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. 

Kayaking and seaweed foraging in West Cork

Sally Mckenna of Atlantic Sea Kayaking showing me some seaweed samples Photo: Catherine Mack

It is no secret that Ireland has some of the world’s finest weed. Not only that, it is in plentiful supply, cheap and and it’s a superfood. The weed is, of course, seaweed, and anyone who has had a seaweed bath will not need convincing as to its benefits.In terms of sustainability, seaweed is also a no brainer, and so it is exciting to see that the Inchydoney Island Lodge and Spa in West Cork has created a two-night “Seaweed Experience” package which has you living and breathing the stuff. And not just within the confines of a spa either.

Realising that many people are now looking for a low-impact, green, activity-based break, not just a lie in the spa, drink and eat all weekend sort of a break, Inchydoney may inspire others to follow suit and get their guests teaming up with local, green activity providers, nature experts and guides.

Inchydoney has picked two of Ireland’s best: expert kayaker and local marine life font of knowledge, Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking, who brings guests out on local waters alongside Sally McKenna, of the Bridgestone Guide fame, who has successfully combined her food knowledge with a passion for paddling to bring people seaweed foraging.

Over the duration of a day on the water, I learned kayaking skills with Jim, whose sense of humour and reassurance that kayaking is a gentle sport for all ages, and not for adrenalin junkies, immediately put me at my ease. He led me into hidden caves and coves and from island to island, pointing out seabirds and seals and keeping an eye out for dolphins. Suddenly, as we emerged from an explorative paddle, Sally would appear out of nowhere, full of child-like excitement about a certain kelp or wrack she had found, so we all paddled over to study it, harvest some carefully to allow regrowth, taste a bit, and learn about its growth patterns and healthy properties.

Sally’s love of this most underrated food source, from how it grows to how to eat it, was totally infectious. We stopped for lunch on a deserted island, where she prepared dulse and potato soup, served with scones made with laver seaweed and served with dulse and lemon butter. All merited a Bridgestone plaque, I should add, not forgetting a kelp and carrot cake. By the end of the day, I had noted down all of her seaweed recipes, books for further reading, and vowed to bring my kids foraging as soon as possible. You’ve got to watch this weed thing, it’s addictive.

Day two at Inchydoney fed my addiction even further, except that this time it was me who was covered in seaweed (a dried version combined with green tea), then wrapped up in heated blankets and left to cook for 20 minutes. Then into a seawater massage bath, with jets to discover all those coves you never knew existed, followed by a couple of hours flitting between Inchydoney’s heated seawater pool, steam room and jacuzzi. All topped off with a walk on Inchydoney’s famous

Catherine and Sally harvesting seaweed off the coast of West Cork

white strand, close enough to walk barefoot from our room with a view of the Atlantic.

But really it was the day of paddling and exploring, learning and laughing out on west Cork’s waters which makes this trip extra special. It is not surprising that Atlantic Sea Kayaking was recently chosen as one of Trip Advisor’s Top Ten “Most Exciting Alternatives to the Typical Tourist Holiday”. Fair play to Inchydoney for celebrating and supporting such an ethical activity provider, and bringing them to the attention of those who might not otherwise find the world that awaits them, beyond the spa and into a world of bladderwrack bliss.  You can also watch a video of my (sorry it’s a bit windy) experience here.

This article was first published in The Irish Times

 

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