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, farandwild.co.uk) . 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

 

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. 

Walking and talking the Seven Heads of Clonakilty, West Cork

Seven Heads, Clonakility, Ireland
Seven Heads, Clonakility, Ireland

‘He’s a really good head’ is something you will often hear in Ireland. It’s a colloquialism for a person who is truly decent. So when I decided to take on the Seven Heads Walk around the coastline between West Cork’s Timoleague and Clonakilty, I set myself the task to also try and meet seven ‘good heads’ along the way. I put out a request on Twitter and it was quite easy to see that the same good heads kept being recommended and that I wasn’t going to be short of companions. Before I knew it I had gathered fellow walkers, dates in pubs, tea in a gardening writer’s kitchen, picnic pals and a swimming soul mate for a dip in the Atlantic. Tune into my quick chats with them by clicking on the links attached to each of my ‘heads’ below.

With only two days free to delve into this unexplored part of West Cork, and short autumn days, I realised I wasn’t going to have time to take on the whole 42 kms loop. My compromise was to take in as much of the coastline as possible and then head inland back to Timoleague a bit earlier than planned, an inner loop which comes in at about 35 kms.

I checked in with my first ‘head’ in Clonakilty,  John O’Brien, Chairman of the Seven Heads Walk, and creator of the Seven Heads website and guidebook which is full of information on the flora and fauna, architectural heritage and history. He chats to me here about the creation of this walking trail, and his favourite spots, before sending me on my way and reminding me, like everyone I met on this trip, that I have been ‘blessed with the weather’.

My next head (or heads really) was keen to walk the Timoleague loop of the Seven Heads Walk with me,  as this is where he and his partner started a journey of their own twenty five ago. John and Sally McKenna are Irish food and accommodation guidebook gurus with their Bridgestone Guides (now simply known as the John and Sally McKennas’ Guides )a highly respected institution in Ireland. They have put good food on the tourism map in Ireland, by digging out brilliant breadmakers in tiny b&b’s, eminent pastry makers in pubs, cheesemakers and artisan butchers hiding their secrets under bushels (bestofbridgestone.com). Their top tip was to meet at one of the region’s leading delicatessens, The Lettercollum Kitchen Project in Clonakilty to grab a coffee, peruse John’s maps, and put together a picnic fit for a president, before heading up to our starting point in Timoleague. By the time I got there, they had already filled a bag full of Lettercollum’s chorizo, red onion and puy lentil tart, quinoa Salad and a ton of other goodies which we now had to earn through hiking the hills.

Lettercollum, Clonakilty
Lettercollum, Clonakilty

 Just before we left, I also managed to grab Karen Austin,  the co-founder of this food emporium and ‘good head-chef’, to chat to me about her Clonakilty creation, where locals queue out the door just to grab one of their famous sausage rolls and where gourmets gather to feast on their home grown produce transformed into epicurean works of art.

We drove to Timoleague and dropped the car there where, although the loop walk around the village is only about three hours long, it was the perfect introduction to the Seven Heads, especially as I had spent the morning getting to West Cork and only had half a day left to get out into the air. But also, as we started to climb the hill to Ardmore, we passed the elegant environs of Lettercollum House where the aforementioned Karen and her husband Con live, grow their produce and also have a cookery school (lettercollum.ie), so that was a lovely coincidence. We then continued up along quiet fuchsia and elder-filled country roads to a viewpoint overlooking Timoleague, its estuarine mudflats gleaming green as they awaited the tide to fill them, and the rest of the Seven Heads disappearing into a sea mist in the distance.

As we walked, we chatted about the growth of fine food production in Ireland, whereby it can be proud of the provenance of its produce. Indeed, food can now safely claim its rightful place at the top table of tourism. We completed our loop by following the Argideen River back down towards the estuary where, in a woody glen right beside the river, we toasted our afternoon of walking the hills with Sally’s homemade rosehip cordial. Our Lettercollum feast was complete, and the walkers well and truly replete.

My next ‘head’ was to join me for a pint in Charlie Madden’s pub that night in Timoleague, so when a smiling man walked over to shake my hand, I had presumed this was my man. But it was Charlie Madden himself, just giving a stranger a welcome, genuinely keen to know what had brought me to Timoleague. I told him I was meeting Tim Crowley, founder of Clonakilty’s  Michael Collins Centre, and within minutes I had heard Charlie’s version of what happened the night Ireland’s most famous leader had been shot at Béal na Bláth in 1922, culminating in a soulful  rendition of rebel song ‘The Boys of Barry’s column’ and the promise to post me the words so that I could learn it and join in the next time I passed. Sure enough, a handwritten note, with the words, arrived a week later, so I will have to go back now.

So, my actual planned meeting with Tim had a hard act to follow, but on hearing about his lifelong commitment to the Michael Collins story, and how he has created a small independent museum in a converted cottage as a tribute to his hero  including a recreation of the fatal ambush site complete with a replica of Michael Collins’ famous Rolls Royce Armoured Car, “Sliabh Na mBan”, I couldn’t help but be swayed into adding another stop on my Clonakilty  circuit. You can tune into my chat with Tim here.

Friary at Timoleague, Courtmacsherry
Friary at Timoleague, Courtmacsherry

Day two started early, walking from my charming Timoleague guesthouse into Courmacsherrry, just four kilometres away along a converted railway line which clings to the estuary, a melange of migrators such as loons and geese, as well as oyster catchers and herons, appearing to feel as ‘blessed’ as I was. Indeed, looking back at Timoleague’s magnificent  13th Century friary sitting up on the hill, its headstones and crosses silhouetted against the sky, the shallow waters lapping gently all around me and it, this view is almost painful in its beauty. Courtmacsherry (or Courtmac as it is known locally) is a small fishing village, sleepy enough, although a hub for fishing boats tucked safely away from the Atlantic which awaits around the first of the Seven Heads. I dropped my overnight bag at my next sleep spot, Woodpoint B&B timing my arrival well as Patricia Gannon, the owner, was about to go out on her daily walk, having just made breakfast for a load of guests, packed lunches and sent them off on a fishing expedition in the safe hands of her skipper husband, Mark.

The Courtmacsherry Woods, is the starting point for many who take on this walk, where a line of oak, beech and pine trees follow the shore, a series of stone steps leading down to miniscule coves at regular intervals, the water just teasing in the distance through the diminishing leaf cover provided by the ancient oak trees. Patricia turned out to be the perfect ‘head’ to talk to, as she reveals that this gorgeous glade is part of her family’s land, but they have given access so that it can be shared with everyone. Listen to my chat with Patricia Gannon here.

After a couple of kilometres we emerged at Wood Point, the first of our Heads, and the turning point into the Atlantic. The wind was thankfully low, the clear skies allowing us to see all the way to the Old Head of Kinsale. We traversed fields full of horses and cattle, which is where Patricia left me to get on with her busy day, and where I was joined by another good head, New Zealander Bridget Healy, co-founder of Corks’s famous café Paradiso, kayaker, fellow lover of wild swimming and, of course, walking. She had never walked this whole loop, so we sauntered on together, imbibing the sun and sharing each other’s stories. Although the way marking was thin on the ground, keeping the sea on our left was a pretty safe bet and the booklet also has detailed instructions so be sure to take this with you, although  I fully recommend an OS as well.

Walking and strumming on the Seven Heads Peninsula
Walking and strumming on the Seven Heads Peninsula

After about an hour we descend from the clifftop farmland into the deserted Broadstrand Bay, save a couple of dog walkers. A sandy stretch is always welcome underfoot on a hike and although this is a safe and clean bathing beach we agree that it was a bit too early in the day to brave a dip. It absolutely wasn’t too early to tuck into the Clonakilty Chocolate Bridget produced, however, a hint of chilli giving us a new spring in our step. If the tide is high it won’t be possible to cross this strand, but there is a road on the clifftop so you can follow that if needs be. We climbed the steps at the far end of the beach leading us inland again, where we followed narrow walking paths tucked between hedgerows, brushing past the escalonia and whitethorn up to a highpoint with a great view out to the Old Head of Kinsale to the North and Galley Head to the South.  We had lost count of the seven headlands already, reaching the conclusion that this seven headed monster of a walk seems to have lots of hidden heads as well. Headlands which have seen treacherous times, however,  such as near Barry’s Point where, in 1915, the lifeboat headed out 18 kms to sea to try and rescue victims from the torpedoed ship, Lusitania. There was no wind, so the oarsmen rowed for three hours to find survivors all, tragically, in vain, with a loss of 1200 lives.

The walking trail continued with so many breathtaking views it could actually make you stop breathing altogether, with Seven Heads Bay and finally Dunworly Bay (our lunchstop) stretching out in front of us. Much of the shoreline is inaccessible on this particular walk due to dangerous cliffs and land access issues, with a few exceptions such as one of the cute coves West Cork is famous for, at Trabeg. We ducked out of dipping again, despite the calm inlet on offer, as we had a date with my ultimate ‘head’ and we had some inland walking to cover. At this point we entered a landscape filled with stone walls more reminiscent of Connemara than Cork, where the laneways seem to be almost untrodden. In the distance we could see the old signal tower at Travarra, built circa 1800 to watch out for Napoleonic forces, linking up with others like it along the coast so that fire signals could be passed quickly from one to the other.

Joy Larkcom - a really good head
Joy Larkcom – a really good head

From the fern filled and lichen lined lanes around Carrigeen Cross, we finally descended towards Dunworley, homeland to revered gardening writer Joy Larkcom who welcomed us with a fresh pot of tea and a smile that would warm anyone’s heart.  Not only is she a divine person, and inspiration to many, she is like a guardian angel to us as the heavens had just opened in true Atlantic coast style, and we were truly drenched. We stripped off around her aga, were offered whisky to add to our tea and Joy regaled me with stories of how she landed in this part of West Cork from her home in Suffolk, England ten years ago. You can listen to Joy chatting with me here, a woman who is not only aptly named, but is also a humungous talent. She has a gift of the gab and the gift of growth, and has completely transformed her barren, wind beaten coastal garden to a veritable haven, fecund with fruit trees, shrubs and vegetables. She is also committed collector of rare seeds, many of which are strewn in envelopes around her study, and tireless campaigner for home produce and I highly recommend the story of her life journey in her latest book ‘Just Vegetating’ (Frances Lincoln, 2012)

Meeting Joy had revived us totally. As we part company, Bridget and I continuing along the last lap of our walk back through Butlerstown, its colourful esplanade of houses and shops totally vibrant in the light of a perfectly timed post storm rainbow, we ponder the passion in such people’s lives and hope that we can emulate it to some degree in our own. We took the road route back to Courtmacsherry but, when the days are longer, there is also an option to take a path back to Broadstrand just after Butlerstown and retrace your steps back to where you started, clinging to the coast again through Ballincurrig and Melmane. As it was, we were happy on the quiet roads, picking blackberries, wild sorrel and sea spinach, chatting and taking in the pretty villages such as at Lisleetemple, which developed around its 16th century church and Georgian glebe house.

On the Seven Heads Peninsula
On the Seven Heads Peninsula

On our return in along the seafront at Courtmacsherry, my delightful walking head shared a few last thoughts about her love affair with Clonakilty and these Seven Heads (listen here). I could see now why Bridget was seduced into staying in this Atlantic nook from her native New Zealand.  It is not just the dramatic land and seascapes, the abundance of final local produce or the ability to escape the norm. It’s the people. We had lost count of the heads along our walk and similarly, if you come here for longer, you would lose count of the good heads you’ll meet along the way. Clonakilty, good weather or not, you are truly blessed.

 

Catherine umping into West Cork Photo: Catherine Mack
Catherine jumping into West Cork Photo: Catherine Mack

 

 

 

Wild Walls Cycle Derry-Londonderry Sunday 12 May 2013

Lawrence McBride, founder Far and Wild on Derry-Londonderry's city walls Photo credit: Far and Wild
Lawrence McBride, founder Far and Wild on Derry-Londonderry’s city walls Photo credit: Far and Wild

I travelled around Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, Ireland with this company recently and was blown away not only by the fierce wind, but also by their fiercely committed approach to truly responsible tourism. I will be writing more about that trip anon, but in the meantime I have asked Lawrence McBride, founder of Far and Wild to write a guest post about their latest, very exciting project in Derry/Londonderry, just thirty miles from Inishowen. Over to Lawrence…..

If you asked someone where in the world would you find joyous chants  floating on the sea breeze up to ancient battlements,  while troops of cyclists prepare for a historic competitive Mountain Bike Challenge along historic ramparts, they would be unlikely to say Derry-Londonderry. But in fact this is indeed the location of a special cycling event, here in the  first UK City of Culture- Derry-Londonderry 2013, nestled on the political border in the far North West of Northern Ireland.

The Wild Walls Cycle event by local eco-adventure company Far and Wild on Sunday 12 May is a unique event in the City of Culture calendar, combining a healthy dose of competitive and non-competitive cycle events with the very real culture of our ‘post troubles’ civilisation.

The day will start with an urban cross-country mountain bike competition which will weave its way through the communities, both nationalist and unionist, that live around the City’s four hundred year old battlements, built originally as a garrison town by the Guilds of London. It was this London connection that led to the highly controversial addition of the pre-fix ‘London’ to the original Derry, from Doire – the Irish for ‘Oak Grove’.

A charity and family cycle will follow the main cross city cycle trail, making for an all inclusive day which will culminate in the first ever cycle ride down one section of the historic walls from the local Court House and past the Bogside. Young people in both nationalist Bogside and unionist Fountain communities will take part, bucking summer trends of simmering friction.

Discovering the North West of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with Far and Wild Photo: Far and Wild
Discovering the North West of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with Far and Wild Photo: Far and Wild

What has this all got to do with eco-tourism? Well the short answer is ‘Come and see’! The Wild Walls Cycle event can be booked here . Evidence argues that our foreign visitors are fascinated by the complexity of Irish and Ulster society, despite the nervousness of the traditional tourism industry.  With countryside to die for (no pun intended), perhaps the factors that have keep folk away for so long are ready to reveal their hidden treasures.

Contact Far and Wild on hello@farandwild.co.uk or +447775911198 for further information or check out what other eco events we have in store at  www.farandwild.co.uk.

(Far and Wild is a community interest company combining adventure with ecology- including historical interpretation or human ecology- in the stunning North West of Ireland, in both political jurisdictions).

‘Wild’ down the Wicklow Way

 

BrookLodge Wells and Spa Hotel, County Wicklow Photo:Catherine Mack

‘WILD!” is how my dad described something that was so good it had an emotional impact on him. It would be shouted enthusiastically, with warm Northern brogue at the sight of an amazing view, the taste of a fine wine or the sound of some rousing music. It just works in certain situations, when superlatives don’t do the trick.

Having inherited the “wild” word, it was certainly appropriate on a visit to BrookLodge Hotel and Wells Spa in Wicklow, where not only is just about every ingredient of this family-run hotel’s ethos infused with a sense of care for the local environment and economy, but many of the ingredients on their exciting menus are also, literally, wild.

My dad would not get quite as animated as me, however, about the fact that their two beautiful pools use water from their own wells and are geothermally heated. Or that they have a wood chip boiler. But he would have been moved by their menus and wine lists. If you are a foodie, you will probably already know that BrookLodge’s main restaurant, the Strawberry Tree, is the only certified organic restaurant in Ireland, and has been since 1992.

When I was there, almost everything on the menu was Irish. All the vegetables and salads come from Gold River Farm in Aughrim or Denis Healy’s in Baltinglass, for example. They smoke their own salmon on site, but buy their fish from Colin O’Shea in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. They pre-order all their spring lamb in November, so that their supplier Jimmy Mullhall in Co Carlow can budget for the year. This is how they work with all their produce requirements preparing all menus – which adhere strictly to season – so that their valued suppliers can plan their growing and breeding for the year with a guarantee of purchase.

The wine, also organic, is imported of course, and joy of joys you can order it by the glass if you are abstaining a little. It’s just part of the common sense attitude to the good things in life here, inviting kids to have smaller portions of everything on the menu, so they can try wild scallops and venison, with no sense of snottiness about having children in the restaurant.

The wild foods used at BrookLodge include rowans, elderberries, sloeberries, mushrooms, blackberries and wild garlic, all to accompany wild pigeon or crab, organic beef or chicken. They wisely won’t reveal their favourite foraging locations, but the sight of their team of committed chefs picking wild leaves and berries along Wicklow’s long-fields must be something else.

The fact that the hotel has put the 5th century village of Macreddin back on the map is pretty wild as well. With its own bakery, brewery, pub and village store brimming with local goods, as well as a monthly farmers’ market, it is certainly alive and kicking again. Golfers will already know the place for its celebrated course, but they make life easy for hikers and bikers too, having created a series of Macreddin Walks, which give an itinerary, map and bits and pieces of local information en route. Needing to walk off dinner before breakfast, I tackled the 6km Sean Linehan Walk at sunrise, an off-road trek through Tinnakilly Woods, following the Ballycreen Brook for most of the way, and with enough of a climb to make me feel I earned my pancakes, bacon and smoothie on return.

There are mountain bikes available free of charge, and with a BrookLodge picnic popped into a backpack for you for €15, you are set up for an afternoon exploring the wooded hills of south Wicklow the green way. This is one superb place to celebrate “wild” Wicklow, especially as the seasons change and the menus adapt accordingly. Come back from a day on the hills to bask in the eco spa, followed by their current harvest offering of a complimentary glass of organic bubbly, with a shot of home-made wild elderflower cordial before dinner. Just to give it that added “wild” touch.

 

Food heroes in Irish tourism

Charlie Brack at Mahon Farmers' Market Credit: www.localmarkets.ie

Food is what brings most of us together at Christmas. You can have the decorated tree and loads of presents under it, but it is the smell of a baked ham, the sharing of some of granny’s Christmas cake, or just the first bite of warm brown bread and smoked salmon which creates a true season of goodwill. Similarly, food is at the core of tourism and a linchpin of making our holidays truly sustainable. And this is why some food producers have realised that the product is a fundamental part of the fáilte and are offering services which enable you to put their fine fare on any self-catering cottage, castle or camping table in the country.

These are my food heroes, and the guys who are going to play a big role in keeping this part of our culture thriving. Localmarkets.ie is a website where you can buy all the produce you drool over at farmers’ markets or simply on their site and have it delivered to any place in Ireland. So, if you or your loved ones are renting a place for a Christmas get-together – whether it is in Fermanagh or Fermoy, Donegal or Down – you can get a great stock of fine Irish goodies in without any of the arguments about who is doing the shopping. And if you own self-catering accommodation, it would be great to let your guests know about this new service too.

The Queen's Hamper at the English Market, Cork. Photo: www.localmarkets.ie

Superb artisan breads from Arbutus Breads, organic chickens from Dan Ahern, vegetarian burgers from Dee’s Eat Well, Be Happy burgers, organic salmon from Old Millbank Smokehouse, fruit and vegetables from Organic Republic, chorizo and cheese from the famous Gubbeen Farmhouse, are just a few things you can pop in your cyber shopping basket, for true farm to front door service.

This is a food delivery scheme for life, not just for Christmas, and will be held up as a sustainable tourism case study by many countries when they hear of it. You just need to order three days in advance for your produce to arrive packed in an expanded polystyrene (EPS) box, fully recyclable and environmentally friendly. You can either time it with your arrival, or ask your accommodation provider to store it for you until you get there as the box temperature is kept at below four degrees until opened. Orders must be a minimum of €30, plus €5 delivery charge. You can even shop a month in advance, and so avoid making it part of your last minute to-do list before you head for the hills.

Another switched on food producer is James Whelan Butchers in Clonmel who also has an online delivery service. With an array of fine meat, this prolific butcher (and concessionary at the new Avoca market in Monkstown, avoca.ie) will have your pans doing plenty of seasonal sizzling. After being custom cut and weighed, the meat is packed into a temperature controlled box in a dedicated packing room and delivered the next day to your holiday hideaway. For orders of more than €100 delivery is free to anywhere in the 32 counties, otherwise delivery is €10. Both sites are worth bookmarking and ‘liking’ on Facebook, and get your orders in, for a delicious start to your holiday.

An edited version of this article was published in The Irish Times, 3 December 2011

The inner green Ring of Kerry

Catherine's son paddling across Lough Leane in Kerry Photo: Catherine Mack

If you think that the Ring of Kerry is just for coachloads of tourists, it’s time to head ‘off piste’ with a man who knows the best shores to paddle off, peaks to conquer, and cliffs to climb  Nathan Kingerlee, founder of Outdoors Ireland (outdoorsireland.com), mountain guide and expert rock climber, is also the man who recently wrote a blog about hiking round Ireland with a dog and a goat and, when you’ve read it, you will know that this is the guy to lead you safely up to the summit of Carrauntoohil or, in my case, across Killarney in a kayak.

Before heading off on an all day paddling session, Nathan gave us some kayaking tips on the reed covered shores of Lough Leane and, as a passionate proponent of Leave No Trace (leavenotraceireland.org), he told us to ensure that we did just that on our day on the water. We left Killarney’s tourist filled streets behind and gently paddled out into a totally tranquil lough. It felt like a totally empty lough too, with Nathan saying that the tourist boat traffic stays over on the other side, so we had massive expanses of Kerry water all to ourselves for the rest of the day

With just enough wind to help us across the lough, but also to make us work our muscles when we changed direction, we certainly earned our lunch. We tucked into picnics on the water’s edge, sheltering from a shower on the edge of Tomie’s Woods, followed by a quick walk up to admire O’Sullivan’s Cascade. This stretch of ancient woodland is spectacular, and accessing it by boat might certainly have been a better approach for some man who, according to Nathan, got lost for three days in this, some of Kerry’s densest forest. Warmed, re-energised and back in our kayaks, we gently followed the shoreline to the point where the River Laune meets Lough Leane, and took our final glances of the magnificence that is Macgillycuddy’s Reeks from the water, ending with a lash down the rapids leading to Beaufort Castle, with Nathan able to identify each peak, point out nesting eagles, and teach us how to ride the rapids all at the same time, in that multi-tasking outdoorsy way that I am totally in awe of.

Outdoors Ireland is part of a network of Kerry businesses to have joined the Green Tourism Business Scheme (GTBS), a UK certification scheme brought in to help them achieve green status as a region. All participants are listed in brochure called The Greener Side of The Ring of Kerry, downloadable free of charge from Discover Ireland. Some are greener than others, however, with Gold award winners like Outdoors Ireland leading the field, and others still at the early stages of green practices with a Bronze award, although this range isn’t clear from the brochure. For my kayaking trip, I chose an accommodation which had been awarded the Gold award, Salmon Leap Farm, a traditional farmhouse b&b just outside

Paddling down the River Laune in Kerry Photo: Outdoors Ireland

Killarney whose green practices are clearly listed on their website.

The GTBS is now one of the several green certification schemes recognised by Fáilte Ireland, with others including the EU Ecolabel, Greenbox Eco-certification and the Green Hospitality Award. In a land where there are forty shades of green, it sometimes feels as if we are getting as many shades of certification schemes, and I long for the day when Fáilte Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board agrees on one certification which fits all and which embraces all aspects of sustainable tourism particular to Ireland, including access to low carbon transport facilities and, ultimately, creating a clearer, simpler picture for tourists and businesses alike.

In the meantime, Outdoors Ireland certainly meets the criteria for any gold and green award, with Nathan not only sharing his skills relating to excellent low carbon activities, but also guiding us with an expert knowledge of the local ecosystem.  You mightn’t do the whole ‘Ring’ thing with Nathan, but the 24kms of Kerry which I saw from a kayak are some I will never forget. Goodbye Celtic Tiger, hello Celtic climbers and kayakers, where the future is green and raring to go.

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

 

 

Family fishing holiday in Ireland

A load of Pollocks. Photo: Catherine Mack

There is a growing trend on Twitter for #PostiveIreland entries: stories of Irish people who are turning recession and depression into a renaissance of creativity and resourcefulness. This is as tangible in tourism as anywhere else and Dúlra Nature Tours in Erris,CountyMayo, is a gleaming example of new, exciting forms of tourism, which brings us back to nature and our fine local resources.

Belmullet fisherman Anthony Irwin has teamed up with partner Angela Healy to create a ‘Catch and Cook’ weekend off that spectacular stretch of coast which is, sadly, more associated with the local disputes with Shell than sustainable tourism. There was no thought given to politics this weekend, however, as we left Blacksod Pier first thing in the morning, and headed out into the Atlantic on board Dúlra na Mara for a day of adventures. After about an hour, during which our skipper, another local Simon Sweeney, shared the history of islands which passed us by, we found a good spot and had a quick angling lesson. Within minutes the waves were echoing with cheers as, one by one, we pulled in buckets full of Mackerel and Pollock.

The Dúlra team are not just fishermen, however, they are also expert nature guides and cooks (this is where Angela steps in), ensuring that our lunch stop on the white sandy beaches of deserted island Inis Ge wasn’t short of a good story or a fine bite to eat. Once a hive of activity when it was home to a whaling station (closed in 1914, thankfully), wildlife thrives here now, home to Barnacle Geese in winter, nesting seabirds in spring, and seals all year round.  Lunch was equally impressive in its wildness, a fresh fish and pinto bean stew, scones made with duileasc seaweed and homemade bread. All devoured from our perch overlooking the tiny harbour with its well preserved stone cottages, now only used by ex-residents who come back to holiday, and the sheltered calm, clear waters.

There was nothing these lads didn’t know about the island, especially the best bird watching points, as they led us up over the hills to the far side of the island, past the architectural wonders of 18th century navigation towers, over the old lazy beds which villagers had cultivated, to the windy cliffs which are home to hundreds of nesting Fulmars. We were gently encouraged to crawl to the edge and lie on tummies. Anthony was made to hold onto my feet, however, as I am such a wimp, but boy was it worth it. For about twenty minutes we all just lay there, mesmerised by the magic of these mothering seabirds, as they swooped back and forth protecting and nurturing.

Back on board, and after a bit more fishing, we were heading back to the mainland, when Anthony handed my youngest son the binoculars. “Dolphins!” he yelled, and within minutes, engines off, a pod of beauties was surfing our bow. A definite Twitter  #positiveireland moment, where you can also check out my video of it all.  A more than giddy bunch of adults and kids were then minibused back to the luxurious self-catering house which was home for the weekend. The only difference is that there is nothing self-catering about it, as we arrived back to a gourmet fish feast prepared by Angela, and added to by us, our catch proudly held high. But not before we were taught to fillet it and prepare it first. If this doesn’t

Spotting dolphins on the way home Photo: www.dulra.ie

have your kids eating fish, nothing will.

The adventures continue into the next day with a walking tour around Erris Head, mussel and seaweed foraging and more gourmet gorgeousness back at the house. The house, by the way, is an impressive sustainable timber frame design, built by Anthony. Is there nothing this dynamic duo can’t do, I wonder? They are so charismatic, creative and committed to their region and its sustainability, I have a feeling that you should book in quick, as someone with any sense will try and snap them up for a TV series. Accommodating ten, this is the perfect ethical corporate  break, family reunion, or big birthday bash, or just go for a one day option, if you have accommodation somewhere else in the region. Although, nothing beats catching, cooking, eating, drinking and then just collapsing. Watch a video our memorable family day out here. This article was first published in The Irish Times

 

A bit of scary birdwatching on Inis Ge Photo: Catherine Mack

Teapot Lane Luxury Yurt Camp, Leitrim Ireland – so cute it’s camp

Teapot Lane - a great place for old friends and their kids to catch up Photo: Catherine Mack

While the rest of Europe has gone ‘glamping’ crazy,Ireland is still playing catch up.  In some ways this is a good thing, with the UK and France offering such a plethora of posh pitches now, it almost has me pining for my old four man Vango. But then I step inside the comforting cocoon of a yurt and, fickle and weak, I’m hooked again. And they don’t get much lovelier than Leitrim’s latest offering.

Although Teapot Lane Luxury Yurt Camp looks a bit ‘yummy mummy’ on its website, with its spotty wellies, teapots and pamper pages, don’t judge a book. This carefully thought out eco-venture, run by Derval McGovern, has managed to encapsulate so many aspects of a truly responsible tourism business, it can fly its green flag as high as its gobsmackingly gorgeous one. Thanks to Teapot Lane, Leitrim just got lovelier.

Teapot Lane has achieved in a year what other European glamp camps have only managed to pull off after ten. It’s more like a mini festival of green outdoor living, with plenty of indoor space to cater for Irish weather too. As well as three luxury yurts all equipped with wood burning stoves, cast iron beds with top of the range bed linen, fairy lights and lanterns, there is a thatched self-catering cottage, and a private bathroom with roll top bath in case you just can’t do compost loos and outdoor showers. When the self-catering cottage is vacant, this bathroom is available for yurt users too. The yurts’ showers are powered by gas, are tankless, need no electric supply and use a combination of mains and rainwater from the roof, and both showers and toilets are concealed in sensitively designed wooden huts alongside each yurt.

When we arrived at Teapot Lane, there was homemade vegetable soup and bread to welcome people after their journey, all laid out in the well equipped chalet kitchen with its two big tables, crockery, board games, books, cupboards full of ready made salad dressings, olive oils, spices, herbs and everything you might need to do the perfect camping cook-in.

There is never a big crowd cooking here either, as Derval has committed to keeping her remote woodland site restricted to small numbers.  It is ideal, therefore, for coming with a gang of friends or a few families taking over the whole camp, bagsying every tree swing, hammock, and campfire stool for a week of chilling in comfort. And at €100 per night for a yurt sleeping 4-6, this is fair and square sustainable tourism.

Nearby Mullaghmore Strand in Sligo. Photo: Catherine Mack

The location is ‘tri-licious’ too, sitting pretty on the borders of three counties. Donegal’s beaches of Bundoran and Tullan Strand are both under 13 kms from the camp, Sligo’s stunning Mullaghmore Strand a perfect cycle down quiet roads just 8kms away, and Leitrim’s famous hillwalks around the Dartry Mountains are within about 5kms. You can even bring your dog for some serious walking, as Teapot Lane welcomes responsible dog owners too.

Teapot Lane has good links with local activity providers, organising surfing or riding lessons, fishing or foraging trips and guided walks. Or follow the nearby North West Cycle Trail along endless, pretty backroads, hiring a bike from Hire and Sell in Bundoran, Tel: 071 98 41526.

Blessed with good weather, we took advantage of the excellent surfing instructors at the Donegal Adventure Centre in Bundoran and spent an exhilarating few hours on Tullan Strand. I followed this up with a heavenly hour of aromatherapy massage back at the camp in Derval’s treatment room, while the rest of the gang headed off to raid PJ O’Reilly’s fish van in Bundoran of its daily catch to throw on the barbecue.

But it’s at night that Teapot Lane really started to shine for me. This is the time of day when glamping turns back to camping, when the stars come out, the campfire comes to life, lanterns are lit, the yurts glow, wood burners smoke and children cuddle in hammocks among the silhouetted trees. When the rain kicks in, you can just head to your circle of canvas, warmed up in minutes by the wood burner, and just watch the rain from your king size bed. Sorry, Vango, you’ll just have to wait for next year.

www.teapotlaneluxurycamp.com   An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times in June 2011

Photo: Catherine Mack



Ballynahinch Castle – wins my crown of Connemara

Catherine's son at Ballnahinch Castle Photo: Catherine Mack

Not only has Connemara’s Ballynahinch Castle Hotel got sixty five candles to light for its current birthday celebrations, but it has close to that many ethical flags to fly too. With a heart stoppingly gorgeous location overlooking it’s own (Ballynahinch) River and Lake, with grounds which drift seamlessly into the foothills of the Twelve Bens Mountains, this is a hotel which takes its extraordinary position seriously, treading lightly throughout.

With the river and lake at it’s heart, the hotel’s Estate Manager, Simon Ashe, talks passionately of his team’s Catchment Management Programme to conserve vital fish stocks, as well as their campaign against fish farming and drift nets. So far, they are winning their ecological battle, with salmon stocks doubling since the closure of the Irish drift nets fishery in 2007. You certainly have plenty of opportunities to sample the unforgettable flavours of fine, fresh and wild fish here, with lemon sole as the catch of the day on my breakfast menu, which gets you off to a good start on any holiday.

The aptly named Ashe has also been responsible for planting over two thousand trees on the estate, and visitors who want to contribute to this woodland management scheme are given a certificate with their tree’s GPS coordinates, so they or their families can locate it in years to come. These are not the tokenistic gestures which the growing green trend in tourism has witnessed in some hotels, where tree planting, for example, can sometimes be a mere tick boxing exercise. Ashe, who knows every tree, shrub, wildflower and weed on his estate, has also opened a disused well to supply the hotel’s water, including beautifully bottled water for the rooms, installed a giant wood chip burner and solar panels to create the hotel’s energy, and has an impressive recycling facility.

One of the most exciting developments at Ballynahinch is the recent opening of a disused railway line which runs through

One of the walking trails at Ballynahinch Castle

the hotel’s grounds as a looped woodland walk, with boardwalks covering fragile ecosystems, allowing access to bits of Ballynahinch’s beauty which you couldn’t reach before. A clever move, as there greater plans for a Connemara Greenway, similar to Mayo’s Great Western Greenway, using the same old railway line and nearby lanes as an off road cycling and walking trail, within the next year or so. You can already make the most of stunning cycling in the area, as bikes are available for guests’ use. With Roundstone just a few kilometres away, you can cycle to the sea and back before breakfast, if you’re keen.

Ballynahinch Castle celebrates everything that people used to come to Connemara for. They have a full time walking guide on staff now, Noel Joyce, who will take you just about wherever you want, be it just around the grounds to give you a history of the trees (and their planters) or into the mountains where Noel will regale you with his knowledge of the Gaeltacht and it’s social, archaeological and natural history.

One other thing which really sets Ballynahinch apart for me, however, is its genuine passion for Ireland’s cultural heritage. Des Lally, who described himself as the ‘night porter’ the evening we arrived, was not only top of his game in terms of hospitality and warmth, but I was then to discover that he is co-editor of a beautiful book of poetry recently published by Occasional Press, in association with Ballynahinch Castle, called “An Afterglow: A Gallery of Connemara Poems”. That’s Ballynahinch for you. The hotel is brimming with local artwork and fine books so, all in all, no wonder many of our leaders in the arts are coming to the hotel to take part in their birthday celebrations, with various events planned throughout the year. Their latest publication, the stunning  A Connemara Folio” by Donald Teskey,  is a collection of eminent artists’ visions of Connemara.

Photo: Catherine Mack

Ballynahinch manages to wear its achievements lightly, however. It’s neither flash nor fuddy duddy, and welcomes everyone in through its doors to join what feels like one constant house party, birthday or no birthday. So, if you have a treat in mind, go help blow out the candles this year, and raise a toast to effortless ethics, carried out with exemplary commitment and class. For more photos see my slideshow on Flickr.

www.ballynahinch-castle.com

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