Give me back my Turtle

Gillian_coral_for_amazon brighterThe minute I unwrapped my new toy, the children had whisked it away to play with it in minutes. This is the TRTL, or turtle as it has become known in my house and it is one of the most ingenious inventions for travellers in a long time. In short, it is a neck support that you don’t have to inflate, and that looks rather chic when you are wearing it too. Made of soft fleece, you wrap it around your neck in one easy move and so it looks just like a scarf. Except that it has a cleverly disguised bit of plastic inside it, which offers just enough support for your neck to make that all important ‘loll’ as you dose off on the train or plane. Or indeed, the back of a car. This bit of patented plastic, aka an Internal Support System,  is extremely adaptable and can be worn anywhere across the front of the neck – either side or under the chin.But whatever way you wear it, you don’t look like a dork, and it is gloriously warm and comfort blanket like. I love also that the manufacturers describe it as ‘dribble proof”….never a good look.

My kids didn’t believe it would work, but within seconds they were squabbling over who was going to wear it in front of the telly that night. The older one won, using revision as the trump card, whisking it off to his room for a study session.  Apparently it made for very comfy Spanish vocabulary learning. My advice, however,  if you have boys, and sorry for sexism, get it in pink like I did. There is no way they will nick it from me on our next journey together. Sorry, if that seems like adhering to stereotypes, but sometimes a mother just knows her kids’ limits. Exam season reward for my son is an Interrail Card, however, so I feel a gift coming on. In a more sombre grey perhaps. And having tried and tested it on a three hour train recently, when I did sleep for an ache free 45 minutes (and no sign of dribbling I might add), I have no hesitation in buying a second one. Product shot 5 for Amazon_coral final

Two other pros of this ‘napscarf’ as the manufacturers call it – first, it is a Scottish creation and brainchild of a young kickstarter and second, it is also only 139 grams in weight, so no big issue when it comes to luggage weight limitations. The only downside is that the plastic inside means it doesn’t roll up so easily to pack, but it is no big deal as it is still very neat and small. And as I always suffer from aching neck syndrome, and I hate those inflatable pillows, I would sacrifice something else in my bag to bring this guy on any trip. If I can ever get it away from my kids. Who summed up their review of the TRTL as, simply, ‘This is sick’.

Dear Old Inishowen

Catherine coasteering off Malin Head, Donegal
Coasteering off Malin Head, Donegal Photo: Harvey Futcher

The audience cheered at the end of Jimmy McLaughlin’s rendition of ‘Dear Old Inishowen’, not only because of his fine a cappella accomplishment but also because he was singing it in McGrory’s front bar in Culdaff, the heart of his dear old Inishowen . He was here because his family was the subject of an Irish television series called Dúshlán 1881 – Living the Eviction, about famine evictions from the nearby village of Carrowmenagh, and they were having a screening in the hotel to celebrate. I was there to begin exploring the wilderness that remains all around this northernmost point of our island, but right now, in this cocoon of Culdaff, my cultural immersion was like an unexpected and delicious appetiser.

I couldn’t have hoped for a better start to my weekend on Inishowen where my ultimate aim was to get to Inishtrahull, the northernmost island in our waters, just ten kilometres off Inishowen’s Malin Head. I was to kayak to this now deserted island with new adventure company Far and Wild, based in Derry, which explores Inishowen in the most eco-friendly ways possible. By paddling, hiking and, most exciting of all for this recent convert, coasteering. Coasteering is the good old fashioned way of traversing a coastline, clambering through sea arches, swimming across otherwise inaccessible inlets and jumping off rocks into the waves. “I’m sure my mother warned me not to go away for weekends with men like you” I shouted to Lawrence McBride, founder of Far and Wild, as I stood on top of a pretty high rock just after he had jumped into the water and was waiting for me to follow suit. Which I did, and loved every second of my boldness.

Five Finger Strand, Inishowen, Donegal
Five Finger Strand, Inishowen, Donegal Photo: Catherine Mack

The weather was also bold that weekend however and, after several checks with the coastguards, the Far and Wild team of expert guides decided that we wouldn’t be able to get to Inishtrahull this time around. They might jump off rocks and kayak into the waves but they aren’t stupid, and from beginning to end I felt secure in their knowledge and expertise. “Because the conditions are extreme and unpredictable up here, our itineraries are never fixed in stone,” said Lawrence. I rather loved this organic interaction with nature and, in particular that they include wild camping as part of their break. You never know in advance where you might end up sleeping that night, but if our chosen bay at White Strand was anything to go by, these guys don’t settle for any old patch. There was no one around for miles, soft and sheltered grass to pitch on, and a stony beach to create a camp kitchen. Not forgetting the stunning views across Trawbreaga Bay, the Isle of Doagh peninsula with Fanad Head glistening beyond that and Mount Errigal towering above West Donegal in the distance.

Mind you, I would have slept in the back of a kayak I was so tired at the end of the day. After we realised that Inishtrahull wasn’t going to happen early that morning, and we got clearance from the coastguard, we headed off in our state of the art kayaks from a tiny inlet, just east of Malin Head, where an ancient well, church and hermit’s cave called “The Wee House of Malin” marks the spot. I was in the front of a double kayak with Lawrence who, along with another of their kayaking experts, Gareth Blackery, guided confidently and firmly. “Paddle straight into the swell, not alongside it, and you’ll be grand”, he shouts as I relished each stretch I take into these Atlantic extremes.

Port Ronan, Inishowen. Photo Harvey Futcher
Port Ronan, Inishowen. Photo Harvey Futcher

We paddled like this for a couple of hours, admiring the cliffs and sea stacks from afar, but staying clear of the white water which smashed against the coastline. Then suddenly it hit. Although the waters weren’t crashing out here, they were definitely swelling. My stomach started to move in syncopation and, almost without warning, I was feeding my breakfast to the fish. “Better out than in”, Lawrence said, reassuring me that this was normal but it was best to be sick onto the spraydeck which covered our kayak rather than over the edge. There is always a tipping point in a kayak after all. A quick splash of the face with seawater and I was right as rain and ready to tackle the next headland.

I even tackled lunch, a picnic prepared by the company, which we had on Breasty Bay, tucked in behind some whale like granite slabs to provide shelter from the omnipresent winds. This was the point when I remembered my extra warm layer tucked into a dry bag with my lunch. Never have fleece and a flask felt so welcome. After a couple of hours’ more kayaking further west, we let the current carry us into the more placid Port Ronan, where the team had cleverly shuttled our minibus earlier, so that we didn’t have to transport camping gear on kayaks.

Farren’s Pub, our nearest drinking hole before zipping ourselves up for the night, was also a welcome shelter from the wind, after pitching and pasta-ing at the beach. This is Ireland’s most northerly pub, and there is nothing like a day’s kayaking around Malin Head to get the conversation going in a region that is pretty much off the tourist trail. When we told them that we might be swimming in the sea tomorrow, they just gave us another hot whisky and looked on sympathetically.

Coasteering. Mr Bond? Photo Harvey Futcher
Coasteering. Mr Bond? Photo Harvey Futcher

No sympathy was needed, however, and no skills either for the next day. After a fine sleep, with layers of down and fleece to combat the untimely near zero temperatures and a vat of porridge, we started a hike down the beach in the direction of Five Finger Strand, a few headlands away. In Far and Wild’s inimitable style, we negotiated the rocky shore as we went, “Use four point contact” Lawrence said at points where we need both hands and feet to scramble up grassy slopes when beach walking became impossible. Those of us who wanted a little more adventure had wetsuits and helmets in our backpacks and, just as Five Finger Strand came into view, we changed on the rocks, gave our gear to those who were hiking and coasteered our way back to camp. The high quality neoprene covering us from top to toe, buoyancy aids and helmets meant that we could jump and jiggle our way along these wild Donegal surroundings in comfort, caution and with childlike cheer.

Breakfast int he wilds of Donegal Photo: Catherine Mack
Breakfast int he wilds of Donegal Photo: Catherine Mack

As we swam back into White Strand, the words in Neil McGrory’s (of McGrory’s Hotel) on the history of Inishowen – Inishowen: A journey through its past revisited. Yes, that’s the sort of bar they have in Inishowen. One which has its own historian at the helm. At one point he quotes James McParlan’s 1801 Statistical Survey of Donegal who writes about pilgrims at Malin Head. Apparently, after prayers they finish with “a good ablution in the sea, male and female, all frisking and playing in the water, stark naked and washing off each other’s sins”. I for one, was fully cleansed in that case. Although I will always swap neoprene for nakedness in the Atlantic.

They do like to do things differently up here on Inishowen, however. According to Liam Campbell, a brilliant cultural historian who joined us as a guide on day two, “Inishowen is isolated but independent, with people trying to do things a little differently here. Which is a good thing and why I like helping out with Far and Wild’s trips. They take a holistic approach. They not only bring people out into the wilds of Donegal, but they show how these landscapes have shaped the people who live here. That is rare in tourism”. It is also rarified. In that this ‘Dear Old Inishowen’ is a place to have pure, unadulterated fun.

Far and Wild offer a variety of packages. The two night adventure costs €375 sterling pps including all equipment, two dinners and breakfasts, one packed lunch, expert guides, airport transfer, one night’s accommodation at McGrory’s Hotel and one night of camping (+44 (0) 7775 911198, . An edited version of this article by Catherine Mack was first published in The Irish Times

Session in the front lounge of McGrory's Culdaff - a Celtic institution. Photo: Catherine Mack
Session in the front lounge of McGrory’s Culdaff – a Celtic institution. Photo: Catherine Mack


Ever found a ‘cool’ cool box ? I just found one

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The Yeti Cooler

I despair of cool boxes sometimes. They are always blue and boring, usually don’t do the job properly and, ultimately, they just never look cool. So, with a heatwave finally hitting Northern Europe, I decided it was time to celebrate and went in search of something substantial to keep my goodies cool.

I had two missions. First, I have a garden cabin where friends stay from time to time and I wanted something that could sit in the corner and not scream ‘I am blue, plastic and pretty damn ugly’.  I had tried the mini fridge thing in the past, but they are just a waste of space. My other mission was, of course, picnics and camping expeditions, so this thing had to be cool and multitask. An online search was feeling like a waste of time, a sea of blue blocks coming up all over Ebay, until finally I spotted it, under a sneaky search for fishing gear. Fishermen don’t mess with keeping their catch cool, I reckoned, and I was right.

I found myself on and face to face with the monster of coolness. The Yeti. White and tough, this cool box claims to be the one that keeps ice frozen longer than any other. It has a wonderfully contemporary, rounded design, with big rubber fasteners and a heavy duty lid, which make me feel slightly bad that I am not throwing a huge freshly caught salmon into its chilly depths. It’s big, burly and boysy but also curvaceous and girly in a weird sort of way. No sexism intended, I promise. It just suits everyone. I also liked the website’s Icey-Tek range as they come in a greater range of colours, but don’t have handles, so I stuck with the Yeti range.

Fully moulded, it means it is super durable and as these guys don’t come cheap (my Yeti 14L Roadie comes in at £109.95) you would want it to last for life. Made in the USA, their larger Tundra Model is designed to be bear proof, not something that was necessary on an afternoon’s picnic in Greenwich Park. However, given that I often leave it outside our garden cabin at night, stocked up with fresh ice packs for guests who are coming back late, there is no way that our fox pests are going to get through this baby.

Wouldn't you just DIE without your Yeti, darling?
Wouldn’t you just DIE without your Yeti, darling?

The Yeti caused quite a stir at our friends’ picnic party in Greenwich, however, with people keen to know where we got it and how we found it in terms of keeping things cold. In terms of coldness it is unarguably good. My wine and beer was still cold at sunset, after a day in full on heatwave glare, although if you want to store lots of wine, you will need the bigger model, as this one only holds one, at an angle. The Yeti is not really designed for picnic prettiness after all,  in spite of it causing a ripple of excitement among the great burghers of Greenwich. It is too heavy, and although it has a handle, it isn’t something you want to traipse great distances with. Great for campervans and campsites, but hiking heaven it aint. But if it’s cold, contemporary and classy you are after, the Yeti should be yours.

For more info, see

Having a hug on the road

It’s not every day you get a hug in the post. I opened it up and wrapped it around me immediately, and it was so all embracing that I was unable to separate myself from it for about a week. Luckily,  I am also able to bring it on all my travels now, as a Hug is the name for the most stunning wrap or shawl,  made from recycled woollen jumpers and crafted into a cocoon of cosiness that will keep me warm in winter and chill free in summer.

Wrapped up in a hug
Wrapped up in a hug

Made in Shropshire, UK, by Turtle Doves, I couldn’t recommend this company more highly. Before ordering my Hug (incredibly good value at £45), I chatted about the colours I like and, as I really wanted to be able to take it on my travels with me, and have a pretty boring ready to go travel wardrobe, I knew exactly what I was after. Pale blues and greens mostly and,  as Kate Holbrook, the founder of this ethical enterprise told me, she thought the Mermaid one might be perfect. So, as wild swimming spots are usually top of my travel itinerary,  I knew this was the one with my name on it. I was a little concerned about the applique heart on it, as I don’t usually go for that sort of thing, but I just wear it with that bit on the inside.

The Hug really is perfect for travellers. I had a hug after surfing and coasteering during my recent trip to Preseli Venture in Pembrokeshire, Wales. You can wrap it round yourself like a giant scarf, or cover your head with it if you are camping, and you can’t seem to get your hair dry on those damper evenings,  or you can just cover yourself with it as you collapse into a holiday chill out. And if flying is your chosen mode of transport, you can wrap up when the air con hits that chilly max, or use it as a pillow when you need a doze. It also means you have to pack less layers, and you can wear it travelling, thus minimising your load in terms of luggage limits. To see Kate’s suggestions  of ways in which to wear your hug, check out her video here. 

The most lovely thing about a Hug is that it makes me smile every time I wrap myself up in it. It is charming to think that there are stories behind every patch of wool that warms my body. Kate sources 95% of her jumpers from registered charity shops, although she does welcome donations too of course. If you want to sample her craftsmanship on a smaller budget, check out the cashmere fingerless gloves. You can have a pair for free if you send in your old cashmere jumper. This way, she gets to use the cashmere for other products, and you get a pair of Turtle Doves in the post.  You can also buy online from a wide selection of gloves, as well as hats, scarves and snoods or, if you are in the Shropshire region, you can find them at various markets.

Turtle Dove fingerless gloves and wrist warmers
Turtle Dove fingerless gloves and wrist warmers

My kids are now after my Hug all the time, and so there is a bit of a plan brewing to gather up lots of our old wool in the house, including some of their baby bits and pieces and have them made into blankets by Turtle Doves for Christmas. That way they can use them for camping or just collapsing on the couch at home. Backed with fleece, and given a patchwork feel using buttons, these are hugs from heaven really.

The celebrated poet Maya Angelou once said that “Every day you should reach out and touch someone.  People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back”. I couldn’t agree more, but my new dilemma is that now I have the best hug in the world, I don’t really want to share it.