Hands on holidays

Some holidays itineraries read like this: “Day one – snorkelling, Day 2 – kayaking, Day 3 waterskiing, Day 4 – museum, Day 5 – camel ride, Day 6 – indigenous village trip”. More often than not, visiting the local people is thrown in on the end of an itinerary like a last minute thought. Personally, I am wary of companies which offer such trips at the end of the holiday, as if the local people are just attractions, like the ‘song and dance’ number at the end of a show.


There is nothing showy about The Adventure Company, however, and its leading responsible tourism provider status has been recognised by many awards.  Each trip they offer supports a specific project or charity, which you can either visit while you are there, or donate to on your return. They have set up their own charitable foundation for this purpose, and support small independent projects which would not otherwise get international funding. Most of their family holidays encourage children to mix with local children, through a school visit or a meal in a local family’s home. Indeed, their mission is to invest in education, not only by supporting schools abroad, but by educating their clients at the same time.

They have just taken things one step further by offering ‘hands on’ holidays in 2009. These offer travellers opportunities to not only go on extraordinary adventures in exquisite destinations, but to also get involved in worthwhile local projects while they are there. On a family trip to Namibia, for example, you and your children will climb some of the highest sand dunes in the world, and also stay in a community-based tourism project run by Namibia’s San people. Still struggling to hold onto their traditional hunter gatherer lifestyle, they are keen to share their culture with visitors, and will teach you the skills of tracking wild animals and gathering bushfood.


There is plenty of wildlife viewing on these holidays too of course but, in keeping with their stringent educational and ethical policy, it is usually done hand in hand with a conservation project. On the Namibia trip, you can watch the big cats the country is famous for from the base of the country’s largest conservation charity, The Africat Foundation, where you also camp for a night.  Similarly on their trip to the beaches of Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park, the green turtle’s nesting ground (as well as the much rarer loggerhead, giant leatherback and hawksbill turtles), you spend two days working with a turtle conservation group.  What better way to immerse yourself among the region’s precious natural heritage than by assisting biologists and research assistants as they patrol the beaches in search of endangered species, protecting their nests, and collecting research data?


Because the company is so hands on with the communities it works with, the type of activity you can do will always be changing, depending on what is happening in the destination at the time of your visit, and where help is required. If you are helping at a school, for example, one month they might ask you to teach, and another you might have to fix the roof.


These holidays are not cheap, as many are to far-off destinations, and require a lot of careful management in order to maintain a good ethical status. But if real jungles and real people are more your thing than the Disney version, your family trip of a lifetime won’t cost you a lot more than the full works in Orlando. But the memories, experience and inspiration, will, almost undoubtedly, be priceless. See www.adventurecompany.co.uk for details.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 1 November 2008)

Don’t forget the climate crunch

I was recently asked by another publication to write about the credit crunch. I’m no economist, but they wanted something about people becoming more ethical in their travel choices as they start to feel the pinch. An interesting idea, and indeed many people are  choosing to stay closer to home this year. Christmas shopping in Nutgrove rather than New York, or choosing the slopes of Kilternan over Kitzbuhel. Realistically, however, I don’t think that carbon footprint is at the forefront of most of their minds somehow.

So, I didn’t write the article in the end. First, I don’t really believe it, and second, I try to write about people taking a more ethical approach to travel, not just for Christmas or credit crunches, but for life. Being an ethical traveller is about standing back and seeing the bigger picture. Not just about panic reactions to this current economic shock which, relative to climate change, should be pretty short-lived. Yes, perhaps some of us are flying less, as our credit cards are munched in the crunch, and we could feel better about ourselves for that. Or, as we are forced to sell our holiday homes, we could bask in our angelic glows as local people in small European villages can once more contemplate buying a house at semi-realistic prices. How philanthropic we have all suddenly become. Until the economy starts to pick up again that is.

Instead, we need to see this as a time to create a more long-term sustainable travel movement for everyone.   As we all take a bit of a breather, it gives us time to sit back and really try to understand the impacts we are having on the world and how, if we don’t change our ways urgently, it will be too late.  We have all played a part in climate change, and we must keep fighting it during these hard times.  I don’t know how many people I have heard say over the last few months, thank goodness the Celtic Tiger has gone, and we can all just slow down a little. That’s part of the secret to seeing the bigger picture in travel too. Slow down, cycle, canoe, climb a mountain, chill. Holiday at home for once, and help the Irish tourism business survive this downturn. In doing so, you will not only benefit the environment and local economy, but you are pretty much guaranteed to have a better holiday experience by following the slowdown rule.

The economists out there may be able to put us back on the right road to economic security. But who will pull together to stop our precious natural coffers running dry as our already carbon-choked world goes beyond its tipping point? We all have a role to play in protecting the world we love to call our oyster.


So beware of the cheap ‘escape the credit crunch’ holidays which are going to be the new trend for a while. A few hundred Euros so that we can fly thousands of miles to swap the heat of the stock exchange for that of a concrete jungle. The tourist compounds which pack thousands of people into over-heated pools, over air-conditioned rooms and over-watered golf courses. If you are lucky enough to be still having a holiday abroad, please still think before you click that ‘confirm purchase’ button, and buy ethically. If you are staying closer to home, take a copy of Paul Cunningham’s brilliant climate change book, Ireland’s Burning, with you. Just in case you need reminding that it’s crunch time out there in the big world, and not just for credit.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 18 October 2008)



Making tracks along Tarka’s green and tranquil trail – Devon

tarka1They always say you should never go back to the same place twice on holiday. But the Yarde Orchard Bunkhouse on the Tarka Cycle Trail in North Devon won my heart so much, I have bunked up there twice since Easter.


As Easter was early this year, choosing a quick family break to shake off the winter cabin fever was tough. The childrens’ bikes had been locked up since Santa brought them down the chimney, and it was time to blow off the cobwebs. We had already cycled on the Tarka Trail last summer while staying with friends, and loved this converted railway track following the old Braunton to Meath line, now 30 miles of traffic-free surfaced cycle and walking trail. My sons, five and nine, both keen cyclists, soared happily along the Trail with Hugo, the younger, tagged onto the back of my husband’s bike. During that trip we made it as far as East Yarde, where I chatted to David Job, owner of the Yarde Orchard Café. I enquired about the timber building he was constructing at the bottom of his vegetable garden, which turned out to be an eco-friendly bunkhouse (or independent hostel) with solar-powered hot water, wood-burning range and reed bed system to deal with water waste naturally. It was not due to open until the following year and, as this was to be the only accommodation right on the Trail, we promised to come back. Promises are promises and the Easter dilemma was quickly resolved.


Although it is easily accessible by train I wimped out and drove, nervous of unpredictable weather.  We arrived seven hours later, after several car sickness stops, and the inevitable ones to adjust the bike carrier. The ever-affable David greeted us like old friends, gleaming with pride in his eco-achievements. We had the whole building to ourselves, which was a luxury, the wood-burning range was packed with sweet-smelling apple wood, the hand-made bunkbeds awaited the test of boys’ bouncing, and appetites were soon revived for David’s homemade pizzas from the café. . This is clean simple hostel accommodation with two dorms, a small practical kitchen, and a family bedroom. We had a great first night’s sleep, waking up early to add logs to the range, the only heat source in the hostel which was still awaiting radiators. It didn’t matter at all and, donning extra cardies, we were perfectly cosy. 


Our bedrooms looked out onto the wooded banks of the Tarka Trail which, even though it is part of the National Cycle Network’s Coast to Coast Route from Plymouth to Ilfracombe, it is relatively quiet. This 30 mile off-road section is a bit too lightweight for the serious lycra-clad cyclists so it is perfect for families, walking or cycling. One group we weren’t expecting to meet was the local Easter hunt, which had us screeching on our brakes as we headed towards huge hunters and their masters. Horns blew and hounds barked in the distance, and off they bounded, without a hint of embarrassment at having been caught red-handed using the Trail as one of their jumps, risking the reputation of those few riders who use it responsibly.


The otherwise peaceful Tarka Trail follows the River Torridge, the fictional birthplace of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter. Living in London, it was a delightful relief to watch my own little otters take off at speed, with a sense of freedom they never get in the city. The route was lined with wild primroses, narcissi as well as an eclectic collection of sculptures and, depending on which bits you tackle, it is sided by woodland or the sandy shores of the Torridge estuary.


From a practical point of view this holiday is superb. No battles with bike racks before heading off every day, no picnic preparations, just get up, make breakfast, jump on the bikes and go. In the mornings, the children went up and down the Trail immediately outside the bunkhouse or played in its landscaped hilly garden as we sipped a second cappuchino from the café. David’s café is brimming with good homemade food, all locally sourced.  tarka31The bunkhouse is located at one of the highest points on the Trail, and so one incentive to get back up the long, gently sloping hill after an early-morning cycle to Torrington, was the promise of the Yarde Cyclist’s breakfast; Cornwall smoked bacon, local sausages, free-range eggs and organic baked beans.


For other supplies the nearby thriving market town of Great Torrington is accessible by bike, car or bus. There seemed to be two of everything here. Two greengrocers, two butchers and two bakers. The Green Lantern, on the town square, a bakery with café, is a must. I felt as if I had stepped into a Hovis ad, with racks of iced buns, scones and enormous warm squidgy loaves being emptied from their baking tins onto the shelves.


We couldn’t leave Devon without one trip to the beach, and twelve miles along the Trail took us to Instow, a small town on the sandy banks of the estuary where the Rivers Taw and Torridge meet, and ideal for paddling. It may sound like a long way, but it’s amazing how many miles you cover on these mainly flat surfaces without even realising. The children couldn’t believe it at bedtime when I told them “you cycled twenty-four miles today”. 


Yarde Orchard is not only a welcoming place to stay, it is also great value, in a superb location and as friendly as it is eco-friendly. So a couple of months later, when a girlfriend and I decided we needed a mid-week break, no work, no kids, no hassle, I knew exactly where to head. This time by train. We took the 09.04 from Paddington to Exeter, changed onto the Tarka Line train to Barnstaple, and walked straight into Tarka Trail Cycle Hire, conveniently located on the station platform and only metres from the Trail.  Equipped with shiny new bikes, we took a gentle three hour cycle along the Trail, arriving in through Yarde Orchard’s gates in time for afternoon tea. With a couple of stops for snacks and shandies at some of the converted railway stations along tarka2the way. The Primroses had been swapped for wild orchids, the narcissi for an abundance of aromatic wild garlic, and the fields were full of lambs, foals and calves. Summer was in the air, and London was a world away.


I wasn’t sure if the café would still be open when we got there, so I pre-ordered a Devon hamper from Red Earth Kitchen. Arriving to home-made beef and mushroom stew, new potatoes and hot chocolate pudding made the 18-mile cycle seem worthwhile. After a great night’s sleep in the tranquillity of this rural idyll, the apple trees now in full blossom, we woke refreshed and ready to cycle all the way back again. It was raining, however, so we were able to postpone our departure and enjoying David’s coffee and chat the latter as fine as the former, for a bit longer.  We finally hit the Trail again and, after a few hours more cycling we caught our 5pm train to London. I slept all the way back, exhausted, cleansed, relaxed and already planning my Yarde Orchard hat trick. I had been spoilt so far by having the place to myself, as it is still pretty unknown. So, next time, I am booking out the whole place, filling a train carriage with family and friends, hitting the trail in convoy (kids and all), ordering David’s pizzas all round, for the perfect autumn pick-me-up. With bunkhouses like this around, I think my cabin fever has just been cured.


Getting there

Catherine travelled with First Great Western from London to Barnstaple. Singles from £12.  Family price for two adults and two children, from £20.40 single, with Family Railcard. See www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk


Staying there

Yarde Orchard Bunkhouse, Torrington, Devon, see www.yarde-orchard.co.uk or telephone 01409 281461. Room in shared dorm £12 (£8 under 16’s). Rental of whole building (sleeps 14) is £140 for first night, and £120 for subsequent nights


Catherine hired bikes from Tarka Trail Cycle Hire at Barnstaple’s railway station. See www.tarkatrail.co.uk or phone 01271 324202 to book one in advance in high season. Adult bikes £10 per day, children’s bikes £7 per day. Adult bike plus tag-along £17.50 per day.

Fine Devon fare can be pre-ordered for delivery from Red Earth Kitchen, see www.redearthkitchen.co.uk for menus and to order online Main courses from £4.75 per person, or £27 for 6 people

To order a map of The Tarka Trail from Sustrans see www.sustrans.co.uk


(This article was first published in The Observer, 7 September 2008 – for more photos of the trip click here)



Natural Retreats – Yorkshire Dales

yorkshire-08-013_optThey say the camera never lies and the website photos of these designer wooden lodges, tucked into the Yorkshire Dales like birds nests were, indeed, enough to make my jaw drop. As we approached along an almost deserted road in one of England’s northernmost National Parks (despite being the height of tourist season), the Kevin McCloud wannabee in me was almost biting at the bit to see these cedar creations.


Natural Retreats is aptly named and their grey slate sign, set subtly into the dry-stone wall, was so natural, we almost missed it.  When we took the sweeping driveway down to the retreat, I thought I had missed the houses too, as there was nothing to be seen at first. Then my husband let out a gasp as he spotted the bronze-coloured wooden structures in the valley below, peaking out sporadically between the pines and ferns.  This had been no Photoshop job, for sure. They were gobsmackingly gorgeous, to use a technical term. Our children, two boys of five and nine, jumped out and ran down the hill in a Sound of Music meets Emmerdale sort of a moment.


The hills stretched out before us, dipping into valley after valley, wildflower-filled hedgerows concealing hay bales, perfectly placed as if posing for a painting. Views like this usually bode well for a holiday, Yorkshire, towards the east coast. I know the tradition is to book into the place with a bath after the camping holiday, not before, but we were in bits after recent work stresses, and thought that a couple of days to unwind before tackling any canvas and poles might be a good idea.

Natural Retreats peaking out from the mist of the Dales
Natural Retreats peaking out from the mist of the Dales

but we had only booked for two nights, en route for a camping session on the other side of


We were reassured the minute we stepped inside our wooden house, with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows, gleaming white walls and designer sofas, open-plan kitchen, wood-burning stove and bedrooms which had nothing spared on five-star luxury. We opened our complimentary bottle of wine, part of a welcome hamper of local and Fairtrade goodies, and raised a glass to the best start to any camping trip.


There are eighteen of these wooden houses, so carefully positioned for minimal impact on this protected landscape, that I couldn’t find them all. Even using one of the walking maps, specifically designed for Natural Retreats, I am sure there was still one or two lurking behind a bit of woodland somewhere. Ours was one of the more ‘public’ ones, at the foot of the woodland, beside three natural ponds, developed out of the natural spring which provides water for the site. We had moorhens and herons for company, as well as a few frogs to keep our boys happy, as they watched them jump from one pond to another, and then dart under the houses. This was all part of the ecodesign, as the houses are built on wooden decking, which in turn is placed on three strips of concrete, in order to maintain a natural living environment underneath. The roofs are alive too, covered with sedum-moss which was turning a soft strawberry pink, as the wild flowers came to life.


There were a few other houses beside us, which was great for the children, who immediately made friends and were cycling from house to house within minutes. Public or private, you won’t be spending much time inside your hideaway, as the countryside seems to pull you towards it like a magnet here. This was the aim of the landowner and sheep farmer, Matt Spence, a self-confessed ‘National Park addict’. He rightly wanted to show off his homeland, in a way that was not only kind to his beloved Swaledale, but also contemporary and classy. He has certainly pulled this off.


Natural Retreats was criticised recently for branding itself as ‘eco’ and having Tropicana in its welcome pack. Yet, that journalist omitted to mention that ecotourism is also about community development. Natural Retreats has reeled Yorkshire Dales tourism into the 21st Century, and will entice a whole new generation of tourists to this area. They work hand in hand with, and have gained huge respect from the local community. The welcome hamper (the Tropicana well and truly gone) is from the local grocer, Ken Warne, whose wonderful shop we visited the next day. He is one of those grocers who wears a dark green overcoat, and has the most eclectic range of fine produce on his shelves to meet the demands of his adoring Richmond clientele, and on the verge of closing before Natural Retreats passed the hamper business onto him. Just about everyone employed on this 54 acre site, from managers to master joiners, drystone wall craftsmen to furniture designers is local. Ecotourism is not all about eco-friendly lightbulbs, recycling, and woodburners. Although all these are on offer too.  Not forgetting the natural insulation, rainwater harvesting and wood management system. Solar power was not allowed on planning grounds unfortunately, although the passive solar heating from the huge windows is enough to dry your walking boots after a few hours.


Walking into the local town of Richmond was absolutely the best way to sample the Dales in a day. Described as a twenty minute walk into this buzzing Georgian market town, you will be lucky to do it in this time, unless you are totally unmoved by the scenery en route. Which is unlikely. We took about three hours, mainly because we stopped along the banks of the River Swale to plunge into its icy waters, and swim from one riverbank to yorkshire-08-071_optthe other, where someone had kindly hung a ropeswing.  Then on through glimmering glades right up to the towering cliffs which support the impressive remains of Richmond’s Norman castle. Boy heaven. After a tour of the castle, a must for views all the way across to the North York Moors, we had an early dinner at the town’s converted railway station, Seasons, where Yorkshire rarebit or Whitby fish and chips is highly recommended for swimmers and knights.


We had only two regrets at Natural Retreats. One, that we hadn’t gone the whole natural hog and come by train. You can take the train from Holyhead to Crewe, then Manchester, and, finally, the stunning TransPennine Express all the way to Darlington, the nearest train station, only a 20 minute taxi ride away, and arrange for mountain bikes to be delivered to your door. The other regret was, quite simply, that we hadn’t booked for longer.


A 5 night stay at Natural Retreats starts from £880 per residence, sleeping six.  There is a 2 night minimum stay, from £325. Price includes accommodation, a food hamper on arrival, logs, linen and towels. For more information Tel: +44 (0) 161 242 2970 or www.naturalretreats.com

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 30 August 2008)

The Maasai and Kenyan tourism

kenya07-058_optIt is not everyday I get the opportunity to sit under an Acacia tree in the middle of the Masai Mara, listening to Maasai men, women and children, discuss their future. The famous black dots of the Wildebeest are interspersed with the equally world renowned red robes of Kenya’s Maasai people, drifting across the Mara plains, to take part in today’s meeting under the tree.


I have been invited here by The Travel Foundation, a UK charity funded by leading tour operators. It runs sustainable tourism projects in popular tourism destinations such as Kenya. In January 2006, Dr Cheryl Mvula came to the Masai Mara on holiday, and decided to take a cultural tour of Enkereri, a Maasai village. She paid $20 and watched it being given to the village elders. After her tour, she was shown the women’s craft work, or ‘curios’ as they are sometimes called. But it was the curios that got Cheryl curious. The women appeared really desperate to sell, and she knew instinctively that there was something wrong with this picture. After all, her tour group had just given them $100, but there was not a lot to show for it.


A responsible tourism consultant who specialises in community development, it didn’t take long for Cheryl to investigate. One source inside a well known Kenyan tour operator told her, “When you are off looking at curios, your driver guide takes the money back from the elders. They leave them $4 out of the $100. That’s how it’s been working here for thirty years”.


But not anymore. Within weeks, Cheryl had received funding from The Travel Foundation to take on this exploitation and returned to Enkereri. She spent days and nights talking with the Maasai, who nominated two junior elders as representatives. Cheryl’s first question to Ben Rramet and Ben Longisa (now fondly referred to as Big Ben and Little Ben) was “Why did you put up with this exploitation for so long?” They told her that the driver guides, employed by tour operators, deserved the money because, as far as they were aware, the drivers had to ‘press gang’ visitors to come to the villages. “Tourists think we have typhoid and HIV, and are afraid to come here. But we need them to buy the curios”. Appalled by this lie, Cheryl showed them tourist brochures full of photos of their people telling them, “The Maasai are famous. People want to meet you, as long as you are happy for them to do so.” And this was the moment the Kenyan worm turned.


For the next year they worked together, learning about the workings of the tourist industry, business record keeping, banking, community development, health and hygiene, crafts development and marketing. The villagers’ hunger for knowledge and willingness to learn far outweighed any bitterness about the exploitation of the past. By May 2006, the work had stretched to four other villages, and the creation of the Mara Triangle Maasai Villages Association. Each village opened a bank account, nominated Finance, Tours and Marketing Managers and together they were ready to take on the big boys. They knocked on the doors of lodges and tour operators who, in the past, had turned a blind eye to the unethical practices.  The Maasai presented record books, showing visitor numbers being sent by each lodge, and proof of how much money was being given and taken back by their drivers. The lodges were no longer able to deny it. Big Ben told me, “We were not even allowed in through the gates before. Now we are sitting around the conference table doing business. It is wonderful”. 


Most of the lodges in the area are now using the Maasai’s new system. Tourists buy a $20 voucher from the lodge for a cultural visit to one of the villages (rotating visits to avoid favouring one village).  The drivers don’t have access to cash anymore, just their larger than average salaries for Kenya, and tips to boot.  At the end of the month, one hundred per cent of the tour money is lodged into the villages’ bank accounts.


Which is what brings me to be sitting under this tree in November 2007.  It is the Mara Triangle Maasai Villages Association’s first AGM. The two Bens and Cheryl present details of the Association’s progress in a year. This amounts to $43000 from tours alone, an 800 per cent increase in just a year. The applause and cheers must be heard all the way to the Serengeti. The men hold hands and smile proudly and the women translate to their excited children. Enkereri has extended its school and pays two teachers’ salaries. Each village has built a long drop toilet for visitors, with plans to build one for villagers. However, tradition dictates that this should be positioned in the privacy of the bush, at a distance from the village. Such hygiene improvements should help combat common illnesses such as diarrhoea.


Little Ben tells Cheryl that they are waiting for her to tell them what else to spend it on.  “This is your money. You decide”, she says and sends them off into their village groups to discuss it.  An hour later they return to the main tree and share their thoughts. There is a strong common thread of welfare and community. They want to build bore holes to gain access to clean water so the women don’t have to walk several kilometres to collect infected river water. Next on the wish list is more local schools, and college funds. They all agreed on a need to replace the current firewood  fuel system; “The women have to go further and further into the bush, risking attacks by elephants or lions”. I marveled at some of their business ideas like using cow dung as fuel, and possibly even supplying this to lodges. As their lives revolve around cattle, there is no shortage of resources. But I couldn’t help thinking that issues such as access to clean water is a basic human right, not something that they should be paying for out of tourism income.


The Maasai’s achievements in one year are awe inspiring, not to mention their strength, honesty and determination. But this is just the tip of the termite hill. There are still hundreds of Maasai being ripped off in Kenya. Cheryl plans to take this new system elsewhere, starting in the New Year with twenty villages in the Sekanani area of the Mara. This time she will be helped by two consultants contracted to lead workshops and set up systems. Enter the two Bens, now skilled facilitators in their own right.


Meanwhile, there are still thousands of tourists being lied to. As I returned to my lodge in the evening, I realise that many are not interested in the Maasai. Conversation starters are invariably, “Did you see anything exciting today?” “I saw a crocodile eat a wildebeest”, “How wonderful, I saw a cheetah maul a lion cub”. “I listened to the Maasai talk about having hearts full of pride and gratitude” was usually a conversation stopper. A retired insurance broker from the Shires proudly announced, “The Maasai get plenty from us, and still they are after our money. I don’t know how they live like that.  It is God’s gift to be born an Englishman”. I defended the Maasai’s intentions as being honourable, and explained that their traditional lifestyles were unique. He only became interested when I pointed out that ‘Englishmen’ were being lied to about the Maasai’s income. This made him put down his binoculars and listen.  


On my various visits to Maasai villages I heard the word “welcome” a thousand times. They take  visitors into their homes without judging, mistrusting or insulting them. Why can’t tourists do the same thing? Luckily, many visitors are more open minded than this. If you want to meet the Maasai, best to do so through one of the lodges in the Mara Triangle, or use a KATO tour operator, which signs up to the voucher system from January 2008. If you are travelling elsewhere in Kenya, don’t give cash to drivers for cultural tours and ask for proof of a transparent system. If none of this is possible, visit the villages anyway, but don’t give money to the elders until the end of your visit. That way the drivers can’t take it back from them again.  And when they thank you, just say “you’re welcome”. Because if anyone understands and practises the true meaning of this word, the Maasai do.

For more information on the work of The Travel Foundation see www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk


Catherine stayed at Olonana Camp, Masai Mara, one of Abercrombie and Kent’s Sanctuary Lodges, which is soon to subscribe to the Mara Triangle Maasai Villages Association’s visitor system. See www.abercrombiekent.com for details.


For information on Mara Triangle Maasai Villages Association, see www.katokenya.org or email: cdmvula@aol.com

This article was first published in The Observer, 11 May 2008

On the rails

catherine-and-louis-holyhead-london-train_optI used to hate travelling back home to Ireland at Christmas. A cold slow train from London, the Holyhead hall of hell and then, of course, the ferry.  Never a good start to the season of joy and goodwill. Then budget airlines were born onto us.  They cried “Oh come all ye faithful”, and we followed the star to far-off airports to guide us home, and all was well with the world.


Until I went and got me a conscience. My 2007 New Year’s resolution was to swap the plane for the train whenever possible. So far so good, until the impending Christmas trip home and the ghost of Christmas past reared its ugly head. It was hard enough when I was travelling alone, but now I have two young children. Just  as my finger hovered over the ‘check flights’ button, my eco-warrior son Louis reminded me, “No train no gain, Mum”. I had to have faith in the Virgin. Train that is. Not prepared to risk ruining Christmas, however, I did a test trip in September for my son’s birthday.


We got off to a bad start just booking the trip. It was a logistical nightmare until I discovered the wonderful SailRail agency. So I advise you to avoid all cyber conniptions and go straight to them, talk to helpful humans who tell you all you need to know and then actually book it for you.


We left London Euston at 9am and within minutes were lashing through luscious English countryside. We had reserved seats facing each other, and settled into our warm, comfortable nests for the four hour journey to Holyhead. A fellow Dub, travelling from Edinburgh, told me she no longer flies home. “It’s better for my head. I like to take time to think about where I am going, what I am going to do when I get there”. On this journey, we chatted, planned the birthday party, played cards and read. As he took in the sights, Louis asked “Why don’t grown ups look out the window Mum? Is it just a child thing?”  I looked at everyone wired to some device, determined to shut out the world around them, and switched off my mobile.


This was a direct train and soon after lunch (the sandwiches are almost gourmet compared to the processed cheese of yesteryear), the sea came into view. I kept a nervous eye on the waves which, despite the calm, were not enough to quell my memories, and I stuffed sea sickness remedies down all our throats. We arrived with plenty of time to board, and walked off the train into a clean and modern terminal. A Donegal man who makes the trip six times a year, told me, “It breaks my heart. We had all been begging for a new terminal for years. Now it’s here and it’s empty. It was a cattle market before, dirty and full of drunks”. Sounds like Stanstead on a bad day, I thought.


As we checked in our luggage, (no more hauling your bags around the boat), I didn’t have to remove shoes, belts, hand in bottles of water or expensive handcreams. And no queue.  We walked through a covered walkway to the boat and boarded the vast Irish Ferries’ Ulysses, with cinema, restaurant, shop and endless rows of comfy seats.  The waves were kind to us, and we all dozed off only to be woken by a cacophony of ringtones telling us were welcome to Ireland.


Up on deck, the site of the red and white chimneys as we coasted into Dublin, dead on time at 17.25, invited a round of the Irish rugby anthem from my boys, at gloriously full volume into the wind. It was one of those cosy ‘good to be home’ moments, which you definitely don’t get on the plane. Nor do you get home so easily. We had hired a car for the weekend, and Dan Dooley, the only rental company at Dublin port offers a ‘meet and greet’ service. We disembarked, had bags in hand five minutes later, hopped into the car (I tried to get a hybrid, but none available to date) and were home in time for the RTE news and cup of tea.  


After a successful weekend of partying, we sped off on the Catamaran at 9am Monday morning. My sons were the green ones this time, sick bags held tightly to their faces for the duration.  Luckily, the journey was quick and the minute we stopped they were right as rain, not hesitating to down a couple of Holyhead hot chocolates as we sat out the hour long wait for the train. This time the train had one change. At Crewe. An elderly Galway man announced, smiling, “Ah sure, I wouldn’t feel I’d been in Ireland if I didn’t have to change at Crewe”. It was a quick turnaround, and the waiting room was warmer and cleaner than I remembered. We got to London ahead of the rush hour, jumped on a tube, and were home in time, again, for tea.


One carbon calculator tells me that my rail/air family footprint would have been 1.31 tonnes, compared to 0.42 for rail/sail to Dublin. A significant difference. I do believe that our dependence on short haul flights has got out of hand. But my efforts to be a more responsible traveller have taught me one more thing. Time is of the essence. Taking more of it, that is. As we snuggled up on the last leg of the journey, told stories, played chess and, yes, just looked out the window, I vowed to book the Christmas trip as soon as we got home. The ghost had definitely, been put to rest.  



Catherine travelled with Virgin Trains, Arriva Trains and Irish Ferries. See www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk, www.virgintrains.co.uk and http://www.irishferries.com for details.


For Rail Sail Bookings from on any Irish route, see www.sailrail.co.uk, or phone UK number + 44 8450 755755.  Note, there is no Irish office, so you need to give ten days for postage of tickets.  Adult return sail/rail fares from £52 for adult and £13 for a child.


For ‘meet and greet’ car hire at Dublin port contact Dan Dooley, Tel: +353 62-53103 or see www.dan-dooley.ie


(This article appeared in Ireland’s Sunday Tribune, 28 October 2007)



Confessions of a tree lover


People find solace in different places. For some the sea provides the necessary force to sweep away the pressures of everyday life.  Others escape to the remoteness and anonymity of islands, where comforts are close, but reality is kept a boat ride away.  I find tranquillity in trees. I spent my childhood climbing up to secret hideouts high in the Oaks and Cedars of an Irish boarding school. I have planted them to mark births and deaths of loved ones.  I covet my seventies copy of The Observer Book on Trees but still fail to recognise an ash from an elm in situ.  But let’s get one thing straight.  I have never, and will never, hug one. In fact, my relationship with trees is worryingly familiar. I love them but never quite understand them, I try to respect their space, not pull them down to my level, escape to their protective shelter at times of need and, and in the case of my kids, support them as they grow.  But I am just not huge on hugs.  Can you get tree counselling these days?  Maybe I just need a break.

Ten ways to branch out this summer:

  1. This is tree climbing, Jim, but not as we know it.  For those who like island getaways and trees, New Zealand arborist Paul McCathie has set up Goodleaf Tree Climbing Adventures on the Isle of Wight.  He sends a shiver of arborial amour down my spine when he says things like “Trees are amazing and I love being able to spend time in them. Everyone tends to get more interested in trees when they’re 20ft up in the foliage.”  Fitted with harnesses and hats, you are guided to the top of an ancient sixty foot oak tree.  Goodleaf gives a 5% reduction to climbers who leave the car at home, and use public transport, walk or cycle there. It also supports a local conservation charity as well as a forestry charity, Trees for Life. They will even lay on a picnic or birthday champagne treats if you fancy something special.  See www.goodleaf.co.uk.  Climbing costs £25 (children) and £35 (adults) for two and a half hours. Definitely worth a day trip to the island or see www.greenislandtourism.org for great information on green accommodation.
  2. Kadir’s Tree House Hotel in Olympus, Turkey, looks like a hurricane hit it. But that is its charm.  The wooden houses are perched up in the aromatic pines at the foot of the Taurus Mountains.  The rickety staircases have a ‘thrown together by Grandad’ feel about them, although this methodically constructed hang-out is run very much by the young.  It is one big tree party and with a veritable meze of activities from canoeing to rock-climbing, or a one mile forest walk to the sea, this is the perfect place to let out the tree lover within.   Prices from £8 pppn.  See www.kadirstreehouses.com for details
  3. A coppicing weekend sounds like and is a dirty weekend. Of sorts. Coppicing is more about separation aimed at survival.  Without getting heavy about it, coppice management is the cutting back of young trees, often hazel, in order to speed up their re-growth. The coppiced wood is then used to create woodland products such as charcoal or thatch.  It is a highly-skilled way of managing forests, and experienced coppicers are rare.  If you want to get down, dirty and coppice, you can book one of a variety of UK woodland management breaks with www.responsibletravel.com.  Prices start from £40 (2 days) to £250 (28 days) including food and accommodation.
  4. I warned you – first you are hugging it and next thing you know you are sleeping with it.   The Mighty Oak Tree Climbing Company in St. Columb Major, Cornwall not only guides you skilfully up the tree, you then have the option of staying up there for the night. Tree camping involves the use of tree boats, especially-designed four cornered hammocks suspended very safely up in the tree. There is no danger of a rockabye baby scenario as you are tied in at all times by rope and harness.  An early morning breakfast is sent up to you as you swing serenely to the sound of the Cornish dawn chorus. Tree camping and guided climbing session from £140.  For green travellers, nearest train station is Lostwithiel. See www.mighty-oak.co.uk
  5. How about a weekend bodging in Bath?  Leave the 21st century behind and escape to the peace and quiet of Cherry Wood, a sustainably managed woodland where its owner, experienced wood craftsman Tim Gatfield offers green woodcraft workshops. This refers to all of the traditional woodcrafts such as chair making, charcoal burning, and shelter building, which take us back hundreds of years. The main focus at Cherry Wood is bodging, or chair- making using ‘green’ or unseasoned wood, which has been cut only days before use.  From advanced green woodwork courses, to family woodland weekends, this is an opportunity to understand and enjoy wood and all its uses. You can camp on site, or there are a number of B&B’s nearby if the compost loo and earth oven is getting too close to tree hugging territory.  Family woodland weekends cost £145 for adults and £70 for children including lunch, plus £3 a night to pitch your tent. See www.cherrywoodproject.co.uk for details
  6. I watched a group of middle-aged business men going ape once in a forest in Norfolk.  All those helmets and harnesses, swinging and beating chests – Maybe this growing chain of tree adventure hangouts, cleverly named Go Ape! should be called Treestosterzone, with its maze of tree canopy walks, zip slides and boisterous boys toys.   Bravado soon gives in to concentration and fear as they take in the 40 ft drop to the forest floor. Luckily these activities do no damage to the trees, as Go Ape works hand in hand with arborists, and all structures are designed to allow trees to grow unrestricted and oh, no, just when I thought I was safe, they tell me “We even give them a cuddle from time to time”. Although all a little more ‘corporate’ and mass produced than Goodleaf or Mighty Oak,  This is a great day out for young and old (minimum age is 10 and maximum weight 130kg) and costs £20 (10-17 year olds) and £25 +18 years). The GoApe website provides a list of accommodation in or near the forests where they are located.  See www.goape.co.uk.
  7. You can support the important work of The Forestry Commission in the best way possible, by holidaying with them.  Hire a wooden cabin on the shores of Loch Lubnaig at the foot of Ben Ledi in Scotland’s Trossachs National Park and let yourself be engulfed by this dramatic landscape, so wonderfully preserved by your hosts. Forest rangers can guide you around or you can explore by foot, bike or horse. You can even listen to the night owls from your hot-tub. Cabins start from around £109 for a long weekend and £164 with hot-tub. You can also choose a cabin from other Forestry Commission sites in Cornwall or North Yorkshire.  See www.forestholidays.co.uk for more details
  8. If the only French you can remember is “Le Singe est dans l’arbre”, you might struggle here.  The Var region of the south of France, 70 per cent of which is forested with an immense range of species, is a tree lover’s heaven with enough guided walks to keep you there for weeks.   You can walk for miles with experts in charcoal making, bark stripping, chestnuts, mushrooms and other edible foraged delights, as well as moonlight walks to gain a greater understanding of French poets and their relationships with….trees.  Only in France. The brochure, Le Var, Balades Nature Accompagnées can be downloaded from www.tourismevar.com.
  9. Bewilderwood – A theme park with a difference in Norfolk. The theme is boggles and twiggles, characters from a book written by Tom Blofled, co-creator of this wonderful day out for children.  Set in ancient woodland on the family estate, this wooden play area takes children on a journey over suspended wooden bridges, through mazes constructed with reeds, and down giant slides accessed via rope ladders up to beautifully crafted tree houses.  Buy the book after your visit, and the memories of this magical day out stay with you all for ever. See www.bewilderwood.co.uk for details
  10. The National Trust still evokes images of being dragged out on a Sunday for a walk round a stately home and a ‘lovely bowl of soup, dear’.  But this year it celebrates forty years of working holidays, the first one being the restoration of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal towpath in 1967.  The National Trust offers working weekends to all ages and depending on your interests you don’t even need to go near a stately home.  You might be glad of the soup though, after a day’s work clearing felled trees from the steep-sided wooded valleys of Hardcastle Crags in West Yorkshire.  This is one of the vast array of short (and long) energising breaks, and costs £40 including food and basecamp accommodation. See www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

(This article was first published in Metro, 13 August 2007, click here for details)






A greener shade of Wight

shack3Gone are the purple rinses, the Isle of Wight is the new black. Or should I say green. It surfs, it sculpts, it sings, and it’s shouts sustainability.  It was also the guts of a hundred quid to go there by car ferry on the weekend I wanted to travel, which certainly encouraged me to go green. It was cheaper to travel by train from London with a family railcard, and so began our pickings from a rich menu of green offerings on the Isle of Wight.    It even has a green tourism website with endless suggestions on how to enjoy this beautiful island without destroying what it has to offer.  A website which adds ‘chilling’ to its list of activities wins my green vote straight away and so we started as we meant to go on.


I booked a cute little beach shack a few miles from Cowes, booked bike hire through a company which delivers and collects wherever you want, in this case at the ferry terminal, studied cycle maps into the early hours and obsessed over five day weather forecasts.  One small backpack each, no packing the car with ‘stuff’, no stopping on the M25 to adjust our dodgy bike carrier, and no arguments over directions.  So far so chill.  Two and a half hours after leaving home, we were lashing across the Solent on the Red Funnel high speed jet. This is not the cheapest option, but it is only a twenty minute crossing and worth the look on my children’s faces as we took off. It was so fast, I was slightly concerned it wasn’t going to stop.  But we settled gently into the quay at West Cowes, where John, the bike guy, gave us our bikes and took our luggage, to be dropped to us later at the shack.  The Island is cyclist heaven. Just enough hills to push yourself, or your bike and tagged on four year old in my case, varied landscapes of coast, forests and estuarine marshes.  We took the coast road from Cowes, through Gurnard, up quite a few steep hills and, about forty five minutes later, down a dusty track to the sea, and our shack. dscf0169


The shack is a gloriously simple wooden summer house, painted in pastel blue and white, overlooking a buttercup filled meadow dipping down to a quiet sandy beach.  The children leapt onto the swingseat hanging from an oak tree in the garden and I had to blink twice to check I was not on the set of a Boden photo shoot.  Our dusty backpacks and sweaty trainers suddenly looked out of place among the collection of carefully chosen vintage bric a brac and funky fifties furniture. . But Helen, the owner with the enviable designer eye, is not precious about her vision – it is a place for having good old fashioned ‘Enid Blyton’ fun.  She leaves antique board games, binoculars and even a copy of the Famous Five itself, for sticky sandy hands to explore. With its solar powered lighting, no electricity, wood burning stove amply supplied with driftwood, composter, recycling, and environmentally friendly cleaning products provided, this ticks many of the green boxes. And the solar powered mobile charger is inspired.


A pre-ordered hamper of Island goodies awaited the hungry cyclists, enabling us to prepare a gastronomic evening picnic watching the sunset over the bay.  The menu included locally made organic pasta served with the Island Garlic Farm’s Confit de Tomates.  To drink, a chilled rosé from Rossiters Vineyard, and local apple juice.  The cheese course was a coup.  A blue cheese from the Isle of Wight cheese company which was recently awarded the Fortnum & Mason Best English cheese award 2007.  We finished off with cake and biscuits baked only a few miles away and the children used the, now nearly empty, canvas style bucket (ordered instead of traditional hamper, as it was easier for us to bring home) to collect driftwood. You can also order a splendid breakfast hamper, with local muesli, bacon, sausages and eggs. The strapline here should really be ‘fill before you chill’.


It would not be difficult to fill your days doing nothing at the shack.   Buckets, spades and fishing nets were provided, the boys cycled safely up and down the lane, chased butterflies across the meadow, and swam several times a day.  But I couldn’t resist some of the other Island activities on offer.  One day we took a two mile cycle to riding stables for the boys’ first horse riding experience. Hugo, my younger boy,  had been talking for weeks about riding on a white unicorn, so when Faye the farmer led the most perfect white pony towards a seldom silenced four year old, there was no explanation needed for why it didn’t have a horn sticking out of its head.  As far as he was concerned, his dream had come true.


There were many such highlights on this trip.  Putting coffee on to brew, and hopping down for an early morning swim watched only by onlooking oyster catchers and curlews.  Cycling in nearby Parkhurst Forest and spotting red squirrels.  Or shopping at the superb weekly Farmer’s Market in Newport, and picnicking along the offroad (and gloriously flat) Medina estuary cycle route nearby. But the big high was saved for last.  We took our final view of what had by now become our new favourite place in the world, from the top of a sixty foot ancient oak tree.  The Isle of Wight is one of a handful of places in the UK where you can go recreational tree climbing.  Guided by New Zealand arborist, Paul, who confesses he would rather preserve and climb trees than follow his original career path of cutting them down, we donned our harnesses and helmets, and I prayed for a head for heights. There was no reason to fear. In this remote field, located a few miles from East Cowes, Paul gave us detailed tuition in the art of tree climbing, mastering ropes and knots as well as a greater appreciation of the ancient gem which supported our weight throughout.  I watched Louis, my eight year old, climb gracefully from branch to branch, handling knots and carabeener clips like an expert.  louis-climbing It was like watching a dance performance as he climbed, then swayed, and finally swung gently upside down to a soundtrack of nothing but birdsong.  My climbing was more baboon than Bussell, but I finally caught up with my little elf lying high up in a tree hammock eating the chocolate eggs which awaited him.  We lay in the hammock together, swaying gently with the breeze and the world seemed to stop for a while.  Under Paul’s constant supervision, we absailed gently back to earth, where we landed on a picnic rug laid out for afternoon tea. Paul pointed out that the milk was from a farm only a mile away, and the homemade cakes from a local bakery.  I realised that people here don’t just promote Island produce because they have to, but because they are proud of it.  They have every right to be.


After three hours of climbing, absailing, chatting and eating, we headed back to the boat.  We locked our bikes by the jetty, and waited for our bags to be delivered back to us. They were running a bit late, stuck in traffic apparently, happily not something I had experienced in the last few days.  Nor was I worried about catching the boat as they run every half hour.  In fact, I realised that something had happened to the uptight London timekeeper in me.  I really didn’t care.  Or, as they say on the Isle of Wight, I had finally chilled.


Catherine and family travelled from London to Southampton with South West Trains, www.southwesttrains.co.uk, and to West Cowes with Red Funnel, see www.redfunnel.co.uk.


To stay at ‘The Shack’ see www.vintagevacations.co.uk.  Weekly stays from £375 and weekend stays from £175


Catherine hired bikes from Wight Cycle Hire.  Adult bikes £30 (children £20, Tags £15) for three days. Baggage collection free of charge. They deliver and collect from anywhere on the Island. See   www.wightcyclehire.co.uk


If you bring your own bikes, you can store or transport your luggage with www.bagtagiow.co.uk. £6 per bag


Micha the white ‘unicorn’ can be found at Romany Riding Stables, Porchfield, tel: 01983 525467. 


Order top hamper for treats on arrival from www.wighthamper.co.uk.


For the best ever trip to the treetops with Goodleaf, see www.goodleaf.co.uk – 2.5 hour climbing experience costs £25 for children and £35 for adults. 5% discount to anyone arriving by public transport, pushbike or by foot.


(This article was first published in The Observer, 10 June 2007)











The Pirate Queen’s Retreat

clareisland_gettyimagesjohnlawrence460 You couldn’t make it up.  An Irish sixteenth century chieftain and pirate who headed a fleet of 200 ships, fought against Queen Elizabeth 1, and, oh yes, was a woman.  Luckily, for the producers of Riverdance, it’s all true, with their swashbuckling rendition of The Pirate Queen about to open on Broadway.  The real Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley, took refuge from a frenzy of foes and eventually died on Clare Island, County Mayo in 1603. I chose to forgo the Broadway treatment of Irish history and embarked on a journey to find out why this Island offered her the perfect hideaway.


Although Clare Island is only three miles from the coast, it feels like a world away from the rest of booming Ireland. My fellow passengers on the O’Malley family-owned passenger ferry, The Island Princess, leaving from Roonagh, twenty miles outside Westport, are two burly fisherman, a priest and a sheepdog.  Community camaraderie hits you the minute you step on board but, quick to include the stranger, they enquired about my visit.  I was just about to launch into my Pirate Queen story, when urbanity kicked me in the stomach.  Literally.  Discovering the parrot rather than the pirate within, I was immediately sick as one, and managed to repeatedly spray the Princess’ deck. An O’Malley gent offered me tissues and water, saying “bit lumpy today isn’t it?” – I looked down to inspect the damage and realised he was describing the swell of the sea not my stomach.  


Twenty minutes later, I was relieved to be met at Clare Island quay by the B&B owner, Mrs. O’Malley’s daughter, who insisted on giving me a lift up the hill, although it is only a few minutes walk. We drove past the original O’Malley stronghold, now a derelict fort on a hill overlooking the harbour and sandy coves below.  We took one of the two Island roads, this one marked “To the lighthouse”, and the other “all other routes”, which should make for easy orienteering.  


If you haven’t left all notions of traditional tourist trimmings behind on deck, then now is the time.  Mrs. O’Malley was out, the key was in the door, so I was to help myself to tea, sit by the peat fire and make myself at home. This is when it hits you.  You really are sharing someone’s home.  To me, this Island is a hidden jewel of Ireland’s natural and cultural heritage.  To the O’Malleys, and the other families who open their homes to curious explorers, this is home. The kids’ toys lie around, and there is washing on the radiators, but there are always tea bags and soda bread for strangers. 


I struggled to leave the roaring fire and face the elements, continuing up the road to the lighthouse.  The three mile long road is tucked in at a safe enough distance from the rugged cliffs along the north coast of the Island, with views of the towering heights of Croagh Patrick on the mainland.  I passed only one car and a couple of cottages on this coastal walk and when it finally came into view I realised this is no ordinary lighthouse.  I had also heard it was vacant, and for sale, so I took a peak.  It houses two apartments, a main house and the original round tower. This architectural beauty has been used as a private home since it was decommissioned in 1965 and with its painted wooden floors, seven bedrooms and designer light fittings, I imagine it will make an amusing folly for one of Ireland’s many millionaires. Every islander I meet after this visit talks with sadness about losing the lighthouse.  They desperately want to keep it in the hands of the Islanders, and convert it into a hotel or tourist centre.  Not enough money in the heritage pot, they are told.  I can’t help wondering, where the plundering warrior is when they most need her.   


On my way back to the Quay I stop at Ballytoughey Loom, where Beth, the weaver, shows me her workshop and indeed, fruits of her loom. I want to buy everything.  The multicolour yarns donning the shelves of her cottage are spun so skilfully into scarves, bags, tablecloths, that I too am spun into some sort of Celtic craft overdrive.  This work would not be out of place in Liberty’s, but mass production is of no interest to Beth. How right she is, and how smug am I, besporting new designer scarf.


Next door, Ciara runs residential yoga and cookery courses. I was welcomed into the beautiful environmentally friendly wooden house with a cup of nettle tea, proudly presented (and picked) by the vegetarian cookery course visitors.  The date and apricot biscuits were enough to sell the course for my next visit.  Darkness comes muchoverlooking-clare-island-pier later in the west, and so I strolled back with a seven o’clock sunset and pondered the creative and entrepreneurial skills of these women.  The sixteenth century warrior has definitely left her feminist mark here.


Back at my O’Malley stronghold, Kathleen apologised for not having a hot dinner, but set out a salad big enough to feed an O’Malley fleet.  Washed down with tea, bread and butter, waves of nostalgia rushed over me.  It was only when the apple pie was presented that I realised I was reliving a weekend in my favourite auntie’s house. I even dared to ask her if I could wash and dry my one pair of jeans, as they were still recovering from the lumpy conditions.  “I’ll take care of that for you, no bother”, she said, and they were washed, ironed and placed on my pillow at bedtime, along with a packet of Sealegs.  This must be the Clare Island answer to the chocolate on the pillow, I thought – and smile at this act of quiet unassuming kindness.  


After Auntie Kathleen’s fuller than full Irish breakfast the next morning, I set out to explore “all other routes”.  The starting point was Grace’s fort down at the quay from where she commanded her private army and fleet of ships. It is hard to accept that this scene of feminist politics and battle tactics is now a neglected ruin. I walked for a few miles along the south coast’s rugged undulating landscape which rises to heights of 400 metres along the inland ridge. I stuck to the lowland and aimed for the O’Malley shop before rain hit.  And boy, does it hit.  I reached the shop just in time, only to be told by a local farmer, “the shop only opens for ten minutes after mass on a Saturday”.  I battled on to the medieval Abbey nearby, famous for Grace’s tomb.  But this was locked, and the only sign of O’Malleys was on the numerous headstones all around.


It was time to leave the dead O’Malleys behind and realise that Clare Island is a living monument.  If there are no tourist facilities, this is the choice of these private people. It is enough that they choose to share their precious island and lives with visitors.  I returned to the B&B after a few hours’ exhilarating walk through sunshine, wind, sleet, rain (and sun again) to find a note telling me to help myself to tea and a sandwich and that dinner would be about seven. There is no going hungry on this Island, that’s for sure. 


The ferry O’Malleys phoned with bad and good news. “Storms coming in tomorrow, so not looking good for the crossing.  The good news is that you are invited to ‘the party’ later.”  Kathleen handed me a torch, warning me to watch out for potholes if was taking to the roads after dark.   Strengthened by a roast dinner, and the party not starting until ten, I went in search of my own personal warrior within.  Back on the dark lighthouse road, it took a couple of miles for me to shed my city jumpiness, expecting hooded muggers to pop out from behind rocks any minute.   Finally I perched on a rock and switched off the torch.  The only noise was the wind, providing a cacophony of noise to underscore this scene of star studded perfection. Grace was right.  This is undoubtedly the perfect hideaway. 


Back at the quay, I was welcomed in to the warmth of ‘the party’, where almost a hundred people of all generations sang Happy Birthday to another O’Malley. Hot whisky in hand, I was told “Looks like the ferry might go after all”. I accepted another whisky, prayed for storms and one more day in this rainy paradise.   But these warrior O’Malleys don’t break their word, and we took on the rising swell at midday.  Any romantic notions about having found my own warrior within were shattered in minutes, as history repeated itself once more, all over the poor deck of the Island Princess. These white horses of Clew Bay might be wild, but they will never stop me from returning.


 Catherine flew to Knock airport with RyanAir and stayed at O’Malley’s B&B. Contact Kathleen O’Malley +353 9825945 or +353 86845 0022 .Rooms from €30 pppn, including full Irish breakfast.

For ferries to Clare Island and details on transfers to ferry see www.omalleyferries.com. Return crossing €15 for adults and €5 for children. 

For more details on Clare Island and other Irish islands, see www.clareisland.org and www.discoverireland.com

For details of Ballytoughey Loom and weaving workshops see www.clareisland.info/loom.  For yoga retreats and related courses see www.yogaretreats.ie

(This article was first published in The Observer, 8 April 2007)






All the magic of Paris without Mickey Mouse

copy-of-000_2145Don’t get mad, get even. That’s what I decided to do when my seven year old son came home from a friend’s house telling me that he had learned some French.  The Francophile in me beamed from ear to ear.  “Disneyland Pareeeees!” he announced proudly. This was not the time for a lecture on cultural globalisation.  It was time to show him one of the facts of life.  Paris is not made of glittering castles or run by big-eared mice. (I resist the urge to digress at this point).   But beating Disney isn’t easy – unless, like me, you have a child who loves his bike more than Bambi.  “How about coming to Paris with me for a couple of days, I asked?”  He beamed.  “But No Disney”, I added.  He frowned.  “How about we go on our bikes?” I proposed hesitantly.   He screamed.


You do have to pay an extra £20 per bike on Eurostar, but a promise is a promise.  (Borrow a Brompton and you take it for free, however).  Next is finding suitable accommodation for the would-be yellow shirts.  The school boys’ guidebook says that the only place to stay in Pareeeees this year is Davy Crockett’s ranch in, you guessed it, Disneyland. Huttopia, which sounds ironically like a Disney cartoon, is the perfect antidote.  We had already spent a summer holiday at their woodland haven in The Loire and now we were ready to sample their wooden chalets in a forest in Versailles. 


What a wonderful feeling to board a train in South London, cycle along the Thames from London Bridge to the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo and arrive at Gare du Nord in time for lunch. We resist the temptation to pop into Monsieur MacDonalds and keep going on the RER to Versailles.  This turns out to be the right decision, because when we get out at Porchfontaine, a small suburb of Versailles, there was the perfect Boulangerie and Charcuterie greeting us with open doors. The first French lesson of the day is to buy a baguette, jambon and bottle of rouge and little Louis braves his first “merci, Madame”  A few hours ago we were on a suburban London train, now we are cycling into a forest in Versailles, with baguette in pannier. Eat your heart out, Walt.


The wooden chalet is perfect, neatly nestled into the forest environment, and is better equipped inside than our own home.  I warm my out of condition cycling muscles by the wood burning stove and wait for the expresso maker to bubble on the gas one. Louis makes himself at home in his little mezzanine den with a cabanehuttopiaversaillessecret stock of those delicious French crisps while I set up our picnic on the decked terrace. This is a real campsite with ‘proper’ campers and tents, but I suffer no guilt here for taking the easy way out.  Cycling to Paris is one thing, but taking a tent and all the gear was out of the question.

Revived and rejoicing in this secret hideout, we jump back on our bikes in search of Louis’ namesake’s Chateau (and ice cream).  We didn’t get very far, though.  The campsite’s swimming pool was blue, shimmering and empty, with enough steam rising into the cooling September air to reassure me that it was heated.  I reminded myself that a swimming pool would always have taken precedence over a Chateau when I was seven and, after all, I had denied him Disneyland.  We dive in and amuse ourselves endlessly diving for the acorns which were starting to fall from the trees around the pool.

Dressed and back in the saddle, we are distracted by an intense game of boules between two ten year old French boys.  They ask Louis to join in, and shyly he agrees.  French lesson number two complete. Boules turns to table football, then to table tennis under the trees and as they run to the climbing frames I realise there is nothing to do but open that bottle of red.  I overhear, “Je m’appelle Louis” and raise a glass to the best French lesson in the world.


The Chateau is put on the long finger, but the day was not going to end singing songs around a campfire either. We sample the home-made delights of the campsite pizzeria, get back on the bikes determined to end the day in style. Dab hands at putting the bikes on and off the RER at this stage, we take a twenty minute journey following the Seine into the city centre.  Emerging from the station Champs de Mars at dusk, Louis is dumbstruck as we turn the corner and there it is, poised elegantly right over our heads.  The glorious Eiffel Tower must have held his silent smiling gaze for minutes. We lock the bikes, join the queue and decide to take the lift to the second floor.  Seeing any cityscape from a height, and at night, is always exciting.  But when the Eiffel Tower suddenly explodes into a cascade of white flashing lights, it is heart-stopping. Looking into the eyes of a loved one and seeing the reflections of this generous Parisian spectacle reminds me why this city seduces young and old. It was, I admit, a bit of a Disney moment.


And so to the confessional – we never made it to the Chateau de Versailles.  Cycling in the nearby forest, playing table tennis and boules became the dictating themes of this trip. On our last afternoon we took the bikes into Paris, and decided to explore by saddle. Bravo for a city that welcomes cyclists and closes several of its main arteries to traffic on Sundays.  This traffic-free initiative is aptly called “Paris respire” or “Paris breathes”.  We breathed in all the sites along the Seine, starting by the Louvre at the Quai de Tuileries, and continued down the Right Bank as far as, and imagine the excitement, Ile St. Louis for crepes.  The bells of Notre Dame invited us to Evensong, where we briefly did our Sunday bit, before hitting the Left Bank.  The art of free running or ‘parcours’ upstages the more traditional art in the Open Air Sculpture Park on Quai St. Bernard. We had our own private exhibition of athletic showmanship in this exquisite park before cycling the last few metres to Gare d’Austerlitz to take the RER back to the burbs of Versailles. Back at the cabin, wrapped up in blankets and drinking hot chocolate under the stars, Louis smiled and said, “Disneyland could never beat this, Mum”.  I knew I had got even.


As for the Chateau, it is, allegedly, round the corner.  Luckily, the Easter holidays are too and Cabane number three has our name on it.


 Catherine travelled with Eurostar Tel: 00 44 1 39 51 23 61 or www.eurostar.com.  Return journeys from £59 for an adult and £50 for a child, plus £20 for bikes.  To join the 500 cyclists who take over the streets of Paris for a night cycle on a regular basis, see www.parisrandovelo.com


 A wooden cabane at Huttopia Versailles costs from €99 to €159 per night. Huttopia re-opens 30 March after the winter break.  See www.huttopia.com for details.  Bike hire at Huttopia also available. For more information on cycle routes in Paris see www.rouelibre.fr

(This article was first published in The Observer, 4 March 2007)