Secret Ireland: Wicklow Mountains
The Garden County is full of tourist hits, but Pól Ó Conghaile leaves the beaten track and finds woodland walks, a hilly haven and great home-cooking. Photography by Ronan Lang.
The 27-gear mountain bike
When I think of mountain biking, I think of men in their 30s and 40s smashing along forest paths in a race against encroaching paunches. I'm surprised to hear not just that this can be a family-friendly sport, but that I can bring my four-year-old daughter along too.
Rosa and I pitch up at Ballinastoe Forest, where Niall Davis of biking.ie takes us for a sample spin on weatherproof trails developed by Coillte.
Rosa sits in a yellow trailer which we hook onto the rear axle of my bike, and we huff and puff up to a great view of the Vartry Reservoir.
As we trundle along, other bikers nip and tuck around us, chewing up 14km of moorland, thicket spruce and technical rocky bits, not to mention views of Lough Tay and the Sugarloaf.
Bikes can be hired from €30 a day, and the trailer costs €20.
Details: Ballinastoe; 083 434 6992; biking.ie.
The walk with a difference
If you like your art, and love nature, you'll adore the Devil's Glen. The forest trails here are home to a Sculpture in Woodland project that -- similar to Sculpture in Parkland at Lough Boora in Co Offaly -- seems at once inspired by, and fashioned from, the surrounding landscape.
Wander into the woods, and you'll find works by artists such as Michael Warren, Michael Bulfin and Naomi Seki embroidered into the environment -- an inverted tree here, a window frame there (I love Kat O'Brien's 'Seven Shrines', a piece of maple hung to resemble a torso).
The Devil's Glen itself was carved by a meltwater during the last ice age and, if the kids aren't too tiny, you can follow a trail right down to a waterfall -- where the River Vartry pours into a pool known as the Devil's Punchbowl. It's a Lost World, Wicklow-style.
Details: Ashford; log on to www.coillteoutdoors.ie.
The nature trail and the ice-cream cone
Wicklow is world-famous for its mountains, but there are plenty of souvenir-sized walks scattered around the county, too. The Bray to Greystones coastal trail is a gently undulating 7km, and there are several little loops in the oak woods at Tomnafinoge near Tinahely.
We plump for a short stroll through Knocksink Woods at Enniskerry, as much for the lovely deciduous setting as the fact that Teddy's of Dun Laoghaire now has an outlet in the village. The promise of an ice-cream cone there will motivate the tiredest of four-year-old trampers.
Knocksink is a nature reserve threaded along the Glencullen River, and is riddled with tracks to explore, trees to climb and stepping stones spotting the chattering water. It's the kind of place you can conjure up your own little Hundred Acre Wood.
Details: Enniskerry; 01-286 6609; see wicklowmountainsnational park.ie.
The blazing salads
Home-cooking is one thing, but Lisa de la Haye's restaurant and tea rooms go a step further, serving guests in a conservatory tacked tastefully onto her home. One of the tables sits next to a large country range in the kitchen, with staff preparing food over your shoulder.
The house (also a B&B) dates from around 1830, and the conservatory space is flooded with light. We sit at a white marble table and, from a chalkboard menu, choose a prawn, mango and papaya salad (€10.50) and grilled vegetables with halloumi cheese (€10) to share between two. Both are fresh, unadulterated and confident in letting the ingredients speak for themselves.
Service at the Conservatory is slow and scatty on our visit, something that annoys several customers. It's a busy Sunday, however, and I guess most homes are under pressure that day.
Details: Laragh; 0404 45302; www.theconservatory.ie.
The Sunday lunch
Bates first opened in Rathdrum in 1785, and 225 years later, its complex of artisan cottages, quirky pub, coffin shed and beer garden still look like it could service guests from any century.
We visit for Sunday lunch (€22.50 for three courses), and I have a main of slow-cooked Tipperary pork belly, with a dollop of champ and a thick mopping sauce infused with wholegrain mustard. The pork, rolled into two coils laced with crispy, crackling fat, tastes like it's costing me a week's exercise (I mean that in the best possible way).
Around us, a mixed crowd hobnobs before a glowing stove and film stills from some of the movies shot locally -- Liam Neeson in 'Michael Collins', Robert Mitchum in 'A Terrible Beauty', and so on. Bates is tailor made for destination dining, and afterwards, you can work off the calories with a walk around Parnell's old estate at Avondale.
Details: Market Square, Rathdrum; 0404 29988; www.batesrestaurant.ie.
The one-stop shop
When we drop in on Fisher's of Newtownmountkennedy on a Saturday afternoon, the place is almost empty. A brave face has been put on things, however, as signs proclaiming a 'gloom-free zone' attest.
It's like a cross between Avoca and Kilkenny Design -- I browse wintery goodies like Hemley scarves (and rifle cases) while my wife examines some Carrie Elspeth jewellery and our daughter glues herself to a wooden train and butterfly stamp set in a small but well-stocked toy shop.
Afterwards, we take a table in the Buttery Cafe beneath bright, country-themed canvases by Eoin O'Connor. I order a portion of free-range chicken, bacon and Wicklow brie (€6.50), and the kids' menu (€5) comes with apple juice and a cookie. It fills tummies without blowing minds. We'll be back for a better browse.
Details: Newtownmount kennedy; 01-281 9404; fishers.ie.
The mountain hideaway
You couldn't pick a sweeter spot for a B&B than amidst the slopes, corries and abandoned villages between Scarr and Lough Dan. And that's exactly where Seán and Theresa Byrne have built their business -- a family farmhouse offering comfy beds and open fires for visiting hikers.
The walks from here are endless -- down to the sandy end of Lough Dan, over Kanturk mountain to Glenmacnass waterfall, on the Wicklow Way -- and Seán and Teresa offer packages including dinners, packed lunches, pick-ups and drop-offs at trailheads from €345pp for three nights.
Theirs is a good example of a niche business putting shoulder to wheel in the recession. Pine interiors, striking views (the house is surrounded on three sides by National Park), civilised rooms and a no-fuss family environment are just the ticket for tired walkers who are looking to rest and refuel.
Details: Carrigeen Duff, Lough Dan; 01-281 7027; loughdanhouse.com.
The lesser-known waterfall
Powerscourt waterfall has been a tourist draw for yonks, but the equally impressive falls at Glenmacnass have a much lower profile. Perhaps this is because they are so remote -- set between Laragh and the Sally Gap, the water spills into the valley like long locks of hair, varying from a pretty white trickle to a thunderous gush at times of heavy rain or melting snow.
It's an elemental sight, though one whose warning signs need to be taken seriously (several visitors have been injured here). From Glenmacnass, follow the desolate Military Road (built by British troops to open up the area after 1798) towards the Sally Gap, and on to Blessington or Dublin.
Details: Glenmacnass, Laragh, Co Wicklow.
The hardy hike
Lord knows, there's no shortage of walks in Wicklow. From the calf-buster that is the 127km Wicklow Way to gentle potters around Kilmacurragh, there really is something for everyone here.
One of my favourite is the Maulin Loop, a route kicking off from the car park at Crone Woods. Maulin derives from Málainn, meaning high or sloping ground, and it follows the Wicklow Way to Ride Rock, where there's a bird's eye view over Powerscourt waterfall, before turning right through a woodland trail onto the cusp of Maulin itself (follow the red discs).
At the highest point, there are cracking views of Glencree, the Irish Sea and even Dublin Bay. It can be glorious when the heather is in bloom -- painting the peat and scree a vivid purple -- and should take less than three hours.
Details: Maulin, Crone Woods; discoverireland.ie/ walking.
The stepping stones
For all its dazzling valleys and peaks, many of Wicklow's hidden gems are on a smaller scale -- spots that are easily missed en route to big hits like Powerscourt and Glendalough.
Trooperstown Woods is a case in point. If it weren't for the bridge (installed in 1986 to replace the one carried off by Hurricane Charlie), you could be in a fairy-tale landscape anywhere. The highlight, barely a minute's walk from the car park, is a series of stepping stones bounding like giant boules across the Avonmore River.
There's a looped trail in the forest, too. Trooperstown is named for British troops said to have camped here during the 1798 rebellion, and autumn is a glorious time to visit. We rarely make it past the riverbank -- the oak trees dipping over the water here are a glorious golden brown, and currently clinging to the last of their leaves.
Details: Trooperstown, Annamoe; coillteoutdoors.ie.