IT IS not the best of weather to climb a mountain. But, then again, neither is it the worst. The statue of St Patrick, erected in 1928 near the foot of the “Holy Mountain”, in Ireland, stands with his head in the clouds, and our destination — the 764-metre-high summit of Croagh Patrick — is not entirely visible, either. But thick cloud is not deterring us, nor hundreds of our fellow walkers also making the ascent, whether pilgrims devoted to the Catholic faith, or holidaymakers simply out for a hearty stroll.
Journeying the well-trodden (rocky) path up Croagh Patrick, situated on the west coast of Ireland in County Mayo, is taking longer than the two hours estimated to walk to the top, because, every few steps, we stop to appreciate the ever more expansive view of Clew Bay behind us, and its 365 islands — which (unlike the peak) are bathed in sunshine today.
Legend has it that Patrick spent 40 days and nights fasting on the summit of this national shrine, in AD 441, before reputedly banishing serpents from Ireland by chasing them into the sea. Ireland is still remarkably serpent-free, but, fittingly, snake-like sandy reefs glisten in the bay below.
Mayo has a reputation as Ireland’s premier destination for soft adventure. It’s vast landscape — sometimes desolate and wild, sometimes tamed and serene — offers plenty for all ages wanting sustainable, slow-travel holidays. To see Mayo laid out before us as we ascend, and on our leisurely descend, seems a fitting introduction to our holiday here.
ON ARRIVAL back at sea level, we head for Roonagh Pier, where we climb on board the Clew Bay Queen for a 20-minute ferry crossing to Clare Island. The island, which guards the entrance to Clew Bay, is inhabited by just 130 people, and, with the exception of the odd truck and tractor used to distribute deliveries, is largely traffic-free.
A cluster of whitewashed dwellings dot the verdant landscape of Clare Island, overseen by Knockmore mountain. But the hub of this enchanting island is around its harbour and sheltered sandy beach, which has a tiny back-to-basics beach-side camp site, a couple of pubs, a bike-rental station and the island’s own castle (once occupied by the notorious 16th-century Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley, who ruled Mayo’s coastline and is buried at the abbey ruins on the island). Visitors with time on their hands can also explore the island’s cycle tracks and walking trails promising views galore.
Caroline MillsKayaks and boards await hire on one of Clare Island’s sheltered beaches
We return to the mainland, and our pretty campsite in the grounds of Westport House. It’s a worthy base. The house, a handsome landscaped gardens, was once described by the society author William Makepeace Thackeray as “the most beautiful house in Ireland”. It is open to the public all year, and there are many family activities available on the estate — including a children’s Pirate Adventure Park and indoor soft-play area; a miniature railway; boating on the lake; picnics; and 400 acres of landscaped grounds and woodland to explore.
We walk through the uplifting gardens around the house, then take a ten-minute walk through the extensive parkland (free for members of the public to wander at will) to visit upmarket Westport Quay. We end what has been an energetic day by watching the sun set over Clew Bay and Croagh Patrick — of which it is said that, at certain times of year, the sun appears to roll down the face of Croagh Patrick before it melts into the sea.
AS A “planned” town, Westport is unusual in Ireland. Designed by the owner of Westport House in the 18th century, its charming Georgian centre brims with colourful floral displays, interesting shops, restaurants, and atmospheric pubs, which offer traditional music sessions most evenings. Put together with its picturesque location over the Carrowbeg River, and beside Clew Bay, Westport is, not surprisingly, a tourist mecca.
Westport also hosts the start (or finish) of the Great Western Greenway, which, at 26 miles long, is the longest off-road cycling trail in Ireland. The route uses a former railway line, and has been awarded “European Destination of Excellence” status for its sustainable tourist credentials, and the valuable economic benefits it brings the community.
Cycling the Greenway is excellent, especially for families, owing to its flat terrain and traffic-free status. We pick up bikes from Clew Bay Bike Hire, in Westport, and pedal through sublime coastal scenery, around the edge of Clew Bay, to Achill. We pass plenty of places to eat along the way, as well as scenic picnic stops, especially in the pretty village of Mulranny.
Caroline MillsThe statue of Patrick looking out from the base of Croagh Patrick over the Clew Bay towards Louisbergh
Reaching the end of the Greenway, we choose not to take the dedicated bus service back to Westport, and continue over the bridge to Achill Island, to camp for a couple of nights beside Keel Beach, one of the many Blue Flag beaches in Mayo.
Staying on Achill — the largest island in Ireland — provides plenty of opportunities to mix adventure with history. One day, we kayak and snorkel along the Blue Way, a water-based activity route, admiring the Atlantic coast as we go. The next, we visit the mysterious, unnamed, mile-long deserted village at the foot of Slievemore mountain. The village is known to date from the 12th century, although the presence of a megalithic tomb there suggests much earlier habitation. What is more, we eat delectable pancakes by the light of the moon on the beach at Keel, served from a beach-side hut.
IT IS not the last time that we encounter ancient Ireland in Mayo. An hour’s drive by camper van from Achill Sound (the entrance to Achill Island), we cross the wild and desolate Nephin Beg mountain range — a part of which features the Ballycroy National Park — to visit Céide Fields, a 400-acre Neolithic site on the north-Mayo coast. Here, the earliest known cultivated fields in the world (dating back to 3500 BC) are hidden beneath Mayo’s internationally important wild blanket bog, which is a type of peatland. The largely uninhabited national park provides some of the best examples of unspoilt wilderness in Ireland. It’s a must-do.
Caroline MillsViews over Mayo’s spectacularly rugged coastline around Achill Island, seen from the Atlantic Drove
Turning almost full circle, we end our Mayo adventure in Cong, a picturesque village 26 miles south-east of Westport that straddles the southern county border with Galway.
Our eyes agog with the sublime beauty of nearby Lough Mask and the Partry Mountains, our final walk is a gentle one: we traverse the grounds of the ruined Cong Abbey, over the charming River Cong, and along the Cong Forest Nature Trail, delivering sights of a vast canopy of leafy trees and brown trout basking in the river.
We travel a genteel route of some 200 miles over five days. And, in that time, Mayo steals our hearts. The county’s combination of active and gentle adventures, sheer beauty and crowd-free landscape, surely qualify it as a destination of choice for almost every age.
We travelled with Stena Line (www.stenaline.co.uk) from Holyhead to Dublin on board the cruise ferry Stena Adventurer (3hrs 15mins). Prices from £89 per car plus driver. Irish Ferries (www.irishferries.com) also travel the same route. From Dublin Port, road travel is easy via the M50 Dublin ring road and the M4/M6 to Galway then N84/N5 to Westport. We stayed at: Westport House Caravan and Camping Park (www.westporthouse.ie); Keel Sandybanks Caravan and Camping Park (www.achillcamping.com); Belleek Park Caravan and Camping (www.BelleekPark.com); Cong Camping and Caravan Park (www.congcamping.com).