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A Night at Ardtara House Hotel

A Night at Ardtara House Hotel

Happy Sunday friends! I hope you’re feeling restful and indulging yourself in some final weekend treats. I’m currently parked on the couch in a onesie cramming as much chocolate as possible in to my gob, a real sight for the eyes I assure you. Only a mere 48 hours ago I was arriving at Ardtara House Hotel, ready for a night of food and wine amidst Victorian luxury – oh, how the mighty have fallen!

I have to confess that when Ireland’s Blue Book invited us to stay at Ardtara I had to do a quick google search because I hadn’t a notion where it was. I’m guilty of being a lover of the coast so I’m fairly unfamiliar with the countryside of Co. Derry but one look at the pictures convinced me that this was a retreat worth leaving the coast for! Open fireplaces in every bedroom, an award-winning restaurant, a huge bath to soak in – I practically Flinstoned my way there!

After a week of feeling pretty miserable I was craving a bit of pampering and when we pulled in to the drive of Ardtara I was giddy to know how much of a treat we were in for. The hotel is small with only 9 rooms so there’s a real intimacy as soon as you walk through the door with the staff treating us as if, much like the vintage furniture, we’d always been there.

We were shown to our room by Valerie, a local who was full of knowledge about the manor which had been built by the Clark family in 1895 and had made their fortune in the linen industry. The room itself was huge with beautiful big windows overlooking the gardens at the front, a fireplace I couldn’t wait to light and a bathroom that was about the size of our wee house in Belfast. We hadn’t too long to enjoy the room though as we were starving and dinner was about to be served downstairs – an event I had been looking forward to all week.

The patron chef of Ardtara is the same chef of the infamous Brown’s in Derry and all the hotel reviews I had read were outpourings of love for the food. Expectations were high and thankfully completely exceeded as we dined on some of the best food I have ever eaten – no lie my friends. We began our feast in one of the drawing rooms (fancy, I know) nibbling on homemade pork crisps with apple & pear sauce along with crispy cod and kimchi (divine!) on a cosy couch by the fireplace. We were then brought in to the dining room with our wine glasses politely topped up and the next dish promptly placed before our eyes – carrot & fennel soup accompanied by homemade breads which lasted about 0.2 seconds before being polished off.

What followed after was a gastronomic whirlwind of delight – lamb samosas, breaded roast chicken bites and a fillet steak that I am still thinking about and no doubt will forever. Needless to say my belly was fighting for space in my skirt but the real shame was that I had zero room for dessert – the first time this has happened to me in me entire life. I have never not had room for a wee slither of cake but I couldn’t swallow another bite without inducing the rest of the food to return back with it. The desserts looked incredible though as I spied other guests receiving theirs with barely contained envy.

After all that food I barely made it to the room but when I did I had just enough energy to finish my wine in front of the fire in my dressing gown. As much as I have loved the summer, it was a joy to be sitting next to a fire again to keep my toes warm and I can only imagine how lovely the hotel would be as an escape during the colder months (the hotel was recently voted as the most romantic hotel in Ireland too!)

The next morning I woke after sleeping for 9 hours, the most I had slept in weeks and surprisingly with a real hunger despite the feast we had the night before. As always we just about made breakfast and luckily for us we were spoiled again with another delicious menu full of local dishes. Andrew opted for Eggs Benedict while I being the forever sugar fiend opted for French toast and maple syrup – yum!

We were sad to pack our things after only arriving what felt like a few hours before but I made sure to get a quick morning soak in the bath before we said our goodbyes to the room and the staff at Ardtara (who were busy preparing for a wedding party with arms full of roses). We could have easily have stayed on but we had tickets for the Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace, a museum dedicated to the most loved poet of Ireland that’s only 15 minutes away in Bellaghy.

Ardtara is a small but completely charming retreat that many return to again and again (Bill Murray being one of them and that guys knows what’s what) and I could understand why. You may come for the food at Ardtara but you’ll stay for the warmth of the staff and the welcoming grandeur of its rooms. It’s a perfect base for either exploring the area or for just curling up by the fire in your room with a wee glass of wine and a full belly to comfort you.

 

 

The Full Shilling’s Guide to Kerry

The Full Shilling’s Guide to Kerry

Summer holidays as a kid in Ireland can be a tense affair. Back when I was child our summer holidays were spent in the back seat of the car heading south or west, fighting for space in amongst everything our Mum packed (was there any need for the half of it?) while Dad swore he wasn’t lost when we all knew he definitely was. Most summers would be wash-outs but I only seem to remember the good ones when the sun beat down and we spent what seemed like eternity outside – mostly in the nip if our childhood photos are anything to go by.

One particular holiday that stands out is the trip to Co. Kerry. We made our way there by car of course, following the Atlantic coast through counties Mayo and Galway before stopping in Clare for a night in a B&B. We all kipped in the one room, all of us kids spread out on the floor at various angles while our parents got the bed. We didn’t mind though because at that age it felt exciting to sleep on the ground despite the hundred or so crucifixes gazing down at us from the walls.

When we finally reached Dingle it felt like we were a million miles away from our home in Co. Armagh. Tracing the map with our fingers over the pages (we had one of those maps which had a page for each county), we lost track of all the roads and coastline we took to get there. The mountains loomed ahead in the distance so we would make short trips to them, renting out ponies at the Gap of Dunloe and stuffing our faces with the freshest fish we ever tasted.

I remember one particular day we were driving the Ring of Kerry when we pulled over to a lake which was catching the last bit of sunlight of the day. I stood on the edge of the road just drinking every bit of the view in and I started to well up with tears because I realised I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I was only about 9 (sensitive wee soul) but even then I knew how lucky I was to be from this island.

To this day Kerry can still take my breath away. I’ve been numerous times since that holiday, all with people who are over visiting from overseas because it truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have this deep need for foreigners to see it, nod with me and understand why I love Ireland so much, why I could never live anywhere else.

When my cousin was visiting from Australia a few weeks ago I knew we had to take her to Kerry. She is hugely proud to be half-Irish but to understand all those old songs that she listens to about Ireland we wanted to show her the places that inspired the songwriters to begin with. For that there is nowhere better than the Kingdom of Ireland!

While my knowledge of the whole county isn’t the best, I’ve highlighted a few spots that have given me great joy and know for sure that you would love too.

Best Drives

While the Ring of Kerry is breathtaking, it’s a route that can be very busy with tourists and can take a fair bit of time. Slea Head is a stunning drive out of Dingle with fantastic beaches and turquoise water. The last Star Wars movie was filmed in Ballyferriter, a village on the drive that is now bustling with a few more tourists than before. It’s still peaceful though and we managed to get the most beautiful beach all to ourselves for an entire morning before the buses arrived. If you make it here then you can take the boat out to the Blasket Islands for an excursion that will really blow the socks off ye!

Another drive is the Skellig Ring which takes you through Waterville, Portmagee and Glencar. You can even get to Valentia Island from here which is worth a day trip all on it’s own. Skelling Michael alongside Little Skelling tower in the distance turning completely white in the summer as the gannets take over to nest.

Ladies View is not far from Killarney and offers a glimpse of the Ring of Kerry without having to drive too far. The views here are one of my favourites in Kerry no matter the season but in the summer the drive there is incredible. Ferns grow ferociously, spilling on to the road and even through the windows of your car! There’s a multitude of photo opportunities on this drive alone so take it slow and stop as much as you can.

Best Beaches

Clogher Strand, Ballyferriter

My favourite beach in Kerry hands down. My cousin, sister and I spent nearly an entire day here with the beach mostly to ourselves save for the odd tourists coming and going. It’s not a great swimming beach due to the rocks and rip currents but the view alone is enough to keep you there – we had to drag ourselves away!

Derrynane Beach, Derrynane

Just off the Ring of Kerry drive this stunning beach is worth dipping your toes in to and feeling the white sand to calm you down.

Coumeenoole Beach, Slea Drive

On the Slea Drive route this narrow beach is perfect for swimming in the shallows. Just mind the currents because they can be a bit strong if you go too far!

Rossbeigh Beach

This beach has class views out towards Dingle and turquoise waters to swim in. It’s one of the best Blue Flag beaches in the region with a whole 8km so no worrying about feeling crowded!

Where to Eat

Out of the Blue, Dingle

We tried to get a table here but they were fully booked so unfortunately I can’t actually claim to have eaten here BUT I’ve been told by numerous locals that it’s the best spot in town. If you’re wise unlike me then make sure to book ahead!

Reel Dingle Fish, Dingle

A good spot if you fancy quick food and fish caught practically on the doorstep.

Páidi Ó Sé’s, Slea Drive

If you’re here in the winter this is a gem of a place to hole up in with great comfort to warm you up.

O’Carroll’s Cove Beach Bar, Ring of Kerry

The perfect stop if you’re tackling the Ring of Kerry drive and need to refuel.

Pantrí, Dingle

The perfect place for lunch and the most instagrammable too! The garden out the back even has a double seat swing where you can sip on your elderflower prosecco – yes, that is a real thing you can drink here.

O’Neill’s The Point Seafood Bar, Cahersiveen

If you’re on the Skelling Ring drive then be sure to call in here for delicious seafood and a spot to get cosy for an hour or two.

Murphy’s Ice Cream, Dingle & Killarney

If you’re still peckish after lunch or dinner then a cone from Murphy’s can never go wrong. The ice cream is made in Dingle and the staff are super friendly too offering advice on what flavour to go for.

Where to Drink 

J M Reidy’s, Killarney

This is my favourite pub in Ireland never mind Kerry! It’s an absolute labyrinth of nooks and crannies to hide in with the most delicious cocktails you’ve ever tasted. It used to be one of those typical Irish establishments back in the day when the grocer was also the hardware shop, sweet shop and bakery all rolled in to one. They’ve kept the old till amongst heaps of other gems from the old days which are just fascinating to look at but mostly it’s just a great place for music and a bit of craic.

Dick Mack’s, Dingle

A bit like JM Reidy’s with a huge range of whiskies that could do some damage. There’s also a pizza place and brewery out the back and even a leather shop at the side just in case you dance tap too hard to the music. Before you nab a wee seat behind the saloon doors though make sure to have cash because they don’t take card.

The Shire Bar, Killarney

Just for the sheet weirdness of it all this pub deserves a mention. They’re very much committed to the theme here with low ceilings and even some Hobbit juice to sip on while you wonder what the hell is going on. Worth it for the ‘gram if anything!

Kate Kearney’s Cottage, Gap of Dunloe

If there was ever an award for beer garden with the best view then this place might take it. Grab a pint and sit outside if you’re lucky before hiring a pony cart up the mountain.

John B Keane, the famous Irish playwright had this to say about being from Kerry,

“Being a Kerryman, in my opinion, is the greatest gift that God can bestow on any man. When you belong to Kerry you know you have a head start on the other fellow. In belonging to Kerry you belong to the elements, to the spheres spinning in the Heavens. You belong to History and Language and Romance and Ancient Song. It is almost unbearable being a Kerryman and it is an awesome responsibility”.

As a blow-in from the North I might not be able to experience the weight of being a native of Kerry but every now and again, just for a wee while, I can pretend that I do.

The Full Shilling Guide to Canggu & Uluwatu

The Full Shilling Guide to Canggu & Uluwatu

I am one of those travellers’ that researches relentlessly before a trip. I want to discover hidden secrets, places to eat in that locals rave about, beaches that won’t be crowded all because I’m terrified that I’ll miss something fantastic. This might take the joy out of it for some people but it’s almost my favourite part of a trip, to get to know a place before I even put my feet on the ground.

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Hindu blessings which decorate the streets all over Bali

Canguu (pronounced chan-goo) was where we decided we would begin our Balinese adventure since it was known to be a bit more chilled out than it’s noisy neighbour Kuta. Kuta is a popular spot but is renowned for being full of drunken Aussie’s and having mopeds bumper to bumper so we thought we would keep our distance and seek solace at a safe distance.

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I had mentally prepared myself for Canggu before we left, imagining surfers walking barefoot down the street, surfboard in one hand and chai latte in the other. I imagined trendy shops selling clothes that were too cool for me and yoga studios filled with flexible tanned bodies. And while all of this was definitely true, I hadn’t expected to love it quite as much as I did.

Canggu has an atmosphere that immediately relaxes you. Everything is slow-paced (sometimes a little too slow-paced for my hungry belly) and you never have to stray too far to find delicious food and even more delicious cocktails. We were also surprised by how spread out the area was even though it still had that surfer-village feel to it making it fun to explore on our moped in the evenings. In fact, we loved it so much we ended up coming back to stay on our last night in Bali!

Where to Stay

During our first time in Canggu, we stayed in this Airbnb which served us very well. We had a pool right outside our door which was shared but we only ever saw one other person there so it felt very private. The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, even dropping us to a restaurant one night to save us walking around looking for a taxi.

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We stayed there three nights and found it very handy to walk to nearby restaurants and cafés. They didn’t serve breakfast but this made us get up early and explore the area more in the mornings (always a good idea when you’re feeling a little jet lagged like we were).

My favourite part about this place was the bathroom which sadly I didn’t take a photo of. It was huuuge! The shower was open and in the middle of the room and the water felt like heavy rainfall which was perfect for washing the sand out of some tricky areas if ye catch my drift.

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On our second trip to Canggu we stayed in this joint for one night which was a little closer to Kuta than before. It was a bit tricky to find on the moped but that meant it was super quiet at night. We had our own private pool here, kitchen, two bedrooms and a massive bathroom that was probably the same size as our whole ground floor of our house!

We had staff come in and cook breakfast for us in the morning and the late check-out time meant we could swim in the pool and soak up the morning sun while we could. I loved it here and wished we could have stayed a little longer. Next time I guess!

Where to Eat & Drink

Scouting out places to eat is the best activity on holidays, isn’t it? And my oh my were there plenty of choices in Canggu!

Here are a few of my favourites:

Little Flinders

A great spot for a Nalu Bowl (I didn’t know what it was either until Bali but it’s the most colourful and delicious way to eat breakfast!). It’s an Australian-owned joint which has been finished beautifully so definitely an Instagram-worthy spot if you are that way inclined.

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Betelnut Café

Another healthy stop to un-do all the cocktails you had the night before. The upstairs area is open which makes it a great place to cool off and enjoy some kombucha or vitamin-packed smoothies. No one needs to know that you were actually a rum-swigging, table-dancing minx the night before.

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The Grass Terrace

We ate here soon after we arrived at our villa like a pair of ravenous hounds. The food was simple but really yummy and satisfied our weary bodies immensely. They also do an all day happy hour meaning 2 for 1 cocktails ALL FRIGGIN’ DAY. You can’t say no to that, can you?

Finn’s Beach Club

We spent most of our last day here drinking cocktails and watching the sun set in to the ocean which was a perfect finish to our trip. Unfortunately there is an entrance fee (around £15 for the whole day) but our accommodation gave us free passes which meant we didn’t have to pay in. The club has pools, a gym, spa and multiple restaurants to eat in as well as being right in front of the famous Berawa surf break. The waves in front of the club are easy to learn in which is what Andrew did while I read by the pool drinking multiple margaritas!

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Warung Dandelion

This was an authentic Indonesian restaurant with the friendliest staff we encountered in Canggu. The restaurant is beautifully decorated and feels very romantic with candles flickering everywhere. The food is just as lovely, I inhaled my tuna which was cooked in a banana leaf in about 5 minutes! This restaurant is a good choice if you fancy somewhere with a relaxed atmosphere that serves excellent local food.

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Potato Head Beach Club

Andrew and I were recommended this place by his friend who has been to a Bali a few times and we went along for dinner one evening, not too sure what to expect. What we didn’t expect was a swanky beach club bar that blew our little tourist socks off. To be fair, the prices here are a little more than what we were used to but it is very cool and we loved the laid back atmosphere. We found a day bed pretty easily as it seems to be quieter in the evening and dined like royalty for the night. It was definitely one of the most expensive meals we had but we both thought it was worth it, especially the cocktails which were divine!

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Old Man’s

We just had a few drinks here after dinner at Warung Dandelion but this was still a fun place to check out for some dancing and people watching. It’s a popular haunt for the surfer’s who drop by here on their back from the waves so it has a very chilled out atmosphere, perfect if you fancy going somewhere in your flip flops and shorts!

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Where to Explore

We only had two full days in Canggu so we didn’t have an awful lot of time to explore. On our first day we had a late breakfast and had a nosy through the many many shops that are dotted on the main streets before spending a few hours down at Old Man’s Beach paddling in the waves and drinking some very tasty Bintang (when in Rome, eh?).

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In the evening we were hoping to catch the sunset at Tanah Lot temple but we hadn’t anticipated the sun setting so early and so we actually managed to just miss it! I was a little gutted that we missed the opportunity for photographs but the sky was still a dusty pink and we were able to take a few just before the sky darkened. The temple is Hindu and is perched on a rock that becomes an island when the tide rolls in. It is definitely worth a visit if you want to see a temple that is hundreds of years old, much older than the hundreds of temples that are lived in by families throughout Bali. There are also markets on the path to the temple so it’s very handy for picking up a few souvenirs if you’re visiting towards the end of your trip!

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What I loved most about that evening was the drive there on the back of the moped with Andrew driving. As the sun was going down the colours around us seemed to deepen with the rice paddy fields turning this vibrant green. The air was warm and I just remember smiling and telling myself to never forget that feeling. I have a few videos from that drive which I will re-watch forever!

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The following day we took the moped down to Uluwatu which was a little more of a trek than we had realised. The traffic in this part of Bali is crazy and it took us a good two hours to get from Canggu to Nyang Nyang beach which was only about 20 miles away. What I would definitely advise if you’re renting a moped in this area is to invest in a mouth mask because the fumes are difficult to breathe and my lungs were impacted from not having one – rookie error!

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We also had a little scare when we thought Andrew’s wallet had been stolen from our bag which I had been wearing on the back of the moped. Luckily for us, Andrew was just having a senior moment and had forgotten that it was actually in his pocket (this was after he nearly had a meltdown as we were buying litres of water for the beach) but it served as a lesson because it’s very easy to get pick-pocketed on a moped. We were also sure to keep our hands close to us while we were trying to work Google maps on our phones because it’s so easy for someone to just take it out of your hand and scoot off!

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Despite the few hiccups, Nyang Nyang beach made it all worth it. There are no signs so you will have to use your phone and there’s also a fair climb down the cliff to get to the beach but the views are so beautiful you can stop as much as you want. There are people selling water and snacks along the walk but we brought our own because we’re stingy and were terrified there wouldn’t be enough snacks.

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When we reached the bottom we were greeted by a herd of cows who were taking a break from the sun under the trees like they too were on their holiday. The beach itself was practically empty and we found a spot to relax and take in the turquoise waters. We spent a few hours here, bringing the sensation back to our asses (mopeds are not kind to the derrière) and going back and forth from the water.

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There just so happens to be a boat wreck at Nyang Nyang beach which just so happens to be covered in colourful graffiti which had absolutely no reason for my decision to bring Andrew there at all. Promise. But since we were there I thought we might as well have an impromptu photoshoot where I skipped about like a so-called model and had no shame in posing since there wasn’t a soul to judge me (apart from Andrew which he definitely did but he took the photos anyway – what a guy).

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Not an ounce of shame there – spot the bikini line?!

After the photoshoot we started the climb back up the cliff, taking plenty of stops because we were sweating buckets, and then hopped painfully back on the moped to make our way to Uluwatu Temple. The temple is quite touristy and is famous for it’s beautiful sunsets so we tried to find areas that were a little quiet. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any English guides and we missed out on learning a bit about the temple but it was still beautiful to walk around and see the views from the cliffs.

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There are a few rascals about the temple that we encountered and actually watched thieve a pair of sunglasses right from a man’s head. The monkeys are fairly brazen so I wouldn’t recommend visiting the temple if you are a bit skittish. They didn’t bother us but we were careful not to wear anything on our head because we didn’t want to give them an opportunity!

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And that’s the guide for Canggu, with Uluwatu thrown in for good measure! I hope you can make use of the advice but all I can say is ENJOY EVERY MOMENT. Bali is a place with extraordinary landscapes and beautiful people that will make you glow from the happiest part of your belly.

Have fun!

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Dining in James Street South Belfast

Dining in James Street South Belfast

Lots of positive things have happened for both Andrew and I over the last few weeks. We have both been offered new jobs with exciting businesses and both start on the same day! Andrew turned 28 on 16 June (although he may not be a huge birthday celebration person, I am and definitely make up for his deficit). And I was discharged from hospital with lung functions better than they have been in a long while! Yay all round!

So as some of you may or may not know, I was born with Cystic Fibrosis. In terms of daily life this means nebulisers, tablets and physiotherapy or exercise. It doesn’t affect me in a massive way because it’s all I’ve ever known and it’s never stopped me from doing the things I want to do. However sometimes it does mean a hospital admission when things begin to slip a bit and that part definitely isn’t fun.

I don’t like to talk too much about CF because I don’t like it to define me or what others think of me. But sometimes I have no choice in how it can control my life and it’s hospital admissions like the one that remind me of the unpredictability of life and how little moments should not only be cherished but celebrated! A positive outlook has taken me far and I choose to let that define me as a person instead.

Which was why I made a crazy impulsive and expensive decision to book a table at James Street South in Belfast to celebrate the good things that have happened for us recently and also to thank Andrew for being incredibly supportive during the hospitalisation. It’s not easy seeing the one you love vulnerable; it can make you feel powerless and for a control freak like Andrew, I know it wasn’t easy.

James Street South is a place I have wanted to visit for such a long time. It comes top of so many lists of the best places to eat in Belfast but because it’s a bit on the pricier end, I had always thought I should save it for a special occasion e.g. this one! With absolutely no trepidation I booked the table and knew straight away we were to have the ‘Taste of Ulster’ tasting menu – sure why not?!

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I got very dolled up and Andrew wore a crinkled shirt he didn’t iron (because we don’t own an iron – yes we are peasants). I was so flippin’ excited and for good reason because I had the best meal I have ever had in Belfast that night. I was constantly battling between savouring the taste of one course and dying to get to the next one. It was that amazing!

The ambience wasn’t excellent I’ll be honest, I’m not hugely in to that clinical vibe but we sat in a corner booth which created a bit of intimacy. This didn’t really bother me at all though because Andrew and I were too busy enjoying our own little gastronomic paradise, listening eagerly to the waiter explaining each ingredient and where it came from. The restaurant prides itself on sourcing the best local produce for each dish and that is evident in the taste; you’d have sworn they had the cow in the kitchen!

I would recommend this place to anyone and everyone who loves classical food served in a way that isn’t pretentious but focuses on taste. I can’t wait to go back again and I’ll be finding anything to celebrate as an excuse for another taste of that dessert. Sheer heaven.


‘Taste of Ulster’ Tasting Menu

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Chilled Portavogie Crab Lasagne, Lemongrass & Brown Crab Bisque

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King Scallops, Parmesan & Connemara Ham

IMG_4872Country Antrim Beef, Charred Leeks, Peppercorns & Garlic

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Smoked Chocolate, Lime Sorbet & Toasted Meringue