You couldn't make Connemara up.
Driving along the N59 feels like floating into a mythical landscape. The road corners and curves like a river. The Maamturk Mountains rise.
There are a million shades of brown, pings of bright-yellow gorse, and black-faced sheep, their scraggy wool blotched with red and blue dye, nibbling nonchalantly at the edges.
This is a place with its own breed of pony. The sky can be cobalt blue one minute, black with rain clouds the next. Connemara feels both wide-screen and intimate - quiet as a midge, loud as the ocean's roar.
Place names have a childlike, onomatopoeic feel (think of Oughterard, Omey Island, Dog's Bay, the Sky Road and Glassilaun). It can be unimaginably bleak, with ruined husks evoking Ireland's desperate chapters. But it can also be breathtaking, from white-sand beaches to hikers licking mist from their lips.
How can it be so wild, yet make me feel so rooted?
"We were hoping it was a two- or three-week thing," Terry O'Toole, of the Connemara and Aran Islands Tourism Network, says of those initial weeks when Covid-19 shut Ireland down. "I think everybody was."
"But we got together and tried to say, 'Don't panic, let's form a strategy to get out of this.' We're at this place now where we have a message - from June 29, Connemara will be open for business."
1. Take a hike
Diamond Hill, said to take its name from the quartzite rocks local kids once offered tourists as 'Irish diamonds', is Connemara in a nutshell. Set out from the visitor centre at Connemara National Park, following the gravel paths and boardwalk to a short but strenuous climb up the 445m hump. Panoramas of the Atlantic Ocean, Kylemore Abbey and offshore islands like Inishturk and Inishbofin are the reward. Allow about 2.5 hours for the full 7km loop.
2. Coastal secrets
Connemara still feels like nature's sandbox. One moment, you are caught in epic Wild Atlantic Way moments like kayaking down the Killary Fjord, the next diving into micro-detail on 'coral' beaches like Mannin Bay and Carraroe (the sand is actually made of coralline algae known as maerl).
My lasting outdoor memory is driving across the tidal causeway to Omey Island. To get there, you must wait for low tide and walk, cycle or drive (a weird sensation, even when the sea seems miles away). Skirting to the right around the island, you'll pass the 'sunken' remains of St Féichín's Church. Just don't forget to leave in time!
3. Lockdown link
Been cycling more in lockdown? You'll find a sweet 6km stretch of greenway in Ballynahinch - new bits are being added, aiming to first link Clifden and Recess and, in the future, Connemara to Galway along a former railway route. More experienced riders can take to the Derroura Mountain Bike Trails, where a 16km loop includes lots of steep, technical and rocky challenges. coillte.ie
4. Future's bright
One hundred years ago, the Benedictine community made Kylemore Abbey their home. Centenary events are delayed, but a €2.9m restoration year saw a new visitor experience bring to life the iconic building and its stories; the grounds "have flourished in the remarkable weather" and there are two new Connemara pony foals. It reopens on July 3. kylemoreabbey.com
5. Did you know...
On June 15, 1919, a Vickers Vimy biplane crash-landed in Derrygimlagh Bog. "Yesterday I was in America," John Alcock said, emerging from the wreck with Arthur Whitten Brown after completing the world's first transatlantic flight. The spot is marked by a beacon today, close to the remains of an old Marconi station, which transmitted the world's first transatlantic radio signal in 1907. Not bad for a bit of blanket bog.
6. Seafood with a view
It's hard to look past the seafood chowder at O'Dowd's in Roundstone. A window or outside seat here is prime Connemara real estate; the fact that ingredients can come from boats over the road is as nourishing as the bowl itself. You'll also find great coffee, cakes and twists on local produce at Builín Blasta, an Irish-language café in Spiddal, and the Misunderstood Heron, a surprising food truck overlooking Killary Fjord. odowdsseafoodbar.com, builinblasta.com, misunderstoodheron.com
7. Thirst quenchers
Clifden's Bridewell was built over 200 years ago to tame an area rife with smuggling and illegal alcohol production. Pleasingly, today it hosts the Bridewell Brewery, which produces red and blond brews you can buy in bottles or find on tap in local spots like Guys and Mannion's.
Another drink with deep local links is Micil poitín, distilled in Galway but with origins in Connemara's secret pot-still culture. It uses an Irish malt and local bogbean botanicals. During the pandemic, the distillery has been producing hand sanitiser. bridewellbrewery.ie, micildistillery.com
Three amazing stays
8. €€€ Ballynahinch Castle (above, and top) is Connemara’s picture-postcard stay, with fly-fishing, walks and gorgeous river views. The newly refurbished Lettery Lodge (above) adds an exclusive, five-bedroom option for luxury family reunions. ballynahinch-castle.com
9. €€ “It’s not just a hotel, it’s a country!” So a three-and-a-half-year-old guest once said of Renvyle. A 1km beach, lake, outdoor pool and activities like guided walks await guests, with packages available. renvyle.com
10. € Visitors will be able to return to Ireland’s offshore islands later this summer. Aran Islands Camping & Glamping is near Kilronan, on Inis Mór. irelandglamping.ie
"Clean air fills your lungs, the scenery and history beneath your feet, your senses tingle and dance all at the same time, it's euphoric..." - Rachel Dubber (Twitter: @racheldubber)
Next Saturday, we're off to Wexford. Let us know what you love about it at #IrelandUnlocks, tweeting @Indo_Travel_ or @indoweekend, or email firstname.lastname@example.org!
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