From sandy beaches to real chippies, Pól Ó Conghaile explores the joy of the Clare coast.
The ocean experience
Over the past decade, surfing has exploded on the Irish coast. There have been movies and monster waves. Cheaper wetsuits and safer boards have carried a maverick sport into the mainstream. And the weather? Pah! Who cares when you're getting soaked anyway?
My sister is travelling with me for the day, and we pull in at Spanish Point, lugging a couple of boards over brown-sugar sands towards the waves. The beach looks gorgeous. I look the opposite, catching rides easily enough, but land nose first in the foam when I try to stand up.
Surfing doesn't have to end with a spin cycle in the Great Atlantic Washing Machine, mind you. John McCarthy, the local legend who christened the big wave under the Cliffs of Moher 'Aileens', has recently introduced paddle-boarding to his school in Lahinch.
"It's like surfing on the kitchen table," he says, taking a group of beginners on to the flat waters of Lahinch's back strand. The 11ft boards are paddled from a standing position.
Details: lessons from €40pp. Tel: 087 960 9667; lahinchsurf school.com.
The beach with a bite
There's an arm wrestle underway between a summer sun and a polar wind, but Kilkee is putting its best foot forward. Kids jump off the pier, vendors sell winkles along the prom, bathers slosh about the pollock holes, and there's a conveyor belt of amblers coming off the cliff walk.
Kilkee's half-moon beach reaches right into a town where, come 6pm, the pubs are spilling over and kids congregate outside the chippers and ice-cream shops. I have a surfer's appetite, so I stop off at Naughton's, who run both a chipper and apub-bistro on O'Curry Street.
Stepping past the dark, waxy pub exterior, I land into a bustling early evening service. Within minutes of opening, the place is packed out, and I'm tucking into a hearty plate of fish and chips (€13.50) with golden batter and a fluffy tartar sauce. Happy days.
Details: Tel: 065 905 6597; naughtonsbar.com.
The coastal trail
Tourism has played tricks with Ireland's geography. Pointing out west Cork or the Ring of Kerry on a map is no problem. But Loop Head? This pike of a peninsula, tracking the Shannon estuary into the Atlantic, is completely under the radar. It's also a stunner.
Setting out on a circuit from Kilkee, take the south road until you come to the village of Carrigaholt, staging post for dolphin tours of the estuary. From here, the trail continues to Kilbaha before running out of road at Loop Head Lighthouse. The keeper's cottage here has been restored by the Irish Landmark Trust -- the peninsula tip feels like the prow of a ship, nosing into the Atlantic.
Driving back towards Kilkee along the northern coast, make sure to stop off at the Bridges of Ross, a series of sea arches straight from the pages of a fantasy novel. Sit above them and watch the waves come rushing in, spewing foamy spray, gnawing the coast away millimetre by millimetre.
The seaside shop
A shore angling competition is underway as I drive along the Burren's Atlantic coast, with a steady stream of fishermen dropping into Siopa Fán Óir for hooks and weights. From ray and conger off Black Head to bass off the rocks at Fanore beach, Clare is a sea angler's paradise.
Siopa Fán Óir is run by Mick O'Toole, and fishing is far from his only trade. As well as the rods rammed into his rafters, he has a grocery shop next door, all manner of beach toys and an Angelito ice-cream machine. There's a post office too, all a stone's throw from Fanore's Blue Flag beach.
"Business is quiet," Mick says. "But if we get the weather, things pick up." So does the coastline. Driving along the R447, I stop for photos at Doonagore Tower House, buy a 65-million-year-old fossil at the Rock Shop outside Liscannor, and learn that there are common lizards lurking in Fanore's sand dunes. There's more to Clare than the Cliffs of Moher, you know ...
Details: Tel: 065 707 6131 (Siopa Fán Óir).
The seaside town with a sizzle
After several weeks touring the coastline, Lahinch is the first seaside resort I stop into that can honestly be described as buzzing.
It's a hot Sunday, the beachside car park is overflowing, several surf schools are operating out of pop-up containers and throngs of punters are making their way down on to the sand, armed with surfboards, windbreakers, beach toys and dogs.
Lahinch sprawls with some ugly development, but it's all on the right side of jolly. The ice-cream machines are in overdrive, a couple of lads have brought hurleys and a sliotar to one corner of the beach and amusements are cranking up on the south end of town.
I stop into O'Looney's, the town's all-singing, all-dancing beachfront bar, for a bowl of chowder (€7.95).
The views remind me of Jamie Oliver's 15 Cornwall on Watergate Bay, but, despite a great buzz and huge portions, the bland and potato-heavy chowder doesn't match.
Details: See lahinchfailte.com; olooneys.ie.
The overnight suggestion
Think of Mount Vernon and George Washington comes to mind. But there's an Irish Mount Vernon too, and it has also been graced by celebrity. "It's like a microcosm of the Celtic Literary Revival," says Ally Raftery, taking me around the guesthouse she runs on the Flaggy Shore.
Dating from 1788, the white cottage was once a summer home of Lady Gregory, guests probably included Yeats and Synge, and Augustus John designed and built the three thin-bricked fireplaces. The literary heritage gets a nod in the book collection.
Mount Vernon is a Hidden Ireland member, so expect to feel as if you're a guest of the family as you choose between the garden and sea view rooms. Ally and her husband Mark cook local fish, there's an honesty bar and, over the garden, views of Galway Bay and the Cliffs of Aughinish.
Outside, the Burren slips down into the sea on a peninsula by its famine causeway and Martello tower. It's beloved of contemporary poets too. "And some time make the time to drive out west, into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore," as Seamus Heaney writes in 'Postscript'.
Details: B&B from €90pps. Tel: 065 707 8126; mountvernon.ie.
The summer boat trip
If I could give one tip for the Aran Islands ferry, it would be this: wear sunscreen. On a recent summer crossing, a thumping wind that forced me to wear both a fleece and a raincoat lulled me into a false sense of security. I ended up with a face the colour of a stop sign.
Once you do lather up, you're all set to enjoy one of the west coast's iconic boat trips. Ferries from Doolin service all three Aran Islands, and there's the option of a Cliffs of Moher cruise too. With 700ft cliffs, jabbering birds and a stalagmite-like sea stack towering above you -- rather than below, as most visitors experience them -- you get a whole new appreciation of their scale.
As for the islands, Inis Oírr is the hidden gem. Watch out for the Plassey shipwreck made famous in the opening credits of 'Father Ted' on the approach. An afternoon is ample time to take in its seashore, stony walks and a tiny church ruin associated with Saint Gobnait. Legend says she was once the only woman allowed on these islands. I hope she wore sunscreen.
Details: Sailings from €15pp. See Mohercruises.com; doolinferries. com; doolinferry.com.
The bucket and spade beach
We take beaches for granted, but they can be millions of years in the making. Think of the time it takes for water to grind stones into sand, for wind to sculpt sand into dunes -- and for both to carve the coast into cliffs, rock pools and surf breaks. Beaches really are the business and Clare has one for everyone.
Kilkee and Lahinch are full of resort bustle. Fanore works as well for families as fishermen, with a remarkable, orange-peel tint to its sands. Then you have the more secretive strands, the pick of which lies about two miles north-west of Miltown Malbay.
I stop off at White Strand on a sunny Sunday, and find just a handful of sunbathers and a single surfboard on the sand. Following a path along the cliffs over the northern shore, I pass an angler fishing from the rocks and climb down towards a stretch of flat, blackened limestone warming up in the sun.
You could snorkel in the rock pools. How many million years did it take to make this?
Details: See discoverireland.ie/ clare.