Carlow, with its horticultural highlights, outdoor activities and enticing eateries, has many hidden gems waiting for you, writes Alan Kelly
Yet, when I visited this true hidden gem for the first time in July with my wife, we were blown away by what we found. But before we got started on our unexpected journey of discovery, we needed to find ourselves a good hotel.
Describing itself as a 'tranquil location with views of the Killeshin Hills beyond the river Barrow', the Woodford Dolmen Hotel on the edge of Carlow town offers clean, comfortable accommodation with welcoming staff who will look after your every need. It is also the perfect base camp for those who want to experience peaceful rolling countryside and explore the less trodden towns and villages of the county.
If you are into amazing gardens, you'll be in seventh heaven in Carlow. First up is the wonderland of Altamont Gardens near Tullow. With a horticultural treasure trove of native and exotic trees, plants, flowers and fragrances, it is a fabulous showpiece.
Following the passing of Altamont's owner, Corona North, the OPW and head gardener Paul Cuttler (the Stephen Hawking of gardening at Altamont since Mrs North's time) have brilliantly maintained and improved these wonderful gardens. As an added bonus, Altamont is also a sanctuary for wildlife, with foxes, ducks, badgers, squirrels and hares all thriving in this manicured informality and its constant flow of sightseers.
For a complete change of perspective, a visit to the Delta Sensory Gardens is an absolute must. Set on 2.5 acres in the centre of Carlow town, it is a mesmerising exhibition of striking water features, amazing sculptures and artworks engagingly displayed within a backdrop of exquisite herbaceous borders. For us, it was a totally surprising fun day.
Our favourite exhibits are The Kugal, a one-ton ball of pink marble rotating on a rippling cradle of water like a 3D image of the planet Jupiter, and the Interactive Games, a giant chess board with movable pieces.
Also, in Carlow town, we discover a sure-fire way of easing out of lockdown and easing into a holiday. It's a leisurely boat trip on the river Barrow with Cliff Reid: the Bear Grylls of leisurely boat trips and a mine of information when it comes to wildlife and fishing. Once you're past the town boundaries and are coasting gently between great walls of greenery, it is incredibly peaceful and relaxing.
Next day, we find ourselves in the hillside village of Borris. It was such a surprise. There's the pretty Georgian main street complete with granite houses and Victorian shop fronts, a grand Tudor-style mansion, a remarkable 16-arched railway viaduct transformed into a tourist walk with stunning views of Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs Mountains, plus loads of handy car parking and picnic areas. A particularly interesting discovery and a cool place to visit at any time of the year.
Another big surprise is The Fermentary: a bakery, shop and café next door to the village post office. Think freshly baked sourdough bread and pastries, amazing sandwiches, a fantastic range of fermented foods, pickles and miso, plus a marvellous selection of homemade kombucha on tap.
If you do plan a visit, make sure you get there early. The lunchtime crowds regularly snap up most of the goodies before 2.30pm.
After that, we decide to try something really different - and what could be more different than an afternoon of pottery making. The Mount Brandon Pottery School in Tinnahinch near Graiguenamanagh, run by the charming Carmen Wenner, is a stress-relieving activity with creative knobs on.
Not only do we get to throw clay on a wheel and spin a couple of tiny pots like crazy, we also clay-pinch a piggy bank and a hedgehog (both will be fired and posted on later). Kids of all ages will love it.
Then it was time to find out what the 'new normal' meant for hungry tourists in Carlow. The Mimosa Bar de Tapas on College Street is the definition of what good tapas are all about. We are greeted by a regiment of smiling staff, all eager to look after us and get the evening off to a flying start.
It's obvious straight away that this kitchen is passionate about getting it right by using only the freshest fish and the best locally sourced meat and vegetables. With small, delicious portions and lots of tempting options, Mimosa ticks all the holidaymakers' foodie boxes: fantastic grub, excellent beer and wine, and a great outdoor dining experience in a cute little orchard.
What a terrific end to a delightful couple of days.
In Carlow, you will find an infinite list of interesting things to do, blissful scenery to marvel at, and great places to eat. And I have to say, if it's a break you're after without the usual hassle and crowds, you really should check it out.
Only a short hop from Dublin, this is a county all too often ignored by holiday seekers who stream away towards other more well-known destinations.
The locals here are genuinely pleased to see you, the roads are excellent, and thank God (in comparison to some other counties) the traffic won't be driving you around the bend. I mean, what's not to like?