Ireland needs a conversion when it comes to Wales

Catherine on Pembrokeshire Coast Path between Whitesands and St Justinian's Bay
Catherine on Pembrokeshire Coast Path between Whitesands and St Justinian’s Bay

Driving through my native Ireland, I remember spotting a road sign in The Burren region of County Clare, with the words “Ah, will ye ever” painted above the word ‘Stop’.  I often wondered if it was for the benefit of tourists who dash through en route to Connemara or Kerry, missing the National Park’s limestone wonders which gleam like the biggest emeralds of all. The Welsh ferry ports should have a similar sign for all those Irish people who dash off the ferry en route to England and beyond.  Because, believe me, you really need to stop.

As I walked straight out of Fishguard onto the Pembrokeshire Coast Path,  a spectacular 299 kms walking trail which snakes its way along this three for the price of one coastline, with craggy, sandy and rocky all on offer depending on which headland I traversed,  it’s hard not to lament the lack of such a facility back home. This area is also the UK’s only coastal National Park which also incorporates a whole web of inland pathways, bridleways and estuaries

With just a few days to spare, I took on a few different sections of the Path. Staying at Preseli Venture Eco Lodge, a vibrant, family-run activity centre where I had first stayed a couple of years ago when I first explored the coast from the water that time, sea kayaking and coasteering. They welcome everyone here like long lost friends and celebrate Pembrokeshire’s wealth of natural heritage with such infectious enthusiasm that I thought this would be the perfect base for a bit of solitary walking this time. And as part of their Self Guided Walking Break, they also serve vats of wonderful home cooked food all day, so I hit the roads with a belly full of breakfast, a packed lunch, in the knowledge that a big curry or casserole was waiting for me each night.

Walk and bus the coast path in Pembrokeshire and all around the Welsh Coast
Walk and bus the coast path in Pembrokeshire and all around the Welsh Coast

Preseli is located 11 kms from Fishguard, where the owners will pick you up if they can although it is a quick cab or bus ride if you are coming by foot. And I really recommend leaving the car behind. It’s much cheaper, you really slow down and there is a brilliant all year round tourist bus service to get you to and from the favourite spots and which you can hail at any spot along its route. For more details and timetables see

On the first afternoon, I shook off my journey jaundice by fitting in a three hour walk along the coast Path from nearby Aber Mawr beach heading south to Trefin, where I caught the bus back to the campsite. The weather was drizzly enough to get my walking boots suitably muddy and my new waterproof trousers tried and tested. However, in spring this whole coastline erupts into colour with pink Foxgloves, white Ox-eye Daisies, blankets of yellow Kidney Vetch and Wild Primrose dotted with the purples of wild thyme, uplifting the spirit no matter what the weather is doing.

The sky was cloudless on day two, however, when  I started out on my 19 kms circular, and nearly all coastal, route around St. David’s which,  although it is the smallest city in the UK, has one of the largest collection of coves and cliffs on its doorstep, most of which are only accessible by foot. I took the bus again to St. David’s, where the cathedral clock struck nine as I headed up a long, narrow road where the grass still grows in the middle, to the expanses of Whitesands Bay. Heading south again, the Coast Path overlooks Ramsay Island , a bird reserve and favourite hangout for seals,  dolphins and porpoises ( although,  as I dipped in and out of tiny uninhabited bays,  I only spotted a few cliff climbers, kayakers and a couple of fishing boats. It never gets busy here really, except around the historical honeypots of St Justinian’s Bay, with its ancient chapel and a stunning red and cream lifeboat station with funicular system designed to transport people and good up and down the cliff, or the turquoise inlet of Porth Clais with its ancient lime kilns built into the harbour walls (and a much needed coffee and ice cream kiosk).

Catherine overlooking the lifeboat station and funicular at St Justinian's Bay, on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path
Catherine overlooking the lifeboat station and funicular at St Justinian’s Bay, on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path

The only other company en route was the odd smiling hiker pursued by some of the choughs, cormorants and stonechats which favour this stretch of coast. Not surprising, therefore, that the retreat at St Non’s  is still used as such, with yoga, meditation and religious retreats all part of the mix (  This was the birthplace of St. David, Non being his mother, and I must admit that even though I popped into the chapel in search of shade rather than spirituality, I found this a moving place indeed.

My last day of walking took me around Strumble Head, just 5 kms from Fishguard, where wild ponies are let out to pasture in order to keep these remote rocky slopes and paths clear of bracken and gorse, and where an imposing white lighthouse issues warnings to the incoming ferries. This is where I realised that I really didn’t want to leave this Path at all now.  I had become a headland addict, wanting ‘just one more’ before giving up. However, there are plenty more fixes to be had now as, following on from Pembrokeshire’s success, all 1400 kms of the country’s coast were  officially opened to walkers in May of this year, known as the Wales Coast Path. So now walkers don’t have to stop at all, they can just keep going and going.

Go there:

Ferry Rosslare to Fishguard with Stena Line,  Tel: 01 204 7777, Foot passenger between

Preseli Venture Eco Lodge - eco friendly and super friendly all round
Preseli Venture Eco Lodge – eco friendly and super friendly all round

Rosslare to Fishguard €32 one way, or bring your bike for €10 one way. For more information on their excellent rural bus schemes linking the Pembrokeshire Coast, see or

Catherine stayed at Preseli Venture Ecolodge and Activity Centre (, Tel: +44 1348 837709) open to individuals mid-week for Sterling £39 pn b&b, or £59 pn fully catered. Or check out their self guided walking holiday which is aimed at hikers doing their own thing. Take a break from hiking and explore the Coast from the water on one of their activities, from £55. Coasteering is a must.

 This article was first published in The Irish Times

For women with a sense of adventure

coasteering_optHaving an adventure on holiday is such a subjective notion. The skydivers who recently completed the first ever parachute jump over Mount Everest spent 15 years planning and $24000 each to get their adventure kicks. Personally, I am a bit less extreme. My first big travel adventure was in my early twenties, when I went backpacking alone to Australia, and had the time of my life. Just discovering the joys of solitude was an adventure in itself. And I didn’t even go near a bungy rope. Rainforests yes, shark cage diving, no thanks mate.  But that’s just me, for whom, now pushing middle age, just getting away from the children for a weekend is an adventure. Here are some of my favourites for all those non-skydiving adventurous women out there:

1.                  Coasteering is not some sort of pub game you play with beer mats on a girls’ night out. But it does involve wearing a lot of rubber, and it is about as daring as I get these days. Decked from head to toe in the thickest wetsuits possible, plus helmets and buoyancy aids, coasteering is, basically, all about chucking yourself into deep water from rocky heights. No ropes, just scrambling up rock faces, with the supervision of qualified adventure instructors, and then jump. And swim. Climb up somewhere else, jump in again, and swim. Or, as one instructor put it, “all those things your mother wouldn’t let you do in the sea when you were a child”. This has to be one of the best ways to get to know the UK’s only coastal National Park, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, in South Wales.  Warm up in an eco-lodge at the end of the day, lap up homemade food, plenty of local ale, and head out for a bit of cave swimming the next day. It all happens so close to Ireland, you could almost coasteer your way there, just 9kms from Fishguard ferry port, with daily sailings from Rosslare (see, Tel: + 44 (0) 1348 837709, Preseli Venture, Parcynole Fach,
Pembrokeshire, SA62 5HN, UK. 2 day coasteering weekends from £189 sterling, including two nights’ accommodation at the  Preseli Venture Eco Adventure Lodge, all meals, two half day coasteers and a half day hike, equipment and qualified instruction.

2.                  Back on much drier land, weaving rugs with women from the Berber tribes on the Plains of Marrakech is one of the most adventurous holidays I have ever taken. It is a women only holiday, due to the cultural morocco-062_optsensitivities of working closely with Muslim women. But there is nothing of the ‘knitting circle’ about this break, where you start off your trip shopping with a local guide in Marrakech. Then head up to the weavers in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains for weaving, eating fine local food, and chatting about different lifestyles and life experiences during the day, and out to the coastal fishing port of Essaouira at nighttime. Unlike other girly trips to, say New York, the only seabreezes you’ll get on this one are real ones off the Atlantic. But you are guaranteed to laugh just as much, learn so much more and take the adventure of a lifetime (and small rug) away with you. This company also offers cooking and painting holidays in Morocco.,
Tel: +44 (0)1830 540 047 / +44 (0)191 565 3627, Ingrid Wagner Real World Journeys, Studio 5, The Stone Barn, Kirkharle Courtyard, Kirkharle, Northumberland, NE19 2PE, UK, Eight day weaving holiday €1196 approx (£925) including flights from UK.

3.                  The multi-taskers among us will just love Delphi Mountain Resort in Connemara. They have so many activities on offer, you need a spreadsheet to prepare your trip. Get down and dirty during the day, as instructors guide you up mountains, teach you to take on the Atlantic surf, have you jumping off the pier to swim to your kayak (all wetsuits provided), or simply send you off on a quiet bike ride across the Delphi Valley. Perfect for a hen party, as you can chill out at their natural spa afterwards, with seaweed baths and hydrotherapy pool, and eat for Ireland in their excellent restaurant afterwards. Choose from luxury four-star accommodation, or budget bunk rooms. If you get out there and make the most of every activity they lay on for you, all you will want to do is fall into bed at the end of the day anyway.  Delphi is quite simply divine, rain or shine.Delphi Mountain Resort, Leenane, Connemara, County Galway.  Rooms from  €40-€300 per night including breakfast. Mid-week spa breaks from €99 per person per night for luxury room and breakfast, use of thermal suite and free seaweed bath. Activities from €25., Tel: +353 (0) 95 42223,

4.                  Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking takes people kayaking off the Atlantic Coast off West Cork in summer, and then to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula in Winter. You still have time to sample West Cork, where Jim works closely with one of the Ireland’s leading Whale Watching companies, Whale Watch West Cork, well into winter. Swap Atlantic for Pacific for a January boost, where you not only learn all the kayaking skills you need, but also snorkel, hike, fish, visit local fishing villages, go whale-watching and discover mangroves by kayak. Oh, and just to add to the adventure, you camp on the Island of Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited volcanic Island about 5 miles from the mainland, the perfect base for paddling from one white sandy beach to another., Tel: +353 (0) 28 210 58,
Atlantic Sea Kayaking, The Abbey, Skibbereen, West Cork. Half-day kayaking trips in West Cork from €50 per person. 12-day Mexico kayaking trip (for beginners and more advanced) from  €1450 per person sharing, not including flights.

5.                  If you associate Crete with drunken hen nights and all night clubbing, think again. Crete is also famous among geologists and conservationists for its superb gorges, leading down to empty beaches and aquamarine waters. Especially if you travel out of hen season. In April and May, it is a pure flower fest, as botanists and nature lovers flock from all around the world to see the Crete burst to life with abundant wild and rare flowers. You can travel with Pure Crete, who has been bringing walkers and flower lovers here for over twenty years.  Staying in locally-owned villas, you will be guided across the high plains, to the snowcapped peaks of the White Mountains, down through the Imbros Gorge, past orchid meadows at Spili, to one of many sandy coves. Experts Dr. Stephen Waters and Clive Daws tell you all you need to know about the 150 endemic species of flowers and orchids, as you walk from one side of Crete to another, watching it come alive with colour., Tel: +44 (0) 845 070 1571 Pure Crete, Bolney Place, Cowfold Road, Haywards Heath, West Sussex, RH17 5QT, UK.  Crete in Bloom package €920 approx (£715) including accommodation, air fare from UK (including Belfast), expert guides and excursions.

6.                  I found that climbing to the top of a sixty foot oak tree was the best natural way to deal with an ever-growing fear of heights. Recreational tree climbing is big in US, but still pretty unheard of in this part of the world. catherine-climbingI loved it; the solace at the top of an ancient oak is like nothing else, not to mention the child-like glee at having got yourself up there. Safely harnessed and helmeted, you are carefully guided up by arborist Paul McCathie, using the usual climbing techniques of ropes and carabiner clips. He is on the Isle of Wight, one of the UK’s most underrated beauty spots. The Mighty Oak Tree Climbing Company in Cornwall take it one step further and lets you sleep up there, using tree boats, specially-designed four cornered hammocks safely suspended up in the branches. An early morning breakfast is sent up to you as you swing serenely to the sound of the Cornish dawn chorus,,  00-44 (0) 1983 563 573. 2.5 hour session €45 approx (£35.00) for adults, €32 approx. (£25.00) for children aged 8-16., Tel: +44 (0) 7890 698 651. Prices for tree camping from €180 approx(£140) per person for groups of 2-5 climbers, including instruction, climbing, equipment, dinner, and breakfast., Tel:  00-44-0797 0033 209

7.                  You won’t get much more adventurous than some of the women who head off to volunteer for a holiday. Most volunteering organisations find that the majority of their clients are women. It feels like a safe way to travel alone, for example, as you plan your trip in advance with an agency, which then guides you and offers support while you are abroad. You can travel the world cheaply by volunteering through WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Wwoofers stay with farming families, offering a maximum of five hours a day of labour, while your hosts provide you with clean warm accommodation and all your food. If you want to make a more generous contribution to communities in need of help in the developing world, you could spend an extended trip volunteering abroad. One of the most highly-regarded ethical volunteering companies, People and Places, set up by, yes, two women, allocate you to one of their many life-changing projects, according to your skills and interests, in Africa, India or Indonesia. For further information on volunteering, see also www.comhlamh.orgTel +44 (0) 8700 460 479,

8.                  Riding out on the ranch is no longer the macho City Slickers holiday that it used to be. Celebrity ranchers like Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts have turned the traditional huntin’-fishin’-shootin’ ranching image into something not only a bit sexier but also more sustainable. Take a break on a ranch in the America’s ‘Wild West, and you can not only improve your  riding skills, drive herds out to the prairies or do sunset cattle roundups, or but also go hikin’- bikin’ and raftin’ as well as swimmin’ and hot tubbin’. You don’t have to ride a horse like Nicole either, as they welcome beginners too.UK airports, full board, accommodation and activities)., Tel:  +44 (0) 1509 618811.7 nights from £1395 (approx € 1640, including flights from many

9.                  If dancing in the church hall is the nearest you have got to learning Salsa, then how about taking on the real thing in Havana, Cuba, where Salsa is the national dance, and the cha-cha-cha still oozes from every brick of the city’s famous pastel coloured buildings. There is yoga in the morning, dancing in the afternoon, and excursions to see the real thing in the evenings, as well talks and outings to teach you more about this fascinating country’s culture and history. Ideal for women traveling alone, as you are allocated a local dance partner during your afternoon dance sessions., Tel: 44 (0)1273 600030 10 days from £895 (approx. €1051) excluding flights, but  including  shared accommodation, breakfast, Salsa dance classes with local dance partner, history talks and excursions

10.              Need a bit of cryotherapy? Who doesn’t from time to time? You need to the Aquacity Resort in Poprad, Slovakia, where cryotherapy is the completely mad act of entering a room at -120˚C, wearing nothing but woolen shorts, mittens, socks, a headband to protect your ears, and a paper mask (not really a romantic break, then), walking around for two minutes, and then going back into the warmth of a gym for a vigorous warm-up. The Slovakians call this “kick starting the body into self-healing and regeneration”. Or therapy to make you cry, more like it. If you survive this adventure, you can spend the rest of your stay enjoying the biggest geothermally heated waterpark you will ever see, heated by nature through all the seasons.  Or warm up in one of many scented steam rooms, followed by a quick cool down in cold fountains. This aqua-haven is powered by a natural geothermal spring, at the foot of the High Tatras Mountain Range, which provides the resort’s dramatic backdrop. Choose from 3 and 4 star onsite hotel accomodation, or self-catering apartments., + 421 52 7851 111, AquaCity Poprad, Sportova 1397/1, 058 01 Poprad, Slovak Republic, to choose hotel, or book a package with, with four nights’ accomodation at Aquacity’s 3-star hotel, breakfast and dinner, and full use of the water facilities, including one Cryotherapy session, from €420 pp, flights not included.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 08 August 2009)