On your bikes

CYCLE the Canal du Midi in the south of France for a wonderful, relaxing holiday.

With its meandering, tree-lined canal disappearing off into fields of poppies, its elegant villages and oodles of local produce to sample, it is a flaneur’s paradise. No place like it on earth. Really?

Ireland has many such places where you can freewheel on backroads for hours and sample local produce that will leave your taste buds hungry for more. Vive Kilkenny. The county might be inland, but don’t let that put you off. With some outstanding mountain and river walks it should be high up on the list for adventurers modest or daredevil.

You don’t have to look too far from home for fantastic cycling routes that are springing up all over the country like dawn mushrooms. Westport in Mayo has recently opened up a green cycling route (off-road) that takes you all the way to Achill Island. West Cork is another cycling hotspot. Now Kilkenny has joined the party with two new routes for the leisure cyclist.

The longest, the North Kilkenny Cycle Route, is 83km and takes in Tullaroan, Freshford, Ballyragget, Castlecomer and Ballycallan. The East Kilkenny Cycle Route (65km approx) begins at Bennettsbridge and takes in Graignamanagh, The Rower, Inistioge, Thomastown before ending back at Bennettsbridge. The signs are up along both routes, but the mapboards and route guides have not yet been completed. The pearl in this journey is the village of Inistioge where life itself (forget the river) meanders. Nestled in the foothills of Mt Brandon, this village is charm itself. You could do worse than stop off for tea and a scone in the Old Schoolhouse cafe.

A third route is being planned in Kilkenny — the daddy of them all at 110km. The South Kilkenny cycle route will bring you through Thomastown, Inistioge, New Ross, Kilmacow, Piltown, Knocktopher and back to Thomastown. This route is still in the planning phase.

For a landlubber more inclined to the mountain tops or the cycle paths, the sight of the mighty River Barrow at Gore’s Bridge thundering past in full spate was challenging. Under the assured direction of Charlie Horan of gowithetheflow.ie this kayaking trip was utterly safe and utterly joyous. Kingfishers and sandmartins dart across the surface of the river as we make our way out into the centre of the river in our two-man Canadian canoe.

Then we are carried away southwards towards Graignamanagh. As the river is in full spate the weirs are quite short (the drops can be up to two metres), but they are still thrilling to speed over for this novice. Expert knowledge and local history from Charlie embellish the tour.

Charlie points out plum trees leaning out over the river. In the height of summer their fruit hangs low above the water and they can be plucked by the intrepid canoeist for a tasty lunch. On and on through the meandering Barrow and Charlie points out the ruins of the home of one Arthur Kavanagh, a 19th century politician. Born armless and legless, he ran for election and sailed from the river Barrow to Westminster to take his seat in parliament. Over 15km and two hours this kayak trip was simply wonderful. Is there a greater de-stresser? Probably not.

In addition to charting cycling and canoeing routes, Kilkenny Trails has established a number of walking routes. There are fabulous woodland walks for people of all ages. They are very well signposted and have good parking facilities. Top walks include, the Islands Walk at Urlingford, Kilmacoliver Walk, Castlemorris Wood Walk, and Callan Abbey Meadow Walk. For the fleet of foot they could all be done in a long day. For the not-so-fleet, a few days will suffice.

An outstanding walk is the 11km route from Bennetsbridge to Kilkenny. It’s linear so you might have to take a taxi back. If you have to take a hot air balloon or a pogo stick, just do it, the walk is stunning.

And if the cycling, kayaking and walking trails, aren’t enough for you, Kilkenny Trails has established a network of food supplies and retailers in the county which the really intrepid can work into the aerobic activities. Alternatively pick and choose a few to visit as the county has developed a growing reputation for excellence on food production: Goatsbridge Trout Farm where you can pick out the very trout you will eat later; Keogh’s Model Bakery in Callan or The Blackberry Cafe in Thomastown for a slice of chocolate cake.

Helen Finnegan’s farm and cafe at Stoneyford — Knockdrinna Farmhouse Cheese — has a cafe on the street and leads back to the farm where they produce several varieties of cheese and free-range, rare-breed pork.

For the kids, ask to see the hen-pecked goose.

Kilkenny has achieved a reputation for excellence in local crafts with silversmiths, leather workers, pottery and even willow workers, internationally renowned.

A trail booklet is available at tourist shops, but must visits include Cushendale Woollen Mills, Bruce de Kocks jewellery workshop in Bennetsbridge and Crannmor Pottery near Castlecomer.

Again, a really great day can be worked around a visit to these artisan workshops.

Kilkenny is not short on fine accommodation.

Langton’s Hotel in the city centre, and adjacent tea rooms, is a really welcoming family hotel with enormous function rooms.

All in all, there’s an abundance of things to do, indoors and out.

* Websites: www.trailkilkenny.ie; www.kilkennycyclingtours.com www.gowiththeflow.ie; www.langtonshotelkilkenny.com

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