In the west of Ireland, Tori Mayo finds that a good party is central to a holiday.
In the historic port of Galway, flags flew high in bright sunlight to celebrate the gathering of the sleek, streamlined vessels which had completed an Atlantic crossing in the Volvo Ocean Race.
How they party in this corner of western Ireland. We walked through narrow streets to the waterfront, where the locals offered a keenly-anticipated 100,000 welcomes and good old-fashioned Irish “craic” (fun and frivolity) to sailors wearied by the challenges of the ocean. On a crowded quayside, there were lively musical concerts, food stalls, water sports demos and snatches of street theatre.
The previous day, we had arrived at Galway’s rudimentary airport, hoping to experience the great outdoors while exploring this windswept, sometimes desolate, western region of Ireland.
First up was a quick trip north to the southern tip of neighbouring County Mayo, my namesake. Driving along the east side of the vast Lough Corrib and its inky-blue water, we were in awe of the unspoiled, wild landscape.
Clusters of isolated cottages mingled with rocky pastures and rugged stone walls. On lush green hills, cattle grazed freely with their young. Our first stop, Lisloughrey Lodge, was a luxurious, modern boutique hotel within a traditional country house facing the lake, offering fine food and a luxury spa.
The lodge is in the grounds of the Ashford Estate, which was home to the Guinness family until the early 1900s. Its Salt restaurant is a showcase for the talents of award-winning chef Wade Murphy, a serious pioneer with local produce.
In the evening, we took a pleasant stroll through the grounds of Ashford Castle hotel – which enjoyed a rare moment of fame when actor Pierce Brosnan held his wedding reception there in 2001 – to the little village of Cong.
Scenes from the Hollywood film, The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne, were shot in Cong, and the cottage setting is now a museum. Cong, which borders Mayo and Galway, also boasts the welcoming Lydon’s Lodge Hotel and Restaurant.
We were drawn there by the sight of a fresh catch of brown trout, proudly laid out front by a keen angler.
Our appetites whetted by her well-earned haul and friendly banter, we were beckoned inside. Seated by an open fire, we were surrounded by avid anglers, some still in waders, sharing stories of a day spent by the rich waters. We tucked into sea bass and lamb shanks cooked in Guinness, while quaffing cider and pints of the black stuff. Next morning, we headed west, beyond the top of Lough Corrib (which is reputed to have 365 islands within it), through the Maamturk Mountains, to join with the Atlantic coast road south to Galway Bay. At times, we left the beaten track, driving in and around fragmented outcrops.
It was fascinating to find fishing boats apparently washed up, several hundred metres inland, at low tide.
Passing through this Irish-speaking region, we saw some curious sights: petrol pumps on pavements outside residential buildings, and blocks of peat extracted from the bogs.
After an afternoon on the road, we checked into our hotel in Galway city as celebrations for the fortnight-long stopover of the Volvo race continued. The crews took part in in-port racing from the headland, while the Red Arrows painted trails of many colours in clear blue skies, and we basked in the bay as the sun beat down.
Dinner that night, in a bohemian French bistro, rounded off an exhilarating day: we took a tipple or two in a heaving Irish bar as a duo belted out traditional Celtic songs. The next day we discovered why Ireland’s Atlantic coast is famed for world-class beaches.
The Ballyconneely Peninsula is ringed by amazing sandy shores, seen from the coast road.
Stepping out onto the practically-deserted Ballyconneely beach, with its pristine white sand and turquoise water, you feel close to paradise.
The beach is ideal for pony trekking and the ocean is perfect for sea kayaking and swimming – if you’re brave. Though tempted to throw down our towels and dive in, the water was a little too bracing. A few minutes’ drive away, smoked and marinated fish is cured in the traditional way at the Connemara Smokehouse.
A short drive north is the town of Clifden, a base for keen walkers and cyclists. The Clifden Jazz and Blues Festival was in full swing when we arrived, but instead we headed on to our final stop, the four-star luxury hotel, Ballynahinch Castle, which is world-renowned for fishing.
In a 450-acre estate of woodland and rivers in the heart of Connemara, it overlooks its famous salmon fishery, with a backdrop of the beautiful 12 Bens mountain range.
As novice anglers, we learned the basics of fly-fishing, from casting techniques to fly selection, with an expert guide from the hotel. The lake was so peaceful, it felt like our own. One short trip to Ireland’s west coast, and we’re hooked for life.
Go during the spring/summer months in time for numerous festivals – from the Connemara Mussel Festival, in May, to Roundstone Summerfest in August.
And don’t miss a good chat with the locals or a trip to the famous Aran Islands or Inishbofin.