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)

 

 

See the world and help save it

(This article was first published in The Daily Telegraph, 30 December 2006)

bike-on-prvicThe clock strikes midnight, Champagne corks pop – Happy New Year! But then there are the dreaded resolutions, which usually mean giving something up or, worse still, taking something up… such as jogging. In 2007 I resolve to do something that will make me feel better about myself and which I can enjoy at the same time: travel. But this year I am going to be a responsible traveller. Here’s how:

Think before I click

I can spend hours making sure that most of my food purchases bear the Fair Trade label, but I buy a holiday at the touch of a “confirm purchase” button. The prospect of paradise on the cheap can tempt even the most well-meaning person.  This year I am going to give just a little more thought to how and where I am going. Taking time to research good practice versus bad practice, not just good beach versus bad beach, must surely make holiday hunting more inspiring.

One easy way is to use a travel company with a responsible tourism (RT) policy, such as Explore, Exodus, The Adventure Company, Responsibletravel.com and Tribes Travel. These and many other companies worth supporting can be found on the Responsible Travel Awards website at www.responsibletourismawards.info. Another good place to search is on the website of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (www.aito.com).

High-street travel outlets are also discovering the importance of RT. Many now support the work of the Travel Foundation, a pioneering British charity that initiates projects enabling people, particularly in rural areas, to contribute directly to tourism in their area. See www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk.

Ready to rail

If I own a railcard, then I have to use it. I love trains and they are still one of the least polluting forms of transport. For information on how to take a train to just about anywhere, see www.seat61.com.

Get offsetting

There is a lot of confusion about offsetting the carbon-dioxide emissions produced by aircraft, and this puts me off. I recently tried to offset a flight with Monarch, using its website link to ClimateCare, a well-known carbon offsetting company. The cost was about £5.50. Doing it directly through ClimateCare’s website cost me £1.40. ClimateCare’s explanation for this discrepancy was: “They [Monarch] assume a load factor, not 100 per cent occupancy. They also do not include non-CO2 ghgs, which is why the figures differ.”

ClimateCare recommends reducing carbon emissions rather than just offsetting them. I hope that this year the various bodies that represent the travel trade will come up with a framework on offsetting that we can all understand. Meanwhile, I will support Friends of the Earth, which funds research to provide the Government with accurate information on the subject. See www.foe.co.uk.

Down on the farm

Instead of just booking any old cottage for a romantic break, I will choose a farmstay. This gives a new meaning to the idea of a dirty weekend. More seriously, farmstays often support farmers in need of additional income and most offer the basics of cosy duvets and open fires. Some even have swimming pools and spas. For options in Britain and Ireland, see www.farmstayuk.co.uk, www.responsibletravel.com and www.greenbox.ie. For places abroad, do a search for ”agritourism”.

Hostels from heaven

Family weekends this year will involve lots of travelling by bike and staying in youth hostels. There are many good hostel options in Britain: you can stay in a mountain barn for a fiver or rent a whole hostel and have a party. One of my favourites is at Castle Hedingham in Essex, a creaky 16th-century house overlooking a Norman keep. The cycling charity www.sustrans.org and www.yha.org.uk are promoted to my favourites list and the invaluable International Youth Hostels Guide 2007 is a must.

Live like a local

I confess to hiding in a cosy comfort zone on holiday. I check in, find the nearest supermarket to get supplies, sit by the pool, find one restaurant I like and make it my holiday haunt. Keeping it local is the way to go, and not just “by the pool” local. Use local transport, language, shops, markets, bike hire, drink local wine, eat local food and use a local guide.

That sounds like a lot of work, but I caught the local bug last summer on a small family-owned campsite in France. They gave us a list of all the daily markets in the area, so we hired bikes and borrowed a map. I stepped out of my comfort zone into a world of camp cooking.

One night we cooked fresh mussels, ratatouille and a bit of French fish (delicious, but I still have no idea what it was). We bought meat at a local organic farm, and a nearby château had enough orchards and vineyards to supply all our drinking requirements. I love the endless hypermarket aisles of Merlots, mustards and Madeleines as much as most people, but these ventures into local life are top holiday memories. Camp with the locals at www.huttopia.com.

Home from home

Many travel companies offer the option of staying with a family in their home. This way, the money goes straight to where it ought to. You pay the family for a bed, they serve locally grown or sourced food and everyone is happy. However, I do feel a little uneasy about those travel itineraries offering a list of activities such as abseiling, safari, and one night with a local family. A family should not be seen as just another tourist attraction. I think I’ll have to do it properly and stay for a few nights – if they’ll have me, that is. Do a search on “homestay” and the destination you want to visit, or see www.responsibletravel.com for recommendations.

Mobile-free

I am not resolving to achieve world peace, but I do like to find inner peace on holiday. So this year I am leaving all gadgets at home, and switching off the phone. A recent two-day train journey to Spain was the perfect try-out. No iPod, no laptop and nothing to distract me from my journey through mountains and olive groves. It was the most relaxing two days in a long time. For those who want to go cold turkey, the Adventure Company has 37 mobile-phone-free holidays in its 2007/08 programme. That really has a top-notch New Year’s resolution ringtone to it. See www.adventureholiday.co.uk for further details.

Enjoy myself

I am not going to feel bad about travelling in 2007. I am just going to do it better and give more thought to the world I want to see more of. It’s a long way up to that moral high ground, but it still beats taking up jogging.

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