Anne Cunningham discovers that Connemara is the perfect spot for an all-action adventure break, and some much needed down-time afterwards...
Adventure tourism is big business in Ireland. We have such a diversity of land and seascape, east to west and north to south, that just about any adventure activity you can think of is provided for here. And testament to Ireland's rich offerings in adventure tourism is the fact that the Adventure Travel World Summit is being hosted in Killarney this year. No small feat for such a small island.
If you think adventure holidays are for twenty-somethings, skinny enough to have to run around in the shower to get wet, yet so strong they can balance their Smart cars on their own heads, then think again. The high-octane adventure junkies certainly have lots to choose from, but most adventure providers cater for all levels and all ages, too, from eight to 80. Which was good news for me when I found myself on a clifftop in Connemara...
Coasteering is the New Big Thing in adventure activities. It involves getting from point A to point B along a rocky shore, using whatever means you can. So there's some light climbing, swimming, walking, jumping into deep pools just for the craic - and it's fantastic craic.
Scallywag and I, along with three other kids and two parents, were all coasteering novices. But our instructors, Clare and Stephen of Clifden-based Real Adventures, quickly showed us how to have fun in complete safety, and with the emphasis on fun. Nobody is forced to do anything they'd rather not. I was nursing a nasty chest cold, and got - er - "cold feet" about leaping into the ocean. No big deal, they assured me, I could keep pace with the group along the rocks, just a few feet away.
From the hoots and the hollers, it was obvious that tumbling off a rock, straight into the Atlantic -when you're in wetsuit, helmet and gear provided by Real Adventures - is an exhilarating experience. I must admit to feeling like a wuss, climbing along the shore beside them like an oversized spider monkey, and coughing like a consumptive heroine in a Puccini opera. I have vowed to get wet next time, though. And there definitely will be a next time. I promised Scallywag.
Afterwards it was home to a hot bath. Or what felt like home. A very luxurious home from home, The Quay House in Clifden. This is one of Hidden Ireland's really exquisite treasures. We were lucky enough to have a penthouse studio, complete with tiny but fully equipped kitchen. Not that we used the kitchen much, as breakfast is provided. Every possible type of breakfast is on offer, with a large selection of seafood to choose from, some serious cheeses and breads, unsweetened fruit compotes for yoghurt or porridge, or the full Irish... the choice is endless. And our hosts, Julia and Paddy Foyle, were simply charming.
The Quay House is on Clifden quay. On it, that is, not near it. So the view from our balcony was glorious. The house, which is the oldest house in Clifden, has all its authenticity intact, stuffed full of antiques and old portraits in oils. There is a carefully cultivated hint of faded glory about the place, and that's part of its appeal. The breakfast room is a large conservatory with enormous exotic plants everywhere, and what looks like a very old Clematis trailing right across the ceiling.
There's lots of space and light here, and our studio was bright and roomy, but still very generously and comfortably furnished in keeping with the house's 19th century chic. It reminded me of a fin-de-siécle Parisian salon, très élégant but sans any Parisian haughtiness. The many award plaques around the front door are a testament to how highly regarded The Quay House is.
Kylemore Abbey is well worth a visit. A gothic-style castle built in 1849, and more recently a very exclusive girls' convent school, the Benedictine nuns closed the school in 2010. This means more access to the restored interior of the castle. While the abbey itself is beautiful, with its tiny church, it's the setting which makes Kylemore so spectacular. Built on a remote lakeshore and nestled at the base of Luchrauch mountain, with 1,000 acres of woodland walks and trails including the famous walled garden, it's one of Connemara's principal tourist draws. There are tearooms and cafes onsite, using fresh ingredients from the convent garden, and of course there's the obligatory craft shop. We were blessed with great weather throughout our weekend in Connemara, and Kylemore Abbey is the perfect place to while away a sunshiney day.
On our third sunshiney day in a row, we took a boat trip on Killary Fjord. The sun sparkled and glinted on the water all the way out to sea and back. The fjord forms part of the boundary between the counties of Mayo and Galway and the scenery is just terrific. Connacht's highest mountain, Mweelrea, sweeps down to the water on the Mayo side, while the Twelve Pins and the Maamturks rise up on the Galway side.
This natural shelter means that these very deep waters make for a smooth sailing. The Lady Connemara boat is a big vessel, big enough for indoor and outdoor viewing decks, a restaurant and a bar. Scallywag was thrilled when Captain Colm invited her to steer the boat for a while. In fact she was still steering when we did a u-turn to head back into Killary harbour. (Although Colm gave her a lot of assistance!) Kids who 'help' the captain steer the boat are given a Certificate of Excellence at the end of the trip. Nice touch. But by now she's tiring of my constant aye-aye-Cap'n and shiver-me-timbers and where's-me-parrot lines. I'll have to stop whistling the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, too.
Mitchell's in Clifden is a very fine seafood restaurant specialising in fresh fish cuisine, served with lots of panache. Scallywag had mussels for starters - a whole pot. They arrived in the little pot they had been steamed in, with lots of garlic and white wine. She cleared them all. And I had the best chowder I've ever tasted. Still on the fish theme, I chose the cod and got a huge hunk of perfectly grilled buttery cod, while she had the scampi which arrived in their own miniature frying basket. Dead cute. Chocolate ganache and lemon tart finished off an exceptionally good meal.
On the second night we went to Marconi's restaurant, part of Foyles Hotel and just round the corner from Mitchell's. Yet again, my daughter, the pickiest of picky eaters, left nothing behind. Main courses of duck breast for her (in a fabulous sweet and sour sauce) and monkfish medallions for me, were impeccably cooked and presented. While there were many tourists here, we were also surrounded by locals - always a good sign in a restaurant. But Marconi's didn't need any "good signs" - their food was marvellous.
The landscape of Connemara is intense, seductive and startling in its beauty. Driving on the Wild Atlantic Way through this particular stretch of County Galway, it's difficult to keep your eyes on the road, such is the magnificence of the land and the sea and the lakes and the skyline, all with their constantly changing shadows and light. The lush velvet purples of the heathers and the tweedy browns and greens in the fields are backlit by unforgiving slabs of granite grey, where the mountains loom over everything. Whole families of sheep, it seems, graze nonchalantly on the roadsides, oblivious to the passers-by. In late August, these winding, hilly roads are swathed in rich, thick ribbons of fuchsia and monbretia, growing wild and abundant, tended by no-one. Except God, maybe. And even the least spiritual traveller among us can't help but think, when surrounded by the majesty of Connemara, that they might just have landed in God's country.
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