EAST CORK — The setting had all the hallmarks of an Irish period drama. As we passed through the gateway, a winding driveway flanked by gushing weirs and a fairy-tale swan lake veered toward a historic country manor, magnificently buttressed by a 13th-century castle tower. When the resident pair of Irish setters, Earl and Countess, greeted us at the main portal of Castlemartyr Resort, one of the country’s most exclusive hotels, it seemed the air of aspirational Irish romanticism could reach no bounds.
Originally built by Richard Boyle, the first earl of Cork, in the 17th century, the property opened as a $700-a-night hotel in 2007. An economic crash and change of management later, the resort retained the pomp and reduced its rates, aiming to court Corkonians seeking a local luxury escape — like my friend Deborah and me.
We East Cork natives had returned to our home county for a break. In my youth, I had delivered Catholic newspapers to the Carmelite monks living in the estate during its era as a monastery, while Deborah had attended summer school here during the property’s incarnation as an Irish language college. “I think this is where my old dormitory used to be,” she said, as we wandered through the elegant vestibules to our suite.
Our room, with a four-poster bed, gleaming brass, deep-pile rugs, and parquet flooring was the epitome of classic style, while the Dartmouth green decor offered an airy in-out flow to the verdant acreage of horse paddocks and oak woodland. The decadent surroundings coupled with a friendly yet demure ambiance gave us the feeling of being in our own private manor. It was the most becoming of rustic refuges.
Castlemartyr Resort, located in the village of the same name, sits in the heart of East Cork, a more accessible, yet somewhat less chartered tourist destination, than some of Ireland’s more popular western wilds. Just 20 minutes from Cork City, the region is swathed in postcard fertile farmland, where rolling fields of wheat and barley fold onto a dramatically tapered coastline dotted with hidden beaches, landmark lighthouses, and the charming fishing village of Ballycotton.
With its scenic appeal and bounteous countryside, East Cork also makes for one of Ireland’s most vibrant culinary and cultural corners, and after settling into our stately retreat, we ventured out to sample the region’s offerings. Five miles along a tangle of bucolic byroads we reached our first stop, Shanagarry, a crossroads town overlooking the fauna-rich wetlands of Garryvoe Bay.
The area is peppered with charming creative haunts such as Stephen Pearce’s earthenware pottery workshops and Phil Davis’s art studios in the village’s Design Centre. A few pastures on led us to Crafty Hands Studio in Midleton for some morning pottery painting. We were joined by a friendly gathering of locals, sipping tea and stenciling vases as Schubert soothed in the background. “It’s more a relaxing ceramic cafe here,” said Susan Herlihy, who runs the studio in the company of her Jack Russell terrier, Lucy. “A few years ago everybody was just so caught up with the Celtic Tiger, but nowadays people are really starting to make a time for art in their lives.”
Midleton, the epicenter of the region’s rural bread basket, is also home to Ireland’s original farmers market and a number of excellent epicurean finds tucked beyond the footfall of the town’s Main Street. Sage, located in The Courtyard, is a popular Sunday brunch spot, while the Farmgate on the Coolbawn is the town’s original artisanal restaurant. Across the street is The Granary Foodstore on Coach Horse Lane, an insider favorite for baked goods where we popped in to find staff busily bagging lemon meringue tartlets and slicing ginger bread. “You’ll have to try the gluten-free orange polenta cake,” said proprietor Jack O’Sullivan, as we pondered the selections. One to stay, and one to go then, I figured — standard practice in local confectionery etiquette.
Perhaps the true genesis of East Cork’s food movement traces to the Quaker stronghold of Shanagarry, where free-range farming and organic orchards have been standard practice for decades. The Ballymaloe Cookery School, home to the Allen dynasty of chefs, runs a calendar of classes, and we joined the nation’s best-known cook, Darina Allen, and her students for an afternoon demonstration. Allen covered a wealth of recipes, punctuated with her colorful tips and anecdotes, from the benefits of roasting a chicken upside down to learning that Saint Bridget is the patron saint of dairy maids. The highlight was the tasting, where we sampled the freshest of fare from roast pheasant and creamed celery to berry trifle and Victoria sponge.
Come suppertime, we retreated to Castlemartyr’s Bell Tower, one of Cork’s most exclusive restaurants, with a formal French dining room overlooking ornate gardens. The menu’s inspiration was decidedly local. My starter of Ballycotton scallops with apple and walnut butter was followed by a filet of Cork Hereford beef, served with creamy potato terrine and a slow-cooked puree of turnip, perhaps the most uncelebrated of Irish vegetables. It was a sublime testimony to the region’s produce — where the terms Gaelic and gourmet seem to be marrying nowadays in ever-increasing harmony.
We were just polishing off our parting truffles when the melodious slides of fiddle playing came lilting from Knight’s Bar, the resort’s exquisite lounge chamber with the most magnificent of Italian rococo ceilings. We sidestepped into the lively traditional music of the five-piece ensemble, The Castle Martyrs, while our fellow guests, perhaps reticent to let loose in such stately surrounds, gingerly clapped and toe-tapped along with polite enthusiasm.
There are more strings to East Cork’s musical bow than jigs and reels, however, so we ventured out to visit one of the county’s newest cultural venues, the Grain Store in Ballymaloe, a 10-minute drive away. The 17th-century converted building is the venue for a varied bill of art exhibitions, wine soirees, and musical events. Inside members of Hermitage Green, an emerging five-piece group from Limerick, were chorusing their way through a set of harmonic fusion-folk balladry, as the lofty rafters offered the perfect, and necessary, acoustics for the pummeling of bodhran drums.
Our last call was at The Blackbird, a locally treasured traditional pub in Ballycotton that always seems to draw East Cork’s eclectic masses. Among local fishermen, artists, and Japanese sushi chefs, we wrapped up our weekend, sipping Jameson while getting lost in the hypnotic flicker of candlelight. Outside, Ballycotton Lighthouse was casting its beacon over the bay. By dawn, the fishing trawlers would whir, the pier would bustle, and East Cork once again would come to life.