'Be careful what you wish for," National Geographic Traveler's editor said.
It was 2014, the Wild Atlantic Way had just launched, and Keith Bellows was speaking at a tourism symposium in Mayo.
The previous night, he told the crowd, he had pitched up hungry at a Ballycastle pub. They weren't doing food, but a local offered him a sandwich up at the house. The Wild Atlantic Way had stunning potential, Bellows said, but not everything should change.
"You could wreck the place very quickly."
Bellows sadly died the following year, and every time I return to North Mayo, I think of his words. The Wild Atlantic Way has been a storming success, with changes all along the coast, but the spirit of this place still feels the same to me.
Mayo is home to Ashford Castle, to the Great Western Greenway and the hopping holiday town of Westport, but it still, somehow, feels off-radar. Sheep scamper on L-roads, fishermen drop lines for mackerel by Downpatrick Head, Wild Nephin remains timeless in the face of this virus.
"This is my third recession," Mary Munnelly told me, welcoming me into Mary's Country Kitchen in Ballycastle on my latest visit, just last week. "After the other two, I was hoping that was it!" She was wearing a visor, but the smile, the toasty welcome, the plate of fresh crab from Porturlin up the road, and the soft slices of homemade soda bread were just the same.
"I don't want to be stuck in an office," Rachel Nolan tells me, cycling along a boreen from Ballina's Belleek Woods to Rosserk Friary. The River Moy sweeps along to our right, and we're passed by just a single car en route. Normally, Rachel's Irish Adventures would be running off-the-beaten-track tours for overseas visitors. This year is different, but staycationers can book bike hire and guided tours - from one to several days. Our spin ends by the friary, scoffing scones baked by her mum. It's that personal. rachelsirishadventures.com
2. Bask in island life
Fancy exploring a deserted village? Training your binoculars on possible basking sharks? What about taking your pick of Blue Flag Beaches, or hiking to Ireland's lowest corrie lake? "Achill... called to me as no other place had done," wrote the painter Paul Henry, who came for a holiday and stayed, on and off, for several years. Reach it by cycling the Great Western Greenway, or driving over the bridge. You can see what's back open, and find details of guided walking tours, on achilltourism.com.
Star trails above the boardwalk at Ballycroy National Park, Co Mayo
Skip the crowds on a short break? Ballycroy National Park bundles together 11,000 hectares of beautifully desolate bog in West Mayo, dominated by the Nephin Beg mountain range. "Please, do not venture into the hills alone!" they say. "We may not have tigers, but we have a lot of phone signal black spots." From August, local company Terra Firma is back doing guided walks, day tours and "stargazing safaris" in Mayo's Dark Sky Park, too. terrafirmaireland.com; wildnephinnationalpark.ie
When I think of iconic eats in Mayo, I think of Kelly's sausages in blaas at Café Rua in Castlebar, glisteningly fresh fish in Westport, or the gigantic baked hams for breakfast at Ashford Castle. Now, I have a new addition - the surprisingly tasty café at Foxford Woollen Mills. You may enter expecting Mayo's answer to Avoca, but chef Kathleen Flavin is a brilliant ambassador for local ingredients, from her own garden herbs to Dozio Cheese or Clarke's organic salmon served, say, in a fish cake with buttermillk dressing and seasonal salad. Yum. foxfordwoollenmills.com
Inside Connacht Whiskey Distillery in Ballina, Co Mayo
There was a time when Mayo's most potent spirits came from illicit stills... many households still have bottles of poitín under the stairs. The Connacht Whiskey Distillery in Ballina aims to bottle a little of that heritage in its whiskeys, poitín and fruity Conncullin gin (good with elderflower tonic, I can confirm). Short, guided tours are available, and I picked up local beers in its shop, too - including 'Jack the Lad' pale ale and 'Mayo Red' from Crossmolina's Reel Deal Brewery. connachtwhiskey.com; reeldealbrewery.ie
One of the tasty dishes from The Poacher restaurant.
Daniel Mayr and Yvonne Kathrein were all set to open Poacher, a new restaurant in Ballina, last March. Then came Covid-19. Four months later, they're finally in business, with face coverings doing nothing to spoil friendly service, and a pretty yet unpretentious eye for detail in dishes like black-faced lamb with summer kale, asparagus and anchovy mayo, or poached monkfish with rope mussels and samphire. Kids' dishes go beyond the usual stodge, too. facebook.com
Say "two metres" and social distancing springs to mind. But it's also the length of iron probes used to map a 6,000-year-old network of stone-walled fields buried in the North Mayo bogs. You can try your hand when tours of the Céide Fields resume, feeling the satisfying thud of a "landscape fossilised" beneath. heritageireland.ie
8. €€€ Mount Falcon Estate in Ballina has moved its food, drink and entertainment offering to a classy new marquee for social distancing. Self-catering lodges, and brilliant hawk walks, are other space-friendly selling points. mountfalcon.com
9. €€ Struggling to find a staycation deal? Swinford's 3-star Gateway Hotel has seven nights' B&B from €498 per room. Breakfasts use free-range 'velvet pork' from nearby Andarl Farm, too. gatewayswinford.com