Characters and craic await at Sligo coastline

With a friendly welcome, fun activities, and delicious food, Sligo has it all, writes Catherine Shanahan.

Characters and craic await at Sligo coastline

Oh the excitement of shoehorning ourselves into the family car and making a beeline for a fun-packed weekend in Sligo.

A four-hour drive? No problem. Killjoy skies? No problem. We’re hardy folk. Like squirrels, we huddle together for shelter.

After a baggage drop in the Clayton Hotel on Clarion Road, just outside Sligo town, we make the short trip to the Riverside Hotel, the meeting point for the start of our exploits along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Barry Hannigan of Northwest Adventure Tours is there to greet us, broad-smiled in bucketing rain.

He kits us out with bikes for a ride along a trail that skirts the Garavogue River.

Along the way he points out different jetties used as starting points by fans of Stand-Up Paddling (SUP), a hugely popular activity run by Northwest Adventure Tours.

This time of year they run Dawn Chorus sessions along the Garavogue, where stand-up paddlers can enjoy sunrise and birdsong in unison, the perfect antidote to modern living.

Our cycle takes us to the base of Cairns Hill where we are due to harness our inner Bear Grylls and engage in “bushcraft” — building our own shack and rewarding ourselves by bingeing on toasted marshmallows.

Alas, a dense mist ruins the chance to test our mettle.

Nonetheless, Barry regales us with his remarkable knowledge of the local landscape, telling us that Sligo’s Ox Mountains and North America’s Appalachians are related, both formed about 480m years ago, when two landmasses collided.

It turns out that Barry, a qualified mountain guide, was once a plumber, but, like many tradesfolk, had to reinvent himself during the recession.

He chose to follow his passion for hiking, and his story of reinvention is a common theme among the enterprising operators of much of our weekend activity.

For instance, Neville Dunbar, carpenter, built Zero Gravity skate park at Cleveragh Business Park in just eight weeks with his father’s help.

He lets my kids whizz about to compensate for missing out on bushcraft.

He’s a former schoolmate of William Britton, founder of Northwest Adventure Tours and cousin of Easkey, five times Ireland female surf champ.

William has a degree in project management/quantity surveying, but the recession forced a rethink.

He started off doing bike tours before branching into SUP and hiking and free-diving. Now he’s a driving force behind ensuring all the different tourist outfits in Sligo pull together for everyone’s benefit.

Knocknarea seen from Coney Island Co Sligo
Knocknarea seen from Coney Island Co Sligo

He tells us he was in school too with Séamus McGoldrick, of Sligo Surf Experience, which is also on our itinerary.

After the cycling, it’s back to our generous suite in the Clayton, where goodie bags await.

A quick change later, and we are back in Sligo town for the first of several quality eating experiences.

A table awaits us in Hooked, in Sligo’s Abbeyquarter, overlooking the river. We are all enthralled by the decor.

Anthony Gray, the proprietor, is as colourful as his restaurant. He’s steeped in food and tourism. His father Joe was once butcher to the mother of the notorious Kray twins.

Joe’s butcher’s block has survived and is a beautiful inset in the restaurant countertop.

A rowing boat hangs upside down from the ceiling, held in place by Harland and Wolff-verified chains.

Hooked, just a year and a half old, has already garnered tons of awards. The food is all locally sourced, super-fresh, and fabulously tasty.

To give you a flavour of what’s on offer, my starter was Peach, Pecan and Bluebell Falls Goat’s Cheese Salad, with garlic and thyme, chutney, rocket, spinach, and red onion.

With surfing on the agenda for Saturday morning, we head for Strandhill, where genial Jack Kennedy is at the ready.

Jack, of Sligo Surf Experience, patiently puts us through the moves on the beach before heading into the water. Just back from six months surfing in the Carribean, he looks more Point Break than a local lad.

My kids are mesmerised. The youngest, aged seven, bails early — the waves are too daunting. The others make it to a wobbly stand, almost.

I have a freelance instructor, Melaine White, who has her own unique take on surfing. It’s not just about balancing on a board, it’s about empowerment.

“It’s a form of connection with nature,” she says, “a very powerful one”.

“When I come out of the ocean, I feel lightened, revived, released. It’s given me a healthy foundation to my life.”

Melanie is due to start up her own female-run surf school shortly, named Rebelle Surf.

Strandhill Peoples Market
Strandhill Peoples Market

There can be a macho attitude in the water, she says, and women instructors can broaden the experience for learners.

All that surfing leaves us gasping for... ice-cream… and no better place than Strandhill’s Mammy Johnston’s, where a giant trophy boasts of a recent win in Italy against the master gelato-makers.

After a delicious lunch in Shell’s restaurant overlooking the ocean, we head for the Queen Maeve Trail, a family-friendly 2.4km hike up the northern slopes of Knocknarea.

Queen Maeve, a feisty lady, is said to be buried upright in the cairn at the summit, spear still in hand.

The view from the top is stunning: Ox Mountains on one side, Ben Bulben on the other and a vast, unspoilt stretch of coastline.

After a swim back in the Clayton, we’re ready for road once more, at Strandhill’s Stoked restaurant, above the famous Strand Bar.

Strandhill has outdone itself in terms of eateries. Stoked was outstanding. The kids had pasta in the “nicest sauce we ever tasted” and myself and himself shared a 24oz ribeye.

In fairness, we cleared the plate. A top-class experience from start to finish.

Verdict? The Wild Atlantic Way is one hell of a way to recharge the batteries.

Discover it all at 


Twitter: @wildatlanticway #WildAtlanticWay

Instagram: @thewildatlanticway


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