Awakened by the west: 'A holiday so good it made me miss my spa treatment...'
Fiona Ness and family enjoy an unforgettable Irish welcome in the wilds of Westport...
Mothers of Ireland, ask yourself this: how relaxing would a weekend break with three small children need to be before you totally forgot about your 'me time', preciously prearranged with the hotel spa?
Emerging from the Atlantic, somewhere off the west coast of Ireland, dragging our surfboards up the beach, the much anticipated spa appointment completely slipped my mind.
With the sturm und drang of the surf still in my chest, I relieved three small children (and one husband) of their wetsuits and hugged a flask of hot chocolate as the kids bubbled over with tales of their North Atlantic triumphs. If we had been struck down in that moment, we would have died happy. Yet all the time, I should have been lying prone in a darkened room with a beauty therapist kneading hopes and dreams back into my careworn countenance.
But the truth is, I'm never happier than when I've been battered by a mountain storm, or washing-machined by the Atlantic, and am back at the car, wrapping up and scraping mud from my boots, or waiting for the whoosh of trapped saltwater escaping from my nose. The West awakens you like no spa experience ever could.
We are at Carrownisky in Louisburgh, Co Mayo - a long, straight stretch of silver strand. It's a full 12 years since I last surfed here, or anywhere for that matter. In the interim period I have retreated east, swapping my drybag for a nappy bag, and Carrownisky has taken up a box-office seat on the Wild Atlantic Way. The 2,500km celebrated roadway takes in nine counties and three provinces, from Donegal's Inishowen Peninsula to Kinsale, Co Cork, and all who have been graced with its presence have seen a boom in tourist numbers. But no matter its shiny new name, this is the same, twisty-turny route that I remember as we drive from Westport to where the mountains bow down to meet the charging surf.
At Carrownisky, our surf instructor, Elvis of SurfMayo (surfmayo.com), had suited and booted the little kippers, aged four, seven and nine, and flown them through their paces until the older two were stand-up surfing through the shallows. Not to be outdone, the wee man was turning involuntary 'Eskimo rolls' with his surfboard and charging back out through the waves for more. To finish, Elvis tucked him onto my board and we surfed a wave in together. It was immense.
Alongside us, Elvis had been tutoring an older child with autism, who was becalmed by the sensory experience in the churning waves. Two hours had run like sand through our fingers.
And that spa appointment? Back at our hotel, the Senses Spa folk nod knowingly. It's no problem about the no-show. Would I like to rebook? I would, but we're up early in the morning to cycle the Great Western Greenway from Mulranny to Achill and there just isn't time.
Travis at Clew Bay Bike Hire (clewbaybikehire.ie) supplies us with a little clip-on bike for the wee man in case he tires, and arranges transport from Achill back to our car. If you're stuck for time and/or leg power, this is the most scenic part of the 42km cycling way.
The route follows the Great Western Midlands Railway line, which closed in 1937. A keen train enthusiast, the four-year-old batters along in the expectation that there will be an engine along any minute.
I know what you're thinking - surely 25km hauling a four-year-old on a bike in the rain leaves you crying out for some spa time, but no. Instead, all five of us head for the hotel pool, which, it transpires, is only marginally warmer than the Atlantic (and this time we're minus the wetsuits). We brave it out before bounding back to our family suite to watch telly under the covers.
All this activity requires a level of sustenance which our hotel ably provides. Breakfast is a buffet bar, complete with a create-your-own-pancakes machine. In the evening, there's a seasonal pop-up restaurant for the adults, while the children can eat separately and enjoy an evening of entertainment at the hotel's Panda Club - run at weekends and school holidays, it's split into two groups for children aged four to 12, ensuring that no one gets bored.
The hotel is full of troupes of happy children involved in creative club activities. However, for us, a family holiday is a holiday we spend together as a family, so we choose instead to go out and about together and we book an early family dinner in the Islands restaurant.
Afterwards, we go exploring along the river path that passes through the hotel grounds and on to Westport House (left), a stately home built in 1650 by Colonel John Browne and his wife, Maud Burke, the great-great-granddaughter of the pirate queen Grace O'Malley. At 11am each day, hotel guests can hop aboard the road train that brings passengers up to Westport House and the Pirate Adventure Park (westporthouse.ie) within its extensive grounds. There's a day's worth of activities at the house, and we work through them all.
First stop is the Pirate Park, where we suit up for the second time on the trip - this time in waterproof leggings and raincoats. The log flume ride is thrilling in its simplicity: a sit-in log which slowly chugs to the top of a hill, releasing and plunging down into a trough of water below. Water splashes up and over you, sloshing into the log where it will swirl around your seat and make your bottom soggy. Or so it did with the majority of the people on the ride, many of whom turned up without even a Rainmate for cover...
Outside of two theme-park rides, the Pirate Park is definitely low-octane adventure - and that's the beauty of it. Here you can roam free as a family without the stress of large crowds and queues. Despite arriving on a busy day, we have no more than a 10-minute wait for any of the activities, whether zipping up and down the slides or navigating the gigantic pedalo swans around the lake.
Following afternoon tea served by a Victorian maid in the drawing room of Westport House, a tour of the stately home is next on the list. The house carries the weight of its history lightly, yet its artefacts have so many touchpoints in Irish history, and every piece tells a story. The children give a wave to the Angel of Welcome on the Sicilian marble staircase (imported in 1858), after we learn that family tradition was to shake the angel's hand when returning home from trips.
The children want to come back and shake its hand, and I want to come back too. Despite all we've packed into our Westport weekend, we've barely scraped the surface of the West. The nine-year-old wants to climb Croagh Patrick, the seven-year-old wants to see Achill's deserted village, and the four-year-old is curious about the basking sharks I say I've spotted in Keem Bay. The man of the house has family to visit in Rossnowlagh.
And once we get through all of this, we say with little conviction, we might even visit the spa.
What to pack
Hiking boots; warm, active clothes; and a really good raincoat. Bring a rucksack packed with healthy snacks, a torch, water bottle and small first-aid kit. And don't forget your swimsuit and a bath towel!
Take three: Outdoor adventures
Travel Clew Bay on the Lady Helen and catch up to 20 species of fish. Captain Reg Roynon offers fishing trips that include overnight stays on Clare Island. Equipment and tuition supplied. fishingwestport.com
Take a hike
Follow in the footsteps of St Patrick and scale Ireland's holiest mountain. The trail to the top of Croagh Patrick is a moderate to strenuous 7km (allow 3-4 hours). Bring raingear, sustenance and good walking boots.
Canter through shallow waves on a deserted beach. The Go Trekking equestrian centre at Westport Woods Hotel can have you away on a hack after some training in the outdoors arena. gotrekking.ie
A family of four sharing a standard family room can visit Winter Wonderland in Westport House with one night's B&B in Hotel Westport priced from €188. See hotelwestport.ie for winter deals. For Santa's grotto prices, see westporthouse.ie/event/winter-wonderland-2
Eat & drink
1) The Black Truffle Bistro, 3 Market Lane, Bridge Street. Nestled away on a side street, this bistro uses local produce to serve up French classics in Westport.
2) An Port Mór, 1 Brewery Place. Chef Frankie Mallon dishes up classic dishes at affordable prices, with a particular flair for seafood.
Read more:Ireland's 30 best autumn walks - with a cosy meal or pint at the finish