Ringaskiddy (tours to Cork), Ireland cruises

In the southwest of Ireland, Cork is a city packed with charm. You might see it as a gateway into the rolling emerald countryside all around that’s dotted with villages, castles and a tale or two.

You might start your discovery by stepping back four hundred years at Elizabeth Fort. When it was built in 1601, it looked across to Cork; the city has since absorbed it, making it an even better vantage point. Blackrock Castle is another memorable fortification here. Built on ground jutting out into the River Lee, it was designed as protection against marauding pirates. Today it’s a dreamy stack of curved towers that’s since become a museum, and is even home to an observatory.

You could unlock the harshness of nineteenth century convict life at Cork City Gaol. Within imposing walls, models of wardens and inmates add atmosphere to the cramped cells and corridors of this former prison. It closed in 1923 after 99 years, reborn four years later as a radio station. The Governor’s House now displays a beautiful collection of antique wireless sets.

The English Market is a celebration of both grand Victorian architecture and the local produce stacked temptingly under its high vaulted ceilings. If you’re peckish, light bites are in plentiful supply, perhaps ideal for al fresco lunch in nearby Bishop Lacey Park if the sun’s smiling down.

Browse exhibitions and collections within the landmark red-brick Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, once Cork Customs House. The Lewis Glucksman Gallery, meanwhile, is exceptional inside and out. Part of the University College Cork, its exterior features beautiful curves of untreated timber sat on a limestone base with angular steel bay windows.

Perhaps Cork’s defining landmark is St. Fin Barre's Cathedral. The majestic neo-Gothic cathedral towers up from the site on which the saint is believed to have created a monastic settlement in the seventh century. Three spires loom high above Cork’s low-rise skyline, and medieval gargoyles stare down at all below.

Then again, you might meet leave Cork to meet some of its neighbours. Less than 20 miles due south is Kinsale, a quaint coastal town of pedestrianised streets whose exuberantly colourful houses are an absolute joy. Its history is darker; eleven miles offshore in May 1915 a German U-boat torpedoed the Cunard ship Lusitania.

Many head for the town of Waterford, around 75 miles to the northeast, where the manufacture of its world-renowned crystal dates back to 1783. Then there’s Blarney Castle, only five or six miles to the northwest. A walk around its grounds is perfectly charming, but you should really climb the steps and kiss the Blarney Stone, with the promise of eloquence that it brings.

Just over 50 miles to the west, Killarney National Park sets some of southern Ireland’s most stunning landscapes before you. With rugged mountains in the distance, its serene lakes and ancient oak forests create an extraordinary picture of beauty.