Remember how good it feels to master a new skill? Whether you've an afternoon to spare or a whole weekend, we tried-and-tested creative workshops and courses around the country in a two-part series.
Arriving at dusk and seeing the sunset over Lough Corrib sets the tone for our weekend. Insisting we pull over, so I can take the first of dozens (maybe hundreds) of pictures, we miss our turn-off for Ashford Lodge. But after a few turns around the estate, we settle into our lakeview suite and retire early in anticipation of an activity-filled day.
After a pancake breakfast in the elegant Wilde's restaurant, we hop in specially-upholstered Ashford Castle Range Rovers to the equestrian centre to collect bikes. Our gentle guided tour takes us through the Ashford estate, past the old gatehouse and down trails with spectacular views of the lake's islands. If you're looking for inspiration, you don't have to look far. With leaves falling around us like confetti, it's a dreamlike experience as we cycle through the immaculately-kept walled gardens.
Back at the lodge, we warm up with hot whiskeys and meet our tutor for the afternoon, Mayo-based artist Angela Emsen-West. To loosen up, we're encouraged to paint haphazardly on blank sheets, and this is where I realise abstract art is not where my talents lie. I look longingly at the confident brushstrokes of others in the class, and sip more whiskey.
We learn to mix colours, how to guide paint on a page, and clever techniques that add texture. After lunch, Angela points to a beautiful piece of hers featuring six geese and casually mentions we're all going to recreate it. Cue laughter. To be fair, in the following hour or so, Angela guides us well and we do recreate the painting, with varying personal touches. By the end of the class, I can't believe that I've actually pulled off what passes for a semi-decent effort.
Leaving the class motivated to do more, when I get home I take out a previously unopened calligraphy gift set and start sketching for the first time in 15 years. Amanda Kavanagh
Two-day Perfect Painting workshops take place throughout the year and cost €195 per person. Add a two-night stay, with dinner in the Quay Bar & Brasserie, on both evenings, from €555 per room, including?painting?class. Ashford Lodge, Leaf Island, Cong, County Mayo.
I was given my first SLR camera ten years ago. A friend encouraged me to switch to manual, which I've done, and I've since managed to take some gorgeous shots... when luck was on my side.
A year ago, I attended an Introduction to Digital Photography for Absolute Beginners workshop at the Gallery of Photography, where I got to grips with the very basics of digital photography. However, since then, I find myself getting stuck on using similar settings and have had frustration with things like white balance, noise and blurry photos to name a few bugbears. I know you can correct some of these issues in post-production, but that's another minefield.
Being an art director and stylist, you would think I would have a good understanding of basic photography, but the reality is I don't. There's so much to know. So when I got the opportunity to attend a one-on-one lesson with Daniel Scully, the digital arts manager at the Gallery of Photography, I jumped at it. In two hours, I learned what would have taken me weeks to master by myself, through textbooks or online tutorials.
Armed with a USB stick loaded with photos, I was keen to work on and my camera in hand, I explained to Dan (in my restricted photography vocabulary) what my frustrations were and what I would like to accomplish.
Dan went through the settings on my camera, we looked at raw files, discussed how to fix images, adjusted white balance, and I learned how to read the histogram. Dan has a really lovely way of explaining things, in an accessible, straightforward manner, never making me feel incompetent. I know a lot of people in the same boat as me. They love photography, ? but are not quite sure how to use their camera properly. I now have the solution: a few hours of Dan-time. Marlene Wessels
A two-hour training session costs €90 at The Gallery of Photography, Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, Dublin 2.
It's dark when we arrive in Dungarvan, but The Tannery glows like a gastro-homing beacon, and we immediately know the long drive in the rain has been worth it. Paul Flynn's restaurant, like the man himself, is warm, unpretentious and synonymous with flavourful, unfussy, great Irish cooking. The night before our course starts, we feast on Dungarvan oysters, Helvick crab cr'me br?l?e, Comeragh mountain lamb and a simple hazelnut semifreddo to finish, before retreating to our gorgeously cosy rooms in the adjacent Tannery Townhouse. After a solid night's sleep and a remarkably good breakfast, which is now served in the restaurant, we're ready to work.
We meet in the cookery school at 11am for our Flavours of the Middle East demo and Paul soon sets our stomachs rumbling (impressive, given all that I've eaten) with talk of his love of low, slow cooking. "At this time of year, I look at turnips and other root veg in soft focus, he enthuses. "I have an Aga at home - so obviously I cook in full tweed," he adds with that infectious twinkle in his eye.
The great charm of Paul Flynn as a chef and cookery teacher is the winning combination of his affable humour and grounded, practical approach to everyday cooking.
During our two-and-a-half-hour cookery demo, not only does Paul whip up an eight-dish feast for 14 people, but he manages to share, along with the eight recipes, a wealth of really useful cooking tips.
We learn how to activate yeast and knead dough, while he makes Turkish flatbreads; how to get the most juice from your lemon (roll it firmly on the counter top first) while he makes a zingy hummus, how to extract pomegranate seeds with little fuss (cut the fruit in half and just pull it apart roughly over the bowl and let the seeds fall in) as he makes herbed couscous, and most importantly, how to work with spices, combine flavours and learn to trust your own tastebuds.
?You can get countless recipes at the click of a button these days,? he says. ?But it's knowing what to do with simple ingredients and how to understand flavours that makes you a good cook.? We leave Dungarvan replete, rested and raring to get pot-walloping back home. A brilliant 24-hour getaway for anyone with an eager appetite.?Lizzie Gore-Grimes
Dinner, B&B, plus morning demo starts at €365 for two people at the Tannery, 10 Quay Street, Abbeyside, Dungarvan, County Waterford.