Antonia Windsor – Guardian
A leisurely drive west through the district of Connemara reveals a world of windswept dunes, whitewashed cottages and wilderness where mountains, loughs and drama develop at every turn.
The weather in the west of Ireland changes as frequently as the landscape: first there is a grey drizzle over the bogs, then white clouds bearding the mountains, before arriving at a startling blue sea, where the sun makes the sand look whiter than anything you’d find in the Maldives.
This is Connemara, and I can suddenly see why the Irish talk so lovingly of home; to hell with the inclement weather, this place makes you romanticise rain and worship the wind. And anyway, who cares when you’re in a car? This is good driving; as you cross between the Maamturk mountains and the Twelve Pins, the road stretches into a wilderness that shows no other sign of civilisation, whereas down on the coast little whitewashed cottages are scattered in low dunes facing the sea.
This route from Galway to the Cashel House hotel is probably a three-hour drive, but will take you a day if you want to stop off at some of the sites along the way. These are some of the things to look out for.
Kylemore Castle and Abbey
As you come off the R344 back on to the N59, you will begin to see signs for this on your right. It is worth getting out of the car, even if it’s just to take a photograph of the building — a gothic fairytale lakeside castle lodged in a wooded hillside. It is home to a community of Benedictine nuns and a girls school and the house and gardens are open to the public.
Pony trekking in Balleyconeely
Even if you don’t want to trek (or play a round of golf), you must drive down here. As you hit the coast the landscape completely changes and following the signs to the ponies and golf will take you across low grassland surrounded by long, sandy beaches that edge a clear blue sea. If you are an experienced rider you can take a white Connemara pony for a canter across the shore, while beginners trek slowly in line. Either way you get to see the stunning coastline from the back of these beautiful creatures.
The Point Pony Trekking and Horse Riding Centre: +00 35 39523685
Connemara national park
On the other side of the road from the castle is Connemara national park, which once formed part of the grounds of the Abbey. This is the place to get out and stretch your legs. Put on your walking boots and stomp across some of the 3,000 hectares of bogs, heath, grassland and woodland.
Cashel House hotel
This is a traditional country house hotel run by Kay McEvilly and her children. If you can excuse the chintz, it is well worth the stay because the location and gardens are unrivalled on this bit of coast. The gardens were started in 1840 and contain many rare and unusual trees, shrubs and flowers, as well as traditional bog plants. They extend right down to the beach and back up to the heath where you can see Connemara ponies grazing. Benches and gazebos are hidden round corners where you can sit and look out over the sea. Kay is able to advise any gardening enthusiast and, if you can catch her, she’ll give you a guided walk. And if you’re really serious, you can sign up for a morning gardening course.
This is the capital of Connemara and a good place to stop for lunch. If you want a table with a view try the Abbeyglen Castle for a lobster salad, or for a more laid-back affair the Steam Coffee House in the Station House forecourt does excellent organic soups and healthy sandwiches and lots of homemade cakes.
Past the signs for the ponytrekking back towards the main road you will see the smokehouse signposted on your right, overlooking the castle of Grace O’Malley. Owner Graham Roberts is one of chef Rick Stein’s food heroes and the smoked tuna appears on the menu in Stein’s restaurant. Graham fillets the fish himself before it is salted to take out the excess water and then smoked with beechwood. Here you can talk to the man himself and buy wild smoked salmon, gravadlax or honey roast smoked tuna for your Christmas table.