Garinish Island. PHOTOS BY MARGARET M. JOHNSON
Ireland Hopping / By Margaret M. Johnson
For more times than I can count, I drove right past Bantry — not through it, past it —while heading from places like Kinsale or Clonakilty to places like Kenmare or Killarney. What was I thinking? On my last visit to Ireland in May, I set out to right this wrong and booked a three-night stay at The Maritime Hotel (themaritime.ie), a terrific spot on Bantry Bay located just before where the roadway skirts the town and leads you beyond.
For those not familiar with Bantry, it’s a lively harbor town on the main N71 touring route that stretches from Cork to Kerry; is one of the highlights of the Wild Atlantic Way; and as tourism officials there like to call it, “the jewel at the head of one of Europe’s deepest natural harbors.” It’s also the gateway to surrounding Mizen, Sheep’s Head, and Beara peninsulas, so you can expect glorious, rugged scenery along with amazing food, most often seafood, not the least of which can be found at local Bantry spots like the Stuffed Olive on Bridge Street; O’Connor’s Seafood on Wolfe Tone Square; and The Fish Kitchen on New Street. Even with three nights and a few hundred miles of winding roads, I feel I barely touched the surface of all that lies in Bantry and beyond. Here are some highlights; more to come in Part II.
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BANTRY FARMER’S MARKET: if you’re in Bantry on a Saturday, there’s a lively farmer’s market offering gorgeous loaves of bread, homemade jams and marmalades, and all sorts of things you wish-you-could-buy-but-know-you-can’t because you’re traveling — books, bric-a-brac, and antiques, to name a few.
BANTRY HOUSE: an original Queen Anne House, built around 1700, that sits on a hill overlooking the bay. The house has a collection of art and furnishings from around the world and lovely gardens.
GARINISH ISLAND: Also known as Ilnacullin, this small island in Glengariff, a few miles west of Bantry, is known for its spectacular Italianate garden with lily pond and folly. An added attraction of the boat trip across this Gulf Stream paradise is the chance to see the wild seascape and lazy seals lounging on rocks
MIZEN HEAD PENINSULA: You can drive from Bantry to the most south-westerly tip of Ireland via Durrus, Schull, or Ballydehob, three charming towns alone worth a stop. Depending on your route, you’ll pass an altar wedge tomb, one of a dozen found on the peninsula, erected at the end of the Stone Age (around 3,000 to 2,000 B.C.) with its entrance deliberately lined up with the distant Mizen Peak.
One of a dozen altar wedge tombs that are found on the Mizen Head Peninsula. They were erected at the end of the Stone Age, around 3,000 to 2,000 B.C.
Driving definitely makes you hungry — and sometimes forgetful — so after a day of touring we arrived at The Fish Kitchen, a small-ish restaurant situated, appropriately, above a fish market, without a reservation. Call it the luck of the Irish, but proprietor Diarmaid Murphy managed to squeeze us in because of a cancellation. Great luck, indeed, to grab a table in a place where they focus on three elements of serving fish: freshness, simplicity, and quality. Murphy says, “We do our best not to interfere with the fish, serving it simply skin side-up with a variety of simple butters or sauces on top or on the side. . .geographically we’re in an ideal location to keep the distance between the sea and the plate as short as possible,” an ethos not lost on the diners. Here’s one of the standouts on the menu.
Diarmuid Murphy, proprietor of the Food Kitchen.
BANTRY BAY MUSSELS STEAMED IN CIDER
4 pounds mussels
1 bottle Cronin’s cider, or your favorite brand of craft
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped scallions
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped flatleaf parsley
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped dill
1/2 lemon, plus lemon wedges for serving
Garlic bread, for serving
- Rinse and scrub mussels under cold running water. Using your fingers or a paring knife, remove beards (strings that hang from the mussels’ shells), and discard.
- Put mussels into a large, high sided saucepan. Turn heat to medium, add cider and garlic, and then turn heat to high. Cover and cook for about 6 minutes, or until shells open (discard any unopened shells).
- Uncover, stir in scallions, parsley, and dill; squeeze lemon juice on top.
- To serve, spoon mussels and juice into shallow bowls and top with lemon wedges.
Margaret Johnson’s “Recipes” page expands this year to “Ireland Hopping: Adventures in Food, Drink, and Travel.” For further details on her work or to order a signed cookbook, visit www.irishcook.com.