Kayaking down Mexico way: Irish style

Jim Kennedy, whose Irish eyes are always smiling

I say it again and again – kayakers are cool. I get the chance to kayak a lot on my travels, and kayaking guides are, nearly without exception,  fun to be with, informative, caring and sharing. And these guys, Atlantic Sea Kayaking, based on the cove-a-licious coast of West Cork, Ireland, are top of my list. Not only are they superb activity ambassadors in my native Ireland, but they also run trips to Mexico every winter. It is this connection with Mexico which led to their founders, Jim and Maria Kennedy, being honoured recently by the Mexican government and receiving  the highest award  that can be bestowed on a non Mexican, The Ohtli Award.

This special  honour is awarded by  the Mexican government to individuals for promoting Mexico abroad. “Ohtli” is the Aztec word for pathway. It has only ever been awarded worldwide to 250 people outside Mexico. Last year’s recipient was the Irish music legend Paddy Moloney who, along with the Chieftains and Ry Cooder recorded the album “The St Patricios” commemorating the  Irish Regiment who changed their allegiance and fought with Mexico against The United States in the War of Independence.

The award was presented by the Mexican ambassador, Carlos Garcia De Albo during the Mexican Independence Day celebrations at the Clyde Court Hotel in Dublin and  was witnessed by about 1000 guests of the embassy including The Lord Mayor Oisin Quinn, many ambassadors of other countries as well as family and friends of the Kennedys.

Jim and Maria Kennedy winning the Mexican Ohti award
Jim and Maria Kennedy winning the Mexican Ohti award

Through their business Jim and Maria are directly responsible for hundreds of Irish people over the last 25 years having an unforgettable trip of a lifetime to Mexico, and indirectly probably thousands more through their promotional talks and video presentations over Europe.

“ It’s an easy sell” said Jim after he was presented with the award, “Mexico sells itself with its magnificent natural beauty, fascinating art and culture, wonderful food and more importantly, its passionate and fun loving people.”

This award means that Jim and Maria Kennedy will be lifelong ambassadors and promoters of the delights and charms of Mexico and will continue to forge new links to connect Ireland and Mexico. They will also be lifelong friends of mine, having welcomed my son into their Irish fold during the summer to learn more about kayaking and help out on one of their famous summer camps. And in the process, they put him on his own pathway to loving life on the water. As the Mexicans have rightly recognised, kayaking with the Kennedys takes you on a sustainable and very special journey.

Atlantic Sea Kayaking’s  next scheduled tour in  Mexico will be February 2014 to witness the Grey Whale  migration from Canada. In the meantime, if Cork is closer, get yourself down to their cove. 

Kayaking and seaweed foraging in West Cork

Sally Mckenna of Atlantic Sea Kayaking showing me some seaweed samples Photo: Catherine Mack

It is no secret that Ireland has some of the world’s finest weed. Not only that, it is in plentiful supply, cheap and and it’s a superfood. The weed is, of course, seaweed, and anyone who has had a seaweed bath will not need convincing as to its benefits.In terms of sustainability, seaweed is also a no brainer, and so it is exciting to see that the Inchydoney Island Lodge and Spa in West Cork has created a two-night “Seaweed Experience” package which has you living and breathing the stuff. And not just within the confines of a spa either.

Realising that many people are now looking for a low-impact, green, activity-based break, not just a lie in the spa, drink and eat all weekend sort of a break, Inchydoney may inspire others to follow suit and get their guests teaming up with local, green activity providers, nature experts and guides.

Inchydoney has picked two of Ireland’s best: expert kayaker and local marine life font of knowledge, Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking, who brings guests out on local waters alongside Sally McKenna, of the Bridgestone Guide fame, who has successfully combined her food knowledge with a passion for paddling to bring people seaweed foraging.

Over the duration of a day on the water, I learned kayaking skills with Jim, whose sense of humour and reassurance that kayaking is a gentle sport for all ages, and not for adrenalin junkies, immediately put me at my ease. He led me into hidden caves and coves and from island to island, pointing out seabirds and seals and keeping an eye out for dolphins. Suddenly, as we emerged from an explorative paddle, Sally would appear out of nowhere, full of child-like excitement about a certain kelp or wrack she had found, so we all paddled over to study it, harvest some carefully to allow regrowth, taste a bit, and learn about its growth patterns and healthy properties.

Sally’s love of this most underrated food source, from how it grows to how to eat it, was totally infectious. We stopped for lunch on a deserted island, where she prepared dulse and potato soup, served with scones made with laver seaweed and served with dulse and lemon butter. All merited a Bridgestone plaque, I should add, not forgetting a kelp and carrot cake. By the end of the day, I had noted down all of her seaweed recipes, books for further reading, and vowed to bring my kids foraging as soon as possible. You’ve got to watch this weed thing, it’s addictive.

Day two at Inchydoney fed my addiction even further, except that this time it was me who was covered in seaweed (a dried version combined with green tea), then wrapped up in heated blankets and left to cook for 20 minutes. Then into a seawater massage bath, with jets to discover all those coves you never knew existed, followed by a couple of hours flitting between Inchydoney’s heated seawater pool, steam room and jacuzzi. All topped off with a walk on Inchydoney’s famous

Catherine and Sally harvesting seaweed off the coast of West Cork

white strand, close enough to walk barefoot from our room with a view of the Atlantic.

But really it was the day of paddling and exploring, learning and laughing out on west Cork’s waters which makes this trip extra special. It is not surprising that Atlantic Sea Kayaking was recently chosen as one of Trip Advisor’s Top Ten “Most Exciting Alternatives to the Typical Tourist Holiday”. Fair play to Inchydoney for celebrating and supporting such an ethical activity provider, and bringing them to the attention of those who might not otherwise find the world that awaits them, beyond the spa and into a world of bladderwrack bliss.  You can also watch a video of my (sorry it’s a bit windy) experience here.

This article was first published in The Irish Times