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Liss Ard Estate in Ireland's County Cork [FAMILY TRAVEL REVIEW]

With its grand manor house standing serenely amid a sea of magical gardens, the beautiful Liss Ard Estate in Skibbereen is a haven for stressed parents - or families


Posted: 10 August 2014
by Eve Morton

The grand six-bedroom manor house
Guests can also stay at The Lake Lodge
Decor is a blend of traditional and modern styles
Fairylike pathways…
… and magical woodland dells
The Crater by artist James Turrell
Inside The Crater there's an other-wordly hush

Eve Morton and husband Lee, from London, took a breather from their twins with a rejuvenating weekend-break to Ireland. 

Why we went

My husband and I hadn’t been on a romantic trip away together since our twin girls Mabel and Maisie were born nearly two years ago, so when my mother- and sister-in-law conspired to join forces to look after the toddlers for a weekend, we couldn’t refuse. I have always wanted to visit Ireland, and Cork in particular as my grandmother was from there, so the Liss Ard Estate sounded ideal.

The journey

As we arrived into a drizzly Cork airport quite early after a short flight from London, we decided to explore the city before checking in time. After picking up our hire car and taking advantage of the convenient and cheap (5 euros per car, per day, including bus fare) park and ride scheme, we were soon in the city centre, were our first stop was the historic English Market for a refuel of the full Irish from the café that overlooks a wonderful range of stalls with the emphasis on local organic produce – a foodie’s delight!

Bellies full, we set off on a digestive walk around the city. Helpfully, there are a variety of signposted walking routes to choose from, none of which are too taxing, and that took us to places we’d probably have never discovered by ourselves – the Pencil Museum and the beautiful grounds of the university being two such examples.

By midday I was becoming eager to check out our accommodation, so it was back to the car for the scenic hour or so’s drive from Cork to the charming market town of Skibbereen – Liss Ard is just five minutes away, but seems in a world of its own.

The hotel 

Liss Ard comes from the Gaelic ‘Lios Aird’, meaning high fort, and is located on the site of an ancient ring fort, with commanding views of the surrounding countryside. The Estate is not just one hotel, but offers a variety of accommodation: The Victorian Country House; the adjacent Garden Mews, a lovingly restored 1800s stable block; and The Lake Lodge, a Victorian Dower house overlooking the estate’s 50-acre lake, which is about a ten-minute walk from the main house and offers couples and families a more private holiday, with the option to self-cater.

Although we were having a romantic break, Liss Ard’s also well-equipped for families, with a playroom stocked with plenty of games, books and a Wii and Oisin’s Kids' Club (named after an otter who dwells in the lake), which caters for children from four years, from 9.30am to 1pm, with supervised activities such as sports and treasure hunts or indoor pursuits such as painting and baking. In the holidays there’s a separate programme for more adventurous 8-12-year-olds too. What’s more, equipment such as potties and monitors, and even big items like baby baths and buggies, can be booked in advance to save on packing.

The room

We’d chosen to stay in the country house, which was a charming mix of old-worlde splendour and cool, contemporary design – the colour palette throughout was light and muted, the high-ceilinged rooms of yesteryear providing a feeling of light, space and calm. The house only has six bedrooms, so you really get the feeling that you’re staying at a (rather grand) friend’s country manor, rather than a hotel. Our bedroom was huge, with thick, soft carpet and lounge area with fireplace and comfy chairs. In fact, it was so comfy that, as it was still rather drizzly outside, we decided to indulge in an afternoon siesta – a forgotten luxury after having twins!

The grounds

Waking up refreshed, and seeing that the mist and murk had cleared, we decided to explore the grounds.The pathways around Liss Ard have been planned to reveal a collection of ‘garden rooms’: the lakeside walk, the waterfall garden, the woodland garden, the water garden and arboretum and the wildflower meadow. We were curious to see the estate’s Sky Garden – which features The Crater, designed by US artist James Turrell, so wound our way down the wooded waterfall garden with trickling streams, mini waterfalls and moss-covered rocks giving the appearance of a fairy dell (something I was sure my little girls would love when they’re a bit older).

We found the stone-clad entrance to The Crater looming in a bracken-covered slope. Entering via stone steps up a short tunnel we found ourselves at the bottom of a huge grassy hollow in total silence – the sounds of the wind in the trees and birds was completely cancelled out. We both lay on the contemplative ‘Vault Purchase’ plinth at The Crater’s centre and looked up to see the sky framed by the rim above us, with white clouds scurrying by – quite a meditative experience. It was certainly the most peace and quiet we’d had for the past two years!

Feeling suitably Zen, we headed on down to the vast lake, where again I felt a pang when I imagined our girls paddling in the shore with wellies, or us all setting off in one of the kayaks free for guests to use for a family rowing session (there are also bikes and fishing gear to borrow). But this was mummy and daddy time – so we continued our dreamy stroll along the lake and back up to the main house.

What we ate

It had been a while since our breakfast at the market, so we were delighted to see a platter of freshly baked chocolate-peanut cookies alongside the tea and coffee for guests in the hallway. We decided to enjoy these in the comfy lounge – having some time to flick through magazines uninterrupted was bliss. After being busy doing nothing for an hour or two, we got ready for dinner.

Liss Ard’s food culture is all about using high quality produce from local farms and producers and serving them simply, bursting with freshness and flavour, a philosophy that certainly had my mouth watering. The intimate dining room was candlelit and romantic, with only a few tables of murmuring guests lending an air of exclusivity. For his main course Lee chose a manly slab of beef short ribs cooked in Guinness (naturally) with mustard spatzle – the tender meat falling off the bone in a rich, deep sauce. The spatzle were a revelation – an Austrian sort of noodle-dumpling hybrid, soft and melting as they soaked up the sauce, and full of mustard tang.

I had juicy chargrilled Irish steak in peppercorn sauce with polenta chips – I’m usually a bit wary of polenta, as it can be bland, but not in this case – the chunky cuboids of the deep-fried cornmeal were hot, crispy and light as air, the interior a smooth and oozy consistency permeated with the resinous taste of rosemary. I could have happily scoffed a whole plateful! It’s a testament to the cooking that the accompaniments were every bit as memorable as the meat!

If staying at Liss Ard with children, there are also fun and healthy meal options for little ones. There’s also a babysitting service and supervised evening children’s space so you can eat dinner in peace if you wish. Life’s also made easy for parents with 24-hour access to a big kitchen so you can whip up snacks and bottles for hungry little ones.

The morning after

Feeling rather peckish first thing (possibly because our stomachs had been stretched so full the night before?) we were delighted to find a smorgasboard of breakfast fare laid out in the dining room – ranging from smoked salmon with wonderful fresh soda bread for us to toast and slather with butter to oven-warm scones and homemade jams. You could also order a full Irish (or mix and match your favourite cooked breakfast bits) at your table too.

What we did

Although the estate has no spa as such (plans are afoot) it does have two treatment rooms where you can indulge in massage or reflexology sessions with one of the Estate’s three therapists. I had booked myself in for a full body massage. The non-nonsense masseuse Sinead soon got to the root of my aches and pains, honing in on my stiff shoulders and arms – a result of carrying around two hefty babies for the past year or so! – and giving me some welcome advice on how to prevent problems occurring in future. I left feeling even more relaxed and light on my feet on leaving.

The morning was bright and sunny, so we decided to make the most of our hire car and follow the coast road down to Mizen Head – the most south-westerly point in Ireland, which has amazing vertiginous views out into the roaring ocean – stopping of at some beautiful beaches en route, including the immense sandy expanse of Blair’s Cove, popular with surfers, families and romantic couples alike.

On the way back we popped into Hackett’s pub in Schull, which the hotel manager Melanie had recommended for a taste of the local ‘craic’. The tiny pub was packed with friendly locals and a folk band were playing Irish tunes with a Spanish-style flair – Lee was even invited to accompany them on the maracas! It was such a fun way to round off a great day.

As we had one final walk round the grounds, I managed to steer Lee in the direction of the Lake Lodge, just to have a look out of interest. Little did he know I was sowing the seeds of a return visit with the next generation, and possible the in-laws too – after all, the lodge has ten double rooms… 

Essential info

A night in a double room at Liss Ard costs from €155 in July and August. Children under 12 stay for free. For further details, see www.lissardestate.com

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