The Ring of Kerry, from the water

Catherine's son canoeing across Lough Leane Photo: Outdoors Ireland

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 (, 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 (, 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.

Photo: Outdoors Ireland

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 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 published in The Irish Times in July 2011

Photo: Outdoors Ireland



Glenribbeen b&b in County Waterford, Ireland

Glenribbeen Eco Lodge, Waterford, Ireland. Photo: Catherine Mack

There are some people who like to hide their green beliefs under a bushel and then there are those who stick a great big flag in their garden to let the world know that being green is no mean feat these days, and so if you’ve got it, you might as well flaunt it. Glenribbeen Eco Lodge is a small bed and breakfast run by Els and Peter O’Connor which has greenness and kindness oozing from every open pore. I say open, because the doors of Glenribbeen are always open. If you turn up with your tent they’ll welcome you, with dogs, children, a horse, whatever, they would turn few away. Because Irish Peter and Dutch Els’ approach to hospitality and life are holistic and generous. They are both musicians and artists, growers and creators within the community, and the guesthouse is all part and parcel of that.

The flag is that of the EU Flower, the eco certification which Peter and Els were awarded in 2009, and with solar panels, rainwater harvesting, home made briquettes for the fire, fine organic vegetarian food, bat boxes, free range hens happily pecking around the beautiful gardens and bird feeders at every turn, they have merited the accolade for sure.

However, it is individual dedication, imagination and understanding of the bigger picture of responsible tourism which makes a business truly sustainable, not just the solar panels or light bulbs. You can stick as many responsible tourism policies as you like on your website, or boast about all your eco-gadgets, but it’s the living and breathing it, having a real connection with how their tourism venture can be part of a wider green community, that makes somewhere like Glenribbeen so special. Just have a quick look at Peter’s blog to see everything from a broad bean hummus recipe to creating a solar powered walkway in your garden, and this will give you an idea of his commitment to all he believes in.

This is not an eco-chic home, however,  it is just a home built on sustainable, simple principles, with balconies made from recycled wood, vegetable gardens, books from second hand shops, a living room full of musical instruments. It’s a place where Els’ beautiful paintings cover many of the walls and where Peter shares his passion of archery with his guests by offering lessons free of charge. They know the nearby walking and cycling routes like the back of their hands, with extremely quiet trails straight out of their garden gate, taking you as far as The Vee Gap and the Knockmealdown Mountains.  Or the O’Connors will arrange hired bikes to be delivered to the house from Lismore Cycling Holidays, with convenient off road cycling into Lismore town and then into the hills beyond.

We decided to explore the area from the water, however, and thanks to a top tip from Peter, also a keen canoeist, we spent a few hours of a sunny late afternoon in the delightful company of Cappoquin man, Dennis Murray of Blackwater Boating who, having spent his life on the river, knows every bend, bridge and building on it. His gentle charm and local knowledge of not only the flora and fauna, but every historic building which overlooks the river, was enrapturing, regaling us with history one second, and heron spotting the next.  With so much attention given to Waterford’s fine beaches, we were amazed to see that this haven of river life was almost deserted.

Another wonderful facility on their doorstep is the wheelchair-friendly fishing boat, the Wheelyboat of which Peter is one of the registered captains. With fingers in many pies, a new project always on the go, Peter definitely has a ‘glass half full’ approach to life and, as we said our goodbyes, he gave us a stick of rosemary to put on the dashboard to bring energy to the driver and natural perfume for the passengers, and Els popped a parcel full of her specialty Dutch pancakes on the kids’ laps for the journey. So, if you are looking for a place to stay in the Waterford area, owned by people to whom both generosity and green living come naturally, just follow the flag.

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



Slieve Aughty Riding Centre, Co. Galway

There are lots of saddles to choose from at Slieve Aughty

I never dared go on a horseriding holiday before. The reasons?  Not good enough, not brave enough and not rich enough. However, all horsy hang-ups were dispelled on a recent family break in County Galway, at the Slieve Aughty Riding Centre . I met the owner, Esther Zyderlaan, at an ecotourism conference earlier in the year. She talked about her eco and family-friendly business which, on paper, was the perfect eco-case study. When I got there I could see that, in practice, this truly is a gold (and green) cup winner.

Esther greeted us in a floral apron and wellies, picking lettuce from her organic kitchen garden, while directing a beaming brigade of children, just back from a woodland hack, to the stables overlooking the fecund gardens. Slieve Aughty is organic in the real sense of the word. It has grown not only as a riding centre, but a place to eat fine home-cooked  food, go hillwalking, discover cycling trails and stay at locally owned cottages.

Although we stayed at a self-catering cottage (a lovingly restored thatched one), Esther’s ethos is full board. The dining room is the Centre’s hub where at breakfast, for example, we have home-made scones, local cheeses, compotes, eggs, yoghurt, great coffee and hot chocolate. Suppers are smorgasbords of smoked salmon, stews and salads straight out of a Ballymaloe photo shoot. Over meals we chat about our plans for the day ahead, or adventures had at the close.

Each day started with a mini adventure, taking a forty minute walk from our cottage to the Centre through woodland, accompanied by a couple of Esther’s donkeys, which we tied up in the cottage’s field the night before. We cycled, we walked, we ate. However, I had to get the bit between my teeth and dare to ride a horse. There are no bits for many of the horses here, with bit-free bridles, part of their natural riding ethos. I was also nervous for the kids, as their previous riding experience was with a strict, cranky woman who made them (and me) feel stupid for not knowing how to hold the reins or tighten the saddles.

The Aughty team could not be more different. Esther gently introduces us to our horses, telling us to look them in the eyes, and just talk to them. She leads by example, talking as gently and lovingly to the animals as she does to us.  Our hack leader, Gerry Daniels, is everything you could want in a teacher. He watches the children carefully, encourages them gently, and talks to us all humorously and warmly. He leads our younger son on a rein at the start, and judges perfectly when to let him ride independently, through luscious woodland, over streams and up over hills. Our children were converts, and I too  had fallen back into my childhood dream of owning my own horse once again.

Esther makes ethical look easy. It felt like we were staying at a favourite aunt’s farm for the weekend, with stables full of beauties, and a larder full of goodies. She even has a workshop full of arts materials, boxes of beads, glittery things,

Esther's kitchen at Slieve Aughty

paints and rainy day stuff. The Centre’s buildings are all simple, low carbon eco-designs, many of them built out of timber from her original family house, which she knocked down when her children left home. She is waiting for funding to connect the heating system fuelled by dry horse manure, and wood from her 35 acres. The banks may not have their green light switched on yet, but Esther had hers switched on long before most of us knew what being green actually meant. She is a lesson to us all.

This article was first published in The Irish Times 22 May 2010


Natural Retreats, Ireland

Dawn at Parknasilla

The recession has forced many of our golden gates of tourism to open to new ideas and new visitors, indirectly creating a more responsible and accessible form of tourism. I recently visited the five star hotels of Parknasilla in Kerry and Castlemartyr in Cork which have opened their doors to us mere mortals. This is not the work of Nama either, but a company called Natural Retreats ( which already owns sustainable (and sumptuous) houses in the UK and has, for the last year, been moving into self-catering lodges in the grounds of Ireland’s most exclusive hotels, making them just a little more inclusive.


I wrote about this company when it first entered the Irish market ,  impressed by their ethos of developing sustainable tourism in areas of important cultural and natural heritage. Recently, I checked out how they were doing. First stop, Parknasilla, where we thought we might have to go through a separate interlopers’ entrance so that ‘battered old Volvo’ alarms didn’t go off.   But the integration of posh and pleb was done seamlessly and without judgement. We checked in at the same desk as golfers with their Golfs, and Foxrockers with their furs, as they headed to their suites, and we to our self-catering.

The pool at Parknasilla is almost precocious in its beauty

However, it was the outdoors which beckoned at Parknasilla, and is the reason why people have been coming since 1895. There are five hundred acres of woodland and coastal walks here, with tiny islands linked to the hotel by wooden bridges. On an early morning stroll to catch the mist coming up over the many inlets, there was an eerie silence with only the oyster catchers on dawn duty. The beauty here is truly mesmeric.

Guests staying at Natural Retreats’ lodges are given full access to hotel facilities, sharing hot tubs, croquet lawns and extraordinarily beautiful swimming pools with the great washed. The Victorian ‘children should be seen and not heard’ still hovers a little at Parknasilla, being asked to leave the pool at 5pm, only served dinner at certain times,  and a general air of hushed tones around the lounges. The games room is in a separate building and equipment was on last legs. But when the pool shut we just ran down to the Victorian bathing huts on the shore and dived into the Atlantic, letting our screams  echo around the bay, hushed tones long forgotten. The hotel restaurant was beyond our budget anyway, so we ate in from the nearby butchers or out at O’Shea’s pub, with its fab fish pie. Both in nearby Sneem.

At Castlemartyr, the ambience was very different. Although equally luxurious, it had a younger feel to it, with bikes for everyone’s use, the kids were allowed to walk the hotel’s dogs and blind eyes were turned when ‘adult time’  kicked in at the pool when it was quiet. The games room is ‘soooo cool’ with leather sofas, a Wii, snooker table with all the balls and board games with all the bits. We cycled into the village for supplies, picnicked on the lawns and noone blinked an eye.

One disappointment, however, was the welcome hampers which had impressed me so much at Natural Retreats in
Yorkshire, brimming with local produce. Here they were more white sliced loaf and instant coffee. Natural Retreats’ Director, Ewan Kearney reassured me, “We’re working through an ongoing list of improvements at each site, including implementing local produce in the welcome hampers, improving the guest information manuals with things to do and see in the local area, eco-friendly cleaning products and see this as a gradual process that is more likely to succeed if the business is financially stable”.

These are not cheap breaks by any means, but as George Bernard Shaw said of Parknasilla, “This place does not belong to any world that you or I have ever worked in or lived in. It is part of our dream world”. Natural Retreats has brought the dream a bit closer to reality for many and, with sustainability at its core, aims to make the same possible for future generations to come.


This article, by Catherine Mack,  was first published in The Irish Times 28 August 2010


Trinity Island Lodge, County Cavan, Ireland

Trinity Island Lodge, County Cavan.

No one is going to choose a place to stay simply because it has solar panels or a compost loo. Although I must admit, I have a bizarre interest in the pros, cons, and inner workings of the latter, which amuses my children no end. However, when you visit a place and realise that the owner has, often against the odds, created an eco-dream, and wants nothing more than for you to lie back and enjoy its natural wonders (and I don’t just mean the loo), then they are worth shouting about. Which his why I am starting to feature some personal favourites in this column, and introduce you to some of the people responsible for giving us great green getaways.

A weekend break in County Cavan is not usually in the top ten of tourist trails. But, with all the attention Cork has been getting from Lonely Planet recently, I thought it was time this lowly Ethical Traveller gave County Cavan its moment in the limelight. If you are lucky enough to stay at Trinity Island Lodge, in Killeshandra, County Cavan, make it more than a moment though. As this is pure, peaceful eco-escapism and worth a few days of your well earned time away.

Up until recently this converted barn, on its own forested island just seconds’ walk from the shores of Lough Oughter, was a fisherman’s haven. And hardly surprising, as you can almost fall out of bed into your boat in the morning. But the owner, Tom O’Dowd, has always been a committed conservationist and environmentally aware, and he is keen to start sharing it with visitors who are interested in the other aspects of the ecosystem. Not just fish.

The remote Lodge has a windmill and solar panels to generate electricity, and Tom has replanted 200 acres with indigenous broadleaf Oaks, Ash and Larch. During a walking tour of the island, he tantalised all our senses. Whispering

Overlooking Lough Oughter. Photo: Catherine Mack
Overlooking Lough Oughter. Photo: Catherine Mack

, he gently guided the children to badger sets; he then led us to scented corridors of wild garlic, and stopped us in our tracks to let the sounds of Teale and Widgeon out on the lake take centre stage. For my kids, however, Tom was the star of Trinity Island, as he showed them how to chop wood, paddle the Canadian canoe he provides for guests, and regaled them with legends of the monks who built the Island’s ruined abbey in 1237, which Tom has lovingly protected from total collapse.

However, Tom will admit that it is The Lough which deserves all the praise here. The Lodge, albeit with slightly dated décor, is cleverly designed with the living area upstairs, leading out to balconies to allow maximum enjoyment of the views. Shopping by canoe has to be one of the highlights of the stay, just a five kilometre paddle into Killeshandra for supplies. Or for a daytrip, take the five hour canoe trip into Belturbet, with a picnic stop-off at Lough Oughter castle. Tom, host extraordinaire, generously offers to collect visitors there after a hard day’s canoeing and drive you back to base. Whatever waychoose to enjoy the Lough, we found plenty of excuses to warm up in the wood-burning sauna at the end of the day. So, for all those ‘noughty’ fishermen out there, who have been trying to keep this place to themselves, watch out, because the ‘greeny teenies’ are on the case, and moving in.

trinity-island-lodge-072Go green: Take a bus to Cavan (hourly) and taxi 20km to Killeshandra, where Tom will meet you to take you to the Island.

This article was first published in The Irish Times, 27 February 2010