Every December, I get in a car in Dublin. We drive north or west or south, out of the city, into the Irish countryside. We hop on the motorway in the days before Christmas, when most locals are busy wrapping up shopping or preparing holiday meals. When we arrive in Connemara or Antrim or Wexford, we are met with the same scene: a quiet hotel, a peat fire burning in the fireplace, and a festive town decked out in Christmas decorations.
Of all the travel I do each year, these are a few of my favorite days, traveling against the grain in the off season. When customers are few, hotel or restaurant owners have time to talk. You never really need a reservation for dinner. Hotel rooms are affordable and upgrades are common.
This year we jumped on the Cork-bound road and zipped the three hours to Kinsale, a historic port and fishing town set on a peaceful harbor along Ireland’s southern coast. Our first stop was Charles Fort, a 17th century fort on the water’s edge. On this afternoon in late December, there was only one other family exploring. We had the stones and lighthouse and views all to ourselves.
When we pulled into Kinsale, there was an open parking spot in front of the inn, the Old Bank House, that we had called that morning to make a reservation. When our stomachs rumbled around 7, we phoned a nearby restaurant and were told to come on down whenever it suited us.
Kinsale has developed a reputation for the quality of its food, particularly its seafood. For such a small town, there are several quality restaurants to choose from (though some do keep limited winter hours). We opened the door to Man Friday to find a cozy restaurant filled with locals raising a glass with family and friends. Only Cork accents were heard on this particular Monday evening. We slurped our oysters besides couples and families exchanging presents and popping bottles of champagne. Most people lingered for a whiskey after dinner. The rain had picked up outside, encouraging the revelry to keep on a little while longer.
The next morning, we had the colorful streets of Kinsale mostly to ourselves. A lack of traffic permitted strolling in the middle of the street, peeking into the windows of book shops and galleries selling photography. Approaching the pathway flanking the harbor, I noticed piles of cracked mussel shells on the pavement: clever birds hover over the concrete and crack open the mussels to get to the meat. Something about the brisk December morning, the softly bobbing boats, and the water lapping up on the rocks left the impression that this was a good place to get some thinking done, to find a waterfront bench and listen to the sounds of the end of another year.