|Posted on September 17, 2012 at 6:40 AM|
‘IF you could pick one place in Ireland which is a beacon of responsible tourism, where would it be?’ a government official asked me recently.
Catherine’s son paddling while waiting for pizza at Cape Clear off the coast of West Cork. (Photos: Catherine Mack)I had to think it over carefully, and eventually said, ‘If I could recommend an Irish region which embraces so many of the issues relating to sustainability in tourism, I would say, go visit our islands. Because not only are they remote and off the beaten track, but tourism is vital for their very survival.
‘From the minute you step on the ferry, you are putting income into the local economy and helping families find ways in which they can encourage their children to stay put for generations to come. Many islands don’t allow cars, they have plenty of cycle hire facilities, walking routes, as well as a plethora of small locally owned accommodation.
‘Some do struggle in terms of shops, which means that you end up bringing your own food , but there is almost always a pub that you can support. And, in terms of sustaining local culture, you can’t beat most of the islands in terms of traditional culture.’
So, if you have a weekend to spare, just pick an island and head straight there. Even if you just go for a couple of nights, you will feel as if you have been away for a week. A good starting point is Discover Ireland’s website, where they have excellent information on just twenty-six of our main islands (discoverireland.ie/Ireland-s-Islands), from how to get there, where to stay, where to eat and things to do. However, most of us love the fact that there is, in fact, very little to do on these islands, except walking, exploring and generally absorbing the solace and solitude.
And keep an eye out for David Walsh’s book, Oileáin, in which he writes about hundreds of our offshore hideaways, due out in November (pesdapress.com).
There are, however, some stunning festivals and events to keep an eye out for too, a couple of which I list below. So, here is an introduction to island enlightenment, with just a few of my favourite spots, where you can switch off from the mainland and mainstream.
And hope that the weather is wonderful for when you arrive, and terrible for your departure because that’s the danger of some of our islands, you just have to risk getting stuck there if the rain comes in. Always a blessing, in my book.
1. The West Cork Fit Up Festival must be one of the most exciting reasons to visit one of our nearby islands, if you need an excuse that is. Running from now until August 19th, you still have time to book one of many superb performances from some of our leading theatre companies and performers, who are touring in traditional fit-up style to Bere Island, Heir Island, Sherkin Island. It is one of the most inspired festivals in a long time, with concessions available for some of the ferries and early bird meals being served in local hostelries. Get in quick though at westcorkfit-upfestival.com
2. Omey island is off the coast of Connemara and you could almost miss it on a drive down the coast as you pass its nearest mainland stop off in Claddaghduff Village. You can walk out to Omey using the well signposted tidal route when the water is out, and spend a day walking on its white sands or camp on it as you watch the water creep in and separate you from land. One Omey expert is artist Sean Corcoran, who has created a beautiful map of it (seancorcoranart.com), or you could camp at Acton’s eco campsite (actonsbeachsidecamping.com) with its exquisite location overlooking Omey, so you have a pub nearby (Sweeney’s in Claddaghduff) when the tide comes in. For a longer stint discovering Connemara’s islands, check out Connemara Walking Safaris (walkingconnemara. com) which takes you on island-hopping holidays.
3. Clare Island, County Mayo (not county Clare as many believe) was one of the first islands I visited and I still love it even if the boat journey has made me sick on several occasions.
There are many places to stay here, including Clare Island Yoga Retreat, an exemplary green getaway (yogaretreats.ie). However, if, like me, you aren't into counting chakras, just grab a room in one of their cottages when there are no courses on. They will provide the most fantastic, vegetarian, organic food for you, yoga or no yoga. While you are there, make sure you visit Beth Moran’s Ballytoughey Loom (clareislandmayo.com/Loom) for wonderful weaving. Or if you want an excuse to stay longer, take part in one of her weaving, spinning and natural dyeing weekend and week-long workshops (March to October).
4. Inis Meain claims to be one of the least-visited Aran Islands, although with its eco gem Inis Meain Restaurant and Suites (inismeain.com) making international headlines over the last year, I am not sure this is still the case. Run by green and gorgeous couple Ruairí and Marie-Thérèse de Blacam, this sensitively designed hotel, or restaurant with rooms really, is so beautiful it moved me to tears when I stayed there. It’s not cheap, and nor should it be, with home grown produce, fine seasonal cuisine, eco chic design, and the sort of hospitality which, although you say this will be just a once in a lifetime treat, will have you saving up for your return visit as soon as possible. There are only four rooms and one self-catering apartment, so book in advance for that special sumptuous, sustainable occasion.
5. If you haven’t been there already, then the yurts which sit on the edge of a cliff on Cape Clear, are a must. There are only a handful of yurt camps in Ireland, but Chleire Haven's (yurt-holidays-ireland.com) owners Sally and Dave, really picked the right site for this one. Choose between a fully equipped yurt, with cooker, proper beds, copious bedding, and wood burning stove, or tipis which are more basic, with camping mattresses, blankets, and no stove, so bring your own sleeping bag and cooking equipment. There is also a great shop, An Siopa Beag , on the island to cater for all your needs, with a restaurant attached, so you can eat their delicious homemade pizzas overlooking the pier, raise a glass and decide to miss yet another boat home.
6. Rathlin Island off the North Antrim Coast is most famous for its superb bird sanctuary (rspb.org.uk) and often their calls are all that is to be heard here, merging with the natural music of the Atlantic waves. However, the first thing you see when you get your land legs is The Manor House (rathlinmanorhouse.co.uk), a charming eco-friendly guest house which has played a huge role in the history of the island and, in more recent times, fell into the hands of National Trust. Islander Damien McFaul and his wife Ksenia manage it, using a plethora of their own produce to supply their restaurant, where the menu is a smorgasbord of local fish and seafood.
7. Kevin Currid of Lough Allen Adventure Centre (loughallenadventure.com) in Leitrim, has devised a Wilderness Therapy weekend on a secret island location on the Lough because, as he says, ‘I just want people to find out what wilderness really means.
There isn’t much of it left in Ireland and after participating in this weekend, people can go off and discover a bit of wilderness close to home, even if it’s at the bottom of their garden.’ Created originally for school groups, it became so popular that adults started to enquire about it. They make rafts by tying canoes together with barrels, shelters out of ponchos, build fires and forage, cook outdoors, sleep in hammocks, and laugh a lot.
8. Trinity Island Lodge in Cavan (trinityisland.com) is a wonderful eco lodge on its own forested island, with a small causeway linking it to land. With free use of canoes and rowing boats, this is one of the most superb locations from which to explore Lough Oughter just a stone’s throw away, literally, but also some of the other hundreds of lakes that Cavan is famous for. Owner Tom O’Dowd knows the lakes like the back of his hand, showing me the quick way into Killeshandra by boat to get a bit of shopping and being infectiously enthusiastic about his beloved, beautiful and totally underrated county.
• Follow Catherine’s travels and writing on www.ethicaltraveller.net , Ethical Traveller on Facebook and @catherinemack on Twitter. You can also buy her app Ireland Green
Categories: Whats happening in Connemara