IT is the dead of night and silent but for the gentle splish-splash of paddles dipping in to water.

There's not much help from the moonlight as we make our way in darkness along a wide coastal inlet.

The best bet is to follow the glowing wake from the kayak in front as phosphorescence lights up the sea water like luminous glitter.

Our serene progress is suddenly brought to a halt by instructor, Jim Kennedy. He invites us to close our eyes and think briefly of all the busy, hectic activities back home, the things we worry too much about and the energy we waste on trying to get somewhere a few seconds quicker by rushing around unnecessarily .


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Sea crossings to Ireland from the UK are operated by Stena Line, Irish Ferries, Isle of Man Steam Packet, Norfolkline Irish Sea, P&O Irish Sea and Fastnet Line.

Airlines operating to Cork include Aer Lingus and Ryanair

West Cork Hotel: West Cork Hotel, Ilen Street, Skibbereen, Co Cork. Tel: +353 (0) 28-21277,

Cronin's Coaches, +353 (0)21 4309090,

Fishy Fishy restaurant in Kinsale, +353 (0) 21 4700415,

The Church Restaurant, Bridge St, Skibbereen, Co. Cork, +353 (0)28 23625

Atlantic Sea Kayaking at Reen Pier, Union Hall, +353 (0)28 210 58, .

Guided snorkelling Trip with Rianne Smith of Aquaventures, Baltimore: tel + 353 (0) 87 7961456.

Jacobs Bar, Baltimore: tel +353-28-20900

Whale Watch West Cork:, +353 (0) 86 120 0027

O'Connor’s Seafood Restaurant, Bantry: tel +353 (0)27 55664

Bantry House:

With just the odd squawk of a sea bird and the lapping of water against the sides of boats, we slowly reopen our eyes - the toil of everyday life has drifted in to insignificance.

We are taking part in a night-time paddle close to the fishing village of Union Hall in Ireland's West Cork. Jim had provided us all with safety equipment and a little tuition before we set off into the night. If you're lucky, Jim tells us, you might see (or hear) seals, dolphins and even whales. But it was so dark that night - who knows what was lurking below the surface.

It was a dreamy way to start a tour of this beautiful coastal area - and it turned out there was much, much more to come.

We had arrived in the charming seaside town of Kinsale earlier in the day after a short transfer from the swanky new Cork Airport terminal.

After a quick guided walking tour of the area, courtesy of Jill Herlihy from the local tourism office, it was time to sample a true taste of Ireland - lunch at one of the country's best known seafood restaurants, Fishy Fishy.

Its owner, local celebrity and TV chef Martin Shanahan, explained that anything seasonal and fresh generally went on the menu - essentially this meant anything brought in by the fishermen that morning. His view is that these hardy seafarers are the lifeblood of the town - so much so that superb, evocative photo portraits of the best known fishermen are hanging on the wall of his contemporary eatery.

Well nourished and feeling relaxed after our kayaking adventure, all that remained was for a good night's sleep at the comfortable West Cork Hotel in nearby Skibbereen knowing that some real treats lay in store for us the next day.

After a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we were on our way to the town of Baltimore, a hub for sea-based activities.

The first of those in our case was the rather daunting prospect of a snorkeling trip in the chilly waters off the wild south west coast.

But it quickly became clear that we were in safe hands - Rianne Smith of Aquaventures met us at the company's headquarters to fit us out with heavy duty wetsuits, which, it transpired, covered a reassuringly large percentage of our bodies.

It was still something of a leap of faith in to the Atlantic Ocean, but once in, the experience was nothing short of magical.

Before long, seals were shuffling off rock ledges, flopping in to the water and sloping over to inspect these curious-looking new sea-creatures visiting their home.

Swimming though huge, swaying forests of kelp, seals would suddenly appear - their graceful progress through the water making a mockery of our own clumsy snorkeling techniques.

Yes it was cold, but most of the touring party spent 45 minutes drifting around this tiny island, inspecting rocky coves and peering at weird and wonderful fish as they appeared from the deep.

Back on the shore and invigorated by the fresh sea air and blast of salt water, we settled down to plates of delicious fresh fish and chips at Jacobs Bar, overlooking the harbour.

There was only one real topic of lunchtime conversation as excitement grew over our next excursion - a whale and dolphin watching trip with Nic Slocum of Whale Watch West Cork.

In the 1990s, the Irish government declared the coastal waters of Ireland a whale and dolphin sanctuary - the first of its kind in Europe.

The southwest of the country is a summer feeding ground for a number of species, who come to gorge on small shoaling fish in the fertile seas off the coast.

To date 24 species of the world's whales and dolphins have been recorded in Irish waters. And they include big tickets such as Fin Whales, Humpback Whales and Killer Whales.

Our trip did not disappoint as within minutes we had seen the arching back of a whale some distance ahead. But the most impressive display came from the mammal's smaller cousin.

In no time we were surrounded by dolphins, leaping through the bow-waves, playing in the wake and diving under the boat through the crystal clear blue sea.

Time flew by as we all marvelled at what was unfolding in front of us - none of us wanted it to end. But when the dolphins finally lost interest in us and roared off along the coast, Nick provided us with his own guided tour of the area.

It included a stop off at the historic Cape Clear island, not far from the notorious Fastnet light house - and time to soak up the jaw-dropping scenery of the rugged coastline on the voyage back to Baltimore.

Our bus driver, Philip Duffy, from Cronin's Coaches was ready and waiting to whisk us off to our next activity - one of West Cork's most impressive culinary events. As soon as we arrived at the Clonakilty Waterfront Festival, I fell in love with Irish food forever.

Each year, a big-top tent is erected in the town with a simple aim - to showcase a huge array of produce.

If this area isn't already world renowned for the quality of its food and drink, it surely cannot be long before it becomes a fixture on any food lover's annual itinerary.

Here are the mouthwatering highlights: smoked salmon on fresh Irish soda bread, rich and intensely flavoursome volovants, plates loaded with thin beef carpaccio, miniature burgers, strawberries dipped in dark chocolate, fresh fruit, vegetables, berries, cream, butter and an incredible range of cheeses.

Tables were arranged around the outside and the good people of Clonakilty took it in turns to pick through the huge offering while a swing band provided musical entertainment.

It is truly a celebration of the culinary excellence of the region and the top chefs emerging in the area who draw almost exclusively on what's available on the land and in the sea around them.

After sampling more than was probably sensible, it was back to Skibbereen for an obligatory trip to a traditional Irish pub.

With so many activities, it's perhaps easy to lose sight of the simple pleasure of just walking around and exploring the area.

One of the most popular spots for ramblers is at Sheep's Head - a coastal area with views that quite simply take your breath away.

Using the quaint village of Kilcrohane as a starting point, there are any number of walks taking in hidden coves, ancient monuments and staggering panoramic views. The paths are lined with wild flowers and dotted with places from which you can picture a skyline of big seas and skies, mountains, valleys and lochs.

From there it's a short drive on to the town of Bantry with its historic Bantry House estate and the highly-rated seafood restaurant O'Connors.

With short flights to Cork from London, Bristol and Birmingham and with so much on offer, this region is perfect for both long weekend getaways or extended breaks.

The tourism board's tempting message to potential visitors reads simply, "West Cork Awaits...". The question is, what are we all waiting for?