So back in August of 2010 I went on a trip down the west coast of Ireland with three friends who do not want to be named (so let’s call them A, T and L) going from Westport to Galway city over eight days.
Westport is gorgeous little place, where we stayed in the Old Mill Hostel.
If you’re planning on being a bit flexible you should probably avoid this place. It requires deposits, there are gender-segregated dorms, you can’t be outside your room in the hostel after 11pm and at €20 a night outside of Dublin it’s hardly cheap. All of that would have been perfectly acceptable if the staff had been friendly (they weren’t) or if the facilities are been good (nope these weren’t either).
After climbing four flights of stairs to get to the girls dorm led by a sulky and suspicious hostel worker who didn’t seem to like students, me and A slumped into a cramped, dark space with three bunk beds pressed against the walls and another single bed plonked in the only remained floor space. The sink in the corner was damn near inaccessible and the curtains looked as though they would bring the whole rail down on your head if you touch it. Still it was hardly the worst place we could stay so we stowed our bags and went to get well deserved showers after our long trip.
Here’s where it really fell apart. We practically had to wade across the bathroom floor to find the communal showers from hell. Two of them didn’t work and they only seemed to have two temperatures “boil like a lobster” or “oh gosh is this the arctic?” The carpets were dirty and the stairs were steep and the beds squeaked.
But if you’re willing to put up with all that (and we did) it actually does have a wonderful central location near lots of nice pubs and you’re a stones throw with a supermarket and a chemist.
Clew Bay is a great sheltered place for sea kayaking. We got in touch with Saoirse na Mara and agreed that for €40 they would take the four of us out for three hours. All we had to do was meet them on Rosmoney Pier at 2pm and they would do the rest.
Well easy, we thought. They gave us directions and everything. Go down the N59, turn left outside town and follow the signs for the sailing club. It only takes twenty minutes. No bother as we set off an hour early….on foot.
My friends I beg of you, always, always, always check that they mean 20 minutes on foot. Because if they don’t you could be walking for a long LONG time. This was our first mistake.
About an hour in and we were getting dangerously near to running late we start to wonder if maybe we’d gotten something wrong. But we kept going, we’d covered nearly 5km what else could we do? The guide calls me and asks if maybe we’d gotten lost. ‘No no,’ I say, too embarrassed to admit anything. ‘We’re nearly there.’
Twenty minutes after that. I think I see a short cut across a field. ‘Hey,’ I say trying to sound as though I knew where we were. ‘A short cut.’ The others were unsure but I convinced them that it was the only way and they followed me over the stone wall.
This was our second mistake.
A twisted her ankle coming over the wall so L had to help her walk. I boldly carried on, convinced in my desperation that we were going the right way. Now, there were cows in this field but as a brave and savvy city-girl I was hardly going to blink at a few little cows. Truthfully it was lucky for all of us that T was from a farm and realised that we were in a calving field before one of us got charged.
For those of you who, like me, was not aware this was a big deal. Cows, normally pretty chilled out. Cows in summer with their babies cows around, serious anger issues. So we ran to the other side….where unfortunately for us there was a large river.
So then we ran back again, this time actually chased by some cows and ended up almost exactly where we had started. 7km in we called and the guides (who were very nice and didn’t complain or mock us – much) they came and collected us in their van.
Though we were exhausted and humiliated once we got in the water it was worth every second.
Following Westport we managed to get to the Connemara Sleepzone hostel between Killary and Leenane.
If you’re looking for a quiet break this is a fabulous spot. Good value and they do group deals. Stay and enjoy for €16-€20 a night. There’s a pool table and a bar, a TV with a good DVD collection, comfortable sofas and a collection of board games. Monopoly in French is particularly amusing though to spend half the game attempting to figure out the Chance Card.
Allez á la GO
The kitchen is modern and big and the fridge is walk in (so no fighting with other hostelers over squishing their milk). At breakfast the next morning we eat on a picnic bench at overlooked the spectacular views of Ireland’s only fjord. We sat out on the grass lawn of the hostels garden and enjoyed the rare but magical moments of Connemara sun.
The next day we were booked in for rock climbing and high rope activities in Killary Adventure Centre. We got these two guided activities for €48. A was still limping after the misadventure over the wall (guilt) but she was in a better mood after our night in and ready for the fun. We explained her unexpected injury to our instructor but she seemed certain that A would be fine for most of it.
First came rock climbing, not that there were many rocks involved. The artificial climbing wall was close to 70 feet high and well designed. I had a bit of climbing experience and I found it challenging enough to be interesting but manageable enough to still be a holiday activity. A gave this wall a skip but joined in when we started climbing on a climbing wall that was a series of logs, planks, chains and boxes roped together for thirty or forty feet. There were other high rope games, such as building a tower of milk crates under a harnessed in member of the group, trying to get as high as we could.
Finally was the bungee swing. Unlike bungee jumping (though from the same permanent scaffold) you are strapped into a harness chair beside a friend. Myself and A went first. After you are secured, you get winched up to the level of the frame; 30 metres in the air. You stare down at the ground low beneath you until you pull the string that you were given at the bottom.
We screamed and plummeted towards the ground, we swished past an impressed looking L and T before being flung into the air on the far side of the frame. When the swing eventually swung itself out we were breathless and exhilarated. L and T were restless for their go but we all got a second chance at laughing (and screaming) at the prospect of mortality and adventure.
The next day we were due to get the bus from the nearby town of Leenane. I had assumed it was closer to the hostel than it turned out to be as we found out when asking the nice French woman behind the desk. 6 and half km she tells us. Damn. A is a little worried she won’t make it on her ankle but the French woman suggests that we try hitchhiking down the road.
Now I knew that people hitchhike down this road a lot. Had my own parents not picked up many a German or Spanish student here during my childhood? But they had also reminded every time we had dropped them off that I was never, NEVER to go hitchhiking. But the sun from the day before had disappeared and I decided, we’d split up into boy, girl groups of two (no one would pick up four or just pick up two boys) and set off down the road, readying our fake smiles and eager thumbs. T and I were the fastest walkers so we went ahead. This meant that any car that would stop would see A and her injured ankle first.
No one stopped.
They beeped, waved and made complicated gestures through their car windows but no one stopped. We weren’t quite on the outskirts of the village when it started to rain. T and I reached Leenane about fifteen minutes before L and A did. We all piled into the little café for tea and chips in foul moods about the amount that we could not rely on the kindness of strangers.
The waitress saw our bulging rucksacks and exhausted expression and sympathetically asked us about our trip. We poured out our woes onto this willing witness. ‘The bus to Letterfrack?’ She asked with a frown. ‘Why, where were you staying?’ We told her. ‘Up at the Killary Adventure Centre?’ She asked again. ‘But isn’t that place a bus stop too?’
I’ve never come so close to being the victim of homicide as I was the moment A turned her eyes on me that moment.
Once we were on the bus to Letterfrack the hot tempers cooled. This however was not helped by our hostel, the Letterfrack Lodge calling and letting us know that due to a double booking they had to move us to another hostel in the village, the Bard’s Den. We were pretty annoyed and it would stop me recommending it, not that its day-glow website had been confidence inspiring in the first place, to any of you but on the bright side it does allow me to tell you about the surprisingly pleasant Bard’s Den.
In Letterfrack there are three pubs; Veldon’s with its shop attached is the best for food, Molly Molloy’s which is a little touristy and the Bard’s Den which has a hostel in its old outhouses. The rooms are clean, the kitchen is pretty small it’s well stocked and the rates are very reasonable. Even in high season you wouldn’t pay more than €17.50 for small dorm rooms and family rooms are on average around €50.
On our pub crawl of all three pubs we ended back in the quiet snug of the Bard’s Den which a digital jukebox full of surprisingly good classic rock, a big open fire and comfy armchairs where we danced and rested until closing time when we were but a few steps from our hostel room.
The next day we were a twenty minute walk from the Connemara National Park which any lover of the outdoors, or even a casual admirer, should visit. There are plenty of trails to follow whether you’re an experienced hiker or more of a casual stroller from a forest nature path to the popular bog boardwalk. From the boardwalk, which cuts across the ridges for beautiful scenic views, you can get up onto Diamond Hill the lowest of the Twelve Bens.
This walk can take two and half hours from cafe and back again but it’s fairly easy for people of mixed level of fitness. There’s a clear path the whole way that only gets steep for the last half hour though there are a few bits of the final ascent where you have to scramble with your hands There are a few long, thin ridges that form false summits before you finally reach the top. It’s best to do this walk in clear weather as when the cloud is low the visibility is so bad that the long path could be dangerous. Even beyond that the view from the top is so spectacular and panoramic that it would a shame to come all that way to stare into fog.
Luckily for us it was a rare Galway scorcher and the sky was clear. From the peak we could see for miles as we settled down by the artificial cairn to have our picnic lunches. .
We did not get to go to Kylemore Abbey on this particular trip, but anyone staying in Letterfrack should not miss the beauty of this lakeside mansion. There’s a nice cafe, an unusual Victorian walled-garden and lots of other things to see in the grounds around the Abbey itself as well as guided tours of the former elite boarding school. The forests have lots of marked trails for a wander and a path that leads up the steep (and this time I seriously mean nearly vertical) slope behind to an old shrine if you’re feeling adventurous (and very energetic).
There’s only one place to get the ferry to Inisbofin (Inis Bó Fionn – Island of the pale cow) and that’s the seaside village of Cleggan. You can also get ferries to the Aran Islands here as well as find good stables for pony trekking around the beach – but not a lot else. Getting out there without a car usually entails a long walk (8km from Letterfrack), hitchhiking (which in our experience came to much the same thing) or a taxi ride. A taxi will cost you around €30 but if there’s a few of you it’ll come to the same as a bus fare anyway.
A student ferry ticket will cost you €15 and an adult one €18. It only takes about twenty minutes and leaves you in the main village. If you’re staying in the hostel then it is twenty minutes walk up the hill from the village but there are plenty of mini-bus taxis lingering on the harbour if your bags make the slope look daunting.
The hostel is clean and friendly if a little odd. We got a good deal on the price, getting nearly half off when we booked the second night getting us both nights for €30. Dorms are gendered however which left my group splitting up again. The rooms are a little cramped, ours had eight bunk beds squished into it but as it had a spacious dining room, a comfy sitting room and a well stocked kitchen we forgave them and did not spend much time upstairs anyway. It was in this kitchen I made what would later become my famous hostel lentil curry.
There is a good pub, a fifteen minutes from the hostel, down by the harbour. The next morning we walked to the beach. Now there is only one beach on Inisbofin where it’s safe to swim and even then you should probably be a strong swimmer. The island is surrounded by potentially dangerous currents. But the beaches are flat, long and pretty to walk on. There were attractive sand dunes where we spent an afternoon reading and picnicking. There are some attractive rocky outcrops for walking and a Cromwellian Fort.
There aren’t many (any) shops on the island so it’s best to do your shopping before you get on the ferry.
Be prepared to be surprised by the restorative properties of this quiet island. We spent two nights there, doing little more than talking, reading and playing board games (when we weren’t finding old acquaintances in the pub – it’s a small island but an even smaller world sometimes) but we left it feeling better then we’d arrived which sometimes is all you want.
Friends, for a second imagine this is a horror movie….
Four students returning to the mainland (and by extension the real world) and find their way to the town of Clifden. They had planned to stay in the isolated Ben Lettery hostel, a beautiful spot in the shadow of another of the Bens. But following their island retreat the idea of staying in the busy town was much more appealing. With no reservations, they began the unpleasant activity of searching for our beds for the night.
We come to the Riverside Hostel. A big, expressionless building and with an eerie impression that it may have been a workhouse or prison in a former life. The For Sale sign outside did not bode well either.
The door is locked, unusual for a hostel but we ring the doorbell anyway, expectations dropping. An elderly woman pokes her head around the door without opening it.
‘What do you want?’ She asks.
The four are so stunned to silence by question it takes them a few seconds to respond.
‘Eh…’ I start. ‘We were looking for hostel beds…’ I trail off, no longer sure that this is a hostel at all.
‘Fine,’ she barks and opens the door just enough to let us in.
We follow her tentatively into an office where the walls are covered (and I mean completely covered) in bird feathers. An old man sits behind a desk.
‘What do you want?’ He asks in an equally unhelpful tone.
‘Ah…’ L starts this time. ‘’We were wondering how much four beds for the night would be.’
He sharply informs us that they had four free beds (we are not surprised – there was no sign of any one else anywhere else in the building) and they were €16 each but boys and girls slept separately.
We mutter something about checking prices and made a hasty retreat for fear that we wake up missing our kidneys.
Ok so back to the real world. Unfortunately the more popular hostel in town was completely full (equally unsurprising) which left us paying a little extra for a B&B (€25 per room) but it was a novelty to have not only two double rooms between the four of us but our own bathrooms.
Accommodation sorted we got a day and a half to enjoy the pleasant town that is Clifden. The E. J. Kings is my favourite pub there that does good food and frequently has live music. For the daylight hours the shopping in Clifden is surprisingly good. The Connemara Hamper is a unique delicatessen that sells great food and wine, though the Supervalu has a remarkably good selection of local produce, down the main road (Market Street) there’s a quirky vintage shop and the fabulous Stanley’s, loved by hikers for many years as a quality supplier of boots, coats and penknives. The old train station was converted in a modern retail centre with has a number of boutiques selling everything from crafts to beads such as ‘Oh! By Gum!’ the eco-friendly gift shop. That’s not forgetting the food and craft market held on Fridays.
There’s a regular bus route from Clifden to Galway city all year round and I would recommend it to any visitor to the west.
And so we arrived in Galway city and hurried to leave our bags in the secure room at the Galway Sleepzone so we could get exploring.
Galway has a fabulously compact city centre. The stretch between Eyre Square down Shop Street as far as Spanish Arch might have a reputation as tourist central but it defies all stereotypes and is an amazingly pleasant place to spend an afternoon. The shopping centres have all the usual suspects, Shop Street is littered with old favourites like Brown Thomas, Boots and Eason but it also has more unique finds like ‘Wooden Heart’ a gorgeous toy shop full of cute toys for young children that you wouldn’t find most places.
Venture down the side streets for gems like Charlie Byrne’s bookshop. Selling mostly second hand books in excellent nick it is one of those places where you can lose all sense of time and end up not breaking the bank. Trying to fit my 1800s edition of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and a lovely hardback copy of ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ into my rucksack was an interesting experience the next day though. T and A were having similar troubles after leaving the sci-fi and fantasy section’s well-stocked shelves.
Friday’s afternoon saw the streets fill up. Buskers and politicos clung to available pieces of pavement each one as desperate for the attention of the passing public as the next. Never a dull corner.
We ate dinner Fat Freddy’s on the Spanish Arch end of the road where Shop Street become Quay Street. This was a childhood favourite of mine. The interior, or the menu for that matter, have changed little in the many years since I’d first gazed around at its colourful walls. Coloured waxed spilled down the sides of the green glass wine bottles that held the candles to light the room. Red and white checked table clothes covered the tables that were squished into every corner of this popular eatery. A word to the wise; make reservations or arrived before six or you can forget finding a table at all. To be honest that goes for nearly every restaurant in the area in the summer.
Fat Freddy’s is an Italian restaurant named for a cartoon that adorns some of its ceiling. However it is hard to see past everything else that has been hung from the roof or stuck to the walls. From 60s Beetle posters, the 19th century workhouse signs; “no swearing or blaspheming” is my favourite of those though “meals will be eaten in silence” has a certain humour given the usual din in the place. Old 50s cigarette or soap ads are added here and there as well. The menu is broad and simple but there’s always something worth eating. Even with two vegetarians and a vegan with a wheat-intolerance on our trip we all found something to our tastes (the falafel is particularly good).
The hostel was one I’ve stayed in many times and I’ve never really had a complaint. The reception desk always has someone on it, they don’t charge you for towels or the luggage room, there are secure electronic room keys, the kitchen is modern and huge, the dining area even more so, a pool table and plenty of places to sit and relax if you have the time – which to be honest I never have so far but you never know. There’s even a computer room if you need the internet. They run day trips out into Connemara and down to the Cliffs of Moher in Clare.
Of course pubs are what Galway city is really famous for these days as it has got itself a reputation as a party town in recent years. We headed off to one of our favourite Galway pubs, Fibber Magee’s in Eyre Square. Now for any Dublin residents reading who are familiar with the infamous Fibbers of Parnell Street, be aware that the Galway spin-off is a little different from the original. It attempts respectability in the guise of pub-grub and an extensive cock-tail menu. It was here that I taste my first cosmo: is it just me or do they just taste like pink?
Róisín Dubh’s is the most famous Galway pub, especially for live music. I would recommend to everyone to call in at some point, but be prepared for serious crowding in the summer.
Another famous music bar is Sally Long’s which I would personal recommend over Róisín Dubh if you’re there in high tourist season because it’s a little less well known and those who have heard of it are often intimidated by its biker bar reputation. Don’t worry folks, they don’t bite, they just play great music in a lively atmosphere.
Now I’ll admit it, I’m much, much, much prefer a lively music bar to a night club any day. But in the interest of fairness I will mention that nightclubs are not difficult to find in the Eyre Square region. In fact the streets are usually littered with club promoters in bright jackets all promising free shots and cheap entry. Dignity is the best known Gay night-club I know in Galway on Shop Street and it’s free in before 11pm. Coyote’s is another well known club which I would recommend everyone to avoid like the diseases you will probably catch in that poorly ventilated hell-hole.
Galway is my favourite place on earth to be on a Saturday morning. Luckily for me, the 10am check-out time for our hostel meant that we all had to get up early to put our luggage back into the storage room.
There is a wonderful atmosphere of the medieval town that Galway is on a Saturday. If you’re up early enough you can stroll down a nearly empty shop street, watching the shopkeepers and restaurant workers power hosing Friday night off the pavements in front of their establishments while stall-holders set up for the market.
Which brings me to my favourite restaurant of all time which I like to incorporate into these Galway Saturday mornings for breakfast which is Ard Bia at Nimmos. The buttermilk pancakes are to die for. There’s a huge range of veggie food but also meat if you’re that way inclined. The juices are fresh made in the kitchen and the kitchy mismatched tea cups and patterned plates give the whole place a comforting feel of your granny’s kitchen only trendier. If you can, get a seat by the window on the river side where you can watch the multitude of swans drift by parting the seas of their subjects, the ducks and gulls. This is a place where if you plan on eating dinner you really need to book in advance in the summer because it fills up fast.
After a delicious breakfast we had over to the famous Galway market of a Saturday morning (well morning to mid-afternoon). Here you can find yourself anything from fresh vegetables, to handmade jewellery, pottery or clothes. Crafts, foods and anything you can think of line the side streets and there’s always something new to find.
When you’re done there you could go for lunch in Food 4 Thought, a lovely fair trade cafe/restaurant with an imaginative menu for all dietary requirements or wander through the Eyre Square shopping centres old medieval street or many head up to Salthill’s notorious fairground rides and get yourself a ninety-nine, sit and look at the sea while pretending its sunny.
Then you can get yourself an express bus to Dublin, Cork, Limerick or Belfast from €10. But whatever you do be sure you go back, and then go back again. You won’t regret it ever.