Travel: Jaywalking and jazz bands on a mind blowing weekend in Cork
A fab hotel and the fantastic atmosphere of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival are just two among a plethora of experiences that opened Robert McMillen's eyes to the charms of Munster's capital
WE LOOKED at each other in the car. “Yeah, let’s do it,” we decided. So we got out and went back into the hotel and said to Kevin at reception, “We’d like to stay another night please.”
That’s how fantastically enjoyable the River Lee Hotel was when we stayed there for the equally mind-blowing Guinness Cork Jazz Festival weekend on a trip that really opened my eyes to the joys of Cois Laoi.
A luxurious hotel, great food, plentiful night life, fabulous music, the friendliest staff and customers you could meet, a great city to explore and lots of things to entice you in the countryside nearby.
Getting there isn’t that much of a dilemma. The drive from Belfast, say, will take you around 4.5 hours, while the train will take you two hours to Dublin, then the Luas from Connolly to Heuston and then 2.5 hours from Hueston to Kent Station in Cork. I prefer the train as you can have a doze or read the papers or work on your laptop.
It was definitely a case of love at first sight with the River Lee hotel. Built in 2006, we were immediately struck by the buzz in the different areas of the hotel. It's beautifully laid out, the rooms a joy to be in, with their floor-length windows looking out over the river and the city, and beds that cuddled you to sleep when the time came.
Falling in love often leaves you with difficult choices and that was certainly the case on the Friday evening with Cork. Stay in the hotel or venture out?
We opted to head to Midleton, to visit the Jameson Distillery. There we learned about the history of Ireland’s top-selling whiskey and the loving care mixed with scientific know-how that has gone into making it for the past 239 years.
The cold and rain were soon forgotten as we sampled an American, a Scotch and an Irish whiskey to discover the characteristics of each (Hic!).
It was a trip well worth doing – Midleton is 23 miles from the River Lee – but we had to make our way back to the Lee for the launch of the Jazz festival in another of Cork’s iconic hotels, the Metropole.
There we met the lovely Ailbhe and Pat who had organised a show at the festival featuring the great female blues singers in a show called The Ladies in the Blues.
Guinness was drunk, the conversation never waned – apart from listening to Corkonian Tanáiste Simon Coveney open the weekend’s activities – and the music was enjoyed before we took a dander back to the River Lee hotel along the famous banks. Wow that was some first day. Pure Cork.
The Saturday saw us have one of the best breakfasts we’ve ever had in a hotel. To give you an idea, there were three types of honey – manuka, ginger-infused and a square of real honeycomb.
You could then forego your full Irish – although it is available – for a healthier version with quinoa and poached eggs or, as I had, fresh haddock, cooked to perfection. All (or nearly all) the produce was local. Pure Cork.
After breakfast, it was time to take another walk into town, which took longer than anticipated because we had to stop at all kinds of venues where all kinds of jazz was being played. A jazz stations of the cross, if you will.
Finally, we got to the famed English Market, about which many stories could be told, although I now know it from a scene from TheYoung Offenders! (They’re back in a new series on BBC btw). Pure Cork.
A friend had recommended an eccentric bar called the Hi-B and it was all he described. It’s the kind of place where a member of the clientele could burst into an aria at the drop of a hat. No-one did while we were there but we did get chatting to an American who opened up the conversation with “What part of Belfast are you from?”
It turns out that David Monahan is an author of several books including one called Jaywalking With The Irish. He took great delight in introducing us to his Hi-B friends. Pure Cork.
We Irish jaywalked back again to the hotel for a rest because that night, we hit Cork City Hall for multi-Grammy-award-winning singer Kurt Elling who took the stage in a tribute to the great jazz singers of the 20th century.
Our last day was Sunday and we treated ourselves to a swim, sauna, and steam before another fab breakfast and then trying a trial separation with the city we’d grown to love by heading out to Kinsale, which was choc-a-bloc with day visitors. I had wanted to visit the Wine Geese Museum which honours Irish wine makers all over the world but especially in Bordeaux in the 19th century – but it was closed.
So we had a look and a listen to the jazz all around the town and ended up listening to a fun Russian gypsy jazz band – all of whose members were from Liverpool. George Formby’s I’m Leaning On A Lamp-post and Mary Hopkins’ Those Were the Days should have alerted us to the fact that they were from this side of the Urals.
Dragging ourselves away from the Scouse gypsies, it was time for some real serious A-lister jazz as we hit The Everyman in Cork to hear our own Linley Hamilton Quintet play a storming 80-minute set. And although we really should have stayed for the legendary Fred Hersch we wanted to finish the weekend off with a band so it was back to the City Hall to hear soul legends Martha Reeves and the Vandellas get a full venue on their feet and dancing to the 78-year-old’s Greatest Hits.
Yes, astonishingly, Martha Reeves is still a force of nature as she heads towards her eighth decade!
After the rapture, it was great walking through streets now very familiar – Patrick Street, McCurtain Street, Oliver Plunkett Street – all thronged with people enjoying the atmosphere. What a way to finish a weekend. Pure Cork.
:: You can find out more about what is happening by the banks of my own lovely Lee by going to purecork.ie. Keep an eye out for details of next year's Guinness Cork Jazz Festival at guinnessjazzfestival.com
HOTEL COIS LAOI
SET on a picturesque bend in the river, just a short walk from Cork city centre, The River Lee – a Doyle Collection Hotel – occupies a unique position in this charming, historic setting.
All aspects of Cork local life are played out at The River Lee, from business events and family celebrations to glamorous get-togethers in the hotel’s highly popular River Club Bar, Terrace & The Grill Room – the perfect place to eat, drink and be social.
Afternoon Tea is served in The Cocktail Bar daily and, at night, this modern take on a mid-century cocktail bar is transformed to a cosy and chic hideaway – perfect for whiskey and cocktail aficionados alike.
Those looking for the perfect city-centre location for that special event will be wowed by The Mirror Room, an unparalleled riverside occasion space flooded with natural light and glamorous design.
All 182 guest bedrooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows flooded with natural light and cool, understated décor. Resident guests also benefit from complimentary secure car parking, free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel and complimentary access to NRG Fitness with full gym, classes and 20m swimming pool.
Rates start from €169 per night. More info at doylecollection.com/cork