The Falcon lands in North Mayo’s magnificence...
JOHN TREW enjoys close encounters of the bird kind along the Wild Atlantic Way…
FOR MANY MONTHS drivers along the western Irish coast from Cork to Donegal have been mystified by new road signage composed of an inexplicable symbol resembling the WWW of the World Wide Web.
I say ‘inexplicable’ deliberately, because everybody I asked—from filling stations to roadside cafes -- was clueless as to the meaning of the scores of expensive metal signposts that have sprung up on every seaside road I have visited in the past 18 months, from Donegal and Sligo – including the section around MULLAGHMORE which has been given global coverage during the recent Royal Visit.
However, it was only when we arrived in our new favourite destination in the Republic, namely North Mayo, that we discovered that the ‘Wiggly Signs’ symbolise WILD ATLANTIC WAY, the latest initiative by the Irish Tourist Board to sell its utterly delightful coastal scenery. Among other advantages of the idea, is to direct tourists to all the little roads that hug the coast instead of staying on the newer thoroughfares that now criss-cross Ireland along inland straight lines , linking one business park to another.
The total length of the meandering Wild Atlantic Way is 2,500 kms -- that’s a bewildering 1,550 miles; it would cost many hundreds of euros to fill our Volvo’s insatiable tank to take us from the culinary capital of Kinsale in West Cork, to unappetisingly blustery Malin Head in Donegal. Why on earth did the tourism bodies on this wee island not agree to include Northern Ireland’s equally enchanting CAUSEWAY COAST from Magilligan to Ballycastle? That’s faces the Wild Atlantic, doesn’t it?
Anyway, we chose to test-drive a section of the Wild Atlantic Way which we have never travelled before, namely the coast from Ballisodare,through the surfing centre of EASKEY and along the eastern estuary of the River Moy to the colourful family resort of ENNISCRONE which appears to be enjoying a renaissance.
Our destination,BALLINA is not just famous as Ireland’s Salmon Capital, but is also home to two of the finest hotels we have enjoyed for many a year, the multi-award winning MOUNT FALCON surrounded by its own 100-acre Estate, and the contemporary / traditional ICE HOUSE on the other side of the spectacular River Moy.
MOUNT FALCON ESTATE STILL SOARING TO SUCCESS
IT IS EASY to see why the luxury four-star MOUNT FALCON has just been named as Manor House Hotel of the Year – yet another accolate to be added to the galaxy of awards discreetly displayed amid the Irish Country House ambiance of the immaculate entrance area.
This is the sort of place that says ‘welcome to your second home’ from the start; Ireland’s symbol of hospitality – a blazing fire in the Main Lobby -- may not have been needed when we checked in for the warmest Spring weekend stay of 2015,but it’s the thought that counts…
Our guest room was straight out of the Traditional Comfort catalogue, with all the accoutrements I look for – local bottled water; full hospitality tray; great, easy-to work shower; flat-screen TV with good choice of channels; lots of pillows and classy bed-linen. Plus, of course, the No 1 essential -- a strong (and free) wi-fi signal to ensure we can use Skype to make our family jealous of our swanky surroundings.
Rooms are only one option in an establishment which is properly known as MOUNT FALCON ESTATE because its hundred busy acres include the best choice of self-catering accommodation I have seen in the West of Ireland.We were treated to tour by Head of Sales and Marketing EVAN BUTLER, who is one of the many passionate professionals we encountered on our stay. Three ‘villages’ of luxurious 3 / 4 bedroom Guest Lodges are located amid the forests surrounding the imposing 32-guestroom Victorian hotel that commands the whole site.These beautifully designed and landscaped developments are called The Courtyard, Woodlands and my favourite, Lakeside,which overlooks a well-stocked trout lake so close that rental-guests could almost cast a fly from their kitchen!
Huntin’,shootin’ and fishin’ packages are very much at the heart of this former millionaire’s Fishing Lodge whose Estate still includes two miles of exclusive double-bank Salmon Fishing on Ireland’s celebrated game-fishing river, the Moy.
There are lots of Golfin’ packages,too,thanks to the proximity of 15 facilities - including three championship courses at Belmullet, Enniscrone and Ross’s Point – as well as a popular on-site driving range used by guests to Mount Falcon like Tiger Woods and Sir Nick Faldo. Archery and Clay pigeon shooting are also on the sporting menu.
Personally, Karen and I would be more likely to be having a treatment by the team at the Elmis Spa or enjoying the 17metre heated pool,sauna,steam room and jacuzzi. We are less likely to hire a mountain bike to follow the Estate’s jogging/biking trails on the best pocket map of hotel facilities I have seen since our last stay in Gleneagles.
Indeed, Mount Falcon reminded me of Gleneagles in a number of ways – particularly relating to the superb sportin’ facilities, the brilliant French cookery with a local twist, the on-site kitchen garden and, of course, the Falconry (which is much better than Gleneagles’ or Turnberry’s.) HOW I MET A FLIGHTY NEW FRIEND AT MOUNT FALCON an eagle actually landed on my gloved wrist, delivering my most exciting hotel experience since the alligator ate my golf ball at the Doral Resort in Florida! Funny enough, my new friend is a Harris Hawk also named after an American state, Arizona. She’s just one of the many magnificent birds of prey that wedding parties, hotel guests and other visitors to Mount Falcon Estate, will encounter on a unique Hawk Walk with the affable falconer JASON DEASY who gives breathtaking demonstrations of an ancient art worth every cent of the price.
Enniscrone-born Jason has been passionate about falcons all his life so he offered his services to Mount Falcon which had been using this noble bird as its logo since the Maloney family launched their thriving enterprise a decade ago. It has proved to be a match made in heaven, and Jason’s immaculate menagerie of hand-reared hawks, owls,falcons,eagles and the like has now been complemented with sleek little ferrets and a handsome Hungarian hunting dog which works in tandem with the birds. The speedy sky-diving hawks put on an aerial display thet the Red Arrows would envy. What a sight for nature lovers (except local rabbits!)
As a keen gardeners ourselves, we were thrilled to meet another Mount Falcon resident who is passionate about sharing his role with guests and groups, namely French head gardener, ALEX LAVARDE . He loves to take green-fingered enthusiasts around his KITCHEN GARDEN which aims to provide the hotel’s two Award-winning Restaurants with organically-grown herbs and the tastiest, freshest,most unusual vegetables I have ever enjoyed outside of my own raised beds. Dreadlocked Alex pulled some of his plumpest asparagus stems and picked deliciously sugary peas to give to the chefs for our dinner that night – complete with viola blossoms for edible decoration.
They adorned an incomparabe Fish Plate of very ‘chefy’ seafood canapés which won my Award as Starter of the Decade when we had our first dinner.We had a total of five meals which were – in the words of my mentor and friend BRIAN GARRETT who insisted that we went to Mount Falcon in the first place – “Beyond criticism.”
ICE HOUSE IS AN ALTOGETHER DIFFERENT KIND OF COOL
THE ICE HOUSE is an intriguing name for what is surely one of Mayo’s most stylish destinations, described by one reviewer as “the very definition of a hip luxury retreat” with its outdoor spa, riverside restaurant, clever cocktails and youthful service.
We came upon it two years ago en route to Westport and had delicious salmon lunch while watching two expert fly-fishermen, happily failing to catch salmon while knee-deep in the tidal waters of the Moy. “We will return,” said She who Must be Obeyed (my wife Karen). And that’s why we added a day to our trip to North Mayo.What a wise decision!
Trendy architects have transformed this ornate Victorian salmon regrigeration centre, once called Iceland Cottage, by adding contemporary hotel facilities and 28 chic guestrooms to it, while providing traditional ‘feel’ in the four remaining Heritage rooms which also feature modern quirks like cedar-wood baths. As visual arts enthusiasts, we love the arty ambiance of the public rooms, thanks to important works by Charles Tyrell, Martin Gale and John Devlin as well as local commissions.
There’s lots more interesting stuff to see outside, as you catch a few sunbeams on the Spa’s sun deck. Not only do you get close to herons and cormorants, there’s an utterly unique spectacle down-river at Ballina Quay—a concrete warship said to have been deliberately sunk there after WWI to slow the Moy silting up.
With its eclectic mix, the ICE HOUSE is the coolest place in Mayo for people-watching; sophisticated local girls looking for a bridal venue rub shoulders with an Ulster travel writer enjoying the finest Eggs Benedict he has ever enjoyed! Cool. Yeah.
EXCITING DRIVE BACK TO THE STONE AGE
DURING OUR four-day sunny stay, we followed the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) at Ballina to explore the north-western coastline of Mayo as far as Broadhaven Bay , starting at the Moy River estuary. I am proud to be the first travel journalist to have been given the all-new, hot-off-the-press North Mayo Tourism Map by local marketing co-ordinator Nicola Flynn.
It’s an invaluable Guide for first-time explorers and thanks to it we soon found three of North Mayo’s famous ABBEYS, MOYNE,ROSSERK and RATHFRAN,and then discovered the vast unspoilt beach of LACKEN STRAND.
We stopped at the noted sea angling centre of KILLALA to see its Round Tower and followed Nicola’s tip to have a snack in front of the turf fire at the popular Mary’s Cottage in BALLYCASTLE. These are characterful wee towns of the type that are becoming rare in the West of Ireland,so we savoured them. We aimed for the WAW Signature Site of Downpatrick Head where we saw its sea-stack and blow-hole as well as the 2014 Spirit of Place art installation.
The 1000ft cliffs around here are every bit as dramatic as the Cliffs of Moher further south, and can now be widely appreciated, thanks to the WAW signposts which encourage tourists to drive along little-used single-track coastal roads that they would otherwise ignore or think to be too dangerous.
This fascinating – if slightly scary in places - 80 mile round trip took Karen and I to one of Ireland’s most astonishing, yet hardly known, attractions, the CEIDE FIELDS VISITOR CENTRE near Belderg. This lighthouse-looking building (open May-Oct) overlooks the world’s most extensive Stone-Age monument to agriculture. It’s the only place on earth where you can plainly see field systems where prehistoric farmers kept cattle in enclosures and grew wheat; they lived in harmony together and built megalithic tombs more than 5,000 years ago.
Friendly staff guided us towards the exhibits of farming life in the New Stone Age, before we climbed up to the 360-degree Viewing Platform in ideal sunny conditions. On the land side we marvelled at the ancient stone walls,tombs and dwelling sites which were totally covered by blanket bog before international archaeologists removed much of it in the 1970s and created a network of boardwalks for visitors; on the ocean side we had a falcon’s eye view of coastal scenery that took away any breath I had left. I really needed that cup of tea in the wee café below (even if the girl admitted to burning the scones and offered me a BOGOF deal!)
I was reminded of a Seamus Heaney poem about Stone Age querns for milling wheat; I looked it up in my tattered copy of North,his 1975 collection, and was thrilled to see it entitled BELDERG; it was actually about this very place which he visited before the Visitor Centre was built and “millstones were piled like vertebrae” in nearby cottage.
JACKIE CLARKE COLLECTION-Museum of historic documents (with garden) bequeathed to his Ballina birthplace by a remarkable Irish Nationalist; BELLEEK WOODS - Europe’s biggest urban woodland.FOXFORD WOOLLEN MILL - One-stop gift shop popular with Americans; next door is quirky museum devoted to Foxford-born ADMIRAL Wm BROWN, Father of Argentine Navy.