Tuesday 24 October 2017

Secret Ireland: West Mayo

Pol O Conghaile hits the coastline

West Mayo picnic spot Erris Head
West Mayo picnic spot Erris Head
Silver Strand
Achill Island
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

The pit stop

The Tavern, Murrisk

Nothing says summer like sitting outside a roadside inn, iced drink in your hand, waiting for a plate of fish 'n' chips to emerge from the kitchen.

Sure, that summer may only last a few days (or minutes), but that's all the more reason to seize the moment.

Run by Myles and Ruth O'Brien, The Tavern in Murrisk is sandwiched between Croagh Patrick and Clew Bay.

The raspberry-pink pub won't win any beauty prizes, but it's got a quietly confident feel, with baskets of flowers in the windows and a menu loaded with fish sourced in large part from the waters lapping up against the coast road.

Think fresh monkfish scampi with homemade tartar sauce, Atlantic hake with crab meat, or, my choice, deep-fried fillets of plaice with caperberry mayonnaise, chips and salad (€12.50).

It arrives in a light coat of breadcrumbs, giving way to whippet-thin pieces of fish.

The plaice is good -- soft, juicy and delicate -- the chips are bog-standard, the salad laced with coriander, and the tart mayo served in an oyster shell.

I squeeze a big hunk of lemon over everything, polish it off and hit the road again.

Details: Tel: 098 64060; tavern murrisk.com.

The outdoor dip

Old Head, Louisburgh

The beauty of the west coast's gnarly coastline is that there's always a new nook or cranny to discover.

Just when you think you've seen all the sandy strands and Blue Flag beaches (Mayo has 13) a county has to offer, another crops up to take your breath away.

If you're travelling in North Mayo, one is the natural swimming pool beside the pier at Belderrig.

Check out the image in Satellite View on Google Maps -- it's perfect for a plunge.

Another is Old Head, a lovely little sweep of sand east of Louisburgh. When I arrive, the tide has peeled back like a blanket, dads are goading kids into the icy waters, toddlers play under the shade of mature trees, and two spear fishermen are pulling on hooded wetsuits.

It has a little bit of everything.

At high tide, you can jump off the pier.

Beyond the pier is another hidden beach, overlooked by a camper van and an older couple sunk into two deckchairs.

In the near distance, I can make out the white chapel atop of Croagh Patrick.

"I think our next stop is the ice-cream shop," says a granny.

Hear, hear.

Details: Old Head, Louisburgh, Co Mayo.

The summer skill


Many people visit Westport House for its 500 years of history. Me, I'm harnessed into a gigantic plastic bubble.

"Just tighten the straps around your foot there," the instructor says, before rolling the orb off its perch, sending me head over heels down a hill.

Is zorbing a sport, a science, or a stimulus to laugh your lungs out as you roll, roller-coaster-like, down a purpose-built trench?

Probably all of the above.

When I open my eyes, I see flashes of blue sky, then green grass, then blue sky, then green grass.

Eventually, the orb hits an upwards slope at the end of the trench, pauses and rocks gently to a halt.

"Before this, it was a field full of sheep," says Ian Moore of Adventure West. Today, Westport's zorbing zone is a little slice of New Zealand, a burst of adrenaline that requires nothing more than strap in, hold on, and career head over heels down a hill.

Afterwards, I do it all over again, this time sloshing all over an orb filled with a pool of warm water and suds. Whatever would Grace O'Malley think?

Details: €25 for two people. Tel: 087 362 7828; adventurewest.ie.

The overnight suggestion

Boffin Lodge, Westport

Years ago, islanders coming from Inishbofin to trade or stock up on provisions at Westport stayed at boarding houses off Quay Road.

So when Pat and Ursula Aylward opened their modern-day guesthouse here, naming it was simple: Boffin Lodge.

The honey-coloured building has 10 rooms, each with a little USP of its own. One boasts a steam shower, for example, another is 'barrier free' for physically impaired guests, another has a four-poster and an open fire.

All come with free Wi-Fi, parking and little fridges stocked with water, soft drinks and chunky Kit-Kats for sale.

Breakfast is prepared fresh every morning by housekeeper Bernie Caulfield, with highlights ranging from freshly squeezed OJ to black pudding from Kelly's butchers in Newport, or Clew Bay salmon with scrambled eggs courtesy of the hens out back.

"They're the fattest and most photographed hens in Ireland," Bernie laughs.

Details: B&B from €35pp. Tel: 098 26092; boffinlodge.com.

The summer cycle

Achill Island

If you're a cyclist visiting Mayo, it's hard to avoid the Great Western Greenway.

The new cycleway follows the old railway route from Westport to Achill Sound, but why stop there when you can continue on two wheels to explore the island itself?

Achill's cycling hub is Keel, where three signposted loops range from a 12km spin around the nearby lake to a 44km loop skirting past Kildownet Castle to the southernmost corner of the island.

A third, 28km route passes the deserted village of Slievemore and the beaches at Dugort and Golden Strand, returning to Keel through Bun an Chorraigh.

You could also, of course, ignore the cycling loops completely.

If you haven't been to Achill before, I'd recommend heading west through Dooagh, where a very short spin takes you to one of the most breathtaking beaches in western Europe, Keem Bay.

Details: Bike hire is available from Achill Bikes (087 243-7686; achillbikes.com) and Clew Bay Bike Hire (098 37675; clewbayoutdoors.ie). See achilltourism. com/cycling.html.

The secret beach

Silver Strand

"It's the one road all the way," says the woman at The Trading Post in Louisburgh. "Go over the bridge and right on until you come to the end of it. There's no more road."

Directions like these are like oxygen to a travel writer. Setting off to follow them, I cross the Bunowen River, pass the surfing beach at Carrowinsky and watch the road grow thinner and thinner, until it's a mere seam threaded through stony, sheep-strewn fields.

Finally, under the hump of Mweelrea Mountain, the road runs out at Silver Strand. Who needs sat navs?

Walking past a series of rippling sand dunes, the beach blossoms into a long, flat strand and, moments later, crystal-clear waters are tickling my toes.

Beside several rock pools brimming with sea snails, there is a heart drawn in the sand, perhaps by the couple at the far end of the beach. Back at the car park, I notice Swiss registration plates on their hatchback. Were they sent from The Trading Post, too?

Details: See discoverireland.ie/ Westport.

The picnic spot

Erris Head

"Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide; and my boat is so small."

So reads the inscription on a plaque at Scotchport, a stony beach on Mayo's Mullet peninsula. Beside it, a boat hut faces into the stormy symphony of the Atlantic Ocean.

This wild remoteness, so dangerous at sea, is exactly what's attractive about this often- overlooked outcrop in the barony of Erris.

Walking the nearby Erris Head Loop, you can be pretty much guaranteed that no other soul will spoil your picnic.

Not long into the 5km trail, boggy tracks bring you to a derelict coastwatch hut. Step inside, and you'll find its concrete windows eerily framing the landscape.

Nearby, the letters 'EIRE' are painted into the cliffs in white stone, signalling landfall for pilots swooping in off the Atlantic during the Second World War.

Standing above the gashes and sea stacks, looking out to sea knowing the next parish is Boston, the sea does indeed seem wide, and the boats seriously small.

Details: See errisbeo.ie and mayowalks.ie.

Weekend Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life