County Mayo: There is unspoilt scenery and the traditional warm welcome in this part of Ireland, as Mark Casci discovers.
Despite a poor couple of years economically, Ireland’s fortunes are starting to improve and the country remains a fantastic place to visit.
In one week last year, it hosted two state visits from the Queen and US President Barack Obama, both of which were reported globally as a resounding success, not least for that unmistakable welcome that is Irish hospitality.
Having been to much of Northern Ireland and to Dublin several times, it was refreshing to visit one of the lesser-known areas of the island, County Mayo in the north west of the country.
The area is home to towns such as Westport and Ballina and thousands of square miles of some of the most beautiful countryside in Europe.
The region is that great travel writing cliché – an undiscovered treasure. While it may lack the unique city-centre charm of Dublin or the historic heritage of Kilkenny, County Mayo offers some of the best scenery, food and hospitality that the country has to offer.
It also offers visitors the chance to do a host of things I had always wanted to do but had never got round to.
The trip saw us fly from Manchester to Knock, not far from the town of Ballina, although flights are available from Leeds Bradford.
The nature of County Mayo is apparent as soon as one lands at Knock. The airport is tiny and the roads that serve it are no more than single track lanes, the kind one would find in the more isolated enclaves of the Yorkshire Dales.
However, it is during these drives in our hire car that yielded some of the most enjoyable experiences in County Mayo as the scenery is so spectacular.
Glorious sunshine heralded our arrival as we set off towards our first stop, Ballina. The town is renowned for its attraction to coarse fishers, with the River Moy running right through its centre. However, its real attraction is its restaurants, with the town having a very strong reputation throughout Ireland as a great place to eat.
Upon checking in to the The Downhill Hotel, a short walk from the river, we headed to our first activity – a seaweed bath. It might not seem the obvious holiday choice, but to those in the know Kilcullen’s Seaweed Baths, in the picturesque town of Enniscrone, are celebrated as one of the healthiest and most relaxing ways to spend time.
The bath consists of sea water and seaweed, brought in specially from the Atlantic, which contains a high concentration of natural iodine.
It is said the seaweed in its growing process extracts this iodine from the surrounding sea water and concentrates it in its fronds to such an extent that it contains up 20,000 times the concentration of iodine of the water in which it grows.
The net result is that after a few minutes of bathing and using the quaint steam treatments, one’s skin is smooth and clean feeling and I felt very relaxed.
The perfect end to the day came when my wife and I went to The Kitchen Restaurant at Ballina’s Mount Falcon Hotel. Head chef Philippe Farineau sets a commendable example with both his cooking and his sourcing of much of the menu from local farms.
Running the restaurant under the maxim “Irish Product, French Heart”, Mr Farineau’s restaurant is among the best I have eaten in during my travels.
Serving dinner in the intimate surroundings are some of the friendliest staff you could wish for, with waiter Lubos in particular making the pair of us feel most at home.
The next day sees the heavens open and some rather typical Irish weather head our way. We head to our next destination, Westport on the Atlantic coast and check in to the modern and stylish Westport Woods Hotel which prides itself on its eco-friendly credentials. After a delicious lunch, owner Michael Lennon takes us out to the beach to enjoy one of the more environmentally-friendly pastimes known to man – horse-riding.
With the rain having subsidised we enjoy a casual canter along the beach with the most dramatic scenery around us and I vow to repeat the experience.
After getting changed, we stroll to the Quay Cottage Restaurant, famed for its seafood and wine, followed by a nightcap at Matt Molloy’s Pub. Mr Malloy, a member of the Chieftains group, ploughs his love of traditional Irish music into the fabric of the venue, with a corner reserved exclusively for musicians who perform there every night.
Thanks to Leinster having won the Heineken Cup that afternoon, sprits are high in Westport with locals and tourists alike keen to raise a glass of the black stuff to the team’s success. The atmosphere is upbeat but not rowdy, the famed Irish hospitality again very much on show.
The next morning we enjoy a fabulous traditional Irish breakfast at the hotel before heading to Mulranny.
Here we hire bikes and take to the Great Western Greenway, an 18km traffic-free cycling and walking facility which follows what used to be the Newport-Mulanny Railway which closed in the 1930s. The spectacular scenery astounds and a casual ride yields ever-changing vistas, from rolling hills to charming inlets.
After returning our bikes, we begin the reluctant journey back to Knock Airport.
In a short time in County Mayo we both feel like we have done so much, yet want to stay and experience more – the certain sign that you have had a good trip.
County Mayo is great for fishing, outdoor activities and good food and the classic Irish welcome and friendliness making it a must for a return visit.
Mark Casci flew with Bmi Baby. Flights are available from Leeds Bradford and Manchester. www.bmibaby.com
In Ballina, he stayed at the Downhill Inn Hotel (www.downhillinn.ie) and dined at the Kitchen Restaurant at the Mount Falcon Hotel (www.mountfalcon.com/restaurant-mayo).
In Westport, he stayed at the Westport Woods Hotel & Spa (www.westportwoodshotel.com) and ate in the Quay Cottage Restaurant. The horse riding activities were arranged by the hotel owner Michael Lennon.
Seaweed baths are popular in western Ireland for relief from rheumatism and arthritis.
The best way to get around to hire a car.