joined skipper James with Kinsale weekend visitors Jana and Ron Washburn from Florida for a two-hour, scenic sun-dappled sail in a 1720 dinghy, past the mouth of Kinsale harbour, where short sail options include the Old Head, or the Sovereign rocks.
The engaging Floridians, a seasoned sailing duo, were visiting Dublin, Kinsale and Edinburgh, and spent two nights in a yurt in woodland, by the water’s edge near Summercove. “Kinsale was out favourite spot, after only two days, we felt like we were becoming locals,” Ron later e-mailed me.
We struck gold, with a top- floor suite, one of nine recreated by designer Daphne Daunt as the Trident has just spent €1.5m doing up its 75 rooms and suites. The room’s terrace was cantilevered out over the hotel’s marina, with a background soundtrack of boat rigging clatter, seagulls swooping to land on the hotel’s zinc roof, approaching like stuka bombers, and the picked-up idle chatter we could hear over the water from passing craft.
Steeped, we were, in what makes Kinsale so attractive – its harbour, boats, views, and provisioning. Trident manager for the last 30 years, Hal McElroy, noted we were indeed part of trend of where they’re seeing “more people coming shorter distances for a break, instead of sitting in a car for hours, or queuing up in airports.” At our leisure, we did beaches and bars, James Fort and the Scilly Walk to Charles Fort (insert childish John Cleese joke here?) and on to Middle Cove.
But if we’d never left our room’s terrace, we’d have been immersed in sea-faring updates. From on high, we overheard French charter sailors returning to the Sovereign’s jetty after weeks cruising the south-west coast to Dingle. They were charmed.
Early on Sunday morning, a large yacht berthed, bearing the Stars and Stripes on its stern. Kinsale was its first Irish port of call after a transatlantic crossing, and the crew of eight popped a bottle of fizz, and toasted their safe arrival out of plastic cups.
A family with small children, forging their own youngsters’ memories, on a boat next to them door fried up a huge pan of Irish sausages, and passed it over, Irish hospitality on the hoof: the Lusitania Grill would have been proud.
– TOMMY BARKER
There was a time in my childhood when the most exciting part of a trip to Cobh was the train journey from Cork city and maybe catching a glimpse of the remains of its Titanic pier.
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But my perception of the historic town overlooking one of the world’s great natural harbours has changed forever after a whirlwind family visit, with highlights including a set of handcuffs and a speedboat ride.
More about the handcuffs later.
The change began early in the visit, when in my mind, I was standing nonchalantly at the controls of a sleek powerboat, like Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice, my hair flowing magnificently as we sliced through the waves of Cork Harbour at high speed.
In reality, I was sitting at the wheel our little red self-drive hire boat as we chugged slowly yet steadily towards the Spitbank lighthouse, my teeth clenched tightly amid fears that the smallest wave could tip a life-jacketed child overboard. But of course, it didn’t happen.
Cork Harbour Boat Hire’s fleet of self-drive speed boats are remarkably stable and easy to use, even for a landlubber like me.
Sam shadowed us in a safety boat as we rounded the lighthouse and plied a course back towards Cobh, sailing close to the magnificent cruise ship, Sea Princess, before crossing to the Irish Naval Base at Haulbowline, where we took a salute from some of the crew on the deck of the LE Ciara.
It was one of the highlights of the day and is a symbol of how the town is finally tapping into its full tourist potential.
Cobh’s association as the last port of call for the RMS Titanic in 1912, has long been one of its biggest draws for cruise ship tourists, who disembark directly on to the historic quayside. But there was broad acceptance that the town never fully capitalised on its tourism potential.
In recent years, the Port of Cork company has driven a massive increase in cruise liner business to its Cobh terminal - from 40 liners a decade ago with 41,000 passengers to 69 luxury vessels calling this year with some 140,000 passengers. More than 75 liners are expected next year.
Cobh has now taken its place amongst the great cruise destinations of Europe, and this summer, has for the second year running, been named one of Western Europe’s top cruise destinations, ranked just behind Amsterdam, and ahead of Lisbon, Guernsey’s St Peter Port and Greenock in Glasgow. Dublin, Ireland’s biggest cruise destination, didn’t make the cut.
Fuelled in part by this phenomenal cruise liner success, and due in no small part to the incredible cooperation between Cobh Tourism, local businesses, Cork County Council and the Port of Cork, Cobh has, in parallel, developed its tourist infrastructure with the Titanic Experience, upgrades to Cobh Heritage Centre, Cobh Escapade, the self-drive boat-hire, and a tourist road-train.
But its inclusion in Fáilte Ireland’s Ireland’s Ancient East tourist route, and in particular, the opening of the first phase of Spike Island as Ireland’s version of Alcatraz has propelled the town into the top tier of Irish tourist destinations.
No longer considered just a stop-off point for cruise ship passengers before they head off to kiss the Blarney Stone or visit the Old Midleton Distillery, it’s now a destination in its own right.
To experience Cobh at its best, it’s worth timing a visit to coincide with the arrival of one of the huge liners which, when berthed, tower almost as high above the town as the spire of its landmark St Colman’s Cathedral.
Staying in one of the Bella Vista Hotel’s modern town centre apartments, we visited in early July when the Sea Princess liner was in town with some 1,500 Australians and 300 Kiwis on board.
The sun shone, the sea glistened and members of Cobh Animation team dressed in period costume mingled with the crowds. Bunting fluttered from lamp-posts, live music filled the air, pints of stout and Irish coffees flowed, and the aroma of hot-dogs and crepes wafted from the food market on the promenade.
We boarded the mid-morning ferry for Spike Island where guides outlined its 1,300-year history, as home to a sixth century monastery, the development of the 200-year-old Fort Mitchel, its use during Victorian times as the world’s largest convict depot, and more recently, as a prison for joyriders.
We explored its historic buildings and interactive prison cell displays, before wandering along the fort’s ramparts and through its tunnels, some of which lead to gun-positions with commanding views over the mouth of Cork Harbour.
Two hours wasn’t enough. Give yourself a day to explore it fully.
After our speed-boat tour of the harbour, we visited Escapade Cobh, an escape room experience which challenges visitors, against the clock, to either escape from a cell on Spike Island, take part in a late night bank heist, or help Sherlock Holmes solve one of his toughest cases.
We chose the Spike Island scenario, were handcuffed to each other, locked in a cell and left to solve a series of cryptic clues and break out before time ran out.
Thanks to Hendrick Verwey, and some expertly timed hints, we managed to escape with four seconds to spare.
Later, with ice-cream cones in hand, we sat in the late evening sunshine as the Cobh Confraternity Band performed on the bandstand at John F Kennedy Park before the Sea Princess slipped her moorings.
As we boarded the tourist train the next morning for an entertaining tour with Martin, our guide, it was clear that Cobh’s ‘tourism boat’ has well and truly come in.
– EOIN ENGLISH
The chairoplanes were always my favourite. Feet raised high into the air, the wind rushing through our hair, eyes closed – and we were flying.
It’s one of my earliest childhood memories.
There were the rowing boats, pulling with all your five-year-old might to make the wooden vessel soar into the sky.
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And after it all, there was an ice cream cone. A 99, with a Flake if you were really lucky.
(These were always sunny days too, in my rose-tinted recollections anyway.)
It was the very early 80s, before holidays in Spain and France were the summer norm. Instead we had Sunday drives, days out.
Growing up in Carrigaline there was an obvious and very easy option just 10 minutes away: Crosshaven.
It was a tiny village then.
Three decades on, and the housing development Brightwater has been perhaps one of the most significant drivers of change.
Yet despite the population surge, Crosshaven is still, at its core, a village – it has maintained that sense of intimacy, that community spirit.
It was locals who drove and largely funded the creation of a playground on the waterfront (I’ve always considered it the best positioned and facilitated playground in the country). There’s the award winning bar and restaurant Cronin’s, run by the innovative family behind the Redhead Convention.
It is hands down one of Ireland’s finest traditional pubs.
There’s the local Centra, run by the community driven Bernard Lynch. It’s there, at a little outdoor hatch, people queue for weekend 99s.
There’s the yacht club, where manager Gavin Deane hasn’t just focused on the members – he strives to involve the community. Every sixth class pupil, for example, gets to try a week’s sailing at the club – the thinking? That everyone who lives in Crosshaven should be able to access the water.
It’s that sense of community and camaraderie that makes Crosshaven something that little bit special.
It was local volunteers who devoted hours to salvaging Fort Camden, transforming it into the tourist attraction it is today.
There’s Bunnyconnellans, with its sweeping coastal view, just a few minutes drive away in Myrtleville. It’s where we whiled away hours as teenagers on the way home from Pol Gorm. There was another teenage haunt and it signifies perhaps one of the biggest transformations of the Crosshaven I recall.
Crosshaven House is the centrepiece of the village. Full views of the water, of the yachts, and yet for years it served as a rundown community centre, the base for teenage discos.
Today, it is unrecognisable.
Opened as a guest house just two months ago, with very cool underground dorms (with sailing groups or upmarket hen parties in mind), the new owner has created quite the village showcase.
It’s surely only a matter of time before the Blue Book comes calling.
Incredibly, even with that prize waterfront strip of land, the merries still go strong on Sunday afternoons and on summer evenings.
The chairoplanes are no more – it’s been upgraded, of course, but to me, it still signifies simple pleasures and summers of old.
These days I watch my own daughters create their childhood memories here.
And there’s always, always a 99 before we leave. Some things never change.
– VICKIE MAYE
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