Ireland: Gab meets gastro

A string of updated pub restaurants make great pit stops for Louise Goldsbury's family road trip.

The closure of 1000 pubs in Ireland is enough to rattle even the most conservative traveller. But rather than leading to the death of an institution, these times have sparked an evolution. Hundreds of venues have been transformed into dining destinations, drawing back people who have cut down spending in restaurants as well as drinking in pubs.

This trend is great news for road-trippers seeking to break up their journey with a good feed at these community honey-pots. The overall standard of food has skyrocketed, as I discovered with my Irish-born mother on a week-long drive from south to north, and it seems the experts agree.

This year, the Republic and Northern Ireland have scored 34 listings in the Michelin Eating Out in Pubs Guide, compiled by the same judges who rate the world's Michelin-starred restaurants. Only one recommendation is in Dublin, but Cork has six and Down has seven, so we flee the capital on a cross-country mission, ultimately heading for the geological freak of the north coast, the Giant's Causeway.

KILCULLEN, CO. KILDARE

About 40 minutes south-west of Dublin, Fallons Bar & Cafe is the newest and most popular eatery in Kilcullen, a 14th-century village on the River Liffey. Almost every table is filled by 1pm, and on a chilly day, the fireside tables are reserved well in advance.

The menu is simple but the atmosphere is lively with ladies who lunch, giggling children and a cheery group celebrating a 70th birthday. Head chef Rose Brannock calls her dishes, such as my fish and chips with pea puree, "extraordinary versions of the familiar". The service is slow, so we only linger for a short stroll along the riverside farmyard trail before continuing southward.

CORK, CO. CORK

Ireland's second-largest city after Dublin is a two-hour drive, and heavy rain heralds our arrival. Divided by the River Lee to create an island, Cork City is fringed by docks. The main streets are closed off because of flooding so it's a quiet night in at our hotel.

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With the sun shining brightly in the morning, we walk from the historic university, past St Fin Barre's Cathedral and St Peter and Paul's Church, along the quay and into the busy centre. A highlight is the English Market, established in 1788 by the ruling Protestant corporation (although the building was restored after a fire in 1980).

Indoor stalls display the region's old working-class favourites of tripe and drisheen alongside mainstream meats and vegetables. The fishmonger, Pat O'Connell, sells a book he wrote about the day Queen Elizabeth II visited and he made her laugh with a joke about an ugly "mother-in-law fish". He says some nice things about Australians and then recommends we dine upstairs at the Farmgate Cafe that serves his wild-caught seafood. It's an excellent tip, as we enjoy the chowder and catch of the day, with wines recommended by a very attentive Italian waiter.

From Cork, it's only 8 kilometres to the famous Blarney Stone, which was set into Blarney Castle's tower in 1446.

According to legend, kissing this block of bluestone bestows the "gift of the gab" (the typically Irish skill to speak with charm and flattery). I get the feeling our friendly fishmonger and sommelier are regulars.

ATHLONE, CO. WESTMEATH

An easier route to Belfast would be back via Dublin on the motorway, but we choose the narrow midlands roads to call on relatives in Longford and Roscommon. It's also worth the detour to experience the Fatted Calf, a Michelin-rated pub in Glasson run by chef Feargal O'Donnell, who returned to his homeland after stints at London's Cumberland and Mayfair hotels, to lure gastronomes to Athlone. Exquisite options include spiced quail and the entree of scallops with pulled pork.

Also in the area is the 13th-century Athlone Castle. Eight new exhibition spaces include a 3D map of Ireland's Viking and Norman history and a 4D, 360-degree "Siege Experience".

HILLSBOROUGH, CO. DOWN

Crossing the border to Northern Ireland is an underwhelming moment. Brought up by Catholics who lived in the south during the Troubles, I would've liked to encounter a soldier with a machinegun, but there's nothing.

Hillsborough Castle stands next to the cosy Plough Inn, where we enjoy a delicious modern take on the Irish staple of bacon and cabbage. It's one of seven Michelin-rated pubs in Down, along with the Parson's Nose (also in Hillsborough), Lisbarnett House, Coyle's, the waterfront Pier 36 and within walking distance, Ireland's oldest pub, Grace Neill's. A couple of days in this area, doing a Michelin circuit for lunch, dinner and drinks, would be the easiest and cheapest foodie fantasy trip.

BELFAST AND THE NORTH COAST

In Belfast, we hand over the reins to exuberant guide Billy Scott and climb in the back of his black cab for a Black Taxi Tour around the city sights before hitting the Causeway Coastal Route.

Often rated as one of the world's best scenic drives, it winds through tiny seaside towns on the way to the natural phenomenon, the Giant's Causeway. A geological freak, caused by volcanic eruptions and cooling lava 60 million years ago, about 40,000 tightly packed hexagonal basalt columns rise from the ocean. An alternative explanation, says Billy, is it is the remains of an ancient road built across the North Channel by a giant, the Ulster warrior Finn MacCool, so he could fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. Either way, we climb the strange honeycomb-shaped tops of the columns, which form stepping stones from cliff to sea, and marvel at the bizarre view.

For another precarious vista, head down to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Before or after crossing this gaping chasm, depending on your nerves, drop into Bushmills, home of the world's oldest licensed whiskey distillery. Slainte! (Gaelic for "cheers".)

The writer was a guest of Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Etihad and Emirates fly daily from Australia to Dublin with only one stop in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, respectively. See etihad.com; emirates.com.

STAYING THERE

The friendly Brooks Hotel, in Drury Street, Dublin, is within walking distance of many city sights, bars, restaurants and the Grafton Street shopping area. Rooms are small but have free Wi-Fi and a fridge. See brookshotel.ie. The refurbished River Lee Hotel in Cork has a huge gym and indoor pool, day spa, bistro, bar and large, modern rooms with free broadband internet. See riverleehotelcork.com. Malmaison is a dark and moody boutique hotel in the centre of Belfast with free Wi-Fi and an elegant bar and brasserie. See malmaison.com.

TOURING THERE

In Belfast, Billy Scott conducts tours and tailored itineraries in a traditional black hackney carriage. See touringaroundbelfast.com.

EATING THERE

Fallon's Bar and Cafe, Main Street, Kilcullen, County Kildare, fallonb.ie.

Farmgate Cafe, Princes Street, Cork, County Cork, farmgate.ie.

Fatted Calf, Glasson, County Westmeath, thefattedcalf.ie.

The Plough Inn, 3 The Square, Hillsborough, County Down, theploughhillsborough.co.uk.

MORE INFORMATION

visitireland.com.

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