Kick off your day at Fota Island
It’s not every day that you meet a tiger on your walk from the train station. But that’s what you get when you travel by rail to Fota (15 minutes; every 30 minutes) where the 15-minute stroll to Fota House takes you right behind the tiger enclosure at Fota Wildlife Park, where you might even chance upon them getting their morning feed.
You can visit the tigers (and the kangaroos, cheetahs, giraffes and all the other animals) through an entrance just by the train station. The ticket desk at this entrance is open throughout the summer, but between September and April you'll need to pre-book online and ring the bell to gain access (or you can walk around to the park's main entrance).
The walk to the house takes you past wildflower-scented hedgerows along a quiet country lane, which leads you right to the main entrance of Fota House. You can only visit the house itself on a guided tour, but you’re free to roam the gardens as you like. The Arboretum is home to trees from all around the world, like giant pines and cedars that look like woolly mammoth trunks. Paths loop around the various zones, some thick with tropical plants and eucalyptus trees, and others with benches where you can sit and watch the ducks swim between the lily pads on the pond.
There are useful maps along the pathways, pointing you to places you mightn’t otherwise find, like the palm walk, the sunken Italian garden and the carefully restored Orangery, where citrus plants grow in a Victorian greenhouse overlooking the back of the house.
When you’re ready to leave, walk the same path back to the station, keeping an ear out for the roars of big cats along the way. You’ll see there’s a nod to these Fota residents at the platform – there are zebra stripes and leopard print painted on the railings, in honour of the wildlife park next door.
If you’re the type that’s curious about transport, you might wonder why a Fota is one of the few Irish islands to have its own train station. Its presence is part of the deal made by the Smith-Barry family when they sold part of their land for the Cork to Cobh train line back in the early 1860s, insisting there was a stop on the estate.
Where to eat in Fota
You don’t need to leave Fota to get a bite to eat – Bakestone Café is just inside Fota House, in a room with a vaulted ceiling and an antique fireplace. Behind the counter, there are baked ham and cheddar sourdough toasties, falafel wraps and quiche, though it’s the thick sausage rolls that are the most tempting, stuffed with white and black pudding. There are also picnic tables outside for an al fresco bite in fine weather.
End your day with a trip to Cobh
Take the train from Fota out to Cobh (11 minutes; every 30-60 minutes), where you’ll continue your overwater journey past the islands and out along the River Lee – when you get closer to Cobh, the elevated tracks give you a great view out over the water to Passage West.
All of the main attractions in Cobh are just a few minutes’ walk from the station. Top of the list is the Titanic Experience, set in the old White Star Line Building from where the last passengers boarded the ill-fated liner.
The experience takes you through their journey, from the tenders that took them out to the liner (she was too big to enter the harbour) to the lifeboats that saved so many lives. Your ticket bears the name of one of the passengers who set sail from Cobh, so be sure to hang on to it until the end, when you find out if you survived the disaster. There are some interesting exhibitions in this area too, from in-depth information about icebergs and hypothermia to the famous passengers who were on board.
Further along the seafront, the boat to Spike Island departs on a journey that takes roughly 10-15 minutes, looping around the naval base of Haulbowline Island.
Over its 1300-year history, Spike Island has been a monastery and a fortress, but the most haunting exhibits focus on when it served as a prison before closing in 2004. You can walk around the old cells, some inhabited with animatronic mannequins and sound effects. In the punishment block, be sure to head upstairs to see the artwork of former inmates, as well as an exhibit about the infamous 1985 riot.
When you land, a tour guide leads you past some of the buildings by the jetty, like the houses inhabited by officers, then up to the fortress itself, where you can explore at your own speed. Your ticket includes a return ferry ride three-and-a-half hours after your arrival, but you can organise an earlier trip if you wish.
When you’ve seen the sights, allow some time to take one of the two walking trails around the island – the Glacis Walk loops around the fortress, and the 2.5km Ring of Spike route circles the whole island, past abandoned buildings and striking viewpoints out over the bay. There’s only one steep climb up a grassy slope, and the rest of the trail can be taken at a meandering pace; bring a snack if you want to make the most of the scenic picnic tables along the way.
Where to eat in Cobh
If you’re in the mood for brunch, Seasalt Deli is a great shout. This popular café specialises in dishes like Turkish eggs, chorizo hash and toasties with beef brisket and melted cheese. If it’s sunny, try to nab one of the bright yellow tables outside, but the window bench inside is great for people watching, too. Leave a bit of space for dessert, because their crumble slices and lemon meringue cheesecake are difficult to resist.
If you're more in the mood for an old-school café, Cuppacity is a fuss free spot with a simple menu and a stack of books you can read while you’re tucking into your tuna melt and tea. It’s just down the hill from the colourful 'Deck of Cards' houses on West View, where you’ll get the best photo of St Colman’s Cathedral.
When you’ve spent the day hiking, boating and exploring, a hearty dinner from Harbour Brown’s Steakhouse might just be the ticket. The traditional menu has classic dishes like Ballycotton mussels cooked in white wine and cream, or rib eye steaks with béarnaise sauce. They do a carvery at lunchtime, but if you want something less substantial they also do a fabulous steak sandwich and a really tasty chowder.
At The Quays Bar, you couldn’t get any closer to the sea if you tried – their patio sticks out right over the water. They do a range of open sandwiches, wrap and salads at lunch, with heartier grub like pizzas and burgers in the evening. An added bonus? It’s just a couple of minutes away from the train station, so you won’t have far to walk after your meal.