Secret Ireland: Sligo bay
Pól Ó Conghaile unearths hidden gems ranging from foodie delights to freediving in Sligo.
The scenic drive
Search for Mullaghmore on YouTube, and you'll find some jaw-dropping surfing footage.
Mavericks towed into angry prowlers that make them look like flies on a wall.
What you don't see on those videos is the rest of Mullaghmore Head.
A sweet 15-minute circuit here ranges from Mullaghmore Harbour to a sandy beach dotted with razorbills and paddling cattle (seriously, there's even a sign warning visitors against attempts to move them), to views stretching over the shark-grey sea to Slieve League.
At the southern end, watch out for 'Wuthering Heights'. Or Classiebawn, rather -- the former holiday home of Lord Mountbatten, killed offshore by an IRA bomb in 1979.
It is sensationally exposed, with nary a tree around it, or a leaf of ivy on the façade, much like the peninsula itself.
Details: Heading north, turn left off the N15 at Cliffony.
A cookery school with a view
It's brave opening any new business in a recession, let alone three in one building. But that's what Source Sligo has done, with a restaurant, tapas bar and cookery school on John Street.
I arrive for a 'winter warmers' course at the cookery school. Eithne O'Sullivan is the instructor, and she promises to have us whipping up a beef goulash, goat's cheese soufflé and lemon meringue roulade in two hours.
Thankfully, everything is prepped before we start.
It's a spanking operation -- with brand new work stations, lots of space, live camera feeds peering into Eithne's pots and pans, and third-floor views over Sligo town and bay.
"The hardest part of this is turning on the cooker," she says, getting us going on the soufflé.
With ingredients already measured out at our stations, we're free to concentrate on the recipes, on building up dishes and combining flavours.
Local produce is king, and it's all easygoing so nobody's worried about asking what a bay leaf adds, say, or what harissa is when it's at home.
A Taste of Morocco, Men in the Kitchen, A Meat-Free Christmas -- these are some of the up-coming courses on Eithne's schedule.
When our goulash and soufflés are ready, we retire to a long wooden table for a feast over- looking the streets of Sligo.
Details: Two-hour courses from €40. Tel: 071 914 7605; sourcesligo.ie.
One mountain to rule them all
It always amazes me that there aren't more pile-ups on the N15.
The road passes almost directly beneath Ben Bulben, a show- stopper of a mountain formed aeons ago by moving glaciers. It's like the capsized hull of a ship, and it's impossible to take your eyes off.
A much safer way to appreciate it is to pull off the N15 before Cliffony (signposted for Barnaribbon), park at Gortarowey Forest and walk along the foothills of its northern face.
Ben Bulben is a dangerous climb -- it can go from clear to foggy in the space of 20 minutes -- but this is an easy, hour-long walk, suitable even the youngest of kids.
The mountain is awesome.
Details: See coillteoutdoors.ie.
The raggedy tree
When I stop at Creevykeel, on the N15 near Cliffony, it's with the intention of investigating a court tomb.
Dating from the third millennium BC, the wedge-shaped mound here is one of the finest examples of its kind in Ireland, and you can walk right into the middle of it.
The memory I take away, however, is of the rag trees next door. Several hawthorn trees are teeming with tissue paper, socks, gloves and ribbons -- strange fruit billowing in the wind beside the red berries.
Usually I'd expect to find a holy well nearby, assuming the rags are tied in search of healing or intervention. But I can't find one here.
It's a very Irish oddity.
Details: See discoverireland.ie/ sligo.
A cosy pub on a chilly day
After a brisk walk on the beach, or a few hours surfing the November waves, there's nothing like a piping hot plate of pub grub to warm the cockles.
That's exactly what I find in the Beach Bar on Aughris Head.
Inside the thatched cottage here, you'll find a warren of interlinking rooms, roaring fires, old photographs and classic Guinness ads.
Men at the bar are talking funerals and giving up cigarettes, and the windows are set deep into the walls, sucking the threat out of the stormy elements outside.
I order a chowder crammed with bits and pieces of salmon, mussels and potato, sprinkled with dill and served with a side of soda bread. It costs just €5.
A smoked salmon platter is salty but succulent, accompanied by coleslaw and salad for €7.
A little gem.
Details: Tel: 071 917 6465; the beachbarsligo.com.
The overnight suggestion
I'd say there are some pretty divided opinions in Sligo about the Glasshouse Hotel.
Jutting like a sail over the Gary vogue at Hyde Bridge, its glass façade lights up strikingly at night. By day, however, it seems over-egged and embarrassed, an Emperor without its clothes.
The best way to enjoy this building is to sleep inside it.
Leaving aside all the blurb about "dazzling colours", "psychedelic carpets" and "shimmering windows", views from the corner bedrooms, through hazy amber veils, make you feel a little bit like a rock star.
I can see how a hotel like this made sense four or five years ago. Today, however, the design is tiring, and the Pop Art and lollipop colours feel a bit silly.
The location is super, and the river races past outside, but nothing about the bar or breakfast makes me want to return.
There is one wonderful moment of service. When I check in, I've forgotten my iPhone charger. Brian O'Farrell, the GM, whips a booster out of his pocket to keep me going, and later lends me his own for the night. "If there's anything else you need," he says, "just give us a call."
It's a very personal welcome, and a real positive to take away.
Details: Three nights' B&B from €95pp midweek. Tel: 071 919 4300; theglasshouse.ie.
The freedom of the sea
I'm five metres beneath the waves in Mullaghmore. Beside me, a pink starfish rests in the sand, surrounded by silvery sprats. A guide rope stretches from a weight on the sea floor to an inflatable ring floating overhead. I'm diving, save for one detail -- I have no air.
Free-diving is the sport, science or art of holding your breath underwater. Mention it, and most people think of 'The Big Blue', the 1988 movie based on the rivalry between Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca.
In competitive situations, free-divers have surpassed 100m on a single breath, but Feargus Callegy of Freedive Ireland is interested in a lot more than depths and records.
From the moment I meet him Feargal radiates calm. He talks me through the science of apnea (holding your breath), the disciplines, relaxation and breathing techniques, the importance of ear equalisation and safety. He regularly conducts pool sessions around the country too, a slightly toastier alternative to the 12-degree Atlantic.
"You can go down, stay still, and watch the fish come in from the edge of your field of vision," Feargus explains.
"There are no noisy air tanks; you can dive and surface as you wish."
What strikes me most is the silence. Five metres down, sealed from the cold by a thick wetsuit with hood, boots and gloves, I feel almost part of the place. A big, brown wrasse glides through waving kelp. After 25 or 30 seconds, instinct kicks in -- I kick up and suck in the air.
Details: Tel: 086 809 9898; see freediveireland.com.
Hidden gems in Sligo town
Sligo looks as if it just got out of bed. It's a dreary day, traffic crawls down O'Connell Street, and a clutch of vacant premises lines the riverbank, including one still bearing Conrad Gallagher's name.
The place feels patchy. That said, there are some nuggets.
I love the bronze sculpture of WB Yeats outside the Ulster Bank building, wrapped in his own words.
Beneath the Glasshouse Hotel, two kayakers are tossed around like toys in a bathtub on the Garavogue.
The Model's Niland Collection is always worth a nose, and there are some very browsable goodies in Kate's Kitchen on Castle Street.
Then, of course, there's the obligatory pint in Thomas Connolly's or Hargadon's. Passing the snugs in the latter, I spot a woman reading a book with her glass of red wine and a family having early dinner. Mine's a Guinness.
Details: Sligo Tourist Office, Temple Street. Tel: 071 916 1201.