On a tour of the west coast of Ireland, you can sample the finest food and drink the land of a thousand welcomes has to offer
The southern half of the Emerald Isle is infamous the world over for its verdant, rolling landscapes, hugely friendly natives and so-relaxed-it’s-almost-stationary pace of life. But as appealing as all that sounds, it was the draw of the fantastic food and appeal of an ice cold pint of ‘real’ Guinness that had me jumping on a plane at Gatwick for the short hop across the Irish Sea to the small town of Knock, an hour’s drive from the picturesque town of Westport in County Mayo, perched on the shores of Clew Bay.
Arriving late on a Friday evening before Christmas, Westport promised much with its twinkling lights and excess of eateries and pubs, each bursting at the seams with inebriated locals indulging in the traditional Irish craic. Now this is what I was here for.
After a quick check-in at the three-star Hotel Westport, set in its own grounds, with views of the Carrowbeg River, I headed to the highly recommended La Fougere restaurant
in the nearby Knockranny House Hotel
. La Fougere is a must for any fan of gastronomy who happens to find him or herself in the Westport region. The spacious restaurant is decorated in perfect tune with the style of the hotel and surrounding area – formal rather than imposing, comfortable rather than austere. And the food is amazing.
The fillet steak smothered with foie gras served on a bed of buttery mash may have had heart attack written all over it, but when it tastes this good, who cares? Washed down with a bottle of the local rouge and followed by a faultless crème brulée, La Fougere set the bar high for the rest of my gastronomic tour of the region. With stomach bulging, the stroll back to the hotel was a blur of festive revellers enjoying the best their town had to offer.
Not exactly bright and early the next morning I rose and despite still being full took on the challenge of the ‘traditional Irish fry-up’. Lesson learnt, breakfasts the next day involved strong coffee, fruit salad and a distinct lack of deep fried bread and soggy sausages.
Determined to explore as much of this historic coastline as I could and maybe even score a surf along the way, I headed south and soon ran into one of Ireland’s most historic religious sights, the indescribable 762-metre Croagh Patrick, also known as Ireland’s Holy Mountain, and a site of pilgrimage for 5,000 years. It’s thought that the pagan god Lug was worshipped here in ancient times but it's now named after Saint Patrick, who fasted here for 40 days and nights in 441AD in an effort to convert pagan Ireland to Christianity. The thought of fasting for that long had my stomach rumbling, and the thought of hiking to the conical Reek at its peak, as 25,000 people a year do (many barefoot or on their hands and knees as a sign of devotion), soon had me back on the road and looking for lunch.
As if on cue, the quaint village of Louisburgh reared from the landscape before me, and though it sounds like a mid-western American frontier town, it’s actually a friendly hamlet nestled on the coast, replete with a cluster of pubs, tiny surf shop and the excellent Louisburgh 74, a quirky fusion of restaurant and pottery shop that serves up a mean selection of savouries and sweets and a proper cup of tea.
Refuelled, I enquired about the local surf beach, Carrownisky, and while the Australian girl working in the surf shop wasn’t exactly forthcoming (the only sign of ‘localism’ I encountered all weekend – and from a non native no less!), the rest of the indigenous population were falling over themselves to help. One particularly helpful local lady even called her surfer son and demanded he look on the Internet to help me find my goal. Which, with his help, I then did.
One very cold surf later and I was on the road again, heading for the legendary Ashford Castle
on the borders of the town of Cong, just south of the Doo Lough Pass. Dating back to 1228, Ashford rises like a gothic monolith from the shores of Ireland’s second largest lake, Lough Corrib. Restored to second-to-none levels of luxury by the Guinness family and now run as a five-star hotel, it was the perfect opportunity to sample a few pints of the black stuff, soon worked off with a brisk stroll of the extraordinary and expansive grounds. For anyone with a sense of history or a love of unapologetic grandeur, Ashford’s miles of wood panelling, Waterford chandeliers and rococo gilt mirrors will leave you simply speechless. It is one of the finest hotels I have ever visited.
After the long drive back to Westport, dinner was looming large and, keen to sample some authentic local cuisine, I headed to the Tavern Bar and Restaurant in the tiny hamlet of Murrisk, owned and run by the hilarious Ruth and Myles. The fresh fish menu more than made up for the gaudy pink exterior, as did Myles’s home-brewed moonshine. With a wry grin he proffered his potato-based booze towards me, which turned out to be the most potent and disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted. I had three.
The rest of the night was spent dancing and drinking in the vibrant Matt Malone’s bar, where I was talked and sung at (often in unison) by the well-oiled and very welcoming locals, safe in the knowledge that the Irish craic was alive and well in Westport.
Heading to the airport early(ish) the next morning, I reflected on my first trip to southern Ireland. In less than 48 hours I had enthusiastically eaten and drunk more than on any trip I had ever been on before and had experienced a culture like no other. And I was only an hour from London.