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Southern Comfort

The bridge over the falls, with its distinctive stone arches, was built in 1777 and remains unchanged to this day. PHOTO: MARGARET M. JOHNSON

Ireland Hopping / By Margaret M. Johnson

In my last “Ireland Hopping” piece, I lamented getting lost (pleasantly “detoured”) on the way from Donegal to Connemara. Not so on the southern end of the Wild Atlantic Way, or as I like to think of south Kerry and west Cork as “the old neighborhood.” I’ve never actually lived there, but more than 20 visits to the area and family roots (my maternal grandmother was born in Rathmore, Kerry, and my paternal great-grandmother in Ballyvourney, Cork) make me feel right at home.

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Sheen Falls Lodge. PHOTO: SHEEN FALLS

That’s not to say I didn’t find myself slightly off-road during my recent travels, so when I saw the sign for Top of Coom, “Ireland’s Highest Pub,” I couldn’t resist the challenge to visit. At 1,045 feet above sea level, Creedon’s pub in Coolnoohill, Kilgarvan, makes that claim and tempts, I’m sure, travelers like me to make the trek up into the hills along the Kerry/Cork border. Another tempting signpost was for Gougane Barra, so I travelled back down the hills to the beautiful lake and well known St. Finbarr’s Oratory, or Small Church. Set on a little peninsula all its own, the oratory was built near the remains of the saint’s 6th century monastery and is probably the most photographed church in all of Ireland.

Top of Coom, "Ireland's Highest Pub," near Kilgarvan. PHOTO: MARGARET M. JOHNSON

Beautiful scenery and great photo ops aside, a stay at Sheen Falls Lodge in Kenmare is just about as good as it gets when it comes to lodging. Despite the number of times I’ve visited the area, this was my first stay, so I was as wide-eyed as any of the other guests who were there on a beautiful autumn weekend. Let’s start at check-in, where I was greeted with a charming Gallic welcome from one of the many staff members who come annually from France to work at Sheen Falls. As a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux, a global fellowship of individually owned and operated luxury hotels and restaurants, the lodge is one of about 500 properties (historic landmarks, castles, or manor houses set in idyllic settings and offering exquisite cuisine) that meet strict admission standards. The group’s mission is “to spread its unique art de vivre across the globe” and to subscribe to the “five C” motto: caractère, courtoisie, calme, charme et cuisine.” No problem for Sheen Falls.

St. Finbarr's Oratory, Gougane Barra, is one of Ireland's most photographed churches. PHOTO: MARGARET M. JOHNSON

The rooms are divine, each decorated in stylish colors and patterns with some offering open fireplaces and views over either Kenmare Bay or Sheen waterfalls; the library is fully stocked and homey; the Easanna Spa, with a heated pool and fitness center, offers a menu that includes mud or seaweed wraps, Swedish massage, and rejuvenating facials; and the dining options are delightful. The Cocktail Bar and Sun Lounge is open all day for light bites, smart lunches, and afternoon tea, and The Falls, its fine dining restaurant, serves elegant, classical cuisine. Home-smoked salmon caught on the estate, seafood from Castletownbere, and suppliers from down the road and across the region are the stars: think St. Tola Goat Cheese Parfait, Ring of Kerry Lamb Rump, Ted Browne Crab Salad, and Kenmare Bay Seafood Board.

Henry Street, Kenmare. TOURISM IRELAND

A stroll around the woodlands, riverside walks, or forest pathways of the 300-acre property is a “must,” and during my visit I even caught a bit of sunshine to complement the natural beauty of the estate. Guests can also use hotel bikes or hotel horses for touring, have a go a kayaking, falconry, salmon fishing, clay pigeon shooting, hill walking, or tennis. The charming market town of Kenmare, a 5-minute drive from the estate, is always open for business.




Heading up the kitchen, Chef Tony Schwarz brings a unique flair and his own style of modern Irish cooking to the table. He embellishes a classic carrot cake recipe with raisins that he first plumps up in red wine syrup. He tops it with cream cheese icing and sprinkles it with almonds and pumpkin seeds. Very tempting on the breakfast buffet!

For the cake

1 cup light brown sugar

3/4 cup sunflower oil

1/4 cup plain yogurt

3 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups grated carrots

1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

1 cup wine-soaked raisins (see Note)

For the cream cheese frosting

1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 to 2 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar

2 tablespoons heavy (whipping) cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons toasted flaked almonds

1 tablespoon toasted pumpkin seeds

  1. Make cake. Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray 9- or 10-inch springform pan with non-stick cooking spray.

  2. In a medium bowl, beat brown sugar and oil with an electric mixer on medium speed for about 1 minute, or until combined. Beat in the yogurt until fully combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition; beat in vanilla. Set aside.

  3. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Stir into the brown sugar mixture until just combined (do not over mix). Fold in carrots, nuts and raisins.

  4. Transfer to the prepared pan and bake for about 35 to 38 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. (Do not overbake; check cake at 30 minutes, then again at 38). Remove cake from oven and let cool completely on a wire rack before removing side of pan.

  5. Make frosting. In a medium bowl, beat cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes, or until creamy and smooth. Add 2 cups confectioners’ sugar and beat until thick. Add cream and vanilla extract and beat on medium speed for 2 more minutes. Add additional 1/4 cup sugar, if needed, and salt to taste.

  6. With an offset spatula, spread frosting over top and sides of cake and sprinkle almonds and pumpkin seeds on top. Refrigerate until frosting is firm, and then cut into slices. (Cake can be stored, covered, in refrigerator for up to 3 days).

Note: On the day before baking, in a small saucepan, bring 1/2 cup red wine, 1/2 cup port and 1/4 cup sugar to boil. Pour over 1 cup raisins, cover, and let sit overnight.

Margaret Johnson’s “Recipes” page now includes “Ireland Hopping: Adventures in Food, Drink, and Travel.” For further details on her work, including how to order her cookbooks, visit