From beautiful scenery to seaweed baths, and charismatic hotels to cosy pubs, Sligo has many unexpected delights
‘I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree’
County Sligo is the homeland of Yeats, the famous Irish poet, his ‘land of heart’s desire’. It is an attractive county with lush mountains, golden beaches, castles and lakes. It is a great region for a short break with atmospheric pubs, restaurants and relaxing spas.
Sligo town is compact and beautifully sited on the River Garavogue; it’s name means ‘place of shells’ from the many shellfish once found in its waters. There is good shopping, a low-key museum and a ruined 15th century abbey.
There are two good places to stay, both on the river and within five minutes walk of the town centre: the White House Hostel in Markievicz Road (353 (0) 71 9145160; 17 euros a night in dorms), from which at night you can enjoy the lights across the water, some of which shine from the upmarket alternative - the quirkily modern The Glasshouse (+353 (0) 71 919 4300). The fresh bright rooms start at 79 euros for a double.
A cinema complex nearby on Wine Street shows mainstream movies as well as the occasional Irish film. There is the usual riot of pubs and traditional music can be found most evenings. Everyone’s favourite is Hargadons in O’Connell street, seemingly unchanged for decades with little snugs to curl up in with the obligatory Guinness - though this is expensive these days at about five euros a pint!
Indeed Ireland these days is not a particularly cheap destination and expect a significant bill if you eat at Coach Lane @ Donaghy’s restaurant in Lord Edward street (+ 353 (0) 71 916 2417; www.coachlane.ie). However the food, ranging from local seafood to steaks and pasta is very good: their little bread loaves come in half and half flavours to surprise.
A reliable spot for light meals and coffee is the Tobergal Lane in a lane of the same name off O’Connell Street (+ 353 (0) 71 914 6599; www.osta.ie). An airy place with artworks, newspapers and sofas, it has tapas in the evening and a more serious menu.
One of the charms of Sligo is that within minutes you can be in beautiful countryside. The tourist office (Temple Street; + 353 (0) 71 917 1905; www.sligotourism.ie) do a handy brochure suggesting driving tours. Seek out some unusual places such as the famine graveyard where 2,530 unnamed famine victims were buried. Although only a little walled enclosure, it has an interesting sculpture of a blasted tree and the entrance gates feature interlaced skulls.
Northwards to the coast
Venturing north of Sligo you will find the little village of Drumcliffe, under the dramatic backdrop of Benbulben. Yeats is buried in the churchyard here, next to which is the charming Drumcliffe Tea Rooms with a good range of craft items and Irish literature. It does excellent soups, wraps and teas: the banoffee pie is great! Nearby is an 11th century celtic cross and a round tower.
The coastline to the north is rugged and beautiful. The 1830’s Lissadell House (www.lissadellhouse.com; open all year) has an austere exterior but some interesting interior rooms. The dining room has portraits painted directly on the walls by the family of the family and servants: perhaps they got bored on a wet Sunday.
The stable courtyard has a museum dedicated to Constance Markievicz, the most famous member of the ancestral Gore Booth family, an early revolutionary and the first woman elected to Parliament. There is a little café with light lunches, good cakes and cosy seating in old horse stalls. You can buy some of the 100 varieties of potato they produce in the gardens. Watch out for the calf-sized Irish wolfhound.
Round the coast, there is a pleasant stroll to Knocklane iron age Promontory Fort, a great picnic spot with all embracing views from the headland. At Streedagh, three Spanish Armada ships were wrecked. Take the inland route home via the beautiful Gleniff Horseshoe Road; Glencar Lake is nearby and a nice waterfall.
Around Loch Gill
Head eastwards for the classic tour of Loch Gill with some interesting stops en route. There is a pleasant leafy stroll at Dooney Rock which will reward with great lake views. ‘The fiddler of Dooney’ - a Yeats' poem - has given its name to an annual traditional music festival in Sligo.
Innisfree Island can be seen further along the lake. It is a small insignificant woody isle with nothing on it. The long distance Sligo Way passes by this scenic spot and one can only be grateful Yeats was not born one hundred years later as he undoubtedly would have wanted to build a bungalow on it and the poem would never have worked!
Parke’s Castle, in a scenic spot on the other side of the lake, is a fortified manor house dating from 1609. Built by an English settler, it was restored recently using 17th century techniques. The introductory film is a good overview of the region. Up the road in Calry, a fine 360 degree view can be had from the Deerpark Neolithic tomb of surrounding mountains and distant ocean. Hazelwood, just before Sligo, has a fine walk along the edge of Loch Gill with lovely views over the water to some small islands. There is a tiny beach and friendly swans.
Ancient graves and seaweed spas
Southwest, Knocknarea Hill is another distinctive landmark. The 5,000 year old unexcavated cairn on top is reputed to be the grave of the mythic Queen Maeve of Connaught and can be seen for miles. There are superb views from the top. I find it more atmospheric than the nearby Carrowmore megalithic cemetery complex, which has a giant excavated cairn and some nice dolmens and stone circles.
For relaxtion, try the Voya Seaweed Baths (+ 353 (0) 71 916 8686; www.voya.ie; open all year round 10am - 8pm) on the seafront at Strandhill, a small town with a popular surfing beach. A single bathtub costs 25 euros (there are doubles available) for 50 minutes and they are a great way to unwind. You will be surprised how much fun you can have in a tub of seaweed and you will definitely emerge with a healthy glow. There are massages too and seaweed products to take home. And if all else fails, the Strand Bar up the road is a popular local pub.