Tuesday 22 October 2019

Galway: From 5-star finery to a campsite 'that could pass for Tahiti'

Award-winning travel writer Gemma Fullam decamps to a summer oasis in Co. Galway

'Rugged Connemara diamond': Clifden camping
'Rugged Connemara diamond': Clifden camping
Gemma admiring the view from the Pullman Restaurant
Falconer Jason Deasy with Indigo
The 18th Century manor house of Glenlo Abbey Hotel was originally built by the Ffrench family, one of the original tribes of Galway merchant families

Gemma Fullam

I find, as I get older, that birthdays are something either to be ignored or an opportunity to indulge.

This year, a bout of midlife melancholy saw me contemplate the former, but the pursuit of pleasure ultimately won out, and precipitated a celebratory no-frills camping trip to the Wild Atlantic Way which segued, delightfully, into a bucket-list bonanza.

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With my pint-side Mazda packed to the gills with a mad mix of camping gear and posh frocks, my friend Christine and I set off on the long drive to Galway, and Friday night's crib, Clifden Eco Beach Camping and Caravaning Park.

Located at the estuary of Streamstown Bay, and owned by Kris and Tatjana Acton, the zero-carbon-footprint site has quite the eco pedigree. It's a listed geosite, climate neutral, and was the first business in Europe to ban single-use plastic bottles (there's a spring-water source of exceptional quality on site).

The location's natural beauty is gobsmacking: grassy dunes, white-sand beaches, lapped by turquoise waters - in sunshine, it could pass for Tahiti. We were allocated a perfect pitch by the water, and having set up camp, headed down the beach to seek out the tiny tidal island of Omey. Luckily, the tide was out, enabling us to explore the ruins of medieval St Feichin's Church; it was buried in sand until 1981, and is surrounded by a semi-sunken village, the inhabitants of which all died in Famine times.

Dusk was falling as we returned to our tent, so we lit our eco-friendly brazier (provided on site, for a fee), cracked open the vino, and sat in companionable silence watching the now-navy sky light up with stars. Magic.

View towards Cruagh Island from the cairn on the tidal islet of Illaunakeegher on Omey Island. Photo: Gareth McCormack, from Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way – A Walking Guide by Helen Fairbairn (The Collins Press, 2016)
View towards Cruagh Island from the cairn on the tidal islet of Illaunakeegher on Omey Island. Photo: Gareth McCormack, from Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way – A Walking Guide by Helen Fairbairn (The Collins Press, 2016)

Next morning, having cooked eggs and brewed coffee on our tiny stove, we breakfasted watching seabirds swoop alongside, catching their fishy fill, while a far-off pod of bottlenose dolphins performed wild Atlantic acrobatics. Heaven. After a bracing dip in the briny, we packed up, leaving no trace, and headed for Galway city, and something completely different.

Glenlo Abbey Hotel, a cut-stone manor house built in 1740, is situated on the city's outskirts, perched overlooking Lough Corrib and 138 acres of lush parkland. There's a highly regarded nine-hole golf course on site, designed by Ryder Cup legend Christy O'Connor Jr, but we arrived in perfect time for our appointment with birdies of another kind.

Falconry, which is on Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list (and my bucket list!), has been around for 4,000 years, Jason Deasy, Glenlo's expert falconer explained to us, as we prepared to meet five of his raptors: Yoda, an African white-faced owl; Seamus, a Harris hawk; Phantom, a peregrine falcon; Indigo, a Chilean blue eagle, and Oisin, a barn owl.

Jason's a mine of information on the ancient art, and during our hour-long experience, explained how our language is peppered with phrases from falconry (a bird that is 'fed up', ie full, will not fly, is but one example); and how falconry is employed in airports as an environmentally friendly means of bird control, reducing the incidence of bird strike by 80pc.

Glenlo Abbey Hotel, Galway
Glenlo Abbey Hotel, Galway

I thought I'd be terrified by these gimlet-eyed killers, but they engender respect rather than fear. The exhilaration of watching a bird of prey soar through the air - Phantom the peregrine can fly at 246 miles per hour - and have it come to land on your gloved hand, mere inches from your face, is indescribable. We were truly enraptured by the raptors, particularly the majestic Indigo, who, hilariously, views Jason as her life partner.

Glenlo - which was built in the 18th Century by the Ffrench family, one of the 14 tribes of Galway - feels more like a grand country house than a hotel, and its interior spaces are exquisite. The main house is a luxurious confection of dark wood, deep-pile carpets, dazzling chandeliers, gold leaf and high, stuccoed ceilings. We enjoyed lunch in the Oak Cellar Bar - previously the house's kitchen - then virtuously worked it off with a cycle around the grounds on the hotel's pair of Pashley Princesses. We arrived back just as the rain hit, but no matter - the billiards room provided further distraction, where accident rather than design saw me triumph on the distinctive orange baize.

Next up was something that had long been on my bucket list: dinner in Glenlo's Pullman Restaurant. The two-carriage eatery, originally part of the famous Orient Express, has been in situ on Glenlo's grounds since 1998. In their previous incarnation, 'Linda' and 'Leona' ferried innumerable stars in grand style, and in January 1965, had the honour of bringing Churchill's remains to Bladon, for burial at his ancestral home, Blenheim Palace.

Leona is the grand dame of the duo; built in the early 19th Century, her interior is a testament to the craftsmanship of bygone days, with intricate marquetry, Lalique lamps and elegant brass fittings - indeed, she has more than one claim to fame, as she featured in the 1974 film of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.

We were privileged to find ourselves ensconced in one of the Pullman's two private compartments, with our waiter, Vito, a dead ringer for Leo DiCaprio, providing us with peerless service for the evening. The food, by head chef Michael Safarik, a keen forager, rivalled its surroundings for excellence, with each dish more spectacular than the next, the flavours eliciting oohs and aahs from us as we shared forkfuls of the edible artworks amid the art deco loveliness. Despite being full as ticks, the lure of a fireside nightcap in the eau-de-nil opulence of the main house's Ffrench room proved too strong, and we relived our five-star foodie experience with Mitko, Glenlo's affable bar manager.

Sunday began excellently with a breakfast feast of eggs and smoked salmon in the gorgeous River Room and the planning of that day's itinerary: luxury lazing about, essentially, punctuated by the day's newspapers and a movie in the hotel's cinema.

Gemma admiring the view from the Pullman Restaurant
Gemma admiring the view from the Pullman Restaurant

Much debate ensued as to our movie choice. Having narrowed it down over lunchtime rioja and risotto in the Oak Cellar Bar, we plumped for Casablanca, the logic being that one never gets to watch a black and white movie on a big screen. The cinema has a regular showing each evening, but is otherwise available for anyone who wants to snuggle up in the supersized scarlet armchairs. Concierge Derek cued the film, brought us popcorn and left us to enjoy Bogie and Bergman… and then we stayed for that's evening's showing, Breakfast at Tiffany's, too, which, Audrey's impeccable turn nothwithstanding, hasn't aged half as well as the former classic.

We caught the end of the pianist's repertoire in the fabulous Ffrench room, the music as fine as our nightcap of vintage port, and then toddled tipsily off down the plaid-carpeted passage to our beds, to sleep like babies on the Egyptian-cotton clad pillow-top mattresses. Bliss. In fact, the beds are so comfortable, that come morning, I chose a lie-in over breakfast, but the thoughtful staff not only organised a late checkout, but gave my pal a bag of fruit and pain au chocolat, which I enjoyed in bed with coffee from the in-room Nespresso machine. A win-win.

In fact, the whole weekend was glorious, from our perfect pitch to Glenlo's five-star fabulousness, and certainly the ideal antidote to midlife morosity.

To paraphrase a famous quote: Galway… I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Getting there

Exclusive two-night special at Glenlo Abbey Hotel:

Majestically rising from the still waters of Lough Corrib and dating back to the 18th Century, the five-star Glenlo Abbey Hotel is where old world charm meets contemporary elegance.

Linger for longer on the 138-acre estate and enjoy the luxury for less! Book at least two nights and enjoy a 15pc discount. Breakfast is served in the timeless elegance of the River Room Restaurant, offering panoramic views over the estate.

For bookings or inquiries, contact 091 519-600 or else email stay@glenloabbey.ie or see glenloabbeyhotel.ie.

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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