Perfect family days

THERE’S something brilliantly plucky about the snowdrop.

Look past the delicate, pure-as-the-driven-snow good looks of this humble little flower, and you’ll find a surprisingly tough character, and a very hardy heart. Snowdrops not only have the brawn to muscle through the February mulch... they thrive in it.

One of the best places to see snowdrops in spring is Altamont Gardens (059 915-1444; altamontgarden.com). The jewel in Carlow’s gardening crown, Altamont is a blend of formal and informal arrangements tumbling around an 18th century house, and worth a visit at any time of year. But Snowdrop Week (February 11-18) is on another level entirely.

Altamont’s head gardener provides daily tours of the snowdrop drifts at 2pm, and it’s one of the best €2 (yes, €2) you could spend. Some 100 varieties of snowdrop feature in the gardens, all with unique characteristics — like Galanthus plictus (‘Green Lantern’), its segments marked with an inverted ‘V’ below a smudge of green. Some are even double-flowered. Sprouting under the yew trees, the drifts really do look like snow.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Coming to Carlow from the east with kids in tow, I planned Rathwood (059 915-6285; rathwood.com) as our first stop. Set in the countryside near Tullow, this is an all-singing, all-dancing attraction, with shops, a restaurant, playground, garden centre, forest walks, a honking little express train and a birds of prey centre offering something for all ages.

On arrival, we’re greeted by James Keogh and his father Patrick — who shows us around, telling us that Rathwood grew out of a single potato shed on his farmland.

From there, we take a spin on the yellow train (you can take it to see the Easter Bunny in March), before checking out the Birds of Prey Centre. The highlight is a chance to hold two miniature owls, Diego and Gizmo. They weigh barely four ounces, and kids get to wear falconer’s gloves when holding them. It’s one of their top five cutest moments.

Whether you intend to shop or not, Rathwood is a great gateway to County Carlow — a surreally comprehensive attraction in the middle of nowhere.

THE ROOM

We stayed in The Step House Hotel, a 20-bed bolthole sensitively knitted into the old estate town of Borris. The hotel was extended around an old dower house during the noughties, I learn — though thankfully without the four-star-on-steroids approach that characterised many developments of the era. It manages to combine an old heritage feel with slick new bedrooms and, in particular, a kitchen that punches above its weight.

I liked the oak and burgundy leather-lined 1808 bar, the fact that a fire glows in the hotel lobby no matter what time of year you visit. It’s the kind of space you’d like to pile into after a walk along the River Barrow, or a tramp in the Blackstairs Mountains.

We stayed in one of the houses adjoining the hotel, a two-bed with all the mod-cons you’d expect of a self-catering set-up developed in the late noughties. It’s very cold when we arrive, but staff sort us out with a fire, and by the time we get back from dinner, things have warmed up a bit. It’s a good alternative for a family or a group of friends.

THE FOOD

Alan Foley is head chef at the Step House, and his food is worth travelling for — local suppliers and an ambitious execution combine in imaginative dishes. Think Kilmore cod with chorizo and basil aioli, or a tasting of saddle-back pork, where portions of loin, belly and a roll of braised neck and shoulder are complemented by roast pear, haricot beans and roasting juices.

Foley’s food is at its best in Ruben’s, the hotel’s restaurant, though you can eat more casually in the 1808 bar. I had a reasonable burger here, but there wasn’t much choice for the kids — just the usual nuggets and the like, which were less than memorable.

We were all delighted with breakfast, however — the Step House’s fry should be a template for Irish hotels. Quality artisan sausages, good pudding, eggs cooked to order and tasty bread set us up for the day — and the service was a case study in country friendliness.

Elsewhere in Carlow, I’d recommend dinner or Sunday lunch at the brilliant little Sha-Roe Bistro in Clonegal, which combines well with a visit to Huntingdon Castle. You can also stop off for simple, homemade fare and a cuppa at The Forge, Mary Jordan’s coffee and craft shop at the crossroads near Altamont House & Gardens.

WHAT TO DO

As well as exploring Carlow’s garden trail, we booked into the Chocolate Garden (059 648- 1999; chocolategarden.ie) near Tullow for a chocolate workshop. Although rather smaller than the Willy Wonka-style experience we got carried away with beforehand, the kids had great fun decorating a cookie, making a chocolate house mould, and drinking chocolate shots as they waited for their creations to dry. It cost €12.50pp.

Carlow is also a super county for a stretch of the calves. It doesn’t get the same press for its walks as Wicklow, but the Wicklow Way actually ends (or starts, if you prefer) in Clonegal. The River Barrow Way is another treat, following towpaths and riverside trails from Robertstown to St. Mullins. As well as old mills, warehouses, locks and castles, watch out for kingfishers, Atlantic salmon and even the odd otter... it’s a lovely escape.

If you’ve got serious green fingers, another option is Daffodil Week at the Delta Sensory Gardens (059 914-3527; deltasensorygardens.com) in Carlow town. It runs March 18-24, with some 10,000 flowers blooming throughout the multi-sensory gardens.

For more to see and do in Carlow, see discoverireland.ie/Carlow.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Step House Hotel has a midweek offer bundling B&B with a four-course dinner from €90pp. You can pimp it up for Valentine’s Day, adding a red rose, petit fours and a glass of Prosecco from €110pp midweek. Contact 059 977-3209 or stephousehotel.ie.

ANYTHING TO ADD

If you’re a gardening fan, a good masterplan for a trip to Carlow is the county’s Garden Trail (carlowgardentrail.com) — a route featuring 16 different gardens, forest walks and gardening centres throughout the county.

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