West Cork: a place apart, so the locals say, and right they are too. Around every bend in a road lies a breath-taking view, a magnificent vista, friendly people, and incredible food. The landscape is awe inspiring, and islands and islets dot the coastline like sentinels in the sea.
I’m fortunate to call West Cork my home. I love every inch of it, but when I’m asked which part I like the best, the place I find myself returning to time and again is Glengarriff.
Glengarriff is located at the start of the Beara Peninsula, the finger of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean bounded by counties Cork and Kerry, a short drive west-along from Bantry. The main tourist draw is Garinish Island, also known as the Garden Island or Ilnacullin. The entire island was purchased by the Bryce family in 1910 who set about building an Italianate mansion and laying out gardens and ornate structures with mesmerising views out over Bantry Bay, it’s calm waters and tree-covered islets just begging to be explored.
Standing majestically overlooking the harbour is Eccles Hotel & Spa. The hotel was first established in 1745, before the USA was founded, and over the years has seen successive owners, including Violet Bryce who was pivotal in designing Garinish Island.
There are so many stories and local lore associated with Eccles Hotel & Spa that the hotel even commissioned Irish author and visual artist, Andy Watson, to write “Eccles – The Untold Tales,” an entertaining romp through Eccles’ 275 years of history.
In 2017, new owners came aboard investing heavily to bring the hotel back to its former glory while preserving as many historic quirks and personality as possible. The following year, the hotel appointed a new head chef in Edward (Eddie) Attwell, an inspired move that propelled Eccles Hotel & Spa back into the consciousness of diners everywhere.
Born in Co Armagh, Edward spent his early years growing up in the countryside of Co Antrim. Throughout his career, he has positioned himself as a champion of hyper-local and foraged ingredients, working in high end restaurants across Ireland, the UK and representing Northern Ireland on The Great British Menu two years running.
I first met Edward in 2018 when he told me his ambition was to put Eccles Hotel & Spa on the gourmand’s map. He asked one simple question: “why would Glengarriff not be the place for a destination restaurant?” In the years since he has held himself true to that ambition. Eccles is known as a destination restaurant because of Edward, and the energy and leadership he brings to his kitchen.
As well as tapping into the local network of West Cork food producers, Edward brings his love of foraging to his menus, and his passion for vegetables too. In Victorian times, Eccles once had its own glasshouses and grew much of its own produce. If Edward is not in the kitchen or stuck headfirst in a hedgerow, he can be found tending his two polytunnels, or his dahlia beds – one of his signature ingredients.
Everywhere food can be grown in the grounds of the hotel it is grown. That ethos is not for show, it’s authentic and is displayed writ large on every menu item and every carefully and exquisitely executed plate of food that leaves his kitchen destined for your enjoyment.
As autumn settles in, it brings a change of feel for the food we eat. September is an abundant time of year where we revel in the last of summer’s bounty and the first of the autumn crops. Food wise, it’s my favourite time of year, pairing bright flavours of late summer tomatoes with earthy kale, sweet celeriac and acidic spike of apples.
The new 7-course tasting menu designed by Edward Attwell is billed as the Eatwell at Eccles Experience. The menu isn’t set in stone allowing for Edward to move within the season selecting produce at its best at any given time. There is a rhythm to the procession of dishes, an ebb and flow from land to sea, to coast and forest, to gardens and fields.
In a nod to his Northern Ireland upbringing, expect to see a few of home favourite ingredients making an appearance from time to time, such as the whipped Young Buck from Mike’s Fancy Cheese Co in Belfast, paired with beef carpaccio, black pepper honey and cured egg yolk.
Make hay while tomatoes are in season and, given that Glengarriff is well know for its temperate micro-climate, there’s no reason the dish of Heirloom tomatoes (red, green, yellow and house-dried cherry reds), shouldn’t be on the menu until the end of September. The dish showcases beautifully mellow Ardsallagh Goat Cheese with smoked tomato jam, flavours almost tobacco-like in character, and deeply savoury black olive crumb.
Tomatoes were showcased again in the third course, a redolent and zingy tomato and fennel gazpacho were served with dressed crab, a lime yogurt, sumac and crostini.
Sweet langoustine and melt in the mouth pork collar came next, paired with a walnut Romanesco, baby pak choi, compressed apple and celeriac puree, a dish perfectly poised to represent the changing seasons.
A fantastic fish course, next. Plump Roaring Water Bay Mussels with torched baby York cabbage, barley and a bitter orange gel with an almost marmalade-like flavour. It felt like it shouldn’t work – mussels and orange? But it was so good, probably my favourite dish of the night.
The fanfare main course of succulent rump steak, with black kale, mushrooms, sinfully buttery truffle potatoes just about finished me off, yet with every mouthful I wanted more. The truffle aroma was powerful but balanced on the palate to comfort, not overwhelm.
Our final course was a duo of desserts. First, an orange mousse, compressed rhubarb, sweet rhubarb compote and sorrel gel. Then a dish showcasing local Bantry-based Derry Duff blueberries in spectacular fashion: blueberry mousse, a sherbet-like blueberry sorbet, blueberry gel, compote and adorned with fresh blueberries. A stunning dessert to round off an incredible meal!
With bubbles on arrival, bread and dips, plus coffee and petit fours to finish, at just €80 per person, the Tasting Menu at Eccles Hotel & Spa is unbelievable value for money. Diners of the Tasting Menu will also receive a copy of Eccles – The Untold Stories, too.
At prices like that, why not be extra good to yourself and book into one of the 57 rooms at the hotel. Choose from a Bay View or Forest room, including breakfast from just €160 per night based on two adults. Book an organic Voya Spa treatment for an extra touch of luxury, or while away an hour in one of the barrel hot tubs overlooking Bantry Bay.
On certain days, guests can avail of yoga classes, or make use of the complimentary bicycles to explore more of Glengarriff. Eccles Hotel & Spa partners with Outdoors Ireland for kayaking excursions around the bay. Choose from a sunrise or sunset kayak, half and full day excursions for the more experienced kayakers, or for a pure hit of magic, book in for the night-time kayak to experience the wonderous natural spectacle of bioluminescence.
With so much to choose from at Eccles Hotel & Spa, make the most of your visit to tranquil Glengarriff with these local experiences. Psst…keep a look out for news of a 1920’s-inspired NYE Party at Eccles Hotel & Spa!
Ferries depart from Glengarriff Pier and from picturesque Blue Pool. The island is open to visitors until 6th November, reopening early April. There is a small fee to pay on arrival, cash only, no card facilities on site. There is a small café and toilet facilities near the pier. The whole island can easily be walked in under an hour, but I suggest taking your time to really explore every nook and cranny, secluded beaches, and the magnificent gardens.
Glengarriff Nature Reserve
A short distance outside the main village on the Kenmare road is Glengarriff Nature Reserve. The reserve is open all year round and is free. A variety of different walks, distances and abilities are available with maps and clearly marked colour-coded way points all the way around. For the best view over Glengarriff, climb to the top of the hill known as Lady Bantry’s Lookout. There is ample parking, toilets at the entrance, and picnic tables.
You can book kayaking trips around Bantry Bay direct with Outdoors Ireland if you’re not a guest of Eccles! Prices start from €60 per person, including kayak, guide, safety gear and safety briefing. Book in advance online.
Glengarriff Forest Bathing
Learn to appreciate forests differently through the calming, mindful practice of forest bathing in one of Ireland’s premier native forests with guide Lisa Curran. Forest bathing, or Shinrin Yoku as it is known in Japan where the practice originated, is suitable for children over 12 years. Price per person €25, book online.
Two Green Shoots
Garden feasts, tours of the Willy Wonka-inspired edible garden, botanical workshops and glamping in their Botanical Bell Tent are just some of the experiences on offer from Two Green Shoots, also known as Kloe and Adam. This experience closes after the summer season ends, but you can get planning for Spring ’23 straight away and give yourself something lovely to look forward to.
A sculpture garden that winds its way through woodlands and beside rivers, installations range from the weird and wonderful, to the humours and thought provoking. A small café is onsite, along with toilet facilities. They close for the winter season but keep an eye out for new artworks unveiled for 2023!
Surely one of the most unique gardens in Ireland, Bamboo Park is open year-round for visitors to admire an array of bamboo varieties, palm trees and other plants that usually don’t grow in Ireland. The gardens gently slope down to the water’s edge. Bring a picnic – a thermos of hot soup would be just the ticket this autumn. Entry is €6 adults, kids go free, and dogs are welcome, too!
Glengarriff Food Truck Park
What started as two food trucks serving coffee and crepes has ballooned into a pop-up food truck park with many more! The number of trucks swell in the summer to feed tourists, and gradually wind back as the season draws to a close. But some trucks operate up until the end of October, at which point it’s time to retreat to the cosiness of indoors.
(Check opening times, not all are open year-round and hours reduce over winter).
WRITTEN BY: KATE RYAN – FLAVOUR.IE