Disturbing the peace – Jet skis

If you are a keen sea swimmer on holiday, there is always a list of dangers to look out for: unpredictable currents, jellyfish, sea urchins and, at worst, sharks.  But few people point out one of the greatest dangers. Jet skis. On my recent swimming holiday in Croatia (click here to read the article) there was one particular piece of coastline where we were told by our instructors to hug the shore, as jet skiers often broke all codes of conduct at this location. They watched us, and the water, like hawks, but luckily it was early in the tourist season and still free of jet skis. This was much to the relief of one of my fellow swimmers, who had recently witnessed the tragic death of a friend when a jet skier collided with her when she was swimming.  Of course, the majority of jet skiers are just out for a bit of fun. But the fact is, they are very powerful machines. And bizarrely, most of them have no braking mechanism. With the exception of very recent models, they just cruise to a stop when you release the throttle. Not ideal in an emergency situation. There are also many rogue traders who overlook safety guidelines, renting them to inexperienced, and often young, people with only a few minutes’ training.

When riding a jet ski you are strongly advised to wear a wetsuit to prevent water impact on the body in the event of falling off at speed. Helmets are also recommended, and buoyancy aids are a must.  Most reputable companies recommend you go out with an instructor, using assigned lanes, and with the back up of a safety boat. You must also attach an engine stop lanyard to your wrist or buoyancy aid, a mechanism which shuts the engine off if you fall in.

If on holiday, you come across a jet ski hire company where such safety restrictions don’t exist, stay clear. Even an inflatable banana boat ride can be lethal, if riders don’t don helmets (to protect against head collisions when falling off at speed), or if the driver doesn’t have the emergency engine switch-off facility. I can just see my children rolling their eyes, as I say no to banana boats without a helmet, but the European Child Safety Alliance states that,  “Inflatable riders (banana boats, water tubes) should wear helmets and personal flotation devices at all times”.

The Irish Water Safety recommendations  reiterate most of this.  They also point out that “Wildlife may be vulnerable if disturbed”, advising jet skiers to stay clear of sensitive areas. But which marine areas aren’t sensitive? Nic Slocum, marine conservationist and founder of responsible whale watching company Whale Watch West Cork says,  “Given that sound travels faster and further in water, noise pollution represents an intrusive and, in some cases,  lethal addition to the range of challenges already faced by marine creatures, particularly those that use sound to communicate, find a mate and obtain food. Two of the most dangerous sources of noise pollution are high speed cruisers and jet skis.” He also points out that “slow moving marine mammals are unable to react quickly enough to a craft travelling, sometimes in excess of, 40mph”, which makes the risk of collision significant. Indeed, statistics show that the majority of jet ski fatalities are from collisions of one sort or another, not drowning. You can download the very useful  RNLI leaflet on jet ski safety here.

I am the first to protest against health and safety gone mad. But most of this is just common sense. So, when next on a beach holiday, I will obey those in the know and continue to swim close to the shoreline. n a recent day out on Mullaghmore, this is exactly what many of us swimmers were forced to do, as jet skiiers came far too close to comfort and ruined a lovely day out at the beach. So,  I don’t mind saying that when the first opportunity comes to support a total ban of jet skis, I’ll be right out there on the frontline, fighting for quieter, safer and cleaner waters.

This article was first published in The Irish Times 8 August 2009









At home on a bike

kingfisher-shot-optIreland’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)

Food and tourism

cliffs-of-moher-resize “All this pasta is no good for keeping me regular”, an Irish colleague once told me on a work trip to Rome. We had to spend an afternoon looking for an Irish pub, just so that he could rebalance his digestive system with some ‘real’ food – a pint. Some people just aren’t meant to travel together. I recalled this story after reading a recent press release from The Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience, one of my favourite places to visit in Ireland. Their Director had recently been to a travel exhibition in Shanghai, as part of Tourism Ireland’s plan to encourage more Chinese visitors to visit Ireland. Tourism Ireland predicts 10000 Chinese visitors in 2009, which is great news. However, apparently these tourists have one big concern about Ireland. The food.  

Tourism Ireland’s chief representative in China, Susan Li, stressed the need for Irish accommodation providers and restaurants to start considering Chinese tastes.  “Chinese people like to have some familiar dishes available on their trips abroad – noodle and rice dishes, seafood, light soups, fresh fruit etc.  Hot food at breakfast is common but not exactly an Irish breakfast – rice porridge, hot rolls or even stir fry is a typical Chinese breakfast” explained Li, adding “It would be a good idea to provide green tea as well as the more traditional Irish cuppa”.

I almost had to check that the press release wasn’t dated 1st April. How wonderful that we can now welcome Chinese visitors to our shores, but I think we might be in danger of patronising them by assuming they all want stir-fry for breakfast on their travels. I thought that tourists had generally moved beyond expecting bacon and eggs on the Costa del Sol, a Sunday carvery in the Caribbean or asking ‘Can we have chips with that lasagne?’ in a Tuscan trattoria?.

The press release must also have had our long list of talented Irish chefs screaming à la Gordon Ramsay, many of whom have succeeded in putting Irish cuisine (and produce) at the top of the list for global gourmands. Guess what, lots of Irish tourist providers already have green tea on the menu! They may even stretch to fresh fruit these days. And let’s not even go there on seafood.

 Of course I know that there will always be tourists who freak over food. I travelled to Morocco with an English woman, whose case was packed with Pot Noodles and PG Tips. She had heard everything was ‘a bit spicy over there’, and had come prepared. I had a French friend who used to visit Ireland regularly, bringing most of the contents of a French hypermarket with him. Du vin, du pain, et du Boursin. Not as gifts, but just because he couldn’t go without ‘proper’ food when he was away from home.

Last year, we had the honour of hosting a Maasai elder in our home. It was his first trip out of the Maasai Mara, and he tried everything we ate, despite his normal, healthy diet of milk and herbs, and a monthly portion of meat. The only thing he didn’t understand was salad. He couldn’t see the point, which delighted my kids no end. He also said that the most exciting aspect of his trip was experiencing a new culture, and that understanding our food, and eating rituals, was the best part of that.

 It is a fantastically exciting prospect for Irish tourism providers to host Chinese guests, and attractions like the Cliffs of Moher are rightfully proud to show off our natural and cultural heritage. But food is a big part of that package, and it is surely time for them, Tourism Ireland, and all of us, to shout about that from the clifftops.

This article was first published in The Irish Times, 2nd May 09


A greener shade of Wight

shack3Gone are the purple rinses, the Isle of Wight is the new black. Or should I say green. It surfs, it sculpts, it sings, and it’s shouts sustainability.  It was also the guts of a hundred quid to go there by car ferry on the weekend I wanted to travel, which certainly encouraged me to go green. It was cheaper to travel by train from London with a family railcard, and so began our pickings from a rich menu of green offerings on the Isle of Wight.    It even has a green tourism website with endless suggestions on how to enjoy this beautiful island without destroying what it has to offer.  A website which adds ‘chilling’ to its list of activities wins my green vote straight away and so we started as we meant to go on.


I booked a cute little beach shack a few miles from Cowes, booked bike hire through a company which delivers and collects wherever you want, in this case at the ferry terminal, studied cycle maps into the early hours and obsessed over five day weather forecasts.  One small backpack each, no packing the car with ‘stuff’, no stopping on the M25 to adjust our dodgy bike carrier, and no arguments over directions.  So far so chill.  Two and a half hours after leaving home, we were lashing across the Solent on the Red Funnel high speed jet. This is not the cheapest option, but it is only a twenty minute crossing and worth the look on my children’s faces as we took off. It was so fast, I was slightly concerned it wasn’t going to stop.  But we settled gently into the quay at West Cowes, where John, the bike guy, gave us our bikes and took our luggage, to be dropped to us later at the shack.  The Island is cyclist heaven. Just enough hills to push yourself, or your bike and tagged on four year old in my case, varied landscapes of coast, forests and estuarine marshes.  We took the coast road from Cowes, through Gurnard, up quite a few steep hills and, about forty five minutes later, down a dusty track to the sea, and our shack. dscf0169


The shack is a gloriously simple wooden summer house, painted in pastel blue and white, overlooking a buttercup filled meadow dipping down to a quiet sandy beach.  The children leapt onto the swingseat hanging from an oak tree in the garden and I had to blink twice to check I was not on the set of a Boden photo shoot.  Our dusty backpacks and sweaty trainers suddenly looked out of place among the collection of carefully chosen vintage bric a brac and funky fifties furniture. . But Helen, the owner with the enviable designer eye, is not precious about her vision – it is a place for having good old fashioned ‘Enid Blyton’ fun.  She leaves antique board games, binoculars and even a copy of the Famous Five itself, for sticky sandy hands to explore. With its solar powered lighting, no electricity, wood burning stove amply supplied with driftwood, composter, recycling, and environmentally friendly cleaning products provided, this ticks many of the green boxes. And the solar powered mobile charger is inspired.


A pre-ordered hamper of Island goodies awaited the hungry cyclists, enabling us to prepare a gastronomic evening picnic watching the sunset over the bay.  The menu included locally made organic pasta served with the Island Garlic Farm’s Confit de Tomates.  To drink, a chilled rosé from Rossiters Vineyard, and local apple juice.  The cheese course was a coup.  A blue cheese from the Isle of Wight cheese company which was recently awarded the Fortnum & Mason Best English cheese award 2007.  We finished off with cake and biscuits baked only a few miles away and the children used the, now nearly empty, canvas style bucket (ordered instead of traditional hamper, as it was easier for us to bring home) to collect driftwood. You can also order a splendid breakfast hamper, with local muesli, bacon, sausages and eggs. The strapline here should really be ‘fill before you chill’.


It would not be difficult to fill your days doing nothing at the shack.   Buckets, spades and fishing nets were provided, the boys cycled safely up and down the lane, chased butterflies across the meadow, and swam several times a day.  But I couldn’t resist some of the other Island activities on offer.  One day we took a two mile cycle to riding stables for the boys’ first horse riding experience. Hugo, my younger boy,  had been talking for weeks about riding on a white unicorn, so when Faye the farmer led the most perfect white pony towards a seldom silenced four year old, there was no explanation needed for why it didn’t have a horn sticking out of its head.  As far as he was concerned, his dream had come true.


There were many such highlights on this trip.  Putting coffee on to brew, and hopping down for an early morning swim watched only by onlooking oyster catchers and curlews.  Cycling in nearby Parkhurst Forest and spotting red squirrels.  Or shopping at the superb weekly Farmer’s Market in Newport, and picnicking along the offroad (and gloriously flat) Medina estuary cycle route nearby. But the big high was saved for last.  We took our final view of what had by now become our new favourite place in the world, from the top of a sixty foot ancient oak tree.  The Isle of Wight is one of a handful of places in the UK where you can go recreational tree climbing.  Guided by New Zealand arborist, Paul, who confesses he would rather preserve and climb trees than follow his original career path of cutting them down, we donned our harnesses and helmets, and I prayed for a head for heights. There was no reason to fear. In this remote field, located a few miles from East Cowes, Paul gave us detailed tuition in the art of tree climbing, mastering ropes and knots as well as a greater appreciation of the ancient gem which supported our weight throughout.  I watched Louis, my eight year old, climb gracefully from branch to branch, handling knots and carabeener clips like an expert.  louis-climbing It was like watching a dance performance as he climbed, then swayed, and finally swung gently upside down to a soundtrack of nothing but birdsong.  My climbing was more baboon than Bussell, but I finally caught up with my little elf lying high up in a tree hammock eating the chocolate eggs which awaited him.  We lay in the hammock together, swaying gently with the breeze and the world seemed to stop for a while.  Under Paul’s constant supervision, we absailed gently back to earth, where we landed on a picnic rug laid out for afternoon tea. Paul pointed out that the milk was from a farm only a mile away, and the homemade cakes from a local bakery.  I realised that people here don’t just promote Island produce because they have to, but because they are proud of it.  They have every right to be.


After three hours of climbing, absailing, chatting and eating, we headed back to the boat.  We locked our bikes by the jetty, and waited for our bags to be delivered back to us. They were running a bit late, stuck in traffic apparently, happily not something I had experienced in the last few days.  Nor was I worried about catching the boat as they run every half hour.  In fact, I realised that something had happened to the uptight London timekeeper in me.  I really didn’t care.  Or, as they say on the Isle of Wight, I had finally chilled.


Catherine and family travelled from London to Southampton with South West Trains, www.southwesttrains.co.uk, and to West Cowes with Red Funnel, see www.redfunnel.co.uk.


To stay at ‘The Shack’ see www.vintagevacations.co.uk.  Weekly stays from £375 and weekend stays from £175


Catherine hired bikes from Wight Cycle Hire.  Adult bikes £30 (children £20, Tags £15) for three days. Baggage collection free of charge. They deliver and collect from anywhere on the Island. See   www.wightcyclehire.co.uk


If you bring your own bikes, you can store or transport your luggage with www.bagtagiow.co.uk. £6 per bag


Micha the white ‘unicorn’ can be found at Romany Riding Stables, Porchfield, tel: 01983 525467. 


Order top hamper for treats on arrival from www.wighthamper.co.uk.


For the best ever trip to the treetops with Goodleaf, see www.goodleaf.co.uk – 2.5 hour climbing experience costs £25 for children and £35 for adults. 5% discount to anyone arriving by public transport, pushbike or by foot.


(This article was first published in The Observer, 10 June 2007)