It's Cork's year. Enjoy it from a coastal retreat

Ireland's second city is this year's European Capital of Culture. And Kate Simon knows just where to stay
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The Independent Travel

It is party time in Cork, which was crowned European Capital of Culture 2005 last night. The city's tourist chiefs must be jumping for joy. Not only has Cork received €500,000 (£350,000) from the European Union for this year's cultural programme, but the city and government has ploughed in €13m more for regeneration projects - and then there's the attendant publicity.

It is party time in Cork, which was crowned European Capital of Culture 2005 last night. The city's tourist chiefs must be jumping for joy. Not only has Cork received €500,000 (£350,000) from the European Union for this year's cultural programme, but the city and government has ploughed in €13m more for regeneration projects - and then there's the attendant publicity.

Such investment and exposure (and an excellent cultural line-up) will provide a much-needed lift. Though Cork airport - also undergoing a €1.4m expansion - is a popular entry point for south-west Ireland, many forgo a trip to its host city, preferring to strike out for the surrounding countryside. Why? Probably because County Cork has some of the most beautiful countryside in Ireland, whereas Cork City is a rather drab place with a parochial feel, despite being a port and having a university campus.

True, the river Lee snakes through the city centre, arched by elegant bridges and St Fin Barre's is a fine, 19th-century cathedral in French Gothic style. The fabulous new Lewis Glucksman Gallery is wowing fans of contemporary architecture and you can hear Irish music in plenty of good pubs (the An Spailpin Fanac on South Main Street is one of the best in the country). And the city has a fascinating radical history, from the days when it backed the wrong man, Perkin Warbeck, against Henry VII, earning the nickname Rebel Cork, to its more recent role as a republican stronghold.

But all this can be explored in a day trip from a more attractive base out of town - a wise move when you consider the lack of decent accommodation on offer in the city (with the exception of Hayfield Manor) and the variety of great places to stay in the countryside, especially self-catering options.

One such is Butlerstown House on the Seven Heads Peninsula in West Cork, an hour's drive away. A fine square Georgian mansion built at the turn of the 19th century for an Anglo-Irish trader, it sits on a hill in 12 acres of land approached through an avenue of trees. Today the house is owned by Roger and Lis, who once ran it as a b&b but now let it to private parties, having retreated beyond the double gates to one side of the drive (though they are happy to emerge to offer the benefit of their local knowledge).

On first impressions, it looks as if our group of four adults and five young children will be well catered for in this luxury property sleeping 10 (kids can squeeze in with parents for no extra charge). The ground floor has two reception rooms - one with TV and video and both with peat-fuelled open fires - a dining room, playroom, computer room, laundry, two loos and a vast kitchen with an Aga. Lots of space to temper any tantrums (from both generations). Up the beautiful, galleried double staircase are five bedrooms all with bath or shower rooms.

The house is tastefully decorated and furnished with some exquisite period pieces. The dining room is particularly grand and we are at liberty to use it, but its dresser full of precious china (which we must not touch) sends a shudder through the assembled adults. We close the door firmly and issue stern warnings to the children about not daring to breach its bounds - or, indeed, play on the stairs - then scurry around the house moving expensive-looking ornaments upwards.

The kids don't know what all the fuss is about. They are more interested in the playroom, which has table tennis and lots of toys and games. They drag a croquet kit out to the large lawn and tell us they don't want to leave.

But we adults are determined to get out and about. As well as being within easy reach of the city, the house is well situated for exploring West Cork, being around an hour's drive from most of its beauty spots, from Kinsale to the Mizen Head. The hall table is weighed down with flyers about nearby attractions, and maps and guides suggesting walks to the beaches, across the peninsula and up along the Coolim Cliffs. We could golf at the Old Head of Kinsale, go sea kayaking at Bantry, or even try board sailing at Coolmaine. So what do we want to do?

We decide to take an undemanding excursion to Kinsale, 30 minutes' drive away. With kids loaded into cars, we set off for Timoleague - a fabulously spooky village built around a ruined Franciscan friary - where we join the coastal road and skirt one of the many estuaries that cut deep into this coastline, spotting herons picking over the mud flats and marvelling at the impossibly pretty, brightly painted houses tumbling down the opposite hillside at Courtmacsherry. This is one of my favourite drives, but today it is punctuated by "sick stops" for one of the youngsters whose tummy is finding the winding road heavy going.

Eventually we reach Kinsale, a small fishing village that has built a reputation as a gourmet centre over the past 10 years or so. But this, coupled with its scenic setting - including more of those colourful buildings - means you must expect to join the crush at holiday times. Like today. After nabbing one of the last car parking spaces in town, we file our brood along the narrow pavements in search of lunch at the Fishy Fishy Café. It's nearly 1pm and, unsurprisingly, the café, which doesn't take bookings, is full and certainly can't accommodate a group of nine. In any case, the children have heard what's on offer and are bleurching at the very thought. Instead, we find a pleasant if more mundane choice that suits us all.

After taking a few snaps we cut our losses and head home via Pad Joe's pub in Timoleague, where we adults buy a big bottle of gin over which we later agree that taking long drives to look around scenic towns and sample gourmet options is not really the kids' idea of fun. What we need are local child-centred attractions. If all else fails, at least there is plenty to do at the house, plus we've spied a small playground down the hill that will wear them out. And as this part of Ireland benefits from the Gulf Stream, the Seven Heads Peninsula has its own micro-climate which suffers little rain.

And we do find plenty to meet our little ones' needs. Clonakilty comes up trumps with two hit attractions: a riding stables, where the older children enjoy a half-hour in the saddle while the younger ones look on in awe, and a Model Village, which lays out West Cork's urban landscapes in some detail, and has the added attraction for the Thomas-mad tots of trains rattling around the miniature towns.

And we discover good beaches, too. The one at Inchydoney Island, just beyond Clonakilty, has donkey rides, and at Dunworley, just a mile or so from home, we find a vast expanse of damp sand where the children build sloppy mud castles.

One night, we decide it is the adults' turn for some fun, treat ourselves to a babysitter and head for O'Neill's pub just down the road in the heart of the village. Right on cue, an impromptu music session begins, and the landlady, Mary, sings a sad ditty about a lost love across the ocean. So what if we didn't get to visit the pretty fishing villages of Glandore, Baltimore, Bantry and Schull? After a pint or two of the local Beamish, it doesn't seem so important. There's always next time.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Bmibaby (0870-264 2229; www.bmibaby.com) flies to Cork from Manchester and Nottingham East Midlands. Return fares from £45.38.

National Car Rental (0870-400 4560; www.nationalcar.com) offers a weekend's hire from £78.50.

Where to stay

Butlerstown House costs from €1,500 (£1,071) for two nights or from €3,900 (£2,786) for a week, plus utilities, through Adams & Butler (00 353 1 660 7975; www.irishluxury.com).

Further information

Tourism Ireland (0800-039 7000; www.tourismireland.com).

Cork 2005 (00 353 21 455 2005; www.cork2005.ie).

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