Tuesday 17 September 2019

Once upon a time in the West


Dun Aengus on Inis Mor
Dun Aengus on Inis Mor
Galway's lower-cased g Hotel
Eilis takes a breather on a cycling route in Clifden

Eilis O'Hanlon

When Virginia Woolf visited Galway in May 1934, she found it to be a "wild, poor, sordid" place, with nothing much of interest for a snooty English gentlewoman save for "two great bookshops".

The bookshops are still great, but everything else about the city has changed beyond measure. Galway is now a cool, vibrant, cultured, cosmopolitan place with a laid-back and welcoming vibe. I went there with my daughter on a three-day jaunt in early summer, and neither of us was ready to leave when the time was up.

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The g Hotel, where we were staying, is within walking distance of the city centre. It's built on a stately scale, even if it does look fairly unassuming from the outside.

Don't let that fool you. Once through the door, the surroundings open up into five-star luxurious elegance. Galway-born, globally famous milliner Philip Treacy oversaw the interior style, which has lots of glass and bold colours. His flamboyant taste is unique, and it really does make a statement.

The attention to detail extended to the cakes waiting in our room. That alone would have been enough to officially win us over. The jury's out on whether I could resist torture, but cake? Not a chance. The luxurious bathroom, which was provided with a complimentary range of high-end ESPA skincare and beauty products, sealed the deal.

Of course, if the opportunities for eating are up to scratch, then any short break becomes a delight. Thankfully the days are long gone when guests used to endure rather than enjoy eating in hotels, but I was still slightly concerned about what they might give us to eat, because we're both vegans. There was no need to worry. Everything was delicious and painstakingly thought out, from the crispy tofu in coconut sauce at dinner that first night to a breakfast treat of avocado toast next morning.

The staff were friendly and attentive without going overboard, not least at the spa, to which we headed for some self-indulgent pampering. There are no less than 12 treatment rooms, including the thermal room centred around a hydro pool with water therapy jets, a rock sauna with heated stones, and an ice fountain.

In a way, it was almost a shame to leave the hotel, but there was a city to explore outside the door, and plenty to see further afield, so off we went.

A few days in the west of Ireland is never going to be long enough to see and do everything, but the winding streets and enticing little shops in Galway are the perfect place to start, nowhere more so than in the famous Latin Quarter with its cobblestones, pubs, and colourful buildings. It comes even more alive at night; but again, I have to say that the best thing about it is the food.

There is no shortage of places to eat, and they cater for all sorts of palate. The city seems to have embraced veganism with a vengeance. Particularly recommended is TGO (The Gourmet Offensive) in Mary Street, an informal cafe and take- away that specialises in vegan street food. I had falafels, my daughter loved the seitan spice bag, and the brownies did not disappoint.

With only three days to visit the area, we obviously had to prioritise, but a trip to the Aran Islands was top of the itinerary. Virginia Woolf never made it to the islands because the weather was too rough. We too were warned that the ferry over might be a bit bumpy, but it couldn't have been smoother. Soon after leaving the mainland, we were on Inis Mor.

The weather had stayed fair, so, after browsing through a few artsy-crafty shops, we did what any tourist worth their salt should do and hired bikes. There are quite a few bicycle hire outlets to choose from and they all seem to be the same price - €10 for the day.

Before long, we were cycling along the coast road to the ancient fort of Dun Aengus, once described as "the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe". Cars are few and far between, and it's reasonably flat, so there really is very little to complain about. Dun Aengus is well worth the time, though be warned that, having parked the bikes, there is a bit of a walk involved in order to get there. You also need to pay to get in.

We stopped at a farm shop along the way, and were kindly taken out back to meet the goats whose cheese is used to make the celebrated Aran Islands' Greek-style feta, before buying some tubs as gifts to bring home.

Returning to the ferry, the clouds which had been hanging overhead all day finally made good on the threat of rain, and soon it was pelting down. Out came the raincoats, and a leisurely ride turned into a race to the bike depot before we were totally soaked. It wasn't a brief shower either. The rain set in for the rest of the day, belying the evidence of the calendar, but it was all part of the experience. Everyone knows not to rely on the Irish weather.

It was a bit worrying, though, because next day we'd planned to hire bikes from Jonathan Powell's shop All Things Connemara in Clifden.

Electric bikes, to be precise. Don't judge us. It's hilly there. (For those who insist on going pro, there are non-electric bikes to rent too.) There are plenty of cycle routes round the area, of varying lengths and difficulty, and Jonathan helpfully offers easy to follow maps to them all.

Electric bikes are not effort free. There is still a fair amount of leg work required to get them to move, but they do undoubtedly make the hills easier to climb. The roads took us past herds of cattle and sheep grazing in stone-walled fields, along a spectacular coastline with high cliff paths and steep mountainous tracks which demand that you stop and stare. There's little traffic here either, which makes cycling anxiety-free, especially with children. By the time we brought the bikes back, we were nicely worn out and satisfyingly smug with the distance covered.

Checking out of the g Hotel at the end of our stay was definitely a wrench. Virginia Woolf herself left the west of Ireland with a plan to buy a house there, though she never did. We left with a less ambitious plan to return at the first opportunity. Next year, Galway is set to be European Capital of Culture for the first time. You'd have to be mad not to be there.


Getting  there

* Designed by world-renowned milliner Philip Treacy, the g Hotel is a destination hotel famous for its glamorous grand salon, pink ladies salon, gentleman's lounge and bar, and eclectic AA rosette award-winning restaurant Gigi's.

* Guest rooms at the g Hotel range from superior rooms to the luxurious Linda Evangelista penthouse. The room rate is €170 per superior king or twin room. Full Irish breakfast served in restaurant Gigi's is included.

* The exclusive ESPA is Galway's only five-star destination spa designed by ESPA International which give guests a warm, yet exciting space in which to relax.

Contact details: 091-865 200, stay@theg.ie or theghotel.ie

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