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 walkingpembrokeshire.co.uk.

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 (ramseyisland.co.uk) 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 (stnonsretreat.org.uk).  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 walkingpembrokeshire.co.uk or visitpembrokeshire.com.

Catherine stayed at Preseli Venture Ecolodge and Activity Centre (preseliventure.co.uk, 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

How do I find the words?….

WalrtweekI love the choice of words that Ron Mader, editor of Planeta.com, has used to guide us through this year’s Responsible Tourism Week, an online conference which was created by Ron himself. Every day he used a new theme, teaching us to be Attentive, Generous, Creative, Empathetic, Curious and Grateful  while immersing ourselves in the world of travel, whether we are hosts, guests, writers, photographers, publishers, tourist boards, activity providers etc.

I am always bowled over by the personalities I meet on my travel writing expeditions. They demonstrate the practice of these key words throughout every aspect of their businesses and so I am taking this opportunity to celebrate them. Please visit their websites, follow them on Twitter or Facebook, spread the word about them, and use them as case studies to inspire others to act the same way. Or, if they have businesses which are open to guests, just go visit them. They will all be glad to say hi, I am sure.

  1. Attentive – One of the most attentive people I know is Valere Tjolle, a UK based sustainable tourism consultant with Totem Tourism and Sustainable Travel editor at Travelmole. Anyone who has been lucky enough to meet and chat with Valere in detail about the issues of sustainable tourism will know that there are few more attentive people than him. He talks and writes about sustainable tourism in a way that steers clear of academic bluff, he has no hidden agendas, he has been working in tourism for long enough to see responsible tourism go from niche to norm, back to niche and then to a place which lies strangely in between the two. When hearing about worldwide tourism projects he is attentive to all the details, highlights them on Travelmole for all of us to read. He listens to everyone’s stories, asks all the right questions and pushes the envelope when questioning tourism leaders. His attentiveness means that many people, who wouldn’t normally be given one, have a voice. He has also decided to extend his already busy life into a tour operator business, just launched this week, bringing tourists to the wonderfully undiscovered region of Romagna in Italy . Still in its infancy, Watch this space , Best of Romagna,  for more details.

    Pembrokeshire coat path between St justinian's bay and Porth Clais
    Pembrokeshire coat path between St justinian’s bay and Porth Clais
  2. Generous –Having walked on The Wales Coast Path a lot, one of the most glorious long distance walking routes in UK, I was struck by the generosity of landowners who are happy to share their space with tourists. I stood on the Pembrokeshire coast after walking from headland to headland all day, looked out across the water and thought how amazing it would be to walk the whole coast of my native Ireland.  But sadly it isn’t possible, due to land access issues. This is the same in so many countries, but in Wales farmers and other land owners have opened up paths for walkers, albeit in exchange for a small remuneration, meaning that not only can you now walk the length of the coast of Wales, but around the whole country as the Coast Path now links up with the Offa’s Dyke Long Distance Trail which follows the inland border with England route for 285kms. All thanks to the generosity of strangers.

    Catherine's canoeing out to their beds at Echologia
    Catherine’s canoeing out to their beds at Echologia
  3. Creative – This is a tough one as creativity oozes from every project I visit, but I think Echologia in the Mayenne region of France wins my creative prize this year.Apart from their website, that is, which has a way to go, but I forgive them as they have put all their creative energy into their stupendous eco set up. The proper name is actually EcH20logia, because this extraordinary 70 hectare site revolves around water, ecology and lodgings, with three disused limestone quarries offering natural gems of a getaway now that their underground water sources have been allowed to seep back up to the brim again.  Poised in and around these teal coloured water holes are a collection of twenty different places to stay, from yurts spread across a wild meadow, tipis within diving distance of the natural reed filtered swimming pool, cabins poised among the trees which overhang the waters or two cabins which float serenely in the middle of one of the basins. And all the creative vision of a group of local men and women who wanted to bring this dead space back to life again. Their vision is Zen like, but not in a purist, whispering way. It’s just about chilling in nature really and their act of replacing a loud, industrial space with something so natural is worthy of praise.
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  4. Empathetic- This is a tough one, but when I get a room full of food producers and tourism providers who just thrive on local sourcing, I really start to feel the love. Connecting tourism with local producers is when responsible and ethical tourism starts to kick ass. There are so many tourism businesses which go the extra mile to ensure that they source their food locally, totally empathising with the farmer down the road and working hand in hand to create the most deliciously local experience. In Ireland,  John and Sally McKenna’s Guidebooks , Best Restaurants and Best Places to Stay not only capture all the flagships of local produce in Ireland, but are written with total empathy and love for everyone mentioned in the book. Organic Places to Stay website has a wonderful selection of places to stay all around the world, which use organic and local produce. I am totally in love with the small island site, Real Island Foods on the Isle of Wight just off the South coast of England, where you can order all your local produce before you arrive, so that it is waiting at your self-catering accommodation when you arrive. Surely a model to emulate in other small destinations? Other websites in the UK which promote the food of love include farmison.com which has a plethora of farm to fork food and bigbarn.co.uk which is a great short cut to finding local producers on your travels. Just enter a postcode to find your nearest market, farm shop, artisan producer etc. Please feel free to comment on this below if you have found similar food tourism networks around the world, so that I can spread the word, and provide the ultimate feast of tourist sites with local food at
    John and Sally McKenna's Guidebooks to Ireland
    John and Sally McKenna’s Guidebooks to Ireland

    their core

  5.    Curious – Well, I guess I have to come back to travel writers for this one.  The people who love to dig and delve, but who also put responsible tourism at the heart of their work. Twitter has been a wonderful way for all of us to communicate and share ideas, and so here is a shout out to some of my favourites. Gail Simmons  (@travelscribe)  writes about the Middle East with great wisdom and sensitivity and has been Highly Commended at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards twice. She has introduced me to the wonders of Palestine and the exciting tourism developments happening at The Siraj Centre . Caroline Eden (@edentravels) works a lot in Asia and was also Highly Commended at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2012. Matthew Teller is also rather brilliant on the Middle East, and is a wonderful commentator on Twitter too.  Kevin Rushby is The Explorer for The Guardian newspaper and he is, basically, just too cool for school and I am at my greenest when reading his work….with envy that is! Richard Hammond of the UK’s Green Traveller website wrote the green travel column in The Guardian for years and then went on to found his website, which features hundreds of green holiday ideas all of which are  accessible by train. He also has a writers’ blog on his site which he contributes to regularly as well as a team of other writers. Such as Paul Miles who lives on a houseboat and so no better man for writing about slow travel and slow living (@Travel_n_green), Rhiannon Batten – the author of Higher Ground: How to travel responsibly without roughing it, and also regular feature writer for The Guardian and The Independent in UK (@rhiannonbatten),  and Jeremy Smith who is former editor of The Ecologist magazine and starting to write a lot about wildlife conservation via his blog Fair Game and on Twitter @jmcsmith.
    The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane
    The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane

    Jini Reddy is one travel writer I would love to travel and work with one day. She just seems to sing from the same songsheet as me, as you can see just from her trip portfolio, which includes  a canoe trip along Botswana’s Selinda Spillway and taking tea with the women of Pakistan’s pagan Kalash tribe (@Jini_Reddy). And last, but not least, Leo Hickman, environment editor for The Guardian newspaper in the UK, who also wrote the wonderful book on responsible tourism – The Final Call. He is also very active on Twitter, so follow and fall in awe, like I do every time I read his fine pieces of journalism, such as this recent one on flying and climate change. And to conclude, the Saint of all travel scribes, Robert Macfarlane , whose books seem to glow on my bookshelves telling me to pick them up and read them again and again. If you haven’t treated yourself already, check out the ever curious compositions  of this extraordinary travel writer in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012), The Wild Places (2008) and Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003)

    Catherine, totally grateful to be walking in Jersey
    Catherine, totally grateful to be walking in Jersey
  6.   Grateful –Well, asI get to share Tweets,  cross paths and go on journeys with nearly all the above, who  else could be more grateful than me, of course?

 With thanks to Ron Mader and all the participants of #rtweek2013 and #rtyear2013, as well as all my fellow travellers.

 

Going Under the Thatch in Wales

Trehilyn UchafLooking through the visitors’ book at a stunning Welsh farmhouse in the hills overlooking Fishguard Harbour, words like ‘bliss’, ‘peaceful’, ‘stylish’ and, of course, ‘eco’ jump off the page.  What strikes me as strange, however, is that apart from me, none of these happy holiday makers is Irish. And yet, Rosslare is only two hours away on the express ferry from Fishguard. For 35 ash cloud safe Euros (plus 8 euros to take your bike) you can walk off the gangplank and straight onto the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, with its 300kms of secret coves and infinitesimal seascapes. Stena Line also does very good combined sail and rail deals (stenaline.ie), with a station at the port for onward travel.

This 1830’s farmhouse, called Trehilyn Uchaf (meaning Upper Heulyn’s Town), has been restored with care and expertise, retaining original qualities, as well as sustaining it into the future with renewable energy, reed bed waste system, sheepswool insulation, and many other natural attributes. Because restoration and sustainability is what Under the Thatch is all about, a Welsh company set up to do just that, and the source of our weekend’s escape. It is also about quality and quirkiness and has won sustainability awards, thanks to the passion of it’s owner, architectural historian Greg Stevenson, who not only likes to see such buildings being used, but used all year round. Thus, he keeps prices affordable so they are always in demand, and remote villages benefit from tourism for more than two months of the year. Such as Fishguard, where he has a few gorgeous places to stay, some walkable from the ferry.

Trehilyn Uchaf itself is pure eye candy for the urban dweller who dreams of a rural retreat. Falling down with Farrow and Ballness, a bathroom that is bigger than my flat, antique furniture, it’s a fusion of classic and contemporary done without a bother. It is also a walkers’ dream. We walk overland to the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, starting at Carregwasted Point, and follow the Path for about 9k.It’s a great place for spotting bottle nosed dolphins too, although a bit early in the year for us, sadly. Later in the season you can do ‘Strumble Watches’ for marine life with Seatrust. A couple of pints and great chips at Goodwick’s Rose and Crown pub at the end of the walk, we collapse onto the Strumble Shuttle bus, which takes us back to the farm.

We have no need for our car, getting supplies at the supermarket twenty minutes’ walk from the port, and then a 7k taxi ride to the farm.  Later in the weekend, we head off on a walking trail over the fields to Fishguard, with its variety of small shops for local produce. If you do want to bring a car, there are three other converted buildings on this farm, including an eco-chic converted mill. The whole farm sleeps nineteen people, great for a big getaway, and only one party needs bring a car.

You could extend your stay and take a train or bus to one of Under the Thatch’s other quirky offerings, such as a railway carriage in Cardigan, a romany caravan in Llangrannog, or a shepherd’s hut in the foothills of the Black Mountains. Ironically, Stevenson’s favourite thatched one is in Ireland, a cottage with vintage caravan, called Geaglum, in Fermanagh, also on the website.

Green and gorgeous, these breaks are just across the water, accessible by public transport, sustainability at their core and, most importantly,  in locations where the wilderness, and often the wind, will not only blow off the cobwebs, but blow you away too.

Chilling on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path

This article was first published in The Irish Times.


 

From ferry to Fforest

Geodesic domes at Fforest campsite, Wales
Geodesic domes at Fforest campsite, Wales

A campsite where there are just a few tents in a luscious meadow, no cars, a breakfast buffet, and a shebeen onsite is a rare thing. Even rarer, it does not involve an overnight ferry crossing, just a two hour crossing from Rosslare to Fishguard (stenaline.ie). From here, a thirty kilometres drive, taxi or indeed cycle, will take you through the gates of Fforest, one of the UK’s coolest campsites. It is just outside the village of Cilgerran, in the heart of Wales’ beach and beauty-filled Pembrokeshire.

And it keeps getting better, as all tents and equipment are provided at Fforest. These are no ordinary tents either, with a choice of very funky, cream canvas geodesic dome tents,  tipis, bell tents and a more basic tunnel tent, known as the Nomad. All have wood-burning stoves except the Nomad which has, however,  like all Fforest’s accommodation, the inspired touch of reindeer hides to keep you toasty, or gorgeous Welsh woollen blankets if skins don’ t do it for you. You need to bring sleeping bags and towels, however, although a double duvet is provided in the dome tent. All tents are positioned on raised wooden bases to keep damp at bay, and adjoining kitchens are covered and fully equipped.  Even the shower blocks and loos are beautifully designed using green oak, larch and cedar, and effluent is channelled to a reed bed filtration system.

We opted for Fforest’s latest development, the Crogloft, which was originally a stone barn, and now home to those who love the outdoors but can’t do canvas. I love canvas but it was April, so we chickened out, and opted for solid walls and doors. The four croglofts are equally stylish, with cabin beds for the children and mezzanine bed for us, all draped with Fforest blankets, and a sofa bedecked with another reindeer. And the luxurious wetrooms are heaven for those who just hate to wade through nature when nature calls. You still get the camping vibe in the crogloft, however,

Canoeing on the River Teifi at Fforest campsite
Canoeing on the River Teifi at Fforest campsite

because the kitchen areas are outside, albeit covered from the elements, but in full view of the meadows, moon and stars.

Despite the cosiness of the croglofts, I must admit I still pined for canvas, wood burning stoves and fresh air. I got my daily fix of wood-burning in the woodland sauna, which is in a cedar barrel, heated by a wood stove, with a shower round the back for cooling down moments. The kids were delighted as they got to come in too, usually a health and safety no-no in conventional spas. But then most conventional spas don’t have a field full of buttercups to run through afterwards either.

The space at Fforest is impressive. There are only a handful of tents in each field, each one strategically positioned for privacy. There are just enough people in each field to be sociable, but you never feel crowded out. Just head to the main wooden lodge for the real social scene, where a delicious breakfast buffet is served every day, with endless pots of good coffee on the go, home made breads, eggs and fresh local produce such as  jams and honey. I loved the communal breakfast as it gave everyone a focus for the day, whereas we never seem to get going before about midday on normal campsites.

Activities abound at Fforest, although you could easily come here and just do nothing. However, I highly recommend taking the canoe trip down the river as well as the woodland creations sessions, when the boys made pencils out of green hazel wood, freshly cut in the forest, and necklaces out of elder. All those bushcraft things they love and which I get overly neurotic about like lighting fires, sawing wood and playing with penknives.

Chillin' as the sun goes down over Fforest
Chillin' as the sun goes down over Fforest

Fforest owners James Lynch and Sian Tucker have pulled off something special here. Although stylish and sustainable, they have avoided the current trend for designed-to-death campsites which kill the very thing we all want from the outdoors. Spontaneity, fun and nature. And plenty of dirt under the fingernails. As a result, the clientele is more green wellies than pink,  choosing local cider over chardonnay. What they need now to add to the fun is just a few more Paddies.

For more details on Fforest see coldatnight.co.uk, 00-44 (0) 1239 623633

An edited version of this article was first published in The Irish Times, 17 July 2010