Category: Archive

Coasting through the scenic West

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Margaret M. Johnson

The coastline of Ireland — all 3,500 miles of it — is, undeniably, one of the world’s most picturesque. Last week, I reported on my travels through coastal Clare, Connemara, and the Delphi Valley. This week the journey continues north to Mayo, before looping back south to Galway City and another route through Clare.

Clew Bay and Croagh Patrick

After leaving the Mountain Spa and Resort at Delphi, we drove along another of Ireland’s scenic roads, R335 in southwest County Mayo. The route takes you through the mountainous peninsula lying between Clew Bay and Killary Fjord and includes the stunning panorama of Glencullin Lough and Doo Lough, where the mountains rise steeply from the water. Famine reminders in this area include a small stone monument remembering the nearly 400 people who died in the region during 1847 after walking in vain from Louisburgh, and the National Famine Monument in Murrisk. Situated at the foot of Croagh Patrick, the sculpture depicts a coffin shop with skeleton bodies and commemorates the anniversary of the Famine when the population declined from 8 million to 4 million.

The area around Clew Bay is best known as the site of Ireland’s holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, where in 441 AD the national apostle, St. Patrick, is said to have spent the 40 days and nights on the summit fasting and praying as part of his effort to convert Ireland to Christianity. Soaring to a height of 2,510 feet, the mountain overlooks Clew Bay and the entire western coastline. Throughout the year, people climb The Reek, as it is known locally, but the main pilgrimage takes place here annually on the last Sunday in July — Reek Sunday — when thousands of pilgrims from all over the world make the ascent, some barefooted.

On the dreary day of our visit, we were among a handful of pilgrims who paused to look, not to climb, so we headed off to pretty Louisburgh, where the pirate queen Grace O’Malley of Ballynahinch fame surfaces again. The Granuaile Visitor Centre explores the story of Ireland’s famous female pirate, who established a base on Clare Island, which was protected by forts around Clew Bay.

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Our visit in March coincided with St. Patrick’s Day, so we found ourselves trapped in a sea of parades in both Westport and Castlebar, which left us with no recourse except to celebrate. A relaxing evening at mansion-like Breaffy House, south of Castlebar, provided needed rest before we headed south to Galway for a change-of-pace stay at the new, high-style Radisson SAS Hotel just steps away from Eyre Square.

Galway City

Regardless of countless previous visits to Galway City, there’s always something new and exciting happening in the historic City of the Tribes, so it was inevitable that we’d stop again. One of the fastest-growing cities in Europe, Galway’s population is in excess of 70,000, and judging from the traffic we encountered, most of them were in town that day. We made some of our “regular” visits — to The Quays (11 Quay St.), one of the city’s oldest pubs; to Sheridan’s Cheesemongers (Churchyard Street), one of the city’s best gourmet markets, and Griffin’s Bakery (21 Shop St.), for one of their irresistible sweets.

But new to us this visit was a stay at the recently opened 4 star Radisson, the epitome of modern Irish style and the city itself. Despite the chrome and glass exterior and stunning glass atrium foyer, the hotel exudes an element of warmth and charm. Most of the stylish guest rooms, which are designed in three styles — Maritime, Scandinavian, and Classic — overlook either Lough Atalia or Galway Bay, and the buzz in the bar and lounge comes from a friendly mix of locals and visitors.

Salmon and Stout

After five delightful days in Ireland, it would be politically incorrect for me to say I saved the best for last, but as a devoted Irish foodie, I did save my visit to two centers of food and drink — The Burren Smokehouse in Lisdoonvarna and The Biddy Early Brewery in Inagh — for my last full day in Clare. Smoked salmon and Irish stout are two of Ireland’s most legendary products, so anyone who’s interested in seeing both the smoking and brewing process can do so in Clare.

We headed out from Galway through Kinvara on the N67 route to Lisdoonvarna, Ireland’s only spa town, known as “the gateway to the Burren.” There, Peter Curtin and his Swedish wife, Brigitta, founded the Burren Smokehouse in 1989. They researched the smoking traditions in Ireland and eventually patented their own smoking process. Their range of products now includes traditional oak smoked Irish salmon, organically grown salmon, wild salmon, and hot smoked salmon, mackerel, and trout.

In 1995, the Curtin’s added a visitor and craft center to allow visitors to learn more about how salmon is smoked and to be able to take home a delicious edible souvenir. Because of European Union hygiene regulations, it’s not possible for visitors to actually tour the smokehouse, so the Curtins installed an authentic smoking oven in the visitor center to complement a video that demonstrates how they salt, dry, smoke, and package their products. Because of their great success, the Curtin’s now export their smoked fish products to gourmet food chains in Europe and specialist Irish pubs in London, New York, and Boston. They’ve also developed an extensive mail-order/Internet business and can fulfill orders to destinations around the world in 48 hours.

Not so with Biddy Early brews — Black, Blonde, and Red Biddy — which don’t have such international recognition or distribution yet. As Ireland’s first pub brewery, Biddy Early has nowhere to go but up, and from all indications, that’s the direction the old girl seems to be taking.

Named after a famous Clare woman of the 1800s, Biddy Early was said to possess magical powers and was largely regarded to be a witch. When she died, the local priest threw her bottle of magic potion into the Inagh river. In 1995, the bottle was found on the banks of the river, which flows behind the pub brewery on the N85 route that runs from Lahinch to Ennis. Its contents were analyzed and found to contain a mixture of oysters and Irish stout, an

Aphrodisial mix that inspired the Garvey family to create Ireland’s first pub-brewery, in 1995.

The attractive country-style pub also hosts a visitor center with an interesting audio-visual presentation that tells the story of Biddy and explains how the award-winning beers are made. A short guided tour of the fully operational brewery is also available and, of course, the obligatory taste of one of the handcrafted beers goes without saying. Choose from Black Biddy, which is brewed with malt, hops, and carrageen moss picked in Liscannor Bay; Red Biddy, Ireland’s only herb beer, which is made using bog myrtle; and Blonde Biddy, a lager commonly referred to as “the bright, daring, younger sister” [to the other brews]. All three Biddys are made from 100 percent natural ingredients with no articifical colors, sweeteners, or preservatives. Or, as proprietor Niall Garvey says, “Nothing is added . . . but magic!”

We spent our last night in Clare at the delightful Woodstock Hotel, a five-minute drive from bustling Ennis and only 30 minutes away from Shannon airport. Woodstock never fails for great hospitality, fabulous accommodations, and good food in its Spikes Brasserie. It’s a great place to unwind after coasting through the west.

Where to Stay

Breaffy House, Castlebar, County Mayo, 60 rooms. Phone 65-682-3000, fax 682-3759, email reservations@lynchhotels.com, or visit www.lynchotels.com.

Radisson SAS Hotel, Lough Atalia Road, Galway, 205 rooms and suites. Phone 1 (800) 333-3333 (U.S.), 91-538300, fax 538380, email sales.galway@radissonSAS.com, or visit www.radissonsas.com.

Woodstock Hotel, Ennis, County Clare, 67 rooms and suites. Phone 65-684-6600, fax 684-6611, email info@woodstockhotel.com, or visit www.woodstockhotel.com.

What to See

Granuile Visitor Centre, Louisburgh, open June to September, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Details, www.visitmayo.com.

Croagh Patrick Information Centre, Murrisk, Co. Mayo, open daily at 9 a.m. Details, croaghpatrick@ireland.com.

Westport House, Westport, Co. Mayo. Details, www.westporthouse.ie.

Cliffs of Moher Visitor Center, open year-round 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Details, www.shannonheritage.com.

The Burren Centre, Kilfenora, open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Details, visit www.burrencenter@eircom.net.

The BurrenPerfumery and Floral Centre, Carron, open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Details, www.burrenperfumery.com.

The Burren Smokehouse Visitor Centre, Craft and Gourmet Store, Lisdoonvarna, open daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Details, www.burrensmokehouse.ie.

Biddy Early Brewery, Inagh, open daily for tours and tasting. Details, www.beb.ie.

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