This is no blarney: Cork, Ireland has made it big time, culturally. With 160,000 people, it’s not London or Paris (or even Dublin). But this city is bent on changing the course of culture not only in Ireland, but in all of Europe. The official announcement that Cork was chosen to be the European Capital of Culture in 2005 means travelers bound for Ireland should put Cork on their A-list.
Visitors will be greeted with an ambitious cultural calendar that rivals any city of its size. Thousands of events representing 236 creative projects from the Cork Film Festival to performances at the Cork Opera House like the Pillowman and the Plough and the Stars are designed to attract culture vultures like never before. But once you arrive in this city, which like Venice is built upon the water, the adventure begins.
The River Lee, spanned by 21 bridges, lends a continental air. The natural harbor, often compared to the San Francisco Bay, was the departure point for thousands of emigrants destined for the New World in search of a better life.
Cork has arrived, it appears, with an ambitious agenda of activities. Its book, “City of Making,” is filled with 200 pages describing entertainment, art, sports, poetry and thought-provoking exhibitions. Cork is noted for its writers such as Frank O’Connor and Daniel Corkery and artists such as James Barry and Daniel Maclise. Then there are emerging artists who will be given a chance to further their talents in venues throughout the city. This overwhelming variety of cultural expressions will reflect the “creative personality of Europe as well as the soul of Cork and Ireland,” said John O’Donoghue at a press conference attended by journalists representing publications throughout Europe.
Cork is the smallest city ever to be awarded this designation. Previously holding this title have been great European cities such as Copenhagen, Madrid, Helsinki and Prague. For Cork, this means a major face lift. As our bus entered the city, the massive rejuvenation of buildings, landmarks-even streetlights-was enough to cause traffic delays, nonstop. But it’s worth the effort when you sit down at one of Cork’s many organically influenced restaurants such as Flemings-for crab and Atlantic prawn ravioli with garden pea puree and basil cream served in their Georgian Drawing Room. This is where elegant dinners unfold in an 18th-century home built by a prominent merchant prince of Cork. Inquire about five lovely guest rooms, upstairs if you really want to feel like turning back the pages of time. Fine dining abounds in Cork. Ballymaloe Cookery School, one of Europe’s finest, in nearby Shanagarry (in County Cork) has been raising the bar in creative cooking with cooking courses hosted by guest chefs such as “Brilliant Breads” with Rachel Allen and “Game Cooking” with George Gossip.
Hayfield Manor Hotel, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, is my hotel of choice. It is not just for luxury accommodations and their intimate spa, but for afternoon tea as well. The hotel’s perfect tea was the overall winner of Barry’s Afternoon Tea Award 2003/2004. The full tea service (about $28) includes a pot of tea, finger sandwiches, tea breads, miniature pastries and cakes, scones with fruit preserves and fresh cream. You can add champagne for $8. Teas range from Granny’s Garden (a fruit blend of rhubarb rounded off with genuine bourbon!). There is also hot chocolate with rich dairy cream and creamy chocolate shavings.
Those traveling to and from Cork should consider adding a few nights at the legendary Park Hotel Kenmare, overlooking Kenmare Bay where the new Samas destination spa, in a wooded knoll, reveals therapeutic spa treatments in a spectacular Zen-like setting. Offering an astounding contrast from the more traditional hotel, which opened in 1897, spagoers are invited to stroll the emerald green gardens and meadows, ever so misty in the early morning. The spa offers more than 40 holistic treatments featuring Espa products created by Susan Harmsworth. Samas translated from Gaelic is “a pure indulgence of the senses.” After a long flight, a Chakra Balancing treatment or a Samas Mystical Four Hand Massage (each treatment, two hours) will put you back in sync. Their Lifestyle programs range from one to seven nights and include spa treatments, dinners and activities.
After one night of gracious Irish hospitality for which the owners, the Brennan brothers, are famous, it’s tempting to stay longer. Rainbows abound here, and enchanting country roads take you to villages resembling paintings and postcards. You too may well succumb to the irresistible charms of this corner of Ireland.
Best bet for flights is Air Lingus with low fares and nonstop flights between Los Angeles and Dublin/Shannon. There are connecting flights to Cork on Air Arran.
Make it Happen:
_ Information on Cork
__Hayfield Manor www.hayfieldmanor.com or www.slh.com
__Park Hotel Kenmare
www.parkkenmare.com or Leading Hotels of the World
__Ballymaloe Cookery School www.cookingisfun.ie
__Brendan Tours www.brendantours.com 800.421.8446
__Air Lingus www.airlingus.com 800.474.7424. There is a $30 savings if you book online.
__Ireland-Eye Witness Travel Guides, Dorling Kindersley books.
Pamela Price is the coauthor of “100 Best Spas of the World,” published by the Globe Pequot Press (www.globepequot.com)