FIFTY MINUTES BY air from London to Cork, and then 12 miles by winding road along the banks of the River Bandon, where herons perch at every turn to pounce on salmon, and, on the estuary of the river is Kinsale, gourmet and wine capital of Ireland. It is an Atlantic ocean seaport town of colourful 18th century houses, three first class hotels and a plethora of excellent guest houses, restaurants and bistros. The historic streets are alive with the chatter and charm of beautiful people. The pace of life is totally relaxed, and the inhabitants of this Elizabethan port include the four wheel drive characters from the transatlantic yachts, the crews of deep sea angling cruisers, and the general world of those who simply love "messing about in boats". "No problem" appears to be the local motto.
When Gaelic Ireland and its backing of 6,000 Spanish soldiers, led by the Earls of Tyrone and Tirconnel, was defeated in the Battle of Kinsale, in 1602, by the highly professional army of the Virgin Queen, the "Flight of the Wild Geese" followed with the Irish going into exile to France and Spain.
Their flight is remembered today in the unique and superb wine list of Brian Cronin, the proprietor of the Blue Haven Hotel and Restaurant in Pearse Street, in the centre of the town. Brian and his wine buff friends have plans for a "Wild Geese" museum of wines with wine festivals and wine tastings. There are 18 en-suite rooms in their cosy hotel. B & B from £35 to £60, dinner £25. A nice touch at the full Irish breakfast is freshly crushed orange juice served in ice-chilled glasses.
Actons Hotel (B and B £35 to £55), overlooking Kinsale Harbour and yachting marina, set in its own gardens, is well known for its Captain's Table Restaurant. The Trident Hotel (B and B £25 to £59) is built right on the waterfront, and boasts a Fisherman's Wharf Bar.
Recommended are the Cottage Loft Guesthouse, (B and B £15 £20), and Kieran's Folkhouse Inn Guesthouse (B and B £7.50 to £30). The Inn is a 250 year old country inn with 18 en-suite rooms. Their Bacchus Night Club is a good late night meeting place. The Old Bank House in Pearse Street, is a Georgian building, formerly the Munster and Leinster Bank, a charming place to stay, run by the owners, Michael and Marie Riese. If you want a touch of California, the Scilly House, a historic house built in 1796, is a cosy spot.
Kinsale is a walkable town and it is wise to stroll the town by day to inspect the various restaurant menus and prices and check out the inte riors and their hosts for your night time meal. Kinsale abounds in secret coves and in one such cove, on a hot summer afternoon, on the cliff path overlooking the Atlantic ocean, I came eye to eye with a large and rare burrard He was perched on a wooden post, just above his quite visible nest on the ground beneath. He stared at me quite disdainfully with brilliant and cruel yellow eyes. He ruffled his dark brown plumage and did not deign to move his yellow feet and legs as I paused, and then passed by.
Motoring away to the west of Kinsale, it is worth a visit to O'Donovan's Hotel in Clonakilty, for a snack lunch in the bar of smoked salmon and home-made brown soda bread.
A high spot of the West is the seaside village of Glandore, with its picturesque harbour full of small yachts. Sit in Casey's pub and look out across the bay to its entrance guarded by two small islands, Adam and Eve.The Admiralty chart advises, "Hug Eve and Avoid Adam."
A few miles further west is Castletownshend, home of the writers Somerville and Ross. In its glorious setting the ancient church of St Barrahane is ablaze with the dazzling lights of the stained glass windows of Harry Clarke. At the entrance porch of the church is an oar from a lifeboat from the "Lusitania", sunk by a German submarine in May 1915, off the Old Head of Kinsale, with the loss of over 1,600 lives.
Ballydehob is the next village in wild and rugged hippy countryside. Pass Mount Gabriel, and there is the fishing village of Schull, with more contacts with Spain than anywhere else. The Ease End serves good bar food with a special emphasis on sea food. (Bed and Breakfast £17 £25).
For a very special treat or occasion it is worth taking the road back through Bantry and across to Kanturk in North Cork, to Assolas Country House Hotel and Restaurant. This lovely 17th century family residence is set in its own grounds with a magnificent lake of swans. It has a long established reputation for hospitality and comfort with great log fires. (B and B from £41 to £77. Dinner £28) Another such classical family hotel in County Cork is Ballylickey Manor House Hotel, overlooking Bantry Bay and bordering the Ouvane River. This is the 17th century manor house of the Graves family, related to the famous poet and writer, Robert Graves. (B and B from £49.50 to £99) Internationally famous for its food and for its wine list is the Arbutus Lodge Hotel, in Montenotte, in Cork City, overlooking the River Lee. (B and B from £40 to £57.50) Further information: The Irish Tourist Board, Ireland House, 150 New Bond Street, London WIY OHQ. (0171 518 0800).