Community… It’s a word you hear a lot in Kinsale. Talk to locals in shops, pubs and restaurants and they’ll all mention it… how it’s a place where people help each other out, connect with and support each other.
“One of the greatest things about Kinsale is the sense of community,” says Sarah Ward-Hendry of leather shop Ruxx. Sarah was attracted by the lifestyle in the town, a place where her mum was already living, and opened a store selling handcrafted Irish leather bags and accessories here in 2010.
“I feel privileged to be a business owner in Kinsale. The enthusiasm for creativity and quality here amongst fellow business owners has given the town a strong identity.”
Barbara Nealon of Saint Francis Provisions – a jewellery-box sized Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant agrees. “We’ve always been so well supported by this community,” she notes. “Something I hear said a lot here is that ‘a rising tide lifts all the boats’, and I think that’s very appropriate to Kinsale.”
Stroll the narrow streets lined with colour-splashed shops, and you quickly get a sense of the strong local and creative focus that shop owners here refer to. There are high-end candles at La Bougie; upscale homewares and fancy knits at Granny’s Bottom Drawer; gourmet chocolates at Koko; and bags galore at Kinsale Leather, Ruxx and Mamukko. It’s this mash up of unpretentious and arty, homespun and super-chic that makes Kinsale such a magnetic destination.
A great craft and shopping scene has helped make Kinsale a hotspot with both visiting weekenders and property-purchasing millionaires (a quick glance at local house prices will tell you all you need to know about Kinsale’s desirability). But there are plenty of other reasons why it’s one of the go-to destinations on the island of Ireland.
There’s the beauty of its location on the estuary of the River Bandon – a short drive to showstopping locations such as the Old Head of Kinsale. There’s the cosmopolitan outlook of its people, a rich cultural life (the excellent new library being a great example of this) and a food scene that some argue is unrivaled in Ireland.
There’s also an incredible sense of history. It’s there in the old stone cottages and the medieval street layout, but it’s also there in more prominent buildings, from the ashy-coloured stones of Desmond Castle, which dates to about 1500, to the 800-year-old St Multose Church, one of the oldest standing churches in Ireland.
Peeling back the layers of history upon which modern Kinsale is stacked is all part of the fun, and a good starting point for every visit is a walking tour – one of the most popular being with the affable and loquacious Barry Moloney.
Barry runs the Historic Stroll Kinsale Walking Tour, which kicks off daily at 11am in front of the Tourist Office. Directly across the street from here – just a stone’s throw from the sheltered harbour where fancy yachts bob beside weathered, net-strewn fishing boats – is the restored Fish Shed. It’s a gentle reminder of the town’s origins as a centre for trade and fishing, and was once used by local wives and daughters to sell local catch.
If you’re not familiar with Kinsale’s history, then you’ll be an expert by the time the tour finishes. One of the more interesting stops on the 90-minute walk is the tiny Market Square, home to the distinctive Kinsale Museum. Clad in Kinsale’s trademark grey slate tiles, the building dates back to the 1590s with an elegant Dutch-style façade that was added in the 1700s.
It now houses a small but notable collection of historical artefacts, but in the early 20th century it served as Kinsale’s courthouse and was the location of the inquest into the sinking of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed off the County Cork coastline in 1915.
“Captain William Turner had an emotional breakdown in the stand here as he described what had taken place,” Barry explains. “The ship completely disappeared in less than 20 minutes; she sank so quickly that 1,200 lives were lost of the 2,000 on board.”
It’s a stark reminder of Kinsale’s close and often fractious relationship with the sea. Indeed, one of the most momentous events in Irish history saw a Spanish fleet invade the seaport in 1601 in what is known as the Battle of Kinsale. Today, the balmy sway of luxury boats in the harbour feel a million miles away, but as Moloney notes, the perils of the sea are merely feet away, and the main square only a few years ago was severely flooded in a storm.
A walking tour of the town is a great starting point, but stretching your legs a little further will reward you with a deeper dive into life in Kinsale. Head along the Lower Road and up the hill, and you’ll find yourself on the Scilly Walk, which skirts what is known locally as “Millionaire’s Row”.
Here, grand old mansions mix with modern architectural creations overlooking the shimmering water of the bay. The walk is about 6km in length, with great pubs such as Man Friday, The Spaniard and The Bulman (one of Kinsale’s most famous) along the way. It reaches right out to Charles Fort, a star-shaped military fortress that dates to the late 17th century, and serves up incredible views of Kinsale Harbour.
And it’s this harbour – with its green waters cradled by tree-strewn hills – that gives the town an almost St Tropez-like feel. In summer, chichi crowds pile in on yachts bringing a buzzy vibe to town, but even if you don’t have your own boat, you can enjoy Kinsale from the water on a tour.
One of the best is Kinsale Wellness on Water. The simple boat is captained by Brian Roberts, who once worked in the merchant navy and who will regale you will stories of mega-mansions, Hollywood celebrities, old forts and older shipwrecks.
As you chug slowly out of Kinsale Harbour, the beauty of the local area opens up – herons stand on spindly legs on the river bank, seals raise curious heads and the waters of the river ripple in the soft breeze. It’s a gorgeous way to spend a few hours, and Brian and his second mate, Alfie the dog, are both great company.
As well as a spot of mackerel fishing, Brian is also a great man for tips on local hotspots, from Man Friday where his friend Daniel serves up great local oysters to The Dock Bar on Castlepark Marina, where the locals like to hang out. “I love what I do and I’m the only guy that does this kind of tour on the river,” he explains. “The quality of life in Kinsale is just magnificent. You’ve got it all here.”
Walking around town, it’s hard to disagree. Kinsale’s is known as the “gourmet capital of Ireland” – a status that has been years in the making – and today you’re unlikely to find another town on the island of Ireland that boasts such a wide range of quality restaurants in such a small space.
There’s the fine-dining Michelin-starred Bastion, the long-running seafood favourite of Fishy Fishy Café, and the award-winning organically focused wine bar, The Black Pig. And that’s just for starters. You can breakfast in lively little coffee shops such as The Collector, with its collection of hip objects, and sip wine in the evening while watching a gig at Prim’s Bookshop.
Saint Francis Provisions is easily one of the buzziest spots in town, and it’s worth booking ahead to secure a table. At night, it twinkles with candlelight and hums with chat, creating a relaxed backdrop for a menu that mixes great local produce with international flavours: think local oysters with XO sauce, mackerel with endive, roasted delicata squash with burrata and brown butter-dressed cavolo nero.
“What drew me to Cork and Kinsale were the growers and the producers,” says owner Barbara Nealon. “The county is a hub of cheese, of charcuterie, with all these amazing growers. It’s a beautiful, fertile place with a food culture that’s connected at the source.”
That commitment to local ingredients and provenance is reflected on menus throughout town (“There’s a restaurant to suit every budget and taste in Kinsale,” says Barbara), so look for Gubbeen salamis, Oysterhaven oysters and locally caught lobster on menus. Even the pubs give a nod to local flavours, with stalwarts such as Jim Edwards serving up seafood classics such as chowder and oysters.
Kinsale’s gourmet reputation doesn’t just stop at food either, with Blacks of Kinsale among a number of popular local beers. A short walk out of town at the back of a fairly functional industrial estate, you’ll also find one of the town’s more unusual offerings – Kinsale Mead Co.
Inspired by a visit to the Hill of Tara, where once stood the Great Mead Hall of Tara, Kate and Denis Dempsey opened what is Ireland first meadery in over 200 years. The tour here brings you through the history of mead in Ireland, along with tastings of honey and mead, and an explanation of the distilling process.
“Mead’s origins are several thousand years old. It’s currently considered the oldest alcohol humans have ever made,” explains Denis. “They have carbon-dated rice and honey in China back to about 6500BC, so it’s a very ancient drink. But in Ireland, it dates back to about the 5th century.”
Determined to bring it into the 21st century while respecting the drink’s origins, the Dempseys have done a nifty job of challenging perceptions about mead with blended cocktails and modern flavours – don’t be surprised if you end up buying a bottle, or two.
There are few better ways to appreciate the glorious landscape that surrounds Kinsale than with a drive out to the Old Head of Kinsale. Hedgerow-lined roads twist and twirl offering shockingly beautiful glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean as you head up close to the tip of this peninsula (the very tip is occupied by the Kinsale Golf Club).
Jagged cliffs plummet into the churning ocean and are topped by a flat plateau of green that sweeps out to the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse. While you can’t walk all the way out to the tip, you can walk some of the way there, and even if you’re driving it’s worth getting out to stretch the legs and take in the surroundings.
The peninsula is also home to the Lusitania Museum, a small but interesting exhibition that details the tragic sinking of the ship off the County Cork coast.
Finally, sea swimmers are well served in this part of Ireland. A short drive (or long walk) from the town is the popular Kinsale Beach, which is accessed down a narrow lane. Swimmers flock here on weekends and it gets especially busy in summer, but the waters are clear and the views beautiful.
More serious sea swimmers should head to Sandycove, where locals swim out to and around the little island here. On sunny days, it’s a little piece of heaven.
Given that Kinsale is such a popular destination, it’s a good idea to plan your visit well in advance, especially in the summer months. Autumn is a particularly lovely time to go, with the Kinsale Gourmet Food Festival, the Kinsale Literary Festival and the Kinsale Jazz Festival all big draws.
Acton’s and the Trident are two popular hotels that are long-standing favourites. The Blue Haven has a great location in the centre of town, and boasts a critically acclaimed restaurant Rare, which makes it popular with foodies. For an upscale take, try Perryville House, a luxurious 34-room guesthouse-style hotel with a small but elegant garden.
Or for a more private experience, try the Giles Norman Townhouse which takes self-catering up a level with beautiful rooms adorned with works from Norman, a well-known local photographer. As the night draws in, you might just find yourself envying the folks who get to call this vibrant town home. But there’s always the next visit to look forward to.