Making Waves in Yeats' Country
Surf's up in Sligo, as is artisan food, seaweed pampering and more
Tom Hickey has brought the 'spirit of aloha' to Strandhill in Sligo. His enthusiasm certainly brightened a wet summer's day in June. Hickey is the co-owner of Perfect Day Surf School, which he opened with his wife Simone. They have since passed on the reins to daughter Elisha.
Theirs was one of the first surf schools in the northwest. They opened in 1998, back when Strandhill was a best-kept secret among surfers.
Tom and his family are also regular visitors to surfers' mecca Hawaii, where they learned that 'aloha' is more than a salutation; it's a way of life.
"To me, the spirit of aloha is about showing welcome and friendship to all; treating people with respect," Tom explained. "It's not about money, it's about our passion for sharing the oceans and waterways."
As we chatted, two of his neighbours on the promenade – both local businesspeople – stopped by for a chat. I later learned that he lends his wetsuits and gear to visiting surfers, rather than charging a rental fee.
Tom Hickey is a man of his word.
The other ethos that Tom and his school abide by is 'safety first', which is, of course, comforting when you're surfing for the first time.
His teacher/student ratios are low, meaning students get as much one-on-one time as possible. We were paired with senior instructor Peter, whose approach instils confidence in even the most nervous swimmers.
My sister – who's been in the sea perhaps twice in her entire life – was board-bound within 10 minutes. Pete staggers the theory and beach-based practice, preferring to get his students into the water as soon as possible. The aim is not to overwhelm with information and instead let intuition kick in. To analyse is to paralyse, and all that.
He also prefers that total beginners use foam boards rather than hard boards. As someone who had my first lesson on a hard board, I can confirm that a foam board makes learning much easier. It allows you to hone your technique before progressing. Surf purists may baulk, but you can only learn to surf when you can mount a board...
Sligo's unique geographical location means it gets some of the most consistent swell in Europe. Hence, Strandhill has been making waves with the international surf community for decades. It has also attracted a number of international settlers. The seafront promenade on which Perfect Day is based is home to many local businesses.
Next door to Tom is Shells Seaside Bakery & Café, run by delightful couple Jane and Myles Lamberth. Jane is from Dublin, Myles from Cape Town, South Africa. Both keen surfers, they met some eight years ago while working at the Headland Hotel in Newquay. According to the locals, they transformed Shells in a season.
Their menu – which focuses on unpretentious dishes using organic, seasonal produce, great coffees and smoothies – now attracts visitors from Sligo and beyond. It isn't so much a café as it is a lifestyle. They've created a space that engages with the community, from the candy-striped beach chairs that sit invitingly on the porch to the recently opened shop selling quirky homewares and hard-to-find artisan foods.
Next door to Shells is Voya, the Irish seaweed-based beauty brand (on sale in Avoca, House of Fraser and a number of spas and beauty salons nationwide).
Using seaweed for its therapeutic properties is an age-old Irish tradition. Indeed, there were hundreds of seaweed baths in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century; nine in Strandhill alone. The Walton family have revived the tradition by developing a well-received beauty range and opening the Voya Seaweed Baths and Spa in Strandhill.
Though they have harnessed a tradition, the space itself is decidedly modern. They offer a range of organic treatments including body wraps, facials and massage, as well as the signature seaweed baths.
It's a ceremonial process – patrons alternate between immersing themselves in a hot bath filled with hand-harvested seaweed and a steam room, which opens the pores to the nutrients in the seaweed.
Seaweed is a powerful plant. Indeed, the science journals are only now verifying the knowledge that our ancestors knew intuitively. It releases luxurious oils when heated, leaving hair shining and skin glowing. A word to the wise, though: this is a detoxifying process, so drink plenty of water.
We stayed in the Strandhill Lodge and Suites, a four-star guest hotel renowned for its welcome, the type of hostelry where they'd tuck you into bed if you asked. It is by no means a sprawling luxury resort, rather a clean, convenient boutique hotel that boasts a number of well-considered touches. The deluxe rooms, for instance, have huge balconies that look right out over the ocean.
Next door to the hotel is Venue, a busy pub and restaurant famous for its chowder and Lissadel mussels mariniere. For a more upmarket experience, try Tra Ban, where affable owners Anthony Gray and Cedric Roussillhe serve up local produce with a twist.
Their signature dish is chargrilled Mullaghmore lobster served on a bed of spring-onion risotto with sun-dried tomato beurre blanc sauce, while their dessert menu teases the tastebuds with dishes such as 'Hip hip hooray, it's Creme Brulee'.
Elsewhere, there's a Chinese restaurant, a French patisserie and an ice-cream parlour.
There's plenty more to do in Sligo besides surfing. Outdoor enthusiasts can explore the mountain of Knocknarea (legend says the summit is home to Queen Medb's tomb) or Carrowmore's megalithic burial chambers, which pre-date Egypt's pyramids. The panoramic views here provided the inspiration for much of WB Yeats's poetry. The Tread Softly festival will further explore this link next month.
There is something in the sea air in Strandhill, a feeling that this resort is only in its infancy. There is a creative vision that seems to be shared by many of the local businesspeople, and their international neighbours, and I can see this nascent community really emerging in the years to come.
For more, see discoverireland.ie.
A summer of Sligo events
South Sligo Summer School (July 14-20), Tubbercurry, Co Sligo. A week of Irish traditional music, dance and song. Learn to play a traditional instrument or advance your skills. All classes and workshops are facilitated by experienced tutors and classes are graded in all instruments. See sssschool.org
Sligo Jazz Project 2013 (July 16-21). Various venues throughout Sligo town. A renowned international jazz summer school and a festival in one, with concerts, daily workshops, masterclasses and jam sessions featuring a host of international talent. See sligojazz.ie.
Tread Softly (July 25-August 9). Various venues. This festival (in its second year) will be celebrating Yeats's heritage in Sligo and the association between Sligo and the Yeats family. The story of these famous artists – Nobel Prize-winning poet William Butler, painter Jack B, embroiderer Susan and fine press printer Elizabeth – will be brought to life over 16 days of music, theatre, exhibitions and spoken word. See seasonofyeats.com.