Smell the money, feel the rain

An hour by plane, pretty Kinsale has become a celebrity hide-out. But it is still (damply) welcoming to everyone, writes Kate Simon

I WONDER what George Michael thought of Cork Airport's baggage reclaim when he passed through on his way to spend Christmas in Kinsale. But then, I suppose George has someone to pick up his bags for him. Shame: he missed a real treat.

What other airport entertains arrivals during the interminable wait for luggage with such diversions as a wishing well and an imitation, gas- powered, roaring log fire, complete with horse brasses? Where else can you unload your cases from a belt which revolves around a stunning display of tropical aquariums, simulating the conditions of a freshwater reef near the rocky shores of Lake Tanganyika, or a part of the Amazon river contaminated with tannin released from submerged bogwood?

I expect George stepped off the plane on to the tarmac and into a chauffeur- driven car. My partner, Dean, and I didn't do too badly, either. Waiting for us (beyond the life-size statue of Jackie Charlton - former coach of the Irish national football team - perched, fishing rod in hand, on the side of an indoor pond) was a shiny, black BMW. Now, some of you out there may drive a BMW every day of the week, but as the proud owner of a 998cc Metro - which a colleague of mine so kindly refers to as a moped with a roof - this was a bit more than a treat. It was all we needed to kick off a romantic weekend - the purpose of our visit - as we sped off giggling like a pair of teenage joyriders.

In case it has escaped your notice, today is Valentine's Day. Presumably, the more romantic - and gullible - among you will be reading this somewhere inside the Channel Tunnel, en route to Paris, or in the air on the way to the Bahamas. Tsk, such obvious choices. How about somewhere different where you can celebrate the weather as it is, not just escape it?

Besides, our love was strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of nature in February. At worst, all it could do was test our relationship. And if all else failed, we'd have quiet, half-empty, cosy pubs to lounge around in and justify leaving our walking boots in our suitcases.

There was another factor which added weight to our choice of destination. West Cork has become a hideaway for some big shots from the worlds of the media, politics and entertainment in Britain. Surely, they know a good place when they see one. We just hoped they wouldn't be there in their expatriate retreats: Jeremy Paxman, Jeremy Isaacs, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Baroness Jay, Judge Pickles, Edward de Bono and Lord Puttnam, to name a few. Unless that hooded walker, shrouded in mist to our left, was one of them. We didn't stop to find out.

It was a short drive from the airport to Kinsale. There was no denying its beauty, even on a windy, rainy winter's morning. It's a peculiar feeling, taking a plane somewhere and then finding yourself driving along the same side of the road as at home. But there is a subtle difference in the landscape, which leaves you in no doubt that you really are somewhere else, and not just because many of the road signs are in Gaelic as well as in English: the colours seem deeper - greens, browns and purples at this time of year - and textures softer.

Our giggling subsided as we drove on through rolling fields that did just that, rolled and rolled, on and on, dipping down into woods, winding around an estuary that sparkled in the morning light. Finally, we reached Kinsale: the harbour spreading out below, a hillock curling into its waters, smoke puffing from the chimney of The Spaniards pub on top. Twenty minutes out of Cork airport and our stress levels had already discernably dropped. And not a VIP in sight.

Having checked in to our hotel, we decided to go exploring and wandered about the town. The lanes that run off the quay are flanked by buildings painted in a strangely attractive mixture of the most lurid colours - lilac and bottle green, mustard and royal blue - with the local signwriter's talent for fancy Gaelic script much in evidence. To the jaundiced eye of a clapped-out Brit celebrity, it could have appeared suitably twee.

We soon realised that our BMW was far from being a rare sight in these parts. Mercs and Saabs were pretty commonplace, too. Even in the off-season you can smell the money that rolls in here, not just from semi-resident celebrities, but also from the foodies who converge on the town during the annual gourmet festival in October, and the yachting fraternity who call into port in the summer.

Far from being traditionally Irish, the area has an almost cosmopolitan air. As a mixed race couple we had wondered how we might be received. We were told it was not unusual to encounter some racism in the Irish countryside and that people might stare or remark on the colour of Dean's skin. They assured us it would be more out of a sense of unfamiliarity than any real malice. But it soon became apparent that we were not visiting some quiet backwater: Kinsalers were more than used to all sorts washing up on their shores.

Yes, it did rain. A lot. I know it's a cliche about Ireland, but there was no getting away from it, especially in winter. So we needed little excuse to retreat to the pub for a pint of Guinness and a plate of oysters. There's no doubt Kinsale is cashing in on its huge tourism potential, especially its reputation as the gourmet centre of southern Ireland. You could stock up on Waterford crystal - if you're brave enough to pack it in your case and expect to find it in one piece at the other end - and there are two fine delicatessens to supply discerning diners with everything from a jar of exotic chutney to a bag of Di Cecco pasta. The chippy looked good, too.

It could have rained non-stop for all we cared. Irish kitsch at the airport, traditional music on the sound system, especially for our benefit - whatever Kinsale threw at us we could have coped with. Arm in arm we boarded the plane just as the sun came out.

FACT FILE

kinsale

Getting there

Kate Simon flew to Cork with Ryanair (tel: 0541 569 569). Return flights cost from pounds 80. She stayed at the Trident Hotel in Kinsale courtesy of Cresta (tel: 0161-926 9999). A two-night break at the Trident Hotel in February costs pounds 182, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick and b&b accommodation. Cresta can arrange car hire through Hertz. A BMW 316 costs pounds 122 for 48 hours.

What to eat and drink

There are plenty of pubs in Kinsale, many of which have live traditional music and jazz. Take your pick. The Spaniards in the village of Scilly, overlooking the town, is a far more interesting choice than some of the more bland pubs in town. Try Jim Edwards on Market Quay for a delicious lunch of hot oysters or crab claws in garlic butter. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from for your evening meal. Our favourite was Annalies in Higher O'Connell Street. The Blue Haven in Pearse Street is popular locally.

Further information

The tourist information office is next to the bus depot in the centre of town, but is open only from March to November (tel: 00 353 21 772234). Otherwise, information is available Peter Barry's, which is opposite The Spaniards pub in Scilly.

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