The minute I unwrapped my new toy, the children had whisked it away to play with it in minutes. This is the TRTL, or turtle as it has become known in my house and it is one of the most ingenious inventions for travellers in a long time. In short, it is a neck support that you don’t have to inflate, and that looks rather chic when you are wearing it too. Made of soft fleece, you wrap it around your neck in one easy move and so it looks just like a scarf. Except that it has a cleverly disguised bit of plastic inside it, which offers just enough support for your neck to make that all important ‘loll’ as you dose off on the train or plane. Or indeed, the back of a car. This bit of patented plastic, aka an Internal Support System, is extremely adaptable and can be worn anywhere across the front of the neck – either side or under the chin.But whatever way you wear it, you don’t look like a dork, and it is gloriously warm and comfort blanket like. I love also that the manufacturers describe it as ‘dribble proof”….never a good look.
My kids didn’t believe it would work, but within seconds they were squabbling over who was going to wear it in front of the telly that night. The older one won, using revision as the trump card, whisking it off to his room for a study session. Apparently it made for very comfy Spanish vocabulary learning. My advice, however, if you have boys, and sorry for sexism, get it in pink like I did. There is no way they will nick it from me on our next journey together. Sorry, if that seems like adhering to stereotypes, but sometimes a mother just knows her kids’ limits. Exam season reward for my son is an Interrail Card, however, so I feel a gift coming on. In a more sombre grey perhaps. And having tried and tested it on a three hour train recently, when I did sleep for an ache free 45 minutes (and no sign of dribbling I might add), I have no hesitation in buying a second one.
Two other pros of this ‘napscarf’ as the manufacturers call it – first, it is a Scottish creation and brainchild of a young kickstarter and second, it is also only 139 grams in weight, so no big issue when it comes to luggage weight limitations. The only downside is that the plastic inside means it doesn’t roll up so easily to pack, but it is no big deal as it is still very neat and small. And as I always suffer from aching neck syndrome, and I hate those inflatable pillows, I would sacrifice something else in my bag to bring this guy on any trip. If I can ever get it away from my kids. Who summed up their review of the TRTL as, simply, ‘This is sick’.
There are times when we all need to retreat. To rest, to reflect and to recover. But often we don’t take the time, or make the time, to do so. I have always been slightly envious of meditating and yoga bunny friends who can tap into this ability to ‘just be’. I never seem to have the patience, and my ‘retreats’ are usually more in the form of hiking, biking or swimming. Or just diving – into a bottle of wine. All of which are great, but actually usually lead to a stimulation of the brain or senses when sometimes, I just need to switch them off completely.
So, it was with great surprise when a weekend of meditation turned out to be a timely turning point in my recovery from a year of stress, grief and, simply put, an unreasonable amount of shite. One big pull for me was the fact that this was a meditation weekend on water, an element which always brings me solace. It was also great value, at £150 all in. Unlike anything else on offer in the UK, it takes place on moving narrow boat on the Thames Canal, appropriately named Spirited Away, no less.
Being in no way a meditation expert, except for a bit of dabbling in my hippy twenties, I was reassured before I went by Tor Johnson, who runs the aptly named Float by Boat company with her partner Kev Argent, that it was not all dogma and doctrine: “We’ll do a meditation in the morning and one in the evening,” she told me, “but it is totally chilled. You can take part if you feel like it, or just hang out on deck, read a book, go for a walk. Or just sleep, if that is what you need. You don’t have to do anything here. It’s whatever floats your boat, really”. It was the very fact that someone was inviting me to just come and sleep, I think, as well as offering to cook every meal (any other single mums will appreciate that one), with healthy vegetarian food too, that not only had me booking, but almost weeping with relief.
And Tor was right. I didn’t have to talk about my journey, my issues, my chakras or where I was in life at all. I could, as the meditation experts say, just be. And, apart from Kev and Tor, there were only two other people sharing the weekend anyway, who were meditation experts, but not at all precious in their practice and utterly delightful in their openness and non-judgmental attitude to the world.
We continued up the Oxford Canal for two days, having started in Banbury, where Kev had picked me up at the station. From there we cruised north through five locks, learning the mechanisms of letting the water in and out of the lock so that we could ascend and descend the countryside in this brilliantly engineered way. Sometimes I got off and just walked along the tow path for a while, jumping on at the next lock, but meeting few people except the odd dog walker also enjoying life in this slow lane.
And, of course, I did meditate. The first one was before breakfast, about 8am, which worked for me as I do struggle with wake up time a bit, lying in bed contemplating my naval far too much in an early morning stupor. So, being guided through half an hour where I did nothing but contemplate my breathing, in an attempt to erase everything else in the world, made me think that weekends like this should be available on prescription (not that I was actually thinking, you understand). The other meditation was in the evening, after supper, as we folded up the dining table and created a space of cushions and cosiness to, once more, just breathe.
And, most healing of all, I really did sleep. Through the night and also taking a nap or two during the day with my cabin bed, sealed off from the world by a curtain, the perfect embryonic escape, a porthole enabling me to just lie and ogle at Oxfordshire’s loveliness as it floated past me, slowly. With the smell of Tor’s fantastic cooking wafted past me, constantly. At then end of the trip, I realised that for two days I had worried about nothing at all. Not even that I was meditating properly. I had managed to be totally in the now, and just be. And by simply going with the flow I had rested, reflected and, although I know that recovery from grief isn’t going to happen after just one weekend away, I realise that the trick is to just keep breathing.
Catherine travelled with Float By Boat and by train from Marylebone (I love this station) to Banbury with Chiltern Railways. Tune into a podcast I did with Kev and Tor by clicking on their photo below
I have found it hard to accept that one of my sons, aged eleven, just doesn’t really like cycling. He comes along on trips, pedalling patiently with a smile through gritted teeth, but really it just isn’t his thing. So it was either me taking a homeopathic approach to curing the complaint, or just being in total denial, when I decided that we should go on a mum-son break to Amsterdam. The city of cycling. It’s a bit like throwing the child who doesn’t like to swim in at the deep end really, isn’t it? Until I watched him stride down the canal, head held high on his tall Dutch bike and joining the throngs of other cyclists who rule the roost in this stunning city, and I realised that suddenly he had got it. He had found that feeling of freedom, allowing a whole new world to open up to him over the next few days.
There was no better place for this awakening to happen in really. I had chosen Amsterdam as a city break not only because I had wanted to come here for years, but because it has a wonderful reputation for being green. First of all, we were able to travel there by train and ferry, using the superb Dutch Flyer sail rail deal with Stena Line, a ferry company which already has a strong commitment to green practices. I can’t recommend this Rail and Sail package more highly, an all-inclusive deal including the train from Liverpool Street in London (although you can leave from any Greater Anglia station) to Harwich International Port, a cabin with super comfortable beds and luxurious linen, a top three course dinner (really! ) and our rail ticket on to Amsterdam from Hook of Holland port. All from £150 return and half that for children. The journey was super smooth, leaving London at 8pm and arriving in Amsterdam at 9.30am the next morning, with a whole day ahead for playing.
And this is a playful city. Even checking in at our eco hotel – and it isn’t usually that easy to find an eco hotel on a city break, but Amsterdam’s Conscious Hotels are about as eco cool as it gets – and they are humorous with it. As if in homage to the city’s sex reputation, each bedroom door has a greeting on it, such as “Alright, I’ve had others before, but nobody like you. You’re the one I’ve waited for”. However, clearly keen to shine a green light on the city rather than a red one, there are living roofs and, in some cases, living walls, FSC certified wallpaper, desks made out of recycled yoghurt cartons, water saving devices everywhere, and eco wash products in all the rooms. And of course the generous breakfast buffet is organic. The other thing that struck me was the lack of stuff. The bedrooms are stark compared with other hotel chains, without loads of unnecessary furniture. They are still super comfortable and cool, but just great advertisements for the fact that excess is so not eco.
There are two Conscious Hotels, one in Museum Square for those who are doing the arty thing, and one beside the city’s green heart, Vondelpark. We stayed at the latter, just a fifteen minute tram ride direct from Central Station and backing onto the large city park, with bikes for hire in the hotel for ease of transport after that. Step out of the hotel and hop straight onto a cycle path into the city, take the green route through the Park, or jump back on the tram to go exploring. My little urban boy was suddenly over the moon that he had a right to roam, his uber safety conscious Mum less over the moon that he had refused any notion of high vis or a helmet. Absolutely nobody wears them here, probably out of a sense that you feel so much safer as you cycle. You instantly know that traffic respects you and that cycling is cool and fun. So yes, I swapped good parenting to live like a local, I admit it.
We settled into our saddles with the help of a Yellow Bike city tour something I do recommend, because although there are cycle lanes everywhere, we both needed to adjust to cycling on the right, stopping for traffic coming from the other direction when we crossed a canal, and just managing these high handle bar bikes with brakes that work by pedaling backwards. The tour also gave us a greater understanding of the city’s geography, as we crossed over its maze of canals intercut by the River Amstel. Our student guide was superb, explaining about the aqua engineering of this exquisite city, the architectural heritage with its tall narrow buildings built to avoid a tax on the width of your home, and the political history with an emphasis on the liberal approach taken to the sex and drugs industry. I liked the fact that there was no editing of his opinions just because there was an eleven year old present. They encourage freedom of speech in Holland, and my son enjoyed being part of this adult debate, our guide stating “It is legal to smoke weed here because the government says that you can trust it and you know where it is coming from. But in my opinion, you don’t know where the weed is coming from – so how can the government say we can trust it? There are still illegal things going on in coffee shops that are not controlled, and so they are still the dark side of Amsterdam. The same with the red light district. Only five per cent of the prostitutes are Dutch. All the others are coming from abroad, and many are not aware why they are being brought here”. Yep, if you want an education, rent a yellow bike.
We loved our guide so much on this trip, we booked again with Yellow Bike Tours on our last day to take a trip across the River Ij, the city’s other main river, jumping on the free ferry service which leaves from just behind Central Station, to the North side of the city, or Noord Amsterdam, a stunning green belt within minutes of the hub. Cycling along country canals, having lunch on the pontoon of a waterside pub, and seeing Amsterdam’s only remaining windmill were all highlights. That and the smile on my son’s face. A smile of pure bicycle bliss. As we had hit Amsterdam during the heat wave, we were relieved to discover a superb range of al fresco options for eating too, all sustainable and all sumptuous in their own way. For street food, we ate freshly battered calamari and mackerel from a fish stall at the famous Noordermarkt, very central and well signposted and open Saturdays 9am-3pm. This is a top organic farmers’ market, although there are other non-organic options from local producers, such as our fish feast, washed down with freshly squeezed juices, as well. In total contrast, is the more luxurious Restaurant De Kas, located in a very untouristy but pretty Frankendael Park (take number 9 tram from Central Station and get off at Hogweg stop). You can’t miss it in the park – just look out for two big old brick chimneys beside it, the restaurant being an inspired renovation of an industrial sized greenhouse which had been used to provide food for the city and the chimneys were used for heating them. The vibe here is not only about creating a symbiosis of produce and menus, but also of people and food. The chefs chat with everyone, wander around picking fresh herbs and vegetables, and show their precious produce to interested diners who sit overlooking this splendid setting. As soon as they realised that my son had a passion for cooking, the Chef de Cuisine, Bas Wiegel, invited him in to help make his dessert. Melon in rose syrup with watermelon soup, vanilla icecream and violet flowers, no less. The cycling had been fun, but for this budding Young masterchef, this was a dream come true.
And last but not least, we took one last trip across the River Ij on the free ferry service to NDSM Werf, to the coolest of cool Pllek. It felt like a bit of a journey after a long day of cycling but once we got there we didn’t want to leave, and there is no rush as the last ferry back to the city centre is at 1am at weekends or midnight during the week. Pllek is sustainable at its sexiest really, in the green sense of the word, rather than the red one. Constructed out of shipping containers in what was, until recently, the derelict shipping area of the city this is a space where they have created their own beach, where the DJ creates his own beats, and the chef creates his own feasts. Couples lie around on deckchairs looking incredibly cool, families play beach ball while they wait for their fish cakes, salads and, in our case, the Dutch specialty of asparagus and poached egg. and dudes hang by the firepit watching the sun set over the wide cityscape on the other side of the river.
You can’t visit Amsterdam without hitting the canals though. You can do it the eco way too, with the electric powered boats run by Canal Hopper which leave from Damrak Pier. But it was only when we took the boat trip from Ijburg, a brand new waterside suburb just fifteen minutes on Tram number 26 from Central Station (or a quick cycle on super safe track) to the gorgeous medieval castle of Muiderslot, that we took in the full extent of how water has formed and continues to inform this progressive city. As we went through a lock into open water the skipper, Imre Leenhouts, explained that this isn’t in fact sea, but Lake Ij, a massive freshwater lake that came about after the construction of a dyke to stop the sea flowing in a hundred and fifty years ago. He also pointed out that Ijburg is the most modern example of reclamation in Holland, built just ten years ago on a completely artificial island and, in order to offset the development, the government constructed several other islands which are inaccessible as they are being left to develop as nature reserves. We finished our day celebrating water by diving into it, spotting a beach on our way back into Ijburg. We had both found it a little hard being around water all the time, and not actually getting to immerse ourselves in it, so now was our first chance. We had a few other opportunities, cooling down in the paddling pool outside the famous Rijks Museum, and then, on our way home, having a full on afternoon at Hook of Holland beach, just a mile or so from the ferry port. All adding to the sense of fun and freedom that Amsterdam had to offer.
One place that you can’t miss in Amsterdam, however, is Anne Frank’s house where there is now a museum. The queues are long, but shorter earlier in the day, and anyway, what’s a bit of waiting in line compared with what the Frank family, and many others, had to endure? It is beyond poignant, especially visiting it with a child of my own. And after a few days of cycling, swimming and boating with the youngest light of my life in this city which made us both smile a lot, Anne’s entry on 24 December 1943 brought a huge lump to my throat: “I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I am free”. It was difficult to find words after we left the Frank house. So, the best thing seemed to be to just get back on our saddles, and keep cycling.
For more information on Amsterdam see iamsterdam.com and holland.com An edited version of this article, by Catherine Mack, was first published in Green Parent magazine.
Any of us working in sustainable tourism have heard of the fine work of The Travel Foundation (TF) over the last decade. However, the TF still isn’t known by most travellers. Their Travel Lottery is a genius initiative to get tourists who are passionate to protect the destinations they love waking up to the work of the TF. WhatTF? – you’re brilliant.
Tickets are now on sale for this first ever Travel Lottery in the UK, whereby holiday makers have a chance to win prizes while raising vital funds for carefully monitored, community led sustainable tourism projects. Tickets cost £2 and the first draw is at the end of March. Each ticket is a chance to win back the cost of their holiday in the form of a cash prize of up to £5,000. Prize draws are monthly, with a guaranteed cash prize of at least £1,000 given away in each draw.
The lottery is the first of its kind for the travel industry, creating a unified way of fundraising that protects and invests in communities and natural environments in popular holiday destinations; from Cyprus to St Lucia and from Turkey to Thailand. Customers will be able to buy tickets from travel agents and other companies when they book holidays and buy related products and services. Launch partners Midcounties Cooperative Travel and Holiday Extras will sell tickets for the first draw, and many more travel companies are expected to join them in the coming months. The aim is to sell at least 100,000 tickets and raise more than £50,000 for good causes in the first year.
Customers can also buy tickets directly from www.thetravellottery.co.uk, either for a single draw or by signing up to play regularly. At least 50 pence from each ticket goes to projects run by The Travel Foundation, with a focus on work that will sustain the local environment, wildlife, history and culture. These projects also help to tackle poverty by creating opportunities for local people to benefit from tourism. These projects include: helping beach operators in Kenya earn a better living from tourism and provide hassle-free tours for holidaymakers to enjoy; finding new ways to help local businesses grow and thrive alongside all-inclusive hotels in Cyprus; supporting local communities in Jamaica and Turkey to create great tourism experiences whilst protecting the marine environment; Continuing to develop the business skills of Mayan women in Mexico so they can supply locally-produced honey products to hotels.
I can stand by the projects of The Travel Foundation, as I wrote one of my first travel articles about their superb work to stop the exploitation of the Maasai in Kenya a few years ago. You can read more about that trip here, but watch the progress made by the villages, with the help of The Travel Foundation , since then in the video below. Watching these Massai elders, teacher and children, with whom I spent precious time, now growing their own sustainable tourism products is what gives me faith in this mad maelstrom of mass tourism.
Well done The Travel Foundation for making a new mark on the consumer side of the tourism industry, creating a social media-friendly way to share sustainable tourism stories and carrying the responsible tourism movement forward another good few steps.
I smiled at the irony of a man in a Panama hat, accompanied by a woman swathed in silk scarves, stopping their convertible vintage sports car to give way to our Number 1 bus as it left Liberation Station in St. Helier. I was taking the green route across Jersey, travelling by bus, bike and boot power, not only to discover its eco-friendliness, but also to allow myself a holiday where I truly slowed down. Some might say this is also a vintage approach to travelling, but with the emphasis on green rather than glam in my case.
My journey began on a train to Poole, where I picked up the ferry to St. Helier. It may have taken longer than flying, but with time and space to study my maps, create an itinerary, finish a novel, and expose my vitamin D-deprived skin on deck, I arrived rested, with a healthy glow and ready to go. Check out all the best sail rail deals here, on Mark Smith’s brilliant Man in Seat 61 website.
My first morning’s bus stop was, rather aptly, called Green Island, just a few miles east of St. Helier. “Just pop down that lane for the beach” the bus driver said, either seeing me drool over the sight of crystalline waters on the coast road out of town, or perhaps just spotting my towel tucked into the top of backpack. I always carry a swimsuit when exploring as you never know when the calling may come. And boy, did it come. Green Island is, in fact, a peninsula, with soft white sand and gentle waves. At 9am there were a few young families paddling already, with sleepy parents clutching caffeine fixes from the shoreline’s gorgeous Green Island Restaurant. I was particularly impressed by the Homefield Foods delivery van outside, a local food supplier whose displayed motto is “from seed to plant to field to plate”.
After a wake-me-up swim did just that job, I headed off in the direction of Gorey, jumping on the next bus which, although he was already at the stop, kindly waited for me to cross the road and run down to jump on. This was my experience of bus drivers throughout the island, always keen to help, answer any questions, let me know when my stop was coming, and always with a smile.
Gorey is a small fishing village with boats of every size and shade bobbing merrily, and where the view of the impressive medieval castle of Mont Orgeuil almost made me miss my connecting bus. In search of the island’s natural rather than cultural heritage, I was heading to St. Catherine’s Woods, just outside the eponymous Bay. Otherwise known as Rozel, the short walk up from the coast road brought the many coves into view, all segueing seamlessly one into another to create one big mother bay.. She must have been some saint to have got all of these named after her, I thought to myself.
The woods were divinely serene too, with just a couple of families playing on stepping stones and rope swings. With most of Jersey’s trees felled during the German occupation, it was delightful to see not only the remains of ancient ferns and broadleafs, but careful woodland management at work through coppicing and clearing, which was allowing the likes of Sparrowhawks, Red Squirrels, Bluebells and Foxgloves to thrive. I soon forgot the map I had downloaded of the woodland, and just followed my nose as it adapted to the ever-changing, delicious aroma of mossy stones, pine, wild Sorrel and dried wood, eventually spotting the azurian shades of sea peaking through the trees.
I could have hopped on another bus back to Gorey but the coastal footpath, which was heading in my chosen direction, was enticing me onto its pink granite walkways along the rocks and then back onto shaded, woodier tracks. I finally emerged at the Archirondel Tower, where that siren-like sea beckoned one more time. Delicious swims merit delicious lunches, and no better place than the Driftwood Cafe at the top of the beach, with a fresh crab salad to make my morning complete and, indeed, replete.
Hopping on a bus just a few stops back to Gorey, the next step of my bus journey was easy, with about three different buses heading from different directions to La Mare Wine Estate in St. Mary in the north And after sampling some of its products on the superb tour of the vineyards and distillery, I was very glad that I wasn’t driving. It’s always a treat to drink local wine when travelling, but with red, white, sparkling, cider and apple brandy on the menu here, I really didn’t want to leave. I was particularly struck by La Mare’s commitment to revive apple orchards on an island where, in the early 1800’s, over eight million litres of cider were produced. La Mare is planting new trees every year, just one of many initiatives contributing towards them being the island’s only Green Tourism Business Scheme Gold Award holders.
The most impressive green scheme to have happened on Jersey, however, started in 1987 with the designation of fifty miles of Green Lanes, a network of country roads where the speed limit is clearly restricted to 15mph and where walkers, cyclists and horse riders are given priority. Keen to explore the west, I had a hire bike delivered to my accommodation, the Best Western Royal Hotel in St.Helier which, also a Green Tourism Business Scheme member, was more than happy to organise for me.
Following the 3.5 mile esplanade cycle lane from St. Helier to St. Aubin, which runs parallel to sandy beach all the way. I then welcomed the shade of a disused railway line, now a four mile cycle and walkway connecting St. Aubin to Corbière, where I picked up the coastal cycling route which clings to the headland round as far as St. Ouan’s Bay. From small, granite bays with children rock pooling, to the massive expanses of kite surfing heaven, I got to see every nuance of this eclectic geological mix, all within an hour of coastal cycling.
St. Ouan’s is a hive of activity, but I locked my bike at the Water Splash Centre, and walked just a few minutes inland along a quiet path hidden between marram grasses and wild orchids just behind the dunes known as Les Mielles, where abundant butterflies and birds seemed to be enjoying this solitary, and consolatory spot.. Indeed, I even found a bird watching shelter from where I quickly spotted a pair of Marsh Harriers, elegantly gliding to and fro, as if to show the kite surfers how it should really be done. This area, a haven for Lapwings, Sand Martins and Oyster Catchers is managed with excellent conservation management schemes by The National Trust and, as I looked out on the grasslands, ponds, dunes, ancient potato fields, orchid fields, and seascapes, I thanked the ‘green gods’ that all this has just also been included in a region recently designated as Jersey’s first National Park. There is also a brand new wetland centre opening there February 2014.
Leaving the coast, I turned inland straight onto a Green Lane, clearly marked on my map and also by very visible signs on the lanes themselves. Within minutes I was cycling up lavender lined paths, past flower filled gardens and fecund fields, greeting other cyclists and walkers, all of us reveling in the fact that, for once, we had right of way over cars. I cycled for about twenty minutes to St. Peter’s Village, with the incentive of a reward at the Classic Herd Farm shop, famous for its own cheeses and yoghurts, beef and pork, so it must have its own ice cream, I thought. I was not to be disappointed, as I tucked into a creamy, vanilla well-earned treat, in the knowledge that it was one big, breezy downhill cycle back to the south coast, for my other long awaited treat of the day. One last swim in the bay at St. Aubin, where the tide was high and, after my quick green hit of this beautiful island, so was I.
Partnerships are what make sustainable tourism a reality and leading UK based walking and cycling tour operator, Headwater, has demonstrated that sustainability is about creating genuine community agreements. After a year of working closely with over 400 hotels and over 100 agents and local guides, they put have put in place a new and pioneering Sustainability Programme and Charter.
Due to the nature of its work, Headwater works with a plethora of ground handlers. Complex infrastructures are often used by tourism businesses as barriers to creating sustainable and ethical practices, but this company rose to the challenge. They have assessed every holiday in their 2014 portfolio, and evaluated every component using an agreed set of eight criteria. Not wanting to overload their suppliers with paperwork, they talked through the procedure with them at the annual contract meetings, so that suppliers did not feel as if they were being ‘examined’. Reviewing sustainability standards will now become an annual event at Headwater.
The aim of the Sustainability Programme is to give each holiday an overall ‘Sustainability Score’ which appears in all brochures, in print and online. It is impressive to see that local employment and local food sourcing also feature in these criteria, areas often upstaged by recycling and renewable energy initiatives by other schemes.
According to Headwater, most of their suppliers bought into the idea especially when they got to talk it through face to face, as it soon became evident that they were all engaging in sustainable practices already, but just not shouting about it. And the proof is in the pudding. In their cycling programme, only 5% of holidays scored less than 80%, with several scoring 95%. 81% of their walking holidays scored at least 80% with Spain’s Camino de Santiago and the UK’s Wye Valley walking holidays both hitting 99%. Tina James, Managing Director at Headwater, adds “ Going forward, it is vital that we both maintain these high standards but also continue to work with staff, suppliers and customers in order that all our holidays achieve, or exceed, our global 80% Sustainability Target” . Read more about Headwater’s sustainable initiatives here.
The audience cheered at the end of Jimmy McLaughlin’s rendition of ‘Dear Old Inishowen’, not only because of his fine a cappella accomplishment but also because he was singing it in McGrory’s front bar in Culdaff, the heart of his dear old Inishowen . He was here because his family was the subject of an Irish television series called Dúshlán 1881 – Living the Eviction, about famine evictions from the nearby village of Carrowmenagh, and they were having a screening in the hotel to celebrate. I was there to begin exploring the wilderness that remains all around this northernmost point of our island, but right now, in this cocoon of Culdaff, my cultural immersion was like an unexpected and delicious appetiser.
I couldn’t have hoped for a better start to my weekend on Inishowen where my ultimate aim was to get to Inishtrahull, the northernmost island in our waters, just ten kilometres off Inishowen’s Malin Head. I was to kayak to this now deserted island with new adventure company Far and Wild, based in Derry, which explores Inishowen in the most eco-friendly ways possible. By paddling, hiking and, most exciting of all for this recent convert, coasteering. Coasteering is the good old fashioned way of traversing a coastline, clambering through sea arches, swimming across otherwise inaccessible inlets and jumping off rocks into the waves. “I’m sure my mother warned me not to go away for weekends with men like you” I shouted to Lawrence McBride, founder of Far and Wild, as I stood on top of a pretty high rock just after he had jumped into the water and was waiting for me to follow suit. Which I did, and loved every second of my boldness.
The weather was also bold that weekend however and, after several checks with the coastguards, the Far and Wild team of expert guides decided that we wouldn’t be able to get to Inishtrahull this time around. They might jump off rocks and kayak into the waves but they aren’t stupid, and from beginning to end I felt secure in their knowledge and expertise. “Because the conditions are extreme and unpredictable up here, our itineraries are never fixed in stone,” said Lawrence. I rather loved this organic interaction with nature and, in particular that they include wild camping as part of their break. You never know in advance where you might end up sleeping that night, but if our chosen bay at White Strand was anything to go by, these guys don’t settle for any old patch. There was no one around for miles, soft and sheltered grass to pitch on, and a stony beach to create a camp kitchen. Not forgetting the stunning views across Trawbreaga Bay, the Isle of Doagh peninsula with Fanad Head glistening beyond that and Mount Errigal towering above West Donegal in the distance.
Mind you, I would have slept in the back of a kayak I was so tired at the end of the day. After we realised that Inishtrahull wasn’t going to happen early that morning, and we got clearance from the coastguard, we headed off in our state of the art kayaks from a tiny inlet, just east of Malin Head, where an ancient well, church and hermit’s cave called “The Wee House of Malin” marks the spot. I was in the front of a double kayak with Lawrence who, along with another of their kayaking experts, Gareth Blackery, guided confidently and firmly. “Paddle straight into the swell, not alongside it, and you’ll be grand”, he shouts as I relished each stretch I take into these Atlantic extremes.
We paddled like this for a couple of hours, admiring the cliffs and sea stacks from afar, but staying clear of the white water which smashed against the coastline. Then suddenly it hit. Although the waters weren’t crashing out here, they were definitely swelling. My stomach started to move in syncopation and, almost without warning, I was feeding my breakfast to the fish. “Better out than in”, Lawrence said, reassuring me that this was normal but it was best to be sick onto the spraydeck which covered our kayak rather than over the edge. There is always a tipping point in a kayak after all. A quick splash of the face with seawater and I was right as rain and ready to tackle the next headland.
I even tackled lunch, a picnic prepared by the company, which we had on Breasty Bay, tucked in behind some whale like granite slabs to provide shelter from the omnipresent winds. This was the point when I remembered my extra warm layer tucked into a dry bag with my lunch. Never have fleece and a flask felt so welcome. After a couple of hours’ more kayaking further west, we let the current carry us into the more placid Port Ronan, where the team had cleverly shuttled our minibus earlier, so that we didn’t have to transport camping gear on kayaks.
Farren’s Pub, our nearest drinking hole before zipping ourselves up for the night, was also a welcome shelter from the wind, after pitching and pasta-ing at the beach. This is Ireland’s most northerly pub, and there is nothing like a day’s kayaking around Malin Head to get the conversation going in a region that is pretty much off the tourist trail. When we told them that we might be swimming in the sea tomorrow, they just gave us another hot whisky and looked on sympathetically.
No sympathy was needed, however, and no skills either for the next day. After a fine sleep, with layers of down and fleece to combat the untimely near zero temperatures and a vat of porridge, we started a hike down the beach in the direction of Five Finger Strand, a few headlands away. In Far and Wild’s inimitable style, we negotiated the rocky shore as we went, “Use four point contact” Lawrence said at points where we need both hands and feet to scramble up grassy slopes when beach walking became impossible. Those of us who wanted a little more adventure had wetsuits and helmets in our backpacks and, just as Five Finger Strand came into view, we changed on the rocks, gave our gear to those who were hiking and coasteered our way back to camp. The high quality neoprene covering us from top to toe, buoyancy aids and helmets meant that we could jump and jiggle our way along these wild Donegal surroundings in comfort, caution and with childlike cheer.
As we swam back into White Strand, the words in Neil McGrory’s (of McGrory’s Hotel) on the history of Inishowen – Inishowen: A journey through its past revisited. Yes, that’s the sort of bar they have in Inishowen. One which has its own historian at the helm. At one point he quotes James McParlan’s 1801 Statistical Survey of Donegal who writes about pilgrims at Malin Head. Apparently, after prayers they finish with “a good ablution in the sea, male and female, all frisking and playing in the water, stark naked and washing off each other’s sins”. I for one, was fully cleansed in that case. Although I will always swap neoprene for nakedness in the Atlantic.
They do like to do things differently up here on Inishowen, however. According to Liam Campbell, a brilliant cultural historian who joined us as a guide on day two, “Inishowen is isolated but independent, with people trying to do things a little differently here. Which is a good thing and why I like helping out with Far and Wild’s trips. They take a holistic approach. They not only bring people out into the wilds of Donegal, but they show how these landscapes have shaped the people who live here. That is rare in tourism”. It is also rarified. In that this ‘Dear Old Inishowen’ is a place to have pure, unadulterated fun.
Far and Wild offer a variety of packages. The two night adventure costs €375 sterling pps including all equipment, two dinners and breakfasts, one packed lunch, expert guides, airport transfer, one night’s accommodation at McGrory’s Hotel and one night of camping (+44 (0) 7775 911198, farandwild.co.uk) . An edited version of this article by Catherine Mack was first published in The Irish Times.
I say it again and again – kayakers are cool. I get the chance to kayak a lot on my travels, and kayaking guides are, nearly without exception, fun to be with, informative, caring and sharing. And these guys, Atlantic Sea Kayaking, based on the cove-a-licious coast of West Cork, Ireland, are top of my list. Not only are they superb activity ambassadors in my native Ireland, but they also run trips to Mexico every winter. It is this connection with Mexico which led to their founders, Jim and Maria Kennedy, being honoured recently by the Mexican government and receiving the highest award that can be bestowed on a non Mexican, The Ohtli Award.
This special honour is awarded by the Mexican government to individuals for promoting Mexico abroad. “Ohtli” is the Aztec word for pathway. It has only ever been awarded worldwide to 250 people outside Mexico. Last year’s recipient was the Irish music legend Paddy Moloney who, along with the Chieftains and Ry Cooder recorded the album “The St Patricios” commemorating the Irish Regiment who changed their allegiance and fought with Mexico against The United States in the War of Independence.
The award was presented by the Mexican ambassador, Carlos Garcia De Albo during the Mexican Independence Day celebrations at the Clyde Court Hotel in Dublin and was witnessed by about 1000 guests of the embassy including The Lord Mayor Oisin Quinn, many ambassadors of other countries as well as family and friends of the Kennedys.
Through their business Jim and Maria are directly responsible for hundreds of Irish people over the last 25 years having an unforgettable trip of a lifetime to Mexico, and indirectly probably thousands more through their promotional talks and video presentations over Europe.
“ It’s an easy sell” said Jim after he was presented with the award, “Mexico sells itself with its magnificent natural beauty, fascinating art and culture, wonderful food and more importantly, its passionate and fun loving people.”
This award means that Jim and Maria Kennedy will be lifelong ambassadors and promoters of the delights and charms of Mexico and will continue to forge new links to connect Ireland and Mexico. They will also be lifelong friends of mine, having welcomed my son into their Irish fold during the summer to learn more about kayaking and help out on one of their famous summer camps. And in the process, they put him on his own pathway to loving life on the water. As the Mexicans have rightly recognised, kayaking with the Kennedys takes you on a sustainable and very special journey.
Atlantic Sea Kayaking’s next scheduled tour in Mexico will be February 2014 to witness the Grey Whale migration from Canada. In the meantime, if Cork is closer, get yourself down to their cove.
Do you love treehouses ? As someone who spends most of my time away with the birds, I do, and I have had the great pleasure in staying in a Chestnut cherub of a treehouse in Le Perche region of Normandy, which you can read about here. If you also love the idea of sleeping in a tree, please take the time to look at this very exciting new online concept –Roost. Still at its sapling stage, the founders hope to create a movement for those who build tree houses or build tourism outlets around them. For those who not only love to hug trees but also hug in one. The creators would like to know what you think and to see if we can make this idea grow to form a real community in the canopies. So get in touch with them and do please spread the word. Get in contact via their website or on Twitter @roostinatree. I, for one, am raring to Roost.
As I sow chamomile seeds in my garden, methodically placing one seed beside the next, I have time to reflect on why I have been inspired to plant this most beautiful free flowing herb. Which takes me back to De Kas Restaurant in Amsterdam, where I visited a few weeks ago. De Kas is located in one of Amsterdam’s relatively un-touristy parks, Frankendael, a ten minute tram journey from Central Station (take tram 9, stop Hogeweg). You can’t miss it when you go into the park, as two big old brick chimneys act as beacons to this cocoon of culinary creativity.
The chimneys are remnants of the city’s municipal greenhouses from the 1920’s, the rest of the buildings having been conserved and restored by the restaurant owner, and leading chef in his own right, Gert Jan Hageman, in order to create this exquisite eatery. They grow as much of their produce as they can, here on site and also on another farm just outside the city in the Beemster region. And the first of their fecundity to greet us as we walked up through this glorious flower and herb garden was, of course, chamomile – wafting through the air as if to create a sensual path of welcome to everyone who steps in to De Kas’ realm.
The menu stays the same all week, their team of chefs creating dishes from whatever has evolved out of their little corner of Eden. They also use local fish and meat of course, but there is a huge emphasis on the alchemy arising out of their nurtured, organic vegetables, fruit and herbs.
At lunch we were given a selection of three starters to share -all equally superb with flavoursome treats popping out of each one. Such as the razor clams and cockels with celeriac, saffron and lemongrass, served with a little finely chopped granny smith apple, rocket and nut oil. Or the cannelloni filled with eggplant caviar, spinach, sheep’s feta, zucchini and dried beef. Or, most extraordinary for taste bud teasing, roasted turnip with beetroot, rhubarb, fennel and orange. We both chose grilled catfish for our main course, served with young pickle and a selection of broad, borlotti and green beans.
As we delighted in every flavour that passed our lips, we watched the chefs wander in and out of the garden, chatting with the head gardener and also with guests. The chefs’ engagement with both produce and people is what makes De Kas so special. Even the Chef de Cuisine, Bas Wiegel, wandered over to chat with me and my lunch companion, my ten year old son, who is young masterchef wannabe. The minute Bas hears this, he invited him into the kitchen to help make his dessert -a bit like winning the golden ticket into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in my son’s book, except the outcome was a lot more real, natural and beautiful – a melange of melon, with watermelon soup, vanilla ice cream and a fennel tuile. Decorated divinely with violet flowers and peppermint. These guys aren’t masterchefs, they are like Monets transposed to a kitchen. They take natural produce from the plein air and adapt it with such an art that it makes our hearts, quite simply, leap with joy.
In total contrast, across the River Ij in North Amsterdam is the coolest of cool – Pllek. Describing itself as a ‘creative catering hangout’, this is a must do for anyone who wants to imbibe all of what laid back Amsterdam is about. Take the free ferry service to NDSM Werf, which leaves from just behind Central Station. It felt like a bit of a long journey after a day of being tourists, but once we got there we didn’t want to leave.
Pllek is sustainable at its sexiest really, in my eco world of sexiness anyway. Owner Sjoerd Steenbeek has created what feels like a self-seeding hub of happiness, constructed out of shipping containers in what was, until recently, the derelict shipping area of the city. On the waterfront, with one of the most superb views of Amsterdam’s skyline that you will find, they have created their own beach, a DJ plays chill out music, couples lie around on deckchairs looking incredibly cool, families play beach ball while they wait for their fish cakes, salads and, in our case, the Dutch specialty of asparagus and poached egg and dudes hang by the firepit with beers and banter.
You can do yoga here during the day overlooking the river, or there are sporadic events such as kids’ creative sessions, gigs and film screenings if you just keep an eye on their ‘agenda’. Being on the river, it all just seems to go with the flow at Pllek, and the soothing effect of this sustainable beacon is infectious. I found myself thinking if had been twenty years younger, I would have begged them to give me a job and would never have left again. However, back in the reality of my garden, my chamomile seeds sown, I am now looking into where to place my small artificial beach. Thanks for the memories, Amsterdam. For more information on eating options in Amsterdam and beyond see www.holland.com. Catherine and her son travelled to Amsterdam the green way, using the great value Sail Rail Package from Stena Line.