Unique port of call

Seán McCárthaigh experiences some of the diverse attractions on offer in Westport.

Much to the dismay of other towns and cities around the country which regularly compete with Westport for the tourist euro and dollar, the picturesque Co Mayo town was recently named as the best place in Ireland to live.

Although the competition was largely subjective and totally unscientific, anyone who has ever spent a few days in this pretty corner of Clew Bay would be unlikely to quibble with the result.

In essence, Westport is a pure delight whose attractions unravel at a gentle, leisurely pace. And although easily reached, the town has still managed to retain a sense of being “off the beaten track” — a factor which only adds to the charm of this town of 5,500 inhabitants.

This writer’s memories of Westport date back to fortnightly visits during the late-1980s as a marketing executive for a health food company when the town was a welcome oasis after a long day’s journey through Connacht, despite lacking some of the amenities that it now proudly boasts.

Today the natural beauty of the town’s hinterland remains the same, but the town itself is a busy, cosmopolitan market town with a diverse range of shops, boutiques, gift shops, restaurants and pubs.

For accommodation, Westport is served with a wide choice of hotels, B&Bs and self-catering units. We stayed at the Westport Plaza and Castlecourt Hotel resort which is located just a few minutes’ walk from the town centre.

The Castlecourt caters particularly well for families with young children boasting a large number of family rooms and junior suites, while also operating two popular kids’ clubs offering a host of activities for younger guests.

Looming large over Westport, both physically and metaphorically, is Croagh Patrick, the majestic and holy mountain which has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries.

For first-timers, climbing Croagh Patrick is probably best avoided on the final Sunday of July (Reek Sunday) when upwards of 30,000 make the 2,507-feet (762m) ascent.

Standing at the traditional starting point of the car park at the foot of the mountain in Murrisk (about 8km outside Westport) and looking up at the Reek is daunting.

However, appearances can be deceptive as the ascent, which should take anyone with a reasonable level of fitness and proper footwear about two-anda-half hours, is relatively easy with the exception of the final section due to the loose scree.

But the view from the summit is worth the physical efforts as Clew Bay and its many islands are revealed in all their glory.

The descent can take another one-and-a-half hours but any religious indulgences gained coupled with a pint in a nearby pub are a just reward for completing the trek.

One of Westport’s newest attractions is the Great Western Greenway — the 42km walking and cycling route which runs from the town to Achill Island via Newport and Mulrann.

The longest cycleway of its kind in Ireland largely follows the route of the old railway line which was abandoned in 1937 after just 42 years in operation.

The beauty of the route is twofold; firstly, the breathtaking landscape which allows close-up views of the Nephin Beg range of mountains and the distant sights of the towering peaks on Achill as well as the panoramic sweep of Clew Bay and its clustered islands with Croagh Patrick in the background and secondly, the fact that it is it almost completely off-road makes for stress-free transport.

Bikes can be hired from a number of firms which allow user to travel sections of the route with collection points in Newport and Mulranny, while some operators also provide a drop-off and pick-up service.

Another attraction worth a detour is a visit to Westport House, which is within walking distance of the town centre.

While the older tourist can stroll around the stately 18th century home and gardens of the Marquess of Sligo (a direct descendant of the legendary pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, whose history is documented in an exhibition in the building’s dungeon), the younger visitor can spend an action-packed few hours in the adjacent Pirate Adventure Park located in the extensive grounds.

Among its attractions are water slides, pedaloe boats an indoor play area and an opportunity to try out pursuits like clay pigeon shooting, archery and orienteering.

During a visit in 1842, the novelist and author of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, described Westport as having “the most beautiful view I ever saw in the world”.

The observation would seem to have stood the test of time some 170 years later.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

General tourist information: www.westporttourism.com and www.destinationwestport.com

Accommodation: www.castlecourthotel.ie

Activities: www.westporthouse.ie and www.greenway.ie

Bike hire: clewbayoutdoors.ie

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