Seaside secrets: The Wild West
Pol O Conghaile uncovers the hidden charms of Connemara on his latest coastal jaunt.
The seaside shop
It doesn't take much sunshine to enliven Salthill. A parting of the clouds and they're off -- a procession of dog walkers, joggers, buggy pushers and couples pacing the prom.
One of the big attractions in this old seaside resort is Galway Atlantaquaria, a pricey but well-meaning aquarium (€10.25/ €6.20) where kids can handle starfish and crabs, watch rays being fed and stand beneath a 60ft fin-whale skeleton.
If I'm being honest, however, whenever we visit, we spend just as much time in the Lighthouse Gift Shop. The family-run shop does all the slush puppies and sticks of rock you'd expect, but never feels the slightest bit tacky. That's saying something when stock includes fluffy penguins, bags of seashells, bath toys and dolphin-head grabbing sticks. If you can't decide on a purchase, stick your hand into the giant shark's mouth at the back of the store. It's a €5 lucky dip.
Details: Tel: 091 585116; the email@example.com.
The summer boat trip
Did you know that John Lennon once bought Dorinish Island for £1,700? Or that there is a seal sanctuary at Rocky Island? Or that the islands of Clew Bay are actually sunken drumlins?
Picking up titbits like this is one thing. It's quite another when the information is delivered at top speed on a 250bhp powerboat zipping around the coast. But that's exactly what to expect on a sea safari with Mayo's newest adventure tourism operator, Adventure Islands.
I hook up with Ciaran Collins, who runs the company, for a rib ride from Rosmoney Pier. He pushes the throttle, the nose lifts and off we go, nipping in and out of islands, sailing boats and bobbing seals on a safari that ranges from Collanmore Island to Inishgort Lighthouse.
The rib provides a real speed-on-sea rush, and every so often Ciaran pulls up to talk about the landscape and wildlife, pointing out old schoolhouses and the peak of Croagh Patrick. He can even arrange picnics, or overnight camping on your very own deserted island.
Details: From €40pp. Tel: 098 26907; theadventureislands.com.
The seaside town with a sizzle
Westport is still bright at 10.30pm. It's still buzzing, too, and not just in Matt Molloy's. Crispy calamari is being dunked in mayo at Sage, Clew Bay scallops are served with Kelly's black pudding at Mango's, and 'Kiss Me, I'm Irish!' boxer shorts grace the window at Thomas Moran's.
It's Grand Central for Mayo tourism and there's a big touch of the theme park about it (note the hen party wearing pink bunny ears), but Westport is authentic enough to carry it all off.
Think of the leafy mall along the River Carrowbeg, the old clock tower, or sundowners and seafood on the quay. Mosey into Kaleidoscope, a classy little crafts space on Bridge Street.
Zorbing is one of the activities at the new adventure activity centre at Westport House and, next weekend, the whole town will crank it up a gear for the annual Westport Music Festival. Capping it all is Westport's smashing coastal setting. The combo of Clew Bay and Croagh Patrick wouldn't look out of place in New Zealand.
Details: See destinationwest port.com; westporthouse.ie.
The beach with a bite
Spiddal and Roundstone got a little overwhelmed during the Celtic Tiger, surrendering their coastal charm to a deluge of city slickers and a yucky sprawl of holiday homes. Pulling up at Ceibh An Spidéal for an early morning stroll, however, our little bunch is completely alone.
This is the west coast at its best -- twinkling sunlight, a beach that is sandy or stony, depending on which side of the pier you mosey, small crabs lurking in the seaweed line.
We buy a hoola-hoop at the local shop, scratch our names into the shiny white sand and quickly drum up an appetite.
It's quelled at An Builín Blásta, a small but surprisingly good café hidden away at the back of An Ceardlann crafts village. My creamy seafood chowder (€6.50) comes with freshly baked brown and white bread; Rosa's pizza (€5) is a gigantic wing of foccacia miles ahead of the standard children's menu fare, and mum raves about the chilli sauce on her salmon fishcake (€8.50).
Spiddal is a Gaeltacht town, and Rosa is fascinated to hear the waitresses talking in Irish amongst themselves behind the counter. It's a busy little place, so get there early.
Details: Tel: 091 558559; ceard lann.com.
The bucket and spade beach
The R336 is one of Ireland's sweetest scenic drives, hugging Galway Bay before dog-legging at Rossaveal for the heart of Connemara. Sure, on sunny weekends, it can feel a bit like a rat run, but that's the perfect excuse for a pit-stop at Carraroe.
Drive on through the village here and you'll find the most magical beach at Trá an Dóilín. The sand looks white and floury from a height, with little coves boxed in by the coastal rock, but step on to it and you'll hear a very different crunch beneath your feet.
It's the sound of coral. In fact, the entire beach seems to be composed of seashells and the bleached bones of ancient polyps.
You won't manage a sandcastle, but the giant Bombay mix, interspersed with pink, blue and yellow shells, is a world unto itself. My kids sifted through it for ages.
Details: See discoverireland.ie/ Places-To-Go/Connemara.
The coastal trail
For every star God put in the sky, it's said, he laid a million stones in Connemara. The sentiment is brought home to me as I drive the Sky Road, which literally lifts the car up into misty clouds over the rocky shores, stony islands and boulder-strewn coves of Clifden Bay.
Another of those beautiful stones is Omey Island (above). At low tide, the water recedes to reveal a causeway linking Omey with Claddaghduff, and though there are tyre tracks before me in the sand, my SatNav displays a road running into blue water. Nervously, I edge down the slipway, following the arrows across the causeway and eventually ending up on the island.
From there, I drive the short distance until the road runs out. It's just me, an upturned currach, crystal-clear rock pools and a view of islands and surf out to sea. Omey's annual horse races take place on the causeway tomorrow, but don't forget to leave before the tide comes in!
Details: See irelandsislands.ie; connemara.ie.
The overnight suggestion
Imagine a guesthouse took a bite out of the Natural History Museum. That's my first impression of the elegant Quay House in Clifden.
Stepping inside the door, I find the shell of a leatherback turtle in the hall, wall-mounted antlers echoing the twist of a marble staircase, and several antique animal skins lounging about, including a tiger shot in Bengal in 1938.
Paddy and Julia Foyle's guesthouse is no dead zoo, however. The house dates from 1820, but it's an inspired mix of old and new -- you'll find colourful cushions and warm wicker sofas beneath oak-framed lithographs, or an oil of stormy seas splashed by light from the French windows.
The Quay House has 14 rooms, all individually decorated, most with views of Clifden Bay. They feel at once quirky and classy -- one boasts a huge antique mirror behind the bed, another has cloud wallpaper on a ceiling rising into the eaves, and a rim of silver-painted scallop shells.
There's an individual send-off, too. Breakfast is served in a conservatory with Virginia creeper twisting and turning overhead, and the menu includes oak-smoked salmon, pan-fried haddock, or half-a-dozen oysters served on ice with a decorative splash of seaweed.
Details: B&B from €125 for two. Tel: 095 21369; thequay house.com.
The ocean experience
Diving down into a shallow Atlantic cove, I find a scallop in the sand. Nearby, a crab plays with an electric-blue mussel shell, a tiny comb jelly looks like an amoeba suspended in the sunlight, and a pollock glides through murky waves of kelp.
Kicking back to the surface, I'm surrounded again by the stony fields of Connemara.
"People are amazed at what you can see down there," says Cillian Gray of Scuba Dive West, taking me for a Discover Snorkelling session near Glassilaun beach. The new sessions are hugely popular, he says -- you don't need a pricey PADI cert to experience Ireland's aquatic life.
Starting in the shallows, beginners are shown how to clear their masks and breathe with the snorkel, and there's no macho 'BS' about the water temperatures either. Thick wetsuits, boots, gloves and a hood make me look like a blubbery seal, but I'm toasty throughout.
Details: Discover Snorkelling costs €30. Tel: 095 43922; scubadivewest.com.