| 5.6°C Dublin

Sligo: 'When I really need to get away from it all, I head to the west of Ireland'

Samantha McCaughren usually travels to Connemara for a break. This time, she set and her family a course for Sligo

Close

Sky over the mountain Benbulbin in Sligo. The nearby Drumcliffe Parish Church is home to the official grave of poet WB Yeats

Sky over the mountain Benbulbin in Sligo. The nearby Drumcliffe Parish Church is home to the official grave of poet WB Yeats

Sky over the mountain Benbulbin in Sligo. The nearby Drumcliffe Parish Church is home to the official grave of poet WB Yeats

When I really need to get away from it all, I head to the west of Ireland.

Breaks in the west have always meant Co Galway for me, with the Twelve Bens serving as a stunning backdrop to many a family trip. So in a change to our well-worn path to Connemara, we decided to take the road to Sligo where the imposing, flat-topped Ben Bulben was an ever-present landmark for our exploration of the town and its surrounds.

We arrived on a cold and crisp morning to the Sligo Park Hotel, our digs for the stay. The children (aged 11 and 8) were keen to get out and about so we took a short drive to Rathcormac, which holds an artisan food and craft market on Saturdays.

It is a bustling little market, as much as a social experience for locals as a transactional one.

The children were fascinated by the wide range of locally-made goods on offer ranging from tasty homemade pesto and bread to soft handmade toys including fairies and modern TV characters.

There is a lovely quirky little café opposite the market - the Vintage Lane Cafe - where we enjoyed hearty soups, delicious brown bread, a goat's cheese tart and sausages for my fussy eater - all very reasonably priced.

Close

Samantha and Annabelle at Rathcormac market

Samantha and Annabelle at Rathcormac market

Samantha and Annabelle at Rathcormac market

Located just a very short distance from the market lies WB Yeats's grave in Drumcliffe Parish Church, which gave us an opportunity to explore the graveyard and gave the children an insight into some literary history.

As well as the poet's final resting place, the graveyard has the remains of a round tower and an 11th-Century high cross erected when there was a Christian monastery on site.

Afterwards I had time for a quick potter around some really good local shops in the town including Cat and the Moon on Castle Street which has a gallery upstairs in addition to some very special pieces of Irish jewellery. Another shop in the town, Cait and I, is filled with beautifully chosen Irish crafts.

On sun holidays, we spend barely anytime in our accommodation preferring instead to enjoy the sunshine, beach and whatever other activities are on offer. For an Irish weekend break in the winter we wanted to make sure we based ourselves at a family-friendly hotel where we could retreat to when the rain or wind got the better of us.

The four-star Sligo Park Hotel, which has recently been refurbished and modernised, is extremely welcoming and child-friendly, getting off to a good start with a welcome pack, including crayons and a fairy trail map. We opted to stay in adjoining rooms, which is a real luxury, giving the children some independence (and importantly their own TV).

For our evening meal, we ate in the hotel's AA Rosette Hazelwood Restaurant which struck the right balance between child-friendly meals and high quality dining for the adults - I enjoyed the vegetarian options which included a goat's cheese salad and a very filling chickpea curry. The dessert - a strawberry meringue tower - was absolutely delicious.

Close

Surfers brave the cold at Strandhill, Co. Sligo

Surfers brave the cold at Strandhill, Co. Sligo

Surfers brave the cold at Strandhill, Co. Sligo

We all decided to have an early night but I am reliably informed that there are plenty of late night options in Sligo town such as the Belfry Bar (which also serves good pub grub), the Bourbon Bar on Rockwood Parade, popular for its cocktails, and the Lola Montez nightclub.

The next day it was off to Strandhill. It is described in its marketing as the jewel of the Wild Atlantic Way, with its beach and crashing waves a draw for surfers from Ireland and further afield. On the cold and windy day we visited, the ocean was wild, with no surfers in sight but plenty of families milling around to wonder at the power of the Atlantic.

Facing the sea are the renowned Voya Seaweed Baths which were founded by Neil Walton, a former professional athlete, 20 years ago. Inspired by sports injury recovery, Neil has made it his life's work to harness the benefits of seaweed and its therapeutic powers. Walton has also worked hard to ensure the baths use environmentally sustainable harvesting techniques and the business is steeped in an eco-friendly ethos. It offers a wide range of treatments such as facials and massages. Just the spot for Mammy to get some chill time.

It was my first experience of seaweed baths and after a short period in a steam unit, I plunged myself into a bath of brown seaweed (which changes colours in the warm water) and was soon covered with a gel-like substance released by the heat. It was a thoroughly relaxing experience and while I can't claim to have had any sports injuries, I certainly felt revived afterwards - both physically and mentally.

Walton has ambitious plans to expand the baths and take advantage of the breathtaking views of the sea.

Strandhill is a hive of activity and there are lots of really cool restaurants/bars to chose from. We ate in The Strand, which served up huge, tasty pizzas beside a roaring fire.

From the moment we arrived, people had asked the kids if they were going to Mammy Johnsons. Intrigued, we soon learned it is an amazing ice cream parlour, with huge selections of treats including crepes, sorbets and mouth-watering ice creams. I have no doubt that many Irish families cannot go near Strandhill without a visit.

The final treat for the children was back at the hotel. There may not have been sunshine, but at certain times of year - mainly school holidays - the staff at Sligo Park Hotel turn the swimming pool into a child-only zone with a large inflatable obstacle course and lots of 'floaties' to play with in the water. It was a wonderful couple of hours. The hotel offers a range of holistic treatments so I enjoyed a very good massage while the kids wore themselves out in the water.

We had planned to go on one of Sligo's many scenic walks - the children had liked the sound of the Queen Maeve Trail. However, the problem with a short Irish break is that there is never enough time.

We'll definitely be back to Sligo.

Get there

Sligo Park Hotel Easter Family Escape has two nights B&B and one dinner from €318 for the total stay. See sligoparkhotel.com.

For relaxation see: voyaseaweedbaths.com.

Where to eat

Embassy Steakhouse, known for its large snugs is on JFK Parade — embassygrill.eu.

Belfry Bar for lunch/pub grub. See belfrypub.com, or try the Hazelwood Restaurant in Sligo Park Hotel.

Strandhill Shells — shellscafe.com.

Mammy Johnstons — mammyjohnstons.org.

The Strand — thestrandbar.ie

NB: This feature originally ran in The Sunday Independent.

Sunday Independent