A Hundred Acre Wood, just outside Dublin

One of the yurts by the lake at Mount Druid, Westmeath. Photo: Catherine Mack

‘The Hundred Acre Wood’  is Winnie the Pooh’s home, my younger son reminds me as we start to explore the pathways leading through the 200,000 trees planted by the owners of this extraordinary 100 acre farm in Castletown Geoghegan, County Westmeath. Although Pooh, Tigger and Roo are nowhere to be seen, there are streams and bridges to throw Pooh sticks from, endless spots for Owl to hang out but, happily, nowhere for Eyeore to feel gloomy. In fact, he would be positively jumping for joy if he could take part in the yurt hunt here, with ten of these magnificent Mongolian tents carefully concealed around its 100 acres.

The landscaping here is about as perfect as the famous map of AA Milne’s fantasy world, except this is a reality and certainly not just to be enjoyed by children. Boutique Camping was opened just over a year ago, by owners Adrian and Deirdre Murphy, although they have been developing their dream landscape, called Mount Druid (and yes, it does have a mount with a druid) for the last five years, and the many broadleaf trees which thrive all around us providing evidence of this long term planning. With carefully thought out pathways which follow the natural undulations of their hills and the recently opened up streams and lakes which were concealed underground until the Murphys went a digging, this is definitely not a case of someone just making a quick dash to jump on board an eco bandwagon.

I am a fan of yurts anyway, but have never seen anything as extensive as this in Ireland, and with so much land to explore, everyone has space to themselves. And space was just what the doctor ordered after a week of Christmas cabin fever. ‘Why on earth would you go camping in December?’ one of the curious villagers asked me at the gorgeous local pub, Claffeys, two minutes’ walk away from the farm, and just one of three lovely pubs in this village. I explain that it has a large central, wood burning stove, warm beds raised off the floor, enough insulation to cope with a Mongolian snowstorm, and that it feels lovely waking up in the ‘fresh air’ with a toasty body and a chilly nose peeking out over the top of the winter tog duvets. The only problem, I add, is working out who gets up first to stick some wood or turf on the fire to warm us up in the morning. ‘But where do you make the breakfast?’ he asks, and I reassure him that there is a beautifully restored barn for the use of all guests, with giant stove, comfy sofas, a large communal dining table and cooking facilities.

The communal barn Photo: Catherine Mack

The only thing missing in the yurt  is a kettle, as it would be lovely to stick one on the stove to get your day off to an even cosier start, so bring a camping one with you if you are a ‘tea before you can move a muscle’ sort of a person, like me. And if you travel with a hot water jar, then you’d have something to fill it from, without having to embarrass yourself in the communal barn. Not speaking from experience of course. They also like you to bring towels, although all bed linen is provided.

And then there is the sauna, which would have shed a whole new light on Christopher Robin’s day if he’d have had one, I’m sure. Our kids, who are always banned from such luxuries in leisure centres, were in their element, going from their early morning cycle around the land, on kindly provided high quality mountain bikes, to the sauna. It also gave them a good excuse to use the shower in the barn, rather than running from the yurt to the shower in a ‘shed’ which are scattered in various locations convenient to each accommodation. Albeit fine quality, eco wooden sheds.

I spared my new pal in the pub the details of the compost loos, though, as I thought this might just finish him off altogether, and as he and a few of his welcoming friends, who had joined the chat by now, were full of admiration for what the Murphys had achieved, I didn’t want them to think that we were all just a bunch of hippies hiding up on the hill with the druids. The Murphys live on site, and so are always around to make sure we are warm and comfortable, Adrian popping over to the barn with a freshly made loaf and some of their farm eggs, their boys inviting ours for a game of football, and their daughter keen to show us the recently converted self-catering house. This is a clever addition to their accommodation portfolio, created with the same flair for contemporary design  which the Murphys have applied to their own fine house, once a grey Presbytery, now a magnificent home to six kids, dogs, cats and a stream of visitors enquiring about this and that. The self-catering house, known as Kindalin, was the old school master’s home, and has been refurbished with a green oak frame, has an open plan design, mezzanine walkways and three bedrooms. And a telly, for those people who find it difficult to let the screens go completely. There is a yurt just nearby so if you have friends who want to do the indoors thing, while you do the out, then this is ideal. Or bring the grandparents, who won’t get the ‘yurk’ idea, as my mother in law insists on calling it. And if you have a very special birthday or anniversary coming up, rent out the whole place, putting families in yurts, and feed the gang in the barn or Kindalin. The Murphys are happy to help with catering if there is a crowd in.

Just one of many friendly faces at Mount Druid. Photo: Catherine Mack

We did not explore any further than the Hundred Acres or the village during our brief stay, but there is already pressure to return from our kids, and so I note that for a summer week there is plenty to do in the area, with Lough Ennell on the doorstep, where you can rent a boat and go fishing (www.lilliputboathire.com), the Mullingar Cycle Hub which consists of several looped cycles around the Lough and others nearby (www.irishtrails.ie), walking or cycling along the Royal Canal which goes through nearby Mullingar (www.iwai.ie), or day long summer camps with kayaking, orienteering and gorge walking at the nearby Lilliput Adventure Centre from as little as €30 per day. Oh, and because the Murphy’s don’t do things by halves, they also have a Green Village Music and Arts Festival on 29 September 2012, and they are still basking in the success of its 2011 inauguration. In fact, I think the Murphys, with their dynamic, life loving energy, combined with sustainable awareness must have gathered a little of Winnie the Pooh’s wisdom along their way in life. Among many famous quotes, he said, ‘A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference.’ And this pretty much sums up Mount Druid. Thoughtful and making a difference. As my friend from the pub said just before he downed his last, ‘Adrian saved that land from being developed into a housing estate, you know. He just couldn’t stand back and let that happen here’. To which I raised my new Year’s pint, and toasted a year of Pooh-like positivity the likes of which lie on the top of a Westmeath hill.

For more information on the yurts and self-catering at Mount Druid, see www.boutiquecamping.ie. Yurts from
€80 per night for a midweek two night stay, otherwise €100 per night.

This article was first published in The Southern Star, Ireland

New travel app sees Ireland’s true green colours for St. Patrick’s Day

Press Release

For immediate release 10 February 2012

On St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, a new travel app, Ireland Green Travel, written by award winning travel writer, Catherine Mack, shows the world some of Ireland’s truly green gems, not just the emeralds.

Just as everything turns green for the world wide celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day on 17 March, a new travel app on the market, Ireland Green Travel, helps tourists see all of Ireland’s ever growing number of truly green gems, not just the emeralds.  The Ireland Green Travel app, currently available for iPod and iPad, and Android, has been written by award winning Irish travel writer, Catherine Mack, who specialises in green and responsible tourism.  Featuring over 120 entries of green accommodation, activities, transport options and local food experts, this guide will have you hiking, biking, canoeing and sleeping in some of Ireland’s lesser known green spots – lakeside lodges, yurt camps, island retreats, eco-castles, grand houses, yoga retreats and community-run hostels. Each accommodation entry has details on how to get there without a car and Ireland Green Travel app has a handy up to date Slow Travel guide for visitors who want to get to and from Ireland without flying,  with information on local rail and bus services, as well as how to bring your bike on them.

“Ireland has been feeling the pinch recently, to say the least”, says Catherine,”but St Patricks Day is always a welcome opportunity for those of us at home or abroad to cheer ourselves up with what we love most about the country.This app aims to celebrate businesses which have committed to sustainability in tourism, and which offer a passion for preserving the country they love to share with visitors, not only on St Patrick’s Day, but for generations to come”.

  • Price £1.79, $2.99. Published by Sutro Media.


For further information about Ireland Green Travel see preview http://sutromedia.com/apps/Ireland_Green_Travel  or  to request a download code for a review copy , or photos, please email catherine@ethicaltraveller.co.uk or phone +44 7905 275828. You can also follow Green Ireland Travel at www.twitter.com/greenirelandapp or on Facebook at Green Ireland Travel App.

*Catherine Mack was winnner of Best in Responsible Tourism Writing category at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2011




Inis Meáin – my Christmas best

Photo: Inis Meain Restaurant and Suites

Few things in life beat a wish which actually comes true. This time last year I wrote a New Year’s wishlist, which included a mission to visit more of our stunning islands. First, a trip to Cape Clear made me smile and celebrate our natural heritage, but a trip later in the year to Inis Meáin, one of the least visited of the Aran Islands, actually made me cry. In the same way that a fine work of art makes me cry, or a stunning piece of writing,  or just an overwhelmingly kind gesture. I experienced all of this on Inis Meain, staying at Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites, a place where I felt all my travel writing Christmases had come at once.

Inis Meáin is a place of solace and reflection and Inis Meáin Suites has been designed with this in mind. As the only hotel here, it could have made a big splash, but instead its architect opted for a native limestone façade, with just enough glass to reflect the soft, luminescent blue sky, creating a long, low-lying building which segues seamlessly into the matching limestone terrace. This is just one of hundreds of hard-

Monkfish and spuds at Inis Meain Photo: Catherine Mack

won terraces, so characteristic of the Aran Islands, stretching out in every direction like veins across a body.

Indeed, Inis Meáin Suites plays the role of a central artery on the island, providing tourism income which is sustainable in a sumptuous, seductive and yet sensitive way. Sustainability is core for its owners, Ruairí and Marie-Thérèse de Blacam. Ruairí is chef in his own restaurant, where the food has already won endless accolades from the gastro press. Before dinner, he showed me his impressive fields of vegetables, free range chickens, cow and piglets.  As we walk past one barren field after another, all enclosed by the famous stone walls,  I realised it’s not long ago in the island’s history that this land was considered impossible to cultivate. However, the local people created soil from sand and seaweed and, having grown up on the island, Ruairí seems to have inherited some of this determination to create life and sustenance out of the rock.

How far this island has come, with developments like the hotel’s water harvesting system which enables the use of grey and rainwater, helping in the creation of  salads, herbs, cabbage, spinach and spuds. Later in the restaurant, his inspiration seeps through every mouthful of his food too, as we watch him produce lobster salad, monkfish and dry aged sirloin from his open plan kitchen, chatting with the guests as he merrily chops, sears and simmers.

The de Blacams want you to savour every bit of Inis Meáin, so even though you have the luxuries of an enormous whiter than white bed, chilled champagne, white robes and alpaca throws, the call of the land is too great. They leave bikes outside each suite, as well as swimming towels and a fishing rod. I managed to avail of all three and, along with my hiking boots, was able to reach the less accessible coves and cliffs, allowing me to live every moment here. I even caught some Pollock off the pier, which Ruairí prepared as a starter later – not just thrown in a pan, but sashimi

Photo: Catherine Mack

style, sprinkled with sesame seeds, ginger and a bowl of wasabi sauce.

Walking is the only way to truly imbibe the wild, desolate and totally intoxicating beauty of Inis Meáin. The de Blacam breakfast is strategically generous, so that you can pack the leftover boiled eggs, salami, cheese and homemade bread into your bag for a good long walk. Don’t miss the wilder south west side of the island which took me a good four hours, as I navigated my way across the mad, craggy, limestone cliffs, constantly stopping to try and get my head around these unique and awe inspiring seascapes.

This is a pricey getaway, with suites €250 per night and a minimum 2 night stay. But if I could pick one ethical travel treat as a voucher for someone this Christmas this, without doubt, is my top tip. Because although I generally adore the solace of islands when travelling alone, Inis Meáin evokes such poetry and passion, offers such mystery and magnificence, that it is just one of those special places which begs to be shared with someone you love.

Photo:Catherine Mack

This article was first published in The Irish Times