Seaside Secrets: Louth/Meath
In the first of a new series, Pól Ó Conghaile travels the coastline from Louth to Donegal, to find the best beaches, walks and foodie hotspots. Today, he dives into the north-east.
The bucket and spade beach
Louth may be Ireland's smallest county but it has a surprising coastline, stretching over 90km from the wedge-end of Carlingford Lough to the beaches of Baltray and Termonfeckin.
Great swathes of sand, grassy dunes, muddy bays and estuaries define the wee county's coast. Exploring the Cooley Peninsula, I stop off at Templetown, a Blue Flag beach mixing up boulder shore and sandy stretches, with all sorts of birds secreted away in its dunes.
Squabbling sand martins flit about their holes in the cliffs, back on Irish shores after wintering in sub-Saharan Africa.
Templetown isn't the prettiest beach, but it makes up for that with safe swimming, a flat walk to nearby Shellinghill and some intriguing shore life.
Nosing around, I find several stones pock-marked with holes. They've been drilled by piddocks -- small bivalves that burrow into the rock using teeth-like ridges on their shells.
Shake the stones and you may hear them rattling inside.
Details: Tel: 042 933 5484; discoverireland.ie/louth.
The summer boat trip
"You just can't keep some people away from the sea," says Tom McArdle, watching a yacht slip out onto Carlingford Lough.
"They have to be part of it. They eat, sleep and drink the sea."
Tom owns the local adventure centre, and he and his dog Simba take me for a spin in his rib, pointing out the Mourne Mountains, the shape of Fionn Mac Cumhaill in the gnarly ridge of Slieve Foy and the Victorian seafront of Warrenpoint across the border.
It's a preview of the seasonal cruises that begin operating this weekend.
The ferry linking Omeath and Warrenpoint has been run by the same family for three generations, and its current captain, Brendan O'Neill, uses the MV Seascapes to run boat trips on the Lough and the Newry Canal, too.
Details: Tel: 048 4175 3425; email castlecruises3@ yahoo.co.uk. €7/€4; cruises cost €12/€8.
The coastal trail
From Clogherhead, it's possible to walk five miles south along the
strand to the mouth of the River Boyne.
The only problem is you'll have to walk the five miles back again.
A loop of the peninsula is a shorter and sweeter alternative. Parking at the lifeboat station, I schlep past an ugly sewerage treatment plant and a pretty row of thatched cottages (one featured in the 1955 Rock Hudson movie, 'Captain Lightfoot'), before being released into the wild on the headland itself.
In the early evening light, a hare bounds down to explore the rock pools below me.
The walk winds its way around craggy rocks from which the standing stones at Newgrange are said to have been cut, before emerging at Port Oriel. Here, I stop into Fisherman's Catch, a fish shop selling catch fresh off its owner's boat, the Argonaut.
I buy a tail of monkfish to make a curry back home, and a tub of tartar sauce that I crack open with a bag of chips down in Bettystown.
Details: See clogherhead.com.
The ocean adventure
Science has done wonders for the seaside. Out are old wetsuits that worked like sponges; in are cheap, super-stretchy neoprene alternatives.
Gone are lumbering surfboards and fibre-glass canoes; in are foam boards and open-topped, self-draining kayaks you can paddle and splash about in without fear of having to scramble out if (and when) they capsize.
I see the results in Carlingford harbour on a sunny summer morning. Dozens of kids are paddling about in bright plastic Frenzy and Piccolo kayaks under the shadow of Slieve Foy, and the watchful eye of several instructors from the Carlingford Adventure Centre.
Leaving the harbour, they paddle a short distance up the coast, hop out to explore a tunnel under the railway tracks and douse themselves in a hidden waterfall.
Everyone gets soaked. Everyone is smiling.
Sailing, rock climbing, wind-surfing, pier jumping and raft-building are also available.
Details: Tel: 042 937 3100; carlingfordadventure.com. Carlingford Adventure Centre has a special offer of one night's B&B, one lunch and a half-day activity from €59pp.
The beachside bite
For almost two decades, Harry and Marian Jordan ran a famous
restaurant and guesthouse in Carlingford. Jordan's was known for fine dining, flying the flag for Irish food long before it was fashionable.
Harry says it was the first restaurant in Ireland to risk lamb shanks on its menu.
After a 10-year hiatus, Harry and Marian are back. The couple has taken over the Oystercatcher on Market Square, but this time the focus is on bistro fare rather than haute cuisine. Harry is in the kitchen, Marian out front, and their inspired home cooking is priced for the times.
I drop in for a taste of their new menu, which runs Irish ingredients through a blender of North African, Iberian and Middle Eastern influences.
A hearty bowl of Cataplana (€17.50), for instance, riddles a spicy, saffron-tinged broth with seafood from Kilkeel, Carlingford and Omeath. Cubed spuds, chorizo, salmon, crab and ham all flesh out a belly-filler that leaves a real tingle on the tongue.
"If I called it Carlingford fish stew I'd never sell it," Harry laughs.
Carlingford oysters (€5 for three) and pork ribs served with a Budweiser and barbecue sauce (€17) are other specialities.
Details: Tel: 042 937 3989; theoystercatcher.ie.
The overnight option
Bettystown has its Dr Jekyll, and it has its Mr Hyde. Depending on when you visit, you might find a deluge of day-trippers, cars crowd-
ing the beach and crows eyeing your bag of chips; or a slicker, almost cosmopolitan seaside town
serving as a gateway to Meath's gold coast.
In the midst of it all, there's a remarkable enclave of cottages surrounded by apple trees.
Six thatched cottages have been in the family of Liz Pickett, who operates them with husband Roger, for more than 100 years. They come with barbecues, a play area and private beach access.
Inside, bay windows, fat stoves, flowery curtains and wooden ceiling beams give a rustic aura, and the bookshelves are generously stocked. It's a class act, definitely more Jekyll than Hyde -- when I stop by, a young English couple are enjoying a G&T outdoors as their kids chase around the trees.
In Bettystown itself, try Relish Café for fancy seaside fare. Macari's is pick of the chippers, and locals will tell you they do a pretty good pizza, too.
Grassy dune walks stretch all the way to the River Boyne, and the annual Laytown Races take place on the beach on September 8.
Details: Tel: 041 982 8104; cottages-ireland.com. From €390 for three nights (minimum stay).
The seaside town with a sizzle
If ever a manual is written on idyllic seaside towns, Carlingford should be its number-one case study.
Almost completely unspoiled, the village bundles together medieval remains, city-quality restaurants and a Cape Town-like location under Slieve Foy in a classy coastal package.
Carlingford doesn't do tatty, but, if it did, it would probably be the best tat in the world. You can gobble oysters at PJ O'Hare's pub, go Zorbing down the mountainside and even abandon yourself to the loopy local leprechaun lore (the village itself certainly has).
Summer events include this week's Táin March, which retraces the route taken by Queen Maeve's Army as it came prowling for the Brown Bull of Cooley, and the annual oyster Festival, scheduled this year for August 13 and 14. The kids' crab-fishing contests are a highlight.
Details: Tel: 042 937 3033; carlingford.ie.
The seaside shop
Blackrock village is the last place you'd expect to find a matching 1960s Missoni skirt and sleeveless turtleneck, not to mention an exquisite beaded Edwardian evening purse.
Both, and more besides, are for sale in After Sybil, a classy little vintage shop on Main Street.
Áine Corcoran moved into the seaside premises last December, she tells me, and sources her stock personally at auctions in France and the US.
Handwritten notes on the price tags and a nod to designer Sybil Connolly in the name add to the impression of a very special place.
The charity shop next door is another original. Pass through a bright-blue façade adorned with a papier-mâché model of an elephant's head and you'll find a carefully chosen inventory ranging from a steamer trunk to nostalgic vinyl and eccentric glassware. It's a far cry from the usual fusty dump.
Conor Hughes is the man behind Crosscause Charity. He's the son of Danny Hughes, a 92-year-old Blackrock institution who still tends his own bucket and spade shop every day.
Blackrock's glory days may be gone, but two beguiling generations of seaside shopping remain.
Details: Tel: 042 936 6561; aftersybil.com; crosscause.ie.