Best of the Irish seaside: From Ireland's best beaches to our favourite fish n' chips
The Irish summer is here and whatever the weather it's time to head to the Irish seaside, our ancestral home and source of our most potent childhood memories. In these exclusive extracts from their book, 'Ireland the Best', John and Sally McKenna celebrate the Irish seaside with this indispensable guide to eating, sightseeing, playing and staying by the sea
Who doesn't love the seaside?
We love the softly sifting sand between our toes, the sea smell of salty iodine, the elemental chemistry that happens when water meets the land - whether it be slack water in calm bays, ripples on pebble beaches, or crashing waves beneath soaring cliffs.
Houses with sea views command higher prices and the sea and sea air are known to release the body's feel-good chemicals. The seaside stimulates our body's natural medicine chest - the neuro-chemicals and endorphins, that make us physically feel better.
The conventional explanation for why we love the sea is that it's our communal ancestral home. While never being the same twice, it is also a world that is as old as the Earth itself. It's the place from whence we all came.
There is another, equally fundamental, reason as to why the sea courses through our veins. As children, heading to the beach for holidays, filled with high spirits, expectation hands us those moments when we create 'happiness anchors', the torrential memories that remain with us for the rest of our lives - 99s. Sliding down sand dunes. Sunburn. Sticking your head out the car windows, crab sandwiches.
Funny thing is, the memories don't even have to be happy ones. Sally's memories revolve around different craft, getting her hair caught in dinghy rigging, accidentally spinning kayaks and crashing over in wind surfers.
John remembers how he ruined two holiday trips to the beach with his family. Once, when a grumpy donkey-for-hire with McKenna on its back, ran underneath a barbed-wire fence, while another was an attempt to open a packet of biscuits on the beach with a fork. His hungry zealotry meant that the fork opened the biscuits, and then swung upwards to lodge in his eye. Ouch.
But, good or bad, beach memories share a uniqueness: both are indelible.
Is it to do with the fact that sea water is what is known as a hygroscopic substance - or at least salt is the element here that constantly attracts moisture? That's why you never really feel dry after a swim, and possibly why there is always sand in the sandwiches.
Ireland, being an island, has plenty of potential places in which to enjoy time at the seaside. We have no less than 7,500km of shoreline offering all types of beaches. We love Inch Beach in Dingle (above), which played a starring role in the movie Ryan's Daughter, or Co Donegal's Ballymastocker Beach on the exposed North Atlantic where the "lazy wind" is said to go through you, not around you.
There is a natural coral beach near Sneem in Co Kerry, and natural harbour beaches like Derrynane Bay. The calmer Celtic Sea to the south gives us the dune beaches such as Owenahincha, or the causeway beaches of Inchydoney Island.
The relative shelter of the Irish sea offers fabulous white beaches on the east coast, such as Curracloe (where Saving Private Ryan was filmed) and dune and marram grass beaches such as Velvet Strand in Portmarnock.
Perhaps the most emblematic symbol of the seaside is a lighthouse, and, thanks to the Irish Landmark Trust, there are many lighthouses to rent for holidays by the sea in Ireland. Be prepared to ascend a number of steps - Wicklow Head Lighthouse needs you to walk up 109 steps to get to the kitchen - but there is absolutely nothing more comforting than sleeping under a lighthouse beam.
Our favourite is at Galley Head, where the arc of the beam traversing the land is not blacked out, apparently due to the request of the Sultan of Turkey, who asked to be able to see it when visiting Castle Freke.
Best seaside hotels
If not staying in a lighthouse, then there are a number of sensational Irish hotels right on the sea. We been going for many years to Kelly's Resort Hotel overlooking the sandy beach at Rosslare; Inchydoney Island just south of Clonakilty in Co Cork; The Armada overlooking Spanish Point in Co Clare and Renvyle House Hotel overlooking Renvyle beach in Connemara, are all also old favourites. And a new favourite is the Garryvoe Hotel, Co Cork, where recent renovations have made this one of Ireland's great escapes.
Best seaside camping
For the more adventurous traveller, there are plenty of camping spots on the beach or near the sea. Portsalon Luxury Camping has five luxurious Mongolian yurts, with king-size beds, carpets and a wood-burning stove close to Ballymastockler Bay. Eagle Point Camping in Co Cork offers a fabulous location in the inner-waters of Bantry Bay. And, the only Gold Tier Dark Sky Reserve in the northern hemisphere is found in the skies over Mannix Point Camping Park in Co Kerry.
Best beach shacks
Perhaps the most evocative and alluring seaside discovery is the beach shack. For us, the epitome of this experience can be found in the Puffin Cafe near Castle Freke in Co Cork. Here architect Spencer Treacy and his partner Kate Zinkin produce some of the best pizzas in a wacky room overlooking the mesmeric Long Strand beach.
Ireland's most famous and celebrated beach shack has to be Harry's Shack (above) on the Game of Thrones destination beach at Portstewart, Co Derry.
There's great coffee and good ice creams in the wooden beachside shack, known simply as The Shack in Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal, and the characterfully named Misunderstood Heron is definitely worth a detour from Leenane in North Connemara. Fine cooking, Cloud Picker coffee and jaw-dropping views.
Another great, Gourmet Street Kitchen, is the food truck parked in Courtmacsherry Bay, Co Cork, and run by MasterChef Ireland winner and cookery writer Diana Dodog.
So, you're driving to a seaside town, and what goes through your head? You are probably imagining a little cafe that serves fish straight from the boats, and serves it simply. These alephs of seafood are thin enough on the ground, but when they exist they are perfect.
Best casual seafood
Perhaps the most famous in Ireland is Fishy Fishy Cafe, Kinsale, Co Cork, where Martin Shanahan spends much of his time taking calls from fishermen, detailing their catch. We also love Randaddy's recently renovated beach-front room, full of surfers at Lahinch, Co Clare, where Randy Lewis turns out eclectic and well-handled cooking. Vasco in Fanore in Co Clare is a colourful, simple room, filled with sea light on the Coast Road.
Loop Head in Co Clare has a number of celebrated restaurants including the simplified and renamed BiaBaile at Murphy Blacks, in Kilkee, who this year add pizzas to the menu. Also in Kilkee is the popular Diamond Rocks overlooking the bay at the beginning of the cliffside coastal path, and the famous pollock holes for swimming. The Long Dock pub in Carrigaholt, is something of a seafood mecca. Cronin's Pub and Mad Fish Restaurant is equally celebrated, where Denis Cronin cooks smart pub grub overlooking Crosshaven, Co Cork.
One of our very favourite west Cork places is the simple Coffee Shop in Union Hall (now with a second branch in Kinsale), where Jessie and Billy cook everything from scratch, including their famous panini and pizzas. Meanwhile, in Dublin, the expanding Klaw empire (above) has every fishy temptation known to man, including poke bowls and lobster rolls. Bring it on!
Best Fish n' Chips
If the beach shack is the epitome of beach cool, and the seafood cafe the aleph in which to enjoy a prime seaside location, then the ultimate seaside meal has to be fish and chips.
We're going to call it and say the best fish 'n' chips in Ireland is served up in Reel Dingle Fish in Dingle, Co Kerry, but we also love The Saltee Chipper in Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford; The Galley in Annalong in Co Down. And how we love the monkfish scampi and fish and chips served in the Field Kitchen in the Blackbird Pub after a cliff walk in Ballycotton in Co Cork.
Three Natural Seaside Phenomena
Giant's Causeway, Causeway Rd, Bushmills, Co Antrim, tel: (+4428) 2073-1855, or see giantscausewaytickets.com
The Giant's Causeway, pictured above, a world heritage site, is a rocky shoreline made from over 40,000 interlocking hexagonal basalt columns; nobody really knows how they got there. Of course, we know that it is something to do with the cooling of lava flow, but the ambiguity has left open the opportunity to believe that there might be a mystical reason why the rocks stand as they do.
Enter the giant, Finn McCool, and all the folklore that comes with his story. Visiting the shoreline starts at the National Trust visitors centre, with exhibitions and explanations and, if you like, you can pick up an audio guide. Walk, or shuttle bus; 9am-9pm July-August, with earlier closing for the rest of the year.
Loop Head & The Cliffs of Nowhere, Kilkee, Co Clare, or see loophead.ie
The horseshoe bay of Kilkee has always attracted bathers and walkers, and the accessible sea cliff walk, pictured abovet, is known locally as The Cliffs of Nowhere, in deference to the more famous cliffs up the road. The cliff walk is accessible from behind the Diamond Rocks Cafe, and loops around with incredible views of cliffs and sea stacks. Loop Head tourism group has protected this environment with slow and careful development. There are several restaurants, great walks and don't miss the lighthouse at the end of the headland.
Killary Fjord Leenane, Co Mayo, or see killaryfjord.com
Killary, pictured above, is Ireland's only fjord, and stretches 16km inland, to the village of Leenane. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein stayed in a cottage - in the building that is now the youth hostel - in Rosroe, for six months in 1948, and described this region as "the last pool of darkness".
Local legend has it that tea chests filled with his notes were found in the attic when the youth hostel was being developed. The locals, believing Wittgenstein to have been insane, suggested the notes be burnt - which they were. Modern aquaculture developments on the fjord have created unfortunate visual disturbance, but the surrounding areas and the major route of the N95 are amongst the most beautiful vistas in the country. Ferry trips of the fjord leave from close to Leenane.
Three Historical Sea Sites of Interest
Dunluce Castle, Bushmills, Co Antrim, tel: (+4428) 2073-1938
Dunluce, pictured above, is perched on the extreme edge of a basalt rock face, dropping down to the sea. To get to the castle, you need to cross over a bridge. It was built in the 13th Century, and the spectacular ruin is loved by photographers and drone operators who take pictures at sunset, with backdrops of red moons and, more recently, showered in the green flashes of an aurora borealis.
There is an internet myth that part of the castle fell into the sea, taking seven cooks from the kitchen as it plunged. This is not true, but it makes a good story. A true story, however, is that the castle had its own gallows.
An image of the castle was used on the Led Zeppelin LP, Houses Of The Holy. All day, 7 days.
Derrigimlagh Bog & the Alcock & Brown Monument, Clifden, Co Galway
By extraordinary coincidence, the wireless station where Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first wireless messages to America is the same blanket bog where Alcock and Brown crash-landed after the first non-stop Atlantic flight. Their journey was a harrowing one, with both men having to leave the cockpit and manually clear the ice from parts of the aircraft after the controls began to freeze.
The Derrigimlagh bog, pictured above, where they landed, was also the site of Marconi's wireless station, and they mistook the bog for a landing strip. The nose of the plane sunk into the bog, but neither pilot suffered injury. They received a reward of £10,000 from The Daily Mail and a triumphant journey from Clifden to London, where they were knighted by King George. To have two phenomenal transatlantic historical achievements in the same Connemara field has got to be a reason to visit. In 2016, the Derrigimlagh looped walk opened - a 5km boardwalk cutting through the bog. The monument, an aircraft tail, is on the hillside that overlooks the bog.
Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum, Foynes, Co Limerick, tel: (069) 65416, or see flyingboatmuseum.com
The museum, in the original airport terminal, harks back to the 1930s and 1940s, and the days when JFK, Bob Hope, Eleanor Roosevelt and various movie stars landed at Foynes as transatlantic passenger flights criss-crossed the Atlantic via commercial carriers including Pan Am and BOAC. Foynes is also the place where, in 1942, chef Joe Sheridan served the first Irish coffee to passengers from a flying boat that had been forced to return to the airport due to bad weather. All day, 7 days.
Three Coastal Monuments
The Metal Man Tramore, Co Waterford
The Metal Man, pictured above, came into existence because, from the sea, it is easy to confuse Waterford Harbour with Tramore Bay. The insurers Lloyd's of London - following the loss of life of 360 men, women and children in 1816 in the sinking of the HMS Sea Horse - commissioned and paid for a group of five large beacons to be erected and, in 1815, the figure of Jack Tar was cast, designed by Thomas Kirk (who also designed Dublin's ill-fated Nelson's Pillar). The slightly dandyish gentleman at the top of one of the beacons is said to be pointing to the safe harbour, and is dressed in the uniform of British sailors at the time. There is a second Metal Man, in Sligo, once again pointing to the deep water channel.
The Beacon Baltimore, Co Cork
Known locally as 'Lot's Wife' the navigation beacon, pictured above, that overlooks Baltimore Harbour is an atmospheric circular, freestanding edifice, on the cliff's edge. The beacon is made from rubble stone that has been painted lime-wash white. It is topped with a slender iron finial cap, which is what gives the structure drama and an almost Celtic, sculptural aura. Practically, it is a distinctive landmark which has guided mariners for more than a century.
The National Famine Monument Murrisk, Co Mayo
The Monument at Murrisk, pictured above, was erected to commemorate the more-than-a-million Irish people who died in the Great Famine in the mid-19th Century in Ireland. The monument depicts a three-masted ship, with skeleton bodies forming the rigging. Irish famine victims, like many migrants, fled the country in overcrowded ships, which became known as coffin ships. The monument was unveiled in 1997, and is the work of sculptor John Behan. There is a second famine memorial in Dublin, which features painfully thin sculptural figures, situated as if walking to the coffin ships on the Dublin Quayside. The sculpture, entitled Famine, was created by Edward Delaney.
Three seaside gardens to visit
Cluain na dTOr
Ballyconnell, Falcarragh, Co Donegal, tel: (074) 913-5640, or see seasideplants.eu
Location is everything and this Donegal wilderness garden credits its maritime situation, its Gulfstream-influenced climate and its sheltered surroundings. The garden is sometimes playful, almost whimsical, sometimes restful, pleasing, and best seen in the late summer, early autumn, when borders reach their exotic peak. Open 10am-6pm, Monday-Saturday.
Kells, Cappamore, Co Kerry, tel: (066) 947-7975, or see kellsbay.ie
On the north side of the Ring of Kerry -13km beyond Glenbeigh, look for their sign. Kells Bay is full of incomparable surprises. The longest rope bridge in Ireland, 35m long and 12m over the river. A Thai restaurant in a Kerry country house; owner Billy Alexander has travelled extensively in southeast Asia, so, why not? Outside there are dinosaur tree sculptures in a Tasmanian-style forest - Pieter Koning was here, and designed these massive creatures to fit their jungle-type setting. The tree ferns are astonishing - 12ft tall, and all descended from one 120-yr-old tree fern - the largest fern forest in the northern hemisphere. You can stay in the house, as well as enjoy their terrace and conservatory cafes. Open, 9am-7pm, 7 days. Closes 9pm during summer; 4.30pm, November & December.
Glengarriff, Co Cork, or see heritageireland.ie
The famous island garden of Ilnacullin is situated on Garinish Island in Glengarriff harbour in Bantry Bay. The island garden now belongs to the Irish State and is a bucket list adventure for many a garden enthusiast, locally and internationally. Be prepared to pay twice - once to the ferry operator, and then again to enter the garden. There is a cafe and toilet facilities on the site. Boats take the trip via Seal Island to see the languishing seals. The Blue Pool, where the boats leave to take you to the island, is next to a popular swimming spot, known locally as 'The Point'. The garden is open all days, 7 days, April-October.
The Samson Crane Cliff Walk, Ardmore, Co Waterford
The wreck of a floating crane-ship is a dramatic sight when completing the cliff walk from Ardmore. The ship was being towed when the towline snapped in a gale and the huge metal structure ended up on the Rocks at Ardmore. The two crew members were rescued.
MV Plassey Inis Oirr, Aran Islands, Co Galway
The Plassey, pictured above, was a steam trawler that sank in a storm on March 8, 1960. All the crew members were saved thanks to the bravery of the islanders of Inis Oirr. The boat was swept up on a wave and has stayed there ever since, and the rusty site became the image of Craggy Island in Father Ted, and is now world famous.
MV Ranga Coumeenoole Beach, Dingle, Co Kerry
The Ranga, pictured above, was a 1,586 tonne Spanish container ship washed up on her maiden voyage in 1982. She lost power during a storm and was wrecked at Dunmore Head. She landed, and is still visible in Coumeenoole, just off the Slea Head Drive, the R559.
Three Best Ice-Cream Parlours
Murphy's Ice Cream
Kieran and Sean Murphy are the Emperors of Ice Cream, and they have achieved the impossible: they have got Irish people to eat ice cream all year round. How did they do it? The answer is simple: they are master artisans, and restless perfectionists. Ally these qualities to a Midas touch, and you begin to understand how they have been able to develop out from their stronghold of Dingle to Killarney, Galway and Dublin. Their terrific team backs up the brothers' flights of fancy with service that is gracious and humorous: the Emperors of Ice Cream in the Kingdom of Kerry.
Details: Strand St, Dingle, Co Kerry, tel: (066) 915-2644, or see murphysicecream.ie
Teddy's Ice Cream Store
Teddy's is something of a legend in south Dublin, an ice-cream store and van that is part of the fabric of society, part of the culture and a must on a hot day in Dun Laoghaire. The store has been open since the 1950s, and is still making memories for children, 65 years and three generations after it first opened. All day till 8pm, seven days, depending on weather. There is another Teddy's store in Bray, as well as vintage ice cream vans available for events.
Details: 1a Windsor Terrace, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, tel: (086) 452-9394, or see teddys.ie
Fabio's Ice Cream
Italian-style ice cream in the West of Ireland - with flavours like mascarpone and caramelised fig; ricotta, cinnamon and pistachio; liquorice; banoffee - and Nutella on top! All the ice cream is home-made, 100pc from scratch. Pure, delicious soulfulness. 11am-6pm, Monday-Saturday; 1-6pm, Sunday.
Details: Wine St, Sligo, tel: (087)177-2732, or Twitter @fabiosicecream
NB: Ireland the Best', by John and Sally McKenna, is published HarperCollins, see guides.ie.
Read more:Dublin in the sun! Top 10 things to do, from urban beaches to beer gardens, parks and ice-cream
Sunday Indo Life Magazine