Hiring an electric bike on a cycling holiday in Ireland

I was a bit nervous of the potential uncool factor of hiring an electric bike on a cycling holiday in Ireland, 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, 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.

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Dear Old Inishowen – the most memorable of adventure holidays in Donegal, Ireland

Coasteering in Donegal

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 explore the wilderness that remains all around this northernmost point of Ireland, travelling with one of a handful of companies offering adventure holidays in Donegal. Right now, however, in this cocoon of Culdaff, my cultural immersion was like an unexpected and delicious appetiser.

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‘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