Travel

Tap Into the Past & Toast to the Future in Irelands Rebel County

From the Blarney Stone to the Butter Museum, cultural riches await.

Matt Anderson Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Matt Anderson Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Matt Anderson Photography/Moment/Getty Images

When Queen Elizabeth II passed away at the age of 86 earlier this month, I couldn’t help but think about my late grandmother. She grew up in Trinidad under British rule, the daughter of a Venezuelan mother and a white father of Scottish descent. And even though she moved to the States after meeting my Brooklyn-born Italian grandfather, she remained an English loyalist to her core. It was all about God, family, and the Royals-in that order.

So you could imagine my surprise when my FamilyTreeDNA test kit-administered on a whim out of tepid curiosity-came back declaring that I was neither Scottish nor English, but a whopping 33% Irish. That’s right: My grandmother, despite her almost zealous love for the House of Windsor, her commitment to writing “Trinidad, British West Indies” on letters home long after the island gained independence from the Crown, and her reverence for the Campbell tartan that had me swathed in green and blue plaid as a child, was, at least genetically, a daughter of the Republic.

I had been to Ireland once, to Dublin and Galway, and fell deeply in love with the Emerald Isle, both its landscape and its people. Hell, I even watched hurling from time to time. After a bit more digging, I discovered that a large majority of my chemical makeup originated in County Cork on the island’s southwestern shore. And seeing as I’d recently agreed to join Norwegian Cruiseline for the christening voyage of the state-of-the-art Prima liner that just so happened to dock in Cork-I knew I had to hit the streets.

Ireland’s second most populous city, Cork City is often overshadowed by the capital, Dublin, with its massive airport and many tourist draws. But the entire region is rife with intriguing historic and cultural sites, standout restaurants and pubs, and breathtaking street art. Here’s everything to do when visiting County Cork, from crushing pints of Murphy’s Stout and sampling locally made black pudding to celebrating the Republic’s courageous rabble-rousers.

Photo courtesy Luke Myers / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy Luke Myers / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy Luke Myers / Fáilte Ireland

Cruise over to Cobh for historic seaside vibes

If you land in the county via cruise ship, like I did, you’ll be docking at Cobh, a picturesque seaside town about 30 minutes by train from Cork City. Cobh-pronounced “cove” for those of us who don’t speak Gaeilge-has long served as one of Ireland’s key points of departure, as evidenced by the famous Annie Moore Monument guarding its wharf: three figures cast in bronze, representing young Moore, the first person the enter the US through Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, alongside her two brothers, Anthony and Philip.

Yet while Moore’s story was a happy one, not all voyages casting off from Cobh’s port ended quite so fortunately. On April 11, 1912, the groundbreaking ocean liner RMS Titanic left Cobh on its maiden sail en route to New York. Three days later, well, you already know what happened. In 1915, just as World War I was beginning to ramp up, a British passenger steamship called the RMS Lusitania was struck by a German U-Boat just 20 kilometres from Cobh’s broad marina. The Lusitania quickly sank, taking more than 60% of those onboard with it. You can learn all about these harrowing events and more-including details about the forced deportation of convicts and indentured servants to other British colonies-at the Cobh Heritage Centre just off the docks, while down the way, the Titanic Experience offers visitors an immersive look into that bit of maritime history. Perhaps not the sunniest educational excursion, but a fascinating one to be sure.

Photo by Meredith Heil
Photo by Meredith Heil
Photo by Meredith Heil

Afterwards, cheer yourself up with a stroll through the seaport’s many shops and restaurants, stopping to take in the ocean breeze before ascending up the hill to St. Colman’s Cathedral. Built in 1868, it’s a gorgeous piece of architecture complete with resplendent views. Keep trekking up the road from there, and you’ll stumble into Mansworths Bar, a narrow, two-room pub dating back to 1895. Ask the barman for a pint of Murphy’s-County Cork’s answer to Guinness-and settle into a booth to admire the knick knacks and historical artifacts covering the walls. And lest you think you finally escaped the shipwreck stories, a plaque on the front wall states: “In 1912, when the Titanic was here, it is probable that ale and food were served by them [sic] to emigrants during the American wakes that preceded their departure.” Perhaps a shot of Jameson ought to be in order, too.

Photo courtesy of Hu O'Reilly / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy of Hu O’Reilly / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy of Hu O’Reilly / Fáilte Ireland

Tie one on at the Jameson Distillery

Speaking of whiskey, a trip to the iconic Jameson Distillery is a clutch agenda move in these parts. The brand’s stately Old Midleton Distillery has been cranking out the juice since 1825, and offers an hour-long behind-the-scenes tour that follows the revered spirit’s production from grain to glass. Finish your lesson with a tasting guided by trained ambassadors, and then pop over to resident snack-purveyor Fred’s Food Truck for a sandwich stuffed with spiked ingredients like Jameson-glazed bacon and whiskey-marinated pulled pork. “Slainte” never tasted so good.

D. Ribeiro/Shutterstock
D. Ribeiro/Shutterstock
D. Ribeiro/Shutterstock

Give your credit card a workout on St. Patrick Street

Cork City’s supremely charming downtown revolves around St. Patrick Street, a bustling riverfront thoroughfare lined with stores, pubs, restaurants, and other retail crowd-pleasers. You could easily pass an afternoon poking your head into different storefronts; window shopping at famed department stores like Brown Thomas, Debenhams, and Marks & Spencer; and inventorying your treasures while stationed at a sunny sidewalk cafe, pint in hand. Pedestrian-friendly side streets snake off St. Patrick’s, each providing their own network of independent bookstores, clothing boutiques, craft displays, and eateries.

Photo courtesy of Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy of Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy of Fáilte Ireland

Dive into the county’s rebellious past

It’s not all wool sweaters and designer handbags around here. Cork has long been known as Ireland’s revolutionary capital, and the city is littered with monuments, museums, and other markers commemorating its hand in the Republic’s fight for freedom along with other social justice pursuits.

Start at the National Monument on Grand Parade, located just south of St. Patrick’s Street in Cork City. Dating to 1906, the hulking Gothic, steeple-like structure pays tribute to multiple rebellions spanning 1798, 1803, 1848, and 1867. Depictions of Irish patriots Wolfe Tone, Michael Dwyers, Davis Crowley, and O’Neill Crowley stare out from each of four corners, while an eight-foot-high rendering of Mother Erin watches over them from the centre.

Photo courtesy Michelle Donovan / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy Michelle Donovan / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy Michelle Donovan / Fáilte Ireland

From there, turn your attention to the newly minted Mary Elmes Bridge, a striking pedestrian and cycling path connecting nearby Merchants Quay to St Patrick’s Quay over the River Lee. Dubbed “the Irish Oskar Schindler,” Elmes (a Cork native) singlehanded rescued upwards of 200 Jewish children during the Holocaust, often hiding them in the trunk of her car and smuggling them to safety.

Nano Nagle, another Cork legend, has not only been granted an eponymous bridge but also a fascinating museum complete with beautifully manicured gardens, archives, and a cemetery just across the river. Open to the public, Nano Nagle Place celebrates the life of the 18th Century charity worker who, despite strict prohibition from the British, opened a bounty of Catholic schools and other resources for Ireland’s poorest women and children. In 1775, she founded Sisters of the Presentation, a religious congregation that continues to combat poverty via education and outreach to this day.

Photo courtesy Micheal O'Mahony / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy Micheal O’Mahony / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy Micheal O’Mahony / Fáilte Ireland

Over in Béal na Bláth, a village about 30 minutes west of Cork City, stands the Michael Collins Ambush Memorial, a gated stone cross marking the spot where the Cork-born Irish Civil War hero met his fateful end back in 1922. Curiosity piqued? You can always see Liam Neison bring Collins back to life in the standout 1996 biopic, Michael Collins. Or learn more about the beloved revolutionary, soldier, and political figure IRL at the Michael Collins House Museum in Clonakilty, another 20-or-so-minute drive down the road from Béal na Bláth. The interpretive centre takes visitors through Ireland’s centuries-old quest for independence, highlighting the role Collins played in the struggle along with the previous actors that influenced his path.

Photo courtesy Chris Hill / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy Chris Hill / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy Chris Hill / Fáilte Ireland

Stock up on snacks at the English Market

Downtown Cork’s English Market is one of the oldest covered markets in all of Europe. It’s been in business continually since 1788, a collection of vendors hawking their wares beneath canary yellow canopies and hand-painted signage. The market remains buzzing with activity during working hours, with shoppers filling the aisles in search of locally cultivated produce, baked goods, gourmet sweets, fresh seafood and meat, and prepared foods. Grab a fragrant artisan loaf from the Alternative Bread Company, pick up some burgers infused with Irish black pudding from family-run O’Flynn’s Gourmet Sausages, or load up on sandwiches crammed full of cured meats, sun-dried tomatoes, and raw milk mozzarella from the Sandwich Stall before retreating to the mezzanine cafe to enjoy your finds with a side of prime people-watching.

Photo courtesy of Resolute Photography / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy of Resolute Photography / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy of Resolute Photography / Fáilte Ireland

Head out on a street art scavenger hunt

In October 2020, a pandemic-born project called Ardú embarked on a mission to transform Cork City into one giant work of art. They initially brought together seven renowned Irish artists and unleashed them upon the city, arming them with brushes, paint, and boundless creativity. For inspiration, they turned to the story of the Burning of Cork, channelling the city’s miraculous rise from the ashes after it burned to the ground in 1920.

After the completion of the project’s second instalment in 2021, 11 eye-catching, large-scale murals from the likes of Garrath Joyce, Deirdre Breen, Asbestos, Aches, James Earley, and more can be found spanning walls, doorways, and alleys around Cork. Download a map off Ardú’s website and hit the pavement in an attempt to collect them all.

Photo courtesy Blarney Castle and Gardens / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy Blarney Castle and Gardens / Fáilte Ireland
Photo courtesy Blarney Castle and Gardens / Fáilte Ireland

Kiss the Blarney Stone, if you’re so compelled

Built in 1446, Blarney Castle is indisputably one of Cork County’s most popular attractions. The stone behemoth stationed about 20 minutes outside of Cork City has been drawing major crowds for centuries, many of whom are determined to pucker up and kiss the estate’s famous Blarney Stone. It’s said that anyone who suspends themselves upside down against the ancient rock and touches their lips to its craggy surface will be given the “gift of gab,” or the ability to sweet talk for the rest of your days. In the time of COVID, however, this might not seem like the best bargain, even with the castle’s new safety and sanitizing protocols in place. But to each their own.

Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland
Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland
Photo courtesy of Tourism Ireland

Get spooked at the Cork City Gaol

Back in Cork, it’s hard to miss the hulking Gaol. The stone castle-like former prison is perched across the River Lee from idyllic Fitzgerald Park, and the cold fortress is anything but welcoming-despite its lush green grounds. Opened in 1824, the jail housed hundreds of prisoners until its closure in 1923, including hoards of Irish nationalists incarcerated by the reigning British during the Civil War and War of Independence.

Left to rot in disrepair for decades, the gaol was later gut-revamped and converted into a museum opened to the public in 1993. Today, visitors can wander the prison’s stark halls, peering into cramped cells, poking their heads into the relatively cozy governor’s office, and learning all about the building’s past, from jailbreak attempts to famous inmates. If you’re so inclined, you can even rent out the gaol for your next big event-weddings, it seems, are a strangely popular booking.

D. Ribeiro/Shutterstock
D. Ribeiro/Shutterstock
D. Ribeiro/Shutterstock

Churn up at the Butter Museum

Did you know that in the 19th century, Cork laid claim to being the largest butter exporter in the entire world? No joke. Discover that fun fact and so much more at the utterly charming Butter Museum, tucked away in the city’s quaint and historic Shandon area. The museum sits across from a curious round building that once served as the Butter Exchange, the industry’s central hub. A brief video is followed by a series of exhibits documenting the history of dairy production in Ireland and how Irish butter-specifically Kerrygold-has come to define the country’s agricultural economy (despite margarine’s early-1980s coup attempts).

Photo by Meredith Heil
Photo by Meredith Heil
Photo by Meredith Heil

The entire museum is well worth the modest entry fee, but upstairs is where the true star of the show awaits. There, you’ll find a firkin (AKA wooden keg) stuffed full of 1,000-year-old butter that’s been preserved in a naturally carbon-protective peat bog. We’re talking medieval bog butter, staring back at you through plexiglass display walls. If those curds could talk, eh?

Photo courtesy David Creedon / Alamy
Photo courtesy David Creedon / Alamy
Photo courtesy David Creedon / Alamy

Eat your way through Kinsdale, Cork’s colourful culinary gem

Known for its Crayola-hued houses, Kinsale is a formidable lunchtime destination when exploring Cork City. The walkable streets are dotted with beckoning businesses, from quirky gift shops like Canvas Works, Stone Mad, and Granny’s Bottom Drawer to Michelin-recommended bars and restaurants. Snag a table at Max’s on Market Street for artfully plated local eats, drop by Milk Market Cafe for coffees and smoothies behind a cerulean storefront, or drop into the aptly named Fishy Fishy for some of the best and freshest seafood in all of Europe.

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Meredith Heil is a Senior Cities Editor at Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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