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Rock of ages

From flower gardens to fine dining, the oft-overlooked Munster Vales offers a fairytale escape for the whole family

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The Rock of Cashel

The Rock of Cashel

The Rock of Cashel

We're already halfway down the N7 when I realise I've forgotten to water the window boxes - again.

Lockdown may have brought out the inner Diarmuid Gavin in home workers across the country, but my efforts at 'plant parenting', as the trend has been labelled, have been slightly thornier.

Pulling up outside our destination in Limerick an hour later, it's clear there's no such bloom to improve.

Bursting with hundreds of exotic and native plants from false hemp to Japanese maple, and tinkly water features, Coolwater Garden is showing how it's done, with visitors now welcome back to the half-acre haven in Fedamore this summer following the lifting of restrictions.

And flower power is definitely on the rise here, according to Kevin Begley, who lovingly built up the gorgeous show garden at his family home over the past decade.

"I have a Facebook group called Irish Gardening," he says on a private tour of the garden, which run year-round from Wednesday to Saturday. "Before lockdown, there were only two or three thousand people on it - suddenly it got to 45,000."

Green fingers clearly run in the family, as 20 minutes away in Dromin, brother and sister-in-law Martin and Deborah Begley are also busy spreading a little post-pandemic magic with their fantastical Terra Nova Fairy Garden, where kids (€4) and big kids (€6) can explore the fairy village and pixie patch nestled among towering trees and tropical plants.

It's all part of the Ballyhoura Garden Experience, which winds from Cahernorry Church and Gardens, home to former RTÉ Super Garden winner Des Kingston, to Just Roses in Kilfinane, aimed at encouraging visitors to quite literally stop and smell the roses while in the area.

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Deirdre at the Terra Nova Fairy Garden.

Deirdre at the Terra Nova Fairy Garden.

Deirdre at the Terra Nova Fairy Garden.

 

The final stop on the fragrant trail, which also includes the award-winning Rockbarton Garden Centre, is Deebert House Hotel, where the recently made-over outdoor Mill area is sure to be a godsend for locals this outdoor summer.

My friend and I don't need the heaters or snuggly blankets while sampling velvety wedges of Old Irish Creamery cheese and juice fresh from Ballyhoura Apple Farm, among the platter of other proudly homegrown delights dished up during afternoon tea at the Kilmallock property.

It's a shame not to stay at the friendly family-run hotel, like the groups parking up outside with bikes of all sizes strapped to the roof for exploring the scenic area's many cycling routes.

But our whistle-stop tour of the sprawling Munster Vales takes us onward to Tipperary and the Great National Ballykisteen Golf Hotel, with its buzzing bar and bumper bedrooms, for the night.

Spanning four counties and five mountain ranges, the tourism destination, which also takes in parts of Cork and Waterford, boasts everything from castles to craft beer and kayaking, but is often outshone by the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East on either side.

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Afternoon tea at Deebert House Hotel.

Afternoon tea at Deebert House Hotel.

Afternoon tea at Deebert House Hotel.

 

Pedalling through the jaw-dropping Glen of Aherlow next morning I've honestly no idea why.

We clock up a sweaty 30km on - thankfully electric - bikes, available from bBikes.com from €20 a day, while exploring the pretty valley with owner Howard Pearson on two wheels.

The former pharmaceutical worker swapped his shirt and tie for cycling shorts a few years back. And freewheeling around the foot of the Galtee mountains there isn't a home worker in Ireland who wouldn't be tempted to do the same.

For bikers and hikers looking to base themselves in the area, you won't do better than the spotlessly clean Glen of Aherlow Caravan & Camping Park, found online at tipperarycamping.com, which we happen to whizz past on our Sunday cycle.

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A comfy bedroom at the Great National Ballykisteen Golf Hotel.

A comfy bedroom at the Great National Ballykisteen Golf Hotel.

A comfy bedroom at the Great National Ballykisteen Golf Hotel.

 

The Sunday carvery is just one of the traditions forever altered after hotels and restaurants spent huge swathes of the past year shuttered. Ours, for instance, further down the road at O'Neill's of Cashel, is enjoyed from a takeaway box in the afternoon sun while perched at a picnic table overlooked by the Tipperary town's famous Rock, and that's not at all a bad thing.

Originally the seat of the kings of Munster, the awesome cluster of medieval buildings is one of the country's most visited attractions - or was, at least, before Covid-19 took grip - so it's great to see it humming with activity once more during our pre-booked visit, even if we can't go inside Cormac's Chapel, the ornate 12th century church regarded as the proverbial jewel in the crown.

As part of the OPW's ongoing bid to boost domestic tourism, it's free to visit the Rock of Cashel for the rest of 2021, and if you hop around St Patrick's Cross anti-clockwise on one foot nine times, legend has it you could even end up with a rock of your own, as you'll be wed within the year. Sure, who needs Love Island anyway?

After spending the past 16 months married to Zoom, strapping on a virtual reality headset may be the last thing anyone wants to do while holidaying at home this summer.

Still, at Lismore Heritage Centre the next day, it only takes a few discombobulating seconds before an augmented look inside the town's traffic-stopping castle has us square-eyed in wonder.

Priced €5 for kids and €10 for adults for a 45-minute virtual tour, the Lismore Castle VR Experience brings the colourful story of the private estate, visited by everyone from Fred Astaire - whose dance partner sister Adele wed Lord Charles Cavendish in 1932 - to US President John F Kennedy over the years, to vivid 360-degree life.

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Deirdre stops off at the scenic Vee Pass in Tipperary.

Deirdre stops off at the scenic Vee Pass in Tipperary.

Deirdre stops off at the scenic Vee Pass in Tipperary.

 

Of course, if you've got €10,000 to spare, you can actually stay there for the night like Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Our affable tour guide Gearoid brushed shoulders with loads of celebrities while working there as a butler, but is sadly far too professional to spill the tea during a stroll around the fairytale town.

He recommends swinging by the picture-perfect Vee Pass on the way back to the capital and, wow, he's not joking.

The sliver of heaven in the Knockmealdown mountains between Waterford and Tipperary is exploding with rhododendron. Which reminds me - those bloody window boxes.

 

LATE DEALS

Opening a new bar and then a B&B in the thick of a pandemic is a brave move, but one that didn't faze Kildare locals Daniel and Edwina Curtis.

After a full redesign and refurbishment, they opened the doors to The Auld Shebeen gastro bar in Athy, followed by the Canalside B&B earlier this year.

Whether you're visiting the locale or exploring Ireland's Ancient East, it's the perfect base, with Dublin, Kilkenny, Wicklow, Carlow and Laois all within an hours' drive.

Indulge in dinner and drinks on the outdoor terrace or rooftoop bar.

As a designated Cycle Café, you'll also enjoy stunning views of the Blueway during your stay.

A suite for two adults (+1 child under 12) is just €95 per room including breakfast.

You can add a three-course meal for €21.50 per person. Facilities are fully wheelchair accessible. Check out theauldshebeen.ie.

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Planning a girly getaway or romantic escape this summer? Look no further than Jurys Inn Dublin or Cork.

A two-night stay at either city centre location between now and February 28, 2022, is just €189, including a bottle of prosecco and dinner on the night of your arrival.

A three-night retreat, with a complimentary superior room upgrade, as well as dinner and a bottle of wine on the night of your arrival is €269.

Both midweek getaways include breakfast each morning and free cancellation up to 2pm on the day of arrival.

Guests staying at Jurys Inn in the capital before August 31 will also receive complimentary Dublin Passes, granting entry to some of the city's top attractions.

Book at jurysinn.com/bookings/offers to avail of the deals.

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