Welcome to the Midlands of Ireland which for me, like many visitors, was a place to stop over en route to somewhere else. Until I discovered Wineport Lodge. This luxury cedar-clad boutique hotel is a heavenly port of pampering, where each of the 29 rooms, all named after a wine or spirit, look out onto the shores of Lough Ree. As I settled into my room, poured a glass of chilled and complimentary Chablis, I knew instantly that one night was not going to be enough.
Just over an hour by train from Dublin to Athlone, where Wineport staff will pick you up if you come by train, there was a storm the night of my stay, but in better weather, and if you are lucky enough to own or have rented one, you can come here by boat following the Shannon-Erne waterway system and mooring alongside the Taittinger Lounge. This is where I nestled for most of my stay, tucked up on a huge comfy sofa, forgetting about the unfortunate weather coming in over the lake, as a huge wood-burning designer stove kept me toasty warm.
Impressively responsible, vast eco-stove, extensive recycling and a wastewater wetland system are all very well, but it is romance which upstages the filtering reedbeds in this idyllic setting, with a roof terrace hot tub or, if you want more privacy, choose something ‘relaxing’ or ‘refreshing’ from the bath menu to be brought to your room. Verbena for waking you up and lavender for slowing things down. If this all sounds tacky, it is actually far from it. Wineport Lodge encapsulates fine Irish hospitality without any sense of elitism or commercialism.
And it is not only the bath menu which is impressive. Chef Cathal Moran’s restaurant has a wide variety of locally sourced food, such as the oven roasted lamb rump from the nearby Tormey family farm in Co. Westmeath. All suppliers are listed on the menu.
The breakfast (in bed) was supreme – buttermilk pancakes topped with layers of pancetta, maple syrup, top smoothie and great coffee. Imagine my devastation when another storm meant I had to cut short a morning walk across the local Glasson bog (details of available walks available at reception). A hot tub, hot stone massage and hot whisky became my own personal revival menu. Just as well they will drive you to the station when you are ready to hit the road. Not that you will want to.
For more details, see wineport.ie and Twitter @Wineport_Lodge
Getting there slowly: Train to Athlone and cycle to Wineport, or they will drive visitors to and from Glasson village to the station, only a couple of kilometres away
It’s not every day you meet a Leprechaun Whisperer. And I thought it would be hard to suppress cynical smirks when I did, but when Kevin Woods of Carlingford, County Louth shook my hand firmly, looked me in the eye and gave me one of those smiles which emitted instant kindness and warmth, I could only mirror this and show respect and openness back.
As Kevin (or McCoillte as he is sometimes called) and I walked up Slieve Foye mountain together, I found myself wanting to believe that this was, as he told me, “the only place in Ireland where Leprechauns live”, not just because the affable Kevin has seen three Leprechauns in his life on this mountain but because this is, for me, one of the most magical spots in my home country of Ireland. Located right on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the Cooley Mountain range on the southern side of Carlingford Lough looking straight out over this dividing piece of water to the Mountains of Mourne in the North, an invisible border going with the flow between them, this small town holds a wealth of natural and cultural heritage in its pocket. Any sense of divide is hidden here and long may it continue – starting with my respect for Kevin’s beliefs in Leprechauns.
Leprechauns don’t appear to everyone, according to Kevin, and indeed he shared many people’s cynicism twenty odd years ago when local publican PJ O’Hare found a small suit and collection of tiny bones up on the mountain, as well as a few gold coins. Doubting their origin, Wood decided to make the most of the ‘find’ and organised a Leprechaun Hunt in his capacity as Regional Tourism Chairman at the time. It worked and the hunters came in hoardes but, as if to warn him that there were too many people on the mountain, the Leprechauns then appeared to Kevin on a walk in the hills one day.
I asked Kevin what they looked like as we continued our hike up along the Slieve Foye Loop. “They look just as you might imagine them – like in the cartoons really. That is how they appear to me, because they are spirits. They are about 18 inches tall, have top hats, green jackets, trousers and shoes which are pointed or round and always with gold buckles. They were cobblers because they spent so much time dancing, and so they wear out their shoes – which is why they became cobblers’.
Kevin certainly had the gift of storytelling as we continued up further into the Cooley Mountain range, a landscape where myths abound. Myths which tell of Greek-like transformations from human to animal form such as Donn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley, a human who had been turned into a bull and which then went on to become the focus of battles between Ulster and Connaught led by Queen Medb in these very mountains.
“I can see some sheep or goats grazing up there on the heathland “I said, soon to be corrected by Kevin who told me, quite nonchalantly, “One of those is the Ghost Horse of Mountain Park. There was a fella called Cocker Reilly – he was known as that because he was cock sure of everything. He used to come up by this part of the Mountain Park, passing a fairy mound every night. One night he relieved himself close to the fairy mound. When he woke up in the morning he couldn’t get out of bed, as he had two extra legs. They (the fairies) had turned him into a horse. He took off up into the hills and that’s who you can see there. You’ll often see him up there. ”
Kevin told these stories in such a matter of fact way that I just wanted to believe him. And so by the time we approached the Slate Rock, a massive ramp of granite which emerges from the hillside, and the place where he first saw the Leprechauns, I asked him if he thinks I will see them. “It’s up to you, if you have the gift”, he said, “I am not sure whether you have the gift or not’. So, keeping my eyes and mind well open, Kevin went on to tell me more about his gift, which allows him not only to communicate with the Leprechaun’s chief elder, Corrig, learn about their history and lifestyles, but also brings him the ability to bring happiness to others and be happy for the rest of his life.
One thing that makes me happy, however, is that Kevin spent nineteen years campaigning for this part of the Slieve Foye Mountain to be officially protected by the European Union, under the EU Habitats Directive to protect flora, fauna and wild animals. He won and in 2009, they received protection, with big brown EU signs up on the hill to prove it. I asked him how he managed to persuade the EU to protect something that was not actually in the physical world, and he said that the artefacts of the clothes and bones were proof enough.
As well as that, the Leprechaun Hunt still happens in April every year which is “not to make money”, Kevin tells me, “but because for every person who stops believing, another Leprechaun spirit dies and so the Hunt increases the likelihood of more people believing.” (For more details see thelastleprechaunsofireland.com). As we headed back down the mountain towards Carlingford town, with sadly no Leprechaun sightings to record this time, and headed for a drink in O’Hares, I couldn’t help wondering if I would be laughed at in the pub as they saw me walking in with Kevin, knowing that another tourist was ‘being had’. But no, we were met with joviality rather than jeers and welcomed in to this lovely local gathering spot. This gift of spreading happiness must be working, I thought to myself. I may have been tricked, or I might not have the gift, but there are few belief systems which make me smile as much as this one. And if Kevin’s gift is to continue spreading the word and happiness with it, who am I to argue? And anyway, I don’t want a dead Leprechaun on my conscience. To be sure, to be sure.
For more information on The Last Leprechauns in Ireland, see thelastleprechaunsofireland.com. And click here for a podcast of Catherine’s walk and talk with the Leprechaun Whisperer. Or to go exploring the hiking trails of the Cooley Mountains see walkni.com and irishtrails.ie. In particular, check out The Tain Walking Festival 1-3 March 2103(carlingford.ie and discoverireland.com)
I had a call from a friend who was stuck in London during the worst of the snow, “You must know how to get me home without flying”, she said. “I need to be back in Dublin tomorrow and every airport in Europe seems to be closed”. Within minutes she was sorted. “ Catch the 9am train from London Euston direct to Holyhead with Virgin Trains, arrives four hours later, then onto 2pm Irish Ferries crossing to Dublin port, arriving just after 5pm. Hop in a cab or shuttle bus, and home and dry in time for tea” I said.
She booked it immediately online via Virgin Trains and Irish Ferries, with last minute rates of £55 sterling for the single train journey and £25 sterling for the one way crossing. She had a lot of work to do on the way, so upgraded to first class on the train, (£97 sterling). This is the best train upgrade around, in my view, with free food and drink the whole way. Enjoy smoked salmon and scrambled eggs as you lash through the Shires, bagels on the border and a glass of something lovely to strengthen the sea legs as you follow the North Wales coastline. With free WI-Fi and generous reclining seats, you won’t want to get off at all. Although to be honest, Virgin’s latest speedy trains are so comfortable, economy feels like first class compared to any of my memories of what was the journey from hell all those years ago when ‘budget’ meant the ‘bus’.
I got a text at 5.15pm from my friend – “just drifting past the South Wall. Best trip home ever. Will never fly again”. This I doubt, but every snow cloud has a silver lining. It’s hard to convince people about the joys of greener, slower travel, unless they actually experience it. You can bring as much luggage as you want, including bikes. You check it all in now, so no lugging it round the ship anymore. You don’t have to hide your make-up bottles either. Even Holyhead terminal is better these days. On a recent trip, a Donegal man who makes the trip six times a year told me, “It breaks my heart.In the old days we begged them for a new terminal and now it’s here, but it’s empty. It used to be a cattle market, dirty and full of drunks”. Sounds like a bad budget airline, I thought.
If you aren’t making a last minute booking, book a Sail and Rail package. This is possible using various methods. If you are travelling out of the UK, go through booking agency Raileasy, and remember to put your home station first, not just Euston, as you can get a through ticket from any station in UK. Do check if you are travelling direct to Dublin Port or Dun Laoghaire, as some services mean you have to change at Crewe or Chester stations. You can’t get a first class ticket on this package, but book well in advance with Virgin Trains (virgintrains.co.uk), and you can get a First Class Single for approx. £50 sterling, with great food and drink served all the way through Wales and England. Note, however, that this is a mid-week deal, and there is no food at weekend, so you are just paying for a bigger seat if travelling Saturdays or Sundays.
If you are travelling from Ireland to UK and want to get a good SailRail package, do this at Irish Rail, either by phone
+ 353 1 8366222 ( Mon to Fri 9-5), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call in to one of the following Irish Rail stations: Athlone, Ballina, Cork, Drogheda, Claremorris, Dublin Connolly, Dundalk, Ennis, Galway, Killarney, Limerick, Limerick Junction, Longford, Mallow, Mullingar, Sligo, Thurles, Tralee, Tullamore, Waterford, Westport or Wexford.
Or you can do just as my friend did, and book online the night before, roll on, roll off, no bother. I’m not sure she really cares that her carbon footprint was at least half of flying, to be honest. But if she can see that travelling the greener way is a much better experience all round, then it’s a win win. Any other converts can check out all European rail routes with details of journey lengths, transits, and overnight accommodation, as well as green places to stay nearby, at the newly launched www.greentraveller.co.uk
An edited version of this article was fist published in The Irish Times, 16 January 2010
I love a man who does what I tell him. “You should open a Natural Retreats in Ireland”, I told Ewan Kearney, Director (and partner) of an idyllic collection of sef-catering houses, situated in UK National Parks, which look as if they were lifted off the set of Grand Designs. I stayed at their retreat hidden in the hills of the Yorkshire Dales last July. Their exquisitly eco-designed wooden houses,with sedum moss rooves, local food sourcing for client’s goody hampers, rainwater harvesting, are all just part of their exemplary, sustainable links with UK National Parks. Much to my surprise, less than a year later,Kearney has opened up five new Natural Retreats sites in Ireland (www.naturalretreats.com). This guy doesn’t let the green grass grow under his feet, that’s for sure.
Sadly I can take no credit. Natural Retreats had already been working with Irish tourism experts, to work out the best way to expand into Ireland and maintain their ethos of sustainability at the same time. They started looking at IrishNational Park sites, with a view to replicating their already successful English product. And then the credit crunch hit. But this didn’t stop them, realising there was still room for Irish development. The answer was not to build from scratch, but team up with Irish businesses which already had high quality, environmentally sensitive, self-catering accomodation, and which were willing to find new uses and marketing outlets for them. The result is Natural Retreats luxury villas at Parknasilla (as photographed here), CountyKerry, Adare Manor, CountyLimerick, Castlemartyr Resort in CountyCork, The K Club in CountyKildare and Kilronan Castle Estate in CountyRoscommon.
I must admit, I was slightly disappointed when I heard that they hadn’t gone out on their own, and had teamed up with prestigious and pricey resorts. However, Kearney was quick to point out that it is a different world we are working in now, rightly saying “Sustainability is the single most important thing for us, and having access to beautiful areas like Parknasilla, for example, where there is already an excellent product, in a stunning location, which we could only dream of having access to, has been amazing!. There are endless activities here which allow visitors to interact with this stunning natural environment, as well as superb local produce to fill our hampers. This has meant we can all still do what we believe in, despite the challenges of this current economic climate”.
Natural Retreats’ empasis is always on local. At their new Irish sites, they have employed local site managers, for example, insisting they are people with excellent local knowledge, and a passion for the landscape, walking, riding, cycling etc. When they told their new partners that they wanted to provide food hampers, one of them voiced concern at not being able to get Yorkshire produce, not realising that when Natural Retreats say local, they really do mean local.
So, if you want to retreat into the luxurious arms of this new ethical ‘blow-in’, check it out for yourself. Because sustainability is not just about renewables and recycling, it is also about saving what we already have, especially the good stuff, and just making it better. If more businesses combined forces like this to fight the crunch, and create more ethical, sustainable products, we would have a lot more to write home about when we get there.
(Article first published in The Irish Times, 25th July 2009)
Ireland’s first National Bike Week starts tomorrow (14-21 June), which not only gives us the excuse to dig our bikes out from the back of the shed, but also to see where we can enjoy riding them.At last, the wheels of change are in motion for Irish cyclists, as National Bike Week is part of a new National Cycle Policy Framework, the aim of which is to get as many of us as possible back in the saddle again. For details of this week’s events see http://bikeweek.ie.
I am using National Bike Week to celebrate Ireland’s first long-distance trail, The Kingfisher Cycle Trail,a must for anyone who wants to discover the hidden gems of the North-West. The Kingfisher is an appropriate name for it – this elusive little bird is associated with lakelands, and the 370kms trail twists in an out of the extraordinarily endless lakes of Cavan, Fermanagh, Leitrim and Monaghan, giving the Kingfisher (and us) a superb choice of shores to rest upon.
The Trail is designed as a figure of eight, divided into two loops. The northern loop circles Lower Lough Erne, then moves alongside Loughs Melvin and Macnean, stretching out as far as Ballyshannon in Co.Donegal.The lower loop is bordered on two sides by Upper Lough Erne and Lough Allen. A good starting point for the southern loop is Carrick-on-Shannon, from where you can travel east, along backroads through the patchwork quilt-like landscape of tiny lakes. On this route, an ideal picnic stop is at Newtownbutler where, if travelling anti-clockwise, you have to phone the ferryman to help you back on your journey across the lake to Crom in Co. Fermanagh. For the northern loop section, hire bikes at eco-friendly, family-run Corralea Activity Centre (www.activityireland.com), or base yourself here for a few days. Then go further north, and check out the extra Atlantic mini-loop from Belleek or Ballyshannon to the sandy beach at Rossnowlagh. Creevy Cottages, overlooking the sea, are the perfect stop-off for this bit (www.creevyexperience.com).
The Kingfisher Trail’s map is excellent (€6, www.cycletoursireland.com), offering several different ways to break up the Trail, as well as day routes and attractions along the way. It also points out some of the busier sections of road, warning cyclists to take caution, but there are few of these. Other fine eco-friendly places to stay along the Trail, which either offer bikes free of charge to guests, or arrange bike hire, include The Old Schoolhouse, Meenaslieve, County Cavan (www.theoldschoolhousecavan.com), or tie your bike up beside the tipi at Orchard Acre Farm (www.orchardacrefarm.com). Two lakeshore accommodations which offer bikes and a boat free of charge are Little Crom Cottages on the shores of Upper Lough Erne (www.littlecromcottages.com), and Trinity Island Lodge, at a beautiful island hideaway near Killeshandra, County Cavan (www.trinityisland.com). You can have a superb massage after a day’s cycling if you stay at the Blaney Spa and Yoga Centre overlooking Lough Erne (www.blaneyspaandyogacentre.com), and you can reward yourself with some of Donegal’s finest fare at Ard Na Breatha, which won Georgina Campbell’s Best Guesthouse this year (www.ardnabreatha.com).
The new Cycling Framework also aims to integrate cycling into the public transport network, and not before time. At present, there are only certain rail routes which cater for bikes, and for details of these see www.irishrail.ie. If you want to leave the car at home, you can also think about taking the bus, as both Bus Eireann and Ulsterbus will take bikes in the boot, if there is room, on a first come first served basis.
For some more excellent cycling options abroad, check in with me in a couple of weeks time.
(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 13 June 2009)