Life Ireland

Sunday 21 September 2014

Sun, surf and a seaweed bath on the Wild Atlantic Way

Kim Bielenberg hits the coast in Sligo and finds that the seaside businesses are 
enjoying a bumper season

Published 31/07/2014 | 02:30

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Kim Bielenberg at the Strandhill Surf School
Kim Bielenberg at the Strandhill Surf School
Kim Bielenberg at the Voya Seaweed Baths in Strandhill, Co Sligo, with Neil Watson

After two weeks on the road, criss-crossing the country from Wexford in the south-east across the midlands to the north-west, I finally come towards the coast again on the much-trumpeted Wild Atlantic Way on the edge of Sligo.

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I am on my way to meet a former athlete who decided to seek his fortune in seaweed: Then I will rest my bike-weary limbs, covered from head to toe in a briny tub.

Out on the road from Sligo, there is no sign of the sea, but I know I must be close, because I see a sign with shimmering blue waves. It is one of the thousands of signposts across the west coast for the Wild Atlantic Way, a phenomenon that should be hailed as a work of marketing genius.

The route along the coast is pulling in thousands of foreign tourists, and businesses are piggy-backing on its success. There is a Wild Atlantic Way restaurant guide on sale in a local shop; I come across Wild Atlantic Wheels bike hire, and there are at least two new songs devoted to the heavily hyped tourist route.

By next year one should expect dozens of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and fast-food stalls exploiting the name, and houses in Wicklow will be advertised as having "Wild Atlantic views".

I have more or less given up trying to get up a steep hill, when all of a sudden I spy the genuine Atlantic, and a vast expanse of sand opens out in front of me across Sligo Bay. Out in the bay is Coney Island. The Coney Island in New York is said to have been named after this place by a homesick sea captain from Rosses Point.

After an alarmingly speedy downhill ride into Strandhill, where I glide past bemused grannies like a souped up Bradley Wiggins, I meet up with Neil Walton. Neil's career as a professional sportsman inspired him to dabble in seaweed.

He fills a giant bathtub with hot water and the slimy, oily sea-plant harvested nearby, and I am covered right up to my chin. He has picked the biggest bath possible.

"I was a professional triathlete and heard about the recuperative properties of seaweed," says Neil, as the slimy fronds lap around me as if I was some kind of crab lolling about in a steaming rock pool; the bath soothes my aching limbs.

"I wanted to test it to see if the stories of the healing properties of seaweed were an old wives' tale,'' says Neil. "I tried out the seaweed baths in Enniscrone and I found they had an enormous effect when recovering from triathlon."

There had been a long tradition of seaweed baths along this coast. Elderly gentlemen swore by them, jumping into tubs in spartan public bath houses. But the bathing houses have fallen into disuse, and the last one in Strandhill was destroyed by Hurricane Debbie in 1961.

Neil decided to revive the concept, and started his own seaweed baths. Within a short time, people were queuing up for a dip, and there were 14,000 customers in the first year. Since then the numbers have rocketed, and this business has risen to 25,000 per year.

"It's been mental busy," says Neil. "I have the Sligo GAA team coming here to recuperate, and the local rugby club. I reckon business is up 12pc this year."

There is no doubt that the seaweed has a soothing effect, but in my state of contented torpor I feel like falling asleep rather than climbing back on the bike and pedalling onwards.

While Sligo city itself has been slow to recover in the recession, Strandhill seems to be prospering.

As well as the normal bucket-and-spade day-trippers, dozens of surfers are doing lessons along the shore at Paul Buchanan's surf school.

Paul, a New Zealander, stopped off in Ireland on a surfing tour of the world 13 years ago: when he arrived in Ireland, he wasn't sure whether to get the bus to Galway or Sligo (which he thought was pronounced "Slig-go"). He chose Sligo, and has stayed ever since, setting up one of the country's most popular schools.

"One thing that hasn't been great for us this year is that the waves have been flat, but they have picked up a bit."

In the dunes, I meet the Byrne family, who seem to be living out a seaside fantasy. This is their version of California dreaming, Irish-style.

When the weather gets hot in Dublin, they throw their surf board and their swimsuits, buckets and spades into their old VW camper van and head out west. That's the way to go on holiday in Ireland.

"Even our three-year-old daughter wants to get up on the surfboard, but she is too young to have lessons," says Anna Murphy, as she gazes out over a glistening sea.

"There are not many places like this where you can camp so close to the beach."

Tom Corcoran, who runs the campsite in the dunes, has seen an upsurge in business since the Wild Atlantic Way was launched earlier this year.

"There are a huge number of campers from France and Germany who cycle with their tents," says Tom. "I give them a special deal. It's cheaper to stay here if you are on a bike than if you are in a car."

According to Tom, the Germans and the French are more diligent pedallers than I am. "They arrive in the evening and then they are back on the road early in the morning. It's been an exceptionally good season."

Tom used to work in catering in the UK for a health authority until he decided to move back to Ireland.

"It's a great job running the campsite, because I am off all winter. In what other job, can you have it like that?"

I come across returned emigrants all along the way on my travels. Some have waited up to four decades before returning home.

My bed and breakfast, the Park House in Sligo, was run by Angela and Peter Kierans, who spent much of their lives as publicans in London.

They took over their guest house earlier this year, returning to their native Sligo after 30 years away.

"We ran a pub in Greenwich for many years and I worked with a charity that helped elderly Irish people in London," she says.

While some in Sligo complain that the city has been slower to recover than Dublin, Angela says there have been some signs of an uplift. "It has been fascinating starting the bed and breakfast. You meet all kinds of people in this job."

According to Angela, B&B owners have to be as canny as those in any other business. "You will get guests who will try anything to knock down the price."

Then on the following morning it's time to get back on the saddle, but I begin to worry about the effect of all this two-wheeled activity.

The writer Flann O'Brien once warned that people who spent most of their natural lives riding bikes get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of atoms between them. They become half man and half bicycle, and start leaning up against walls.

So to avoid this, in future days I resolve to take more saddle breaks.

Irish Independent

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