Loop Head – going in search of Eden, and finding Heaven

Looking North from the northern side of the Loop Head Peninsula cycle trail Photo: Catherine Mack
Looking North from the northern side of the Loop Head Peninsula cycle trail Photo: Catherine Mack

I am often asked, which are the best bits of Ireland to visit? Which are the greenest? The most ‘Irish’ ? This is all very subjective, of course, but what most people don’t know is that the European Union has come up with a pretty efficient way of mapping some of the most sustainable regions of Europe. It has chosen Eden areas all over Europe, and Ireland boasts five of them. Because EDEN is an acronym meaning EU Destinations of Excellence, and are actually awards given to specific regions (often tiny enough to fall off the usual tourist maps) for their exemplary contributions to sustainable tourism. And I have the task of going in search of all of Ireland’s EDEN’s to see if they are as fruitful as they claim to be.

The more well known Eden, as in ‘Garden of’,  means fruitful and well watered, and as I went on my way around the EU’s five ‘chosen ones’ in Ireland, namely Clonakilty in County Cork, Sheep’s Head Peninsula also in County Cork,  Carlingford and Cooley Peninsula in County Louth, Mulranny and The Great Western Greenway in County Mayo, and my first stop, Loop Head Peninsula in County Clare, I found landscapes that bore fruit which would tempt any visitor into a state of desire. A desire to stay longer, meet more of the people, consume more of the food and drink, walk more of the land and celebrate even more of its endless waterscapes. And yet none of it is forbidden. Unknown by many tourists, perhaps, but the doors are wide open.

Cycling along the Loop Head Cycle Trail, with hardly a soul en route Photo: Catherine Mack
Cycling along the Loop Head Cycle Trail, with hardly a soul en route Photo: Catherine Mack

I am starting in County Clare’s Loop Head, which is certainly watered, if not by all the rain it has had over the last year, then by the waves which crash into its northern Atlantic shores. It doesn’t put me off taking on the Loop Head Cycleway, which goes around the whole peninsula, top to toe, and at 65kms takes about two days to complete, at tourist speed that is, not racing speed. I decide to take it easy and spend three days looping the loop and it turns out to be a good decision. Especially because at some points the signs go a little awry and I need to get back on track. However you can’t get too lost here, as you have sea either on your right or your left at some stage.

The problem with taking on a long loop type of break is finding places to stay, but with Loop Head Tourism Group forming a tightly knit community, I soon have a chain of beds to fall into every night. The Cycleway starts and ends in Kilkee where there are also, somewhat divinely (it is Eden after all) some seaweed baths and a seawater treatment centre at The Kilkee Thalassotherapy Centre. The Centre also has accommodation, so I book in here for my last night, knowing  that if it pours the whole way round the Head, I would have that image to keep me going.

I leave my car at the Centre, where the wonderfully helpful owner, Eileen Mulcahy, also arranges for a hire bike to be delivered. I set out along the North coast of the peninsula, my target for today the lighthouse at the tip, and within minutes of cycling along this quiet road, my eyes are drawn back towards the headlands which tumble out behind me  along the West coast.  The furthermost was the Cliffs of Moher, and the closest the cliffs at St. George’s Head in Kilkee itself, rising majestically above the perfect curves of its strand. And there are a load of them holding up my cycle route too, but I keep the head down and don’t veer anywhere near the edge, gaping and gasping at the dramatic rock stacks and blow holes which line my route, and yet miles away from the crowds of Moher.

Loop Head Lighthouse at sunset Photo: Catherine Mack
Loop Head Lighthouse at sunset Photo: Catherine Mack

The Cycleway clings to the coast for about 9kms with virtually no cars passing me along the route, and there are plenty of long straight stretches albeit with a few gentle ups and downs, so that you can see and be seen well ahead. It then turns inland to more shaded roads, lined with hedgerows bursting with blackberries which I could almost pick en passant they were so enormous. Nothing forbidden about these either.

I stop at Cross, a further 7kms inland, where I drop my bag at a recently converted schoolhouse, my first bed for the night. I had hoped to book into the Landmark Trust’s Lighthouse Keeper’s House at the tip, but they book out months in advance, and this elegant conversion of The Old School, proves to be the most cosy and ideally located spot for the night anyway. And with the most congenial hosts too, Teresa and Ian Glendinning, who have rescued this old stone building with love and more love, and must relish the smiles that their guests give back when they see the fruit of their labour. They certainly have their own special little corner of Eden here and not even having had a chance to create their own website yet, they will be sure to book out when they do, so get in quick (Tel:  065 6703666 ).

There was still enough time to get to the lighthouse for sunset and, with a lighter load, I grab a quick snack in Foley’s shop in the Cross Village to get me through the last 12K of the day. About 3kms outside Cross there is a fork in the road, which I nearly miss, but the cycle route veers down a quieter lane to the shore again,  to the magnificent Bridges of Ross – a series of natural stone bridges sticking out into the sea like giant fingers. You can easily miss them if you are speeding past, although the call of the many Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Shearwaters and Terns which make these wonders of natural architecture their home will lead you in the right direction.

loop head 6It’s bit of a gradual uphill cycle from here to the tip although the lighthouse, which remains hidden throughout the cycle, revealing itself only on the last 2kms stretch, as it glows in the most incredible sunset, which had also been concealed by the cliffs until the last minute. This lighthouse opened up to the public this year, for summer months only,  and has a small exhibition and touching DVD with lighthouse keepers sharing anecdotes, as well as a tour up to the top, where I was able to  look back along the route I had just cycled.

Seafood chowder at nearby Keatings Pub in Kilbaha, overlooking the southward facing side of the tip, with its view over the Shannon this time, was made even more palatable by the fact that Ian, at the School House, had offered to pick me and my bike up after dinner. So, you are safe to have one or two for the road. Similarly, he dropped me back at the tip in the morning, so that I could continue where I left off, my School House packed lunch tucked into my pannier.

My aim for today is to get to Carrigaholt for 11am to join a Dolphinwatch trip on board Draíocht, to try and spot some of the 140 dolphins living on the rich stocks of herring and mackerel in the river mouth. I am not disappointed, as within minutes we spot dancing in the distance and Geoff, the skipper and highly knowledgeable guide, switches off an engine to let them approach slowly. The group on board all instinctively lower their voices to let these wild animals approach in peace, our hearts soaring as they circle around us playfully.   The views of Sheep’s Head are superb from the boat as well, as we see the stratified rock formations, arches and caves up close, and looking south where the peaks of Mount Brandon and even Carrauntoohil glisten in the distance.

BND Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) Loop Head, Co Clare Ireland. Taken on Dolphin Watch, Carrigaholt trip.   Credit Tim Stenton
BND Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) Loop Head, Co Clare Ireland. Taken on Dolphin Watch, Carrigaholt trip. Credit Tim Stenton

After a symphony of seafood at award-winning The Long Dock in Carrigaholt, I think my day can’t get any better, until I pull into my last stop of the day at Pure Camping in Querrin, a further 8kms up the coast. I catch the end of their season, but have been reassured they have bell tents with wood-burning stoves inside, so I know I will be cosy enough. What I didn’t know was that they have a home made sauna too, which you crawl into through a small tunnel, igloo style, except this one is boiling. After a long sauna, followed by a quick solar powered shower, I run across the field to my proper bed, the fire already set by my lovely hosts, Kevin and Trea Heap, the eco heroes who created this gorgeous campsite, and fall asleep to the sound of canvas gently ruffling in the wind.

Loop Head 5
Catherine swimming at the Pollock Holes, Kilkee – Loop Head Peninsula

Querrin to Kilkee is my last lap, about 10kms on tiny back roads which have seen nothing more than tractors and cows from what I can see. That and a lot of birdlife which wade in the wetlands of Poulnasherry Bay. I do a bit of wading myself in the famous Pollock Holes back in Kilkee, natural rock pools which you can swim in at low tide. So put your togs in your bag, as you don’t want to miss these treats, which must be one of the best wild swimming spots in Ireland.  And you have the Diamond Rocks café just beside you to warm you up, where other swimmers welcome you to ‘the club’. I jump from cold sea to hot sea within a five minute cycle, as I phone Eileen at the Thalassotherapy Centre, who has the steaming seawater laced with seaweed waiting for me. This isn’t Eden at all, I think to myself as I sink into my bladderwrack bliss, this is heaven itself.

For more information on Loop Head see www.loophead.ie
Twitter @LoopHeadTourism
Facebook  LoopHeadPeninsula
For more information on Ireland’s EDEN areas see irelandseden.ie

Amazing sunset at Loop Head lighthouse, looking back inland up the South side of the peninsula Photo: Catherine Mack
Amazing sunset at Loop Head lighthouse, looking back inland up the South side of the peninsula Photo: Catherine Mack

An edited version of this article was published in The Southern Star, Ireland

Ireland’s Great Western Greenway – on an electric bike

Cycling on Great Western Greenway Photo: Electric Escapes

I was a bit nervous of the potential uncool factor of an electric bike, until I sped up my first hill on Mayo’s stupendously gorgeous Great Western Greenway and realised I wasn’t even out of breath. In fact, when I first saw the bike, a sophisticated Kalkhoff model, supplied by Electric Escapes (electricescapes.ie ), I was relieved that it looked pretty much like any hybrid bike, and that I was actually going to get to pedal, having been naively worried that I might just have to sit on it and be shimmied sloth-like all the way from Westport to Achill. In fact, the opposite is the case – the more you pedal, the more speed you generate from the battery’s power supply, so you can give it as much welly as you can muster basically, and trick those you overtake into thinking you’re  breezing it.

Not that you should hurry this journey, with its ever changing landscapes from bog to heath, river valley to coast. See greenway.ie for a map and more details.  If you want to explore the bays and loughs beyond the Greenway,, you could also head out on a day long guided cycling tour with Electric Escapes, who offer an impressive series of packages. Families can opt for the Pirate Queen day out, with a bit of treasure hunting on your bike, and an optional extra of a boat trip to Seal Island. They do recommend minimum age of thirteen for the electric bikes, due to the size of the frame, and so normal bikes are available for young cyclists. You can also go for a more remote, tranquil cycle to the foothills of Croagh Patrick, with an option to swap the saddle for a paddle at the end of the day, and discover the area’s coves from a kayak. And the perfect addition, they’ll provide a picnic lunch brimming with local salmon, cheese and homemade bread, with a plethora of picnic spots to choose from en route.

I sampled their Bangor Trail, as it encompassed areas of Mayo which I didn’t know at all, such as the wild, rocky shores of Loughs Feeagh and Furnace, where our superb local guide, Sean Carolan,   showed us ancient fort remains, secret shorelines where wading birds are drawn to special fresh water habitats, as well as the  fascinating conjunction of  manmade and natural skills  which go into the creation of a salmon leap. Carolan was also a member of the community-

Pedal and paddle in Clew Bay with Electric Escapes. Photo: Electric Escapes

led team putting the Great Western Greenway forward for the European Destination of Excellence” (EDEN) award earlier this year, and later gaining the  ‘Irish Winner 2011’.  Much deserved, especially now that the trail has extended  from the original 18kms between Newport to Mulranny, to this fantastic 42kms all the way from Westport to Achill.

There are plenty of other options for bike hire here, of course, such as Clew Bay Bike Hire (clewbayoutdoors.com), which has a base in Westport, Newport, Mulranny and Achill. So you can take a train to Westport, pick up a bike at their nearby shop in Distillery Road and pedal into paradise.  The joy of hiring through Clew Bay Bike Hire is that they have a very efficient mini bus collection service, so you can head into the hills in the knowledge that when you hit the wall, not literally of course, you can just get as far as one of their meeting points,  and they will bring you back again. You can also hire the electric bikes through Clew Bay Bike Hire if you don’t want to order the whole package tour, although Electric Escapes will also deliver to your accommodation if they can. All is possible in this tight network of excellent cycle hire providers. The only thing still lacking on The Greenway is a good range of food stops, with opportunities just waiting to be grabbed by local producers who could tap into this market and offer something sustainable and delicious to feed the likes of me who, once they hit this lovely trail, want to keep going until they hit the end of road. Food for thought for 2012 perhaps?

An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times in July 2011

Electric Bike on The Great Western Greenway Photo: Catherine Mack