From irresistible seafood chowder to dramatic beaches. Caroline Fitton finds the perfect places to hang out
| AN OYSTER CATCHER calls, the sound echoes out across the bay, then a curlew offers a plaintive reply; these are the only two sounds I’ve heard all morning, apart from the kettle boiling in our deliciously tiny but perfectly formed hideaway on the tip of Ballinakill Bay. Monks Cottage as hideaways go, is all I could possibly want – and much more – remoteness and tranquillity coupled with the ever changing Connemara sky and sea, yetjust a mile from diminutive Letterfrack, with three pubs, an excellent butcher, restaurant, general store and post office. Birdlife is abundant on this western side of Connemara’s Renvyle peninsular, so there’s plenty for us to spot, with or without (forgotten) binoculars. Each day a cormorant stands sentry, poised on a rock in the bay wings splayed for drying, sometimes alternating with an old grey heron, whose silhouette is clearly visible each dawn and dusk. With a 360 degree panorama, to our right is the Tully mountain, straight ahead are clear views out to sea and Inishbofin island, while inland frames a perfect vista of the Diamond mountain, one of the majestic and distinctive Twelve Bens.
There’s plenty to do – just down the road is the entrance to the Connemara National Park, where a variety of walks and an informative visitor centre make a good introduction to the Bens, while at the Oceans Alive sea centre we discover a delightfully eccentric museum and very friendly staff in the upstalrs café, with views over Derryinver quay.
Handy retall therapy outlets
At the tip of the peninsular sits the elegant Renvyle House Hotel, where paintings and letters line the corridors – a due to the past pedigree. Once the home of Oliver St John Gogarty, the hotel has hosted statesmen, writers and artists from Churchill, Yeats, Lady Gregory to Augustus John. A simple crab salad and cold crisp glass of white wine outside on the terrace looking to sea is the ideal way to drink in the atmosphere.
Closer to home, Letterfrack’s Bard’s Den pub becomes our evening local, with its mix of traditional music and steaming bowls of lrish stew effortlessly hitting the spot. Natural beauty and watering holes aslde, retall therapy outlets are handily scattered about too; on Letterfrack’s scenic quay is the enticing Avoca, with a tempting array of woven rugs, throws, scarves plus clothes, homeware and gift collections.
Further along the road between Letterfrack and Clifden at the Cottage Crafts shop I happily indulge in an unusually delicate Arran jumper, before hitting Clifden, the bustling main town of the region with a good range of bars, restaurants and shops. One newly acquired pair of binoculars later we’re on to the Ballyconneely peninsular whose endless beaches require time for fulI appreciation. From the coral strand and Mannin Bay, to Dunloughan further south these low lying wide strips of beach are full of dramatic colour, the soft white coral sands lending the sea an unusually vivid aquamarine tinge, with the sky occupying two thirds cf the visually interesting equation.
| Stocking up with food for an evening treat, we stop at the Connemara Smokehouse in Bunowen, run by the garrulous Graham Roberts who could talk the hind fin off a tuna. One of Rick Steins ‘food heroes’, he informs about the smoking process of his family business with enthusiastic pride. Melting smoked tuna, wild smoked salmon and gravadlax later prove him to be justifiably proud. On the side of the dominant Doonhill stands the craggy ruins of Bunowen castle, once the stronghold of infamous pirate queen Grace O’Malley – but she’s another story altogether. Arrival at Roundstone is announced by the back-to-back beaches of Dog bay and Gurteen bay forming a neat wishbone shape, each a symmetrical crescent of sand. This thriving community is home to an annual arts festival as well as the workshop of bodhran maker and supremo Malachy Kearns.
Inside the welcoming O’Dowd’s bar and restaurant we meet a cheerful family from Limerick, and a dad with a frank confession: ‘I’d drive all the way from Limerick for a bowl of their seafood chowder.’ Well, if I lived in Limerick so would I.
Thinking we’d discovered most of the dramatic beaches, on our last day we stumbled on Renvyle’s magnificent Glassilaun, where the vast tidal expanse is simply breathtaking and the crystal clear waters make a mockery of pollution. Back in Letterfrack we save our last night’s treat for Pangur Ban restaurant, a 300-year-old restored cottage.
A rustic setting, impeccably friendly service and fabulous fccd. Home baked breads, goats cheese tart, tenderest Iamb, rhubarb fool, are all exceptional. Chef-owner John Walsh runs autumnal cooking courses – an eclectic mix from breads and cakes to curries and desserts. Taking our leave, a full moon hung suspended right over the Diamond mountain – all part of the magical spell that Connemara weaves. While we had found plenty to do (not to mention golfing, scuba diving, horse riding and fishing) it’s a place just to be, to hang out – like that sensible moon.