We've got so used to our city breaks and long-haul trips that some of us have forgotten what our own country has to offer. From the heights of Donegal to the laps of the Ring of Kerry, how well do we know the rest of Ireland?
My recent trip to Mayo left me with more knowledge of our past than my Leaving Cert history course did. With so many interesting towns, and visible marks from our history like the Ceide Fields and farm houses left derelict by the famine, my curiosity was piqued. On our drive up from Dublin we passed through a town called Ballinrobe. Due to the ways of the modern world, a quick Google on my iPhone showed that Ballinrobe once played a very important role; it had been a last port of call for many people who left Ireland for America. I'd never heard of the place before and this poignant fact opened up my little eyes a whole lot more.
For our two-night break in Ballina, we were staying in the ultra swanky Ice House Hotel on the town's Quay. We drove through the town of Foxford to get there. The discreet Foxford is famed for fishing and its woollen mill.
The Foxford Woollen Mills were set up in the late 1800s by a nun named Agnes Morrogh-Bernard. The mill's birth was a direct result of the potato blight, evictions, the land war and mass emigration. Agnes felt so strongly about the poverty she was determined to find a solution and took on businessmen, landlords, bishops, until she finally had a functioning business that employed over 200 people. All of this I know from taking the free tour that goes every half an hour. Follow the models and sets around the museum accompanied by the voice of the late Mick Lally and you'll have yourself a fascinating half an hour. We had a quick coffee in the beautifully styled cafe after, which was accompanied by a duvet purchase from the shop. Seventy per cent off, mind you.
Next stop was the much- anticipated Ice House Hotel -- a top scorer in my book. The hotel is right on the river Moy, the same river that powered the mill. The old building had been used by fishermen to store their catch in and keep it cool. It's beautifully renovated with that perfect balance between the old and new. We were greeted by glasses of bubbly in the hotel's parlour room and soaked up the old-world grandeur and antique furniture. Our contemporary suite was in stark contrast to this and overlooked the river with nothing but glass, rushes and ducks between us and the water. We made the most of the outdoor cedarwood hot tubs and soaked away the aches of the drive. Then we had dinner in the hotel's excellent Pier restaurant that night where I had the nicest hazelnut encrusted scallops from Donegal to start and then sea bass for my main.
After chatting to some of the locals in the bar, we decided we'd go surfing the following morning. After our eggs Benedict and freshly squeezed OJ we set off.
It was a 10-minute drive along the river to the estuary and to the miles and miles of sand and rolling waves of Enniscrone beach. It's a perfect beach for surfing, free of rocks and stones, and enough wash for beginners to get a good start. It's one of the cheapest places in Ireland to have a surf lesson with board and wetsuit rental and two-hour lesson only costing €30. Seventh Wave Surf School sets up on the beach so you can't miss them. They run surf camps during July and August too. For people wanting to keep dry, there's plenty of sand to be walked and coastline to be admired as well.
Back in the cosy environs of our hotel, my boyfriend and I checked in for our lunchtime spa treatments. We both had seaweed massages followed by homemade smoothies. My massage was so good I fell asleep, my therapist was right to take it as a compliment -- I never felt so relaxed after a massage before. After another stint in the hotel hot tub, we got dressed and headed west to the Ceide Fields.
The Ceide Fields are an archeological gem. Discovered under bog in the 1930s, they're basically a series of field systems, created by the civilisation that lived there about 5,000 years ago. They arrived in Mayo and started their work by clearing miles of virgin forest, ploughing the land and building miles and miles of walls to create this distinct habitat. There are original remains of rocks that were used to make up the walls in those days but the reconstruction is made possible thanks to the bog and its powers of preservation and of course carbon dating and scientific methods. The visitors' centre, which tells the story of the Ceide Fields, is in a modern building set in this glorious landscape. It's only €4 for an adult to enter and you get a one-hour tour.
We became so hooked on the beauty of the landscape that we ended up driving further west for miles until we reached a Gaeltacht area. We stopped every couple of minutes to get out and admire the breathtaking coastal scenery of sea stacks and islands that litter the coastline. We had the coast to ourselves, save the few sheep and donkeys who wandered out in front of the car. We ended up in Rossport and went for a quick paddle on an old slipway. A trip away to the west of Ireland is like a lesson in history set in an amazing landscape.
Mind you, history lessons in the luxurious surroundings of the Ice House are a far cry from the classroom.
Roll on more of the same!
The Ice House
The Quay, Ballina, Co Mayo
Tel: 00 353 96 23500
One-night wonder midweek: €99pps Get away for a night's luxurious accommodation with chocolate strawberries and rose petals on turndown. Enjoy a nibble from the Bar Bites Menu (two courses) on the terrace, and a relaxing breakfast in bed the following morning. A 5pc discount will be deducted on departure.