We’re going wild! As we emerge from our lockdown slumber, it seems we Irish are seeking great escapes likes never before. In their recent lockdown survey, Fáilte Ireland identified “nature” as one of the stand-out trends yearned for by staycation travellers this season. And never one to shy away from making a break for the great outdoors, last weekend I ventured to both West Cork for a whale-watching trip and Wexford’s elusive Saltee islands to experience an up-close encounter with one of Ireland’s most equally elusive birds - the teary-eyed puffin.
The only way to drop anchor on the Saltees is with local skipper Declan Bates who has been making the trip across to the islands since he was knee-high to a gannet. And he’s experiencing a big increase in bookings this season - his mobile ringing non-stop with booking enquiries as we negotiated our route across the hull-bashing swell. There’s no jetty on Great Saltee, and so (not for the faint-hearted on blustery Monday morning), we hop from our boat to an offshore dingy in order to make our final passage - and touch land on one of Ireland’s true natural paradises.
The Great Saltee is, in fact, a private island, owned by the Neale family, whose summer residence is the only settlement on the island. I was guided by Elaine Walsh with Wexford Trails (you can also visit solo) who led me up the island’s short central ridge, covered in a lush, dampened explosion of ferns and Wild Orchids. Then, in a symphony of squawking, I reach a cliff-face blanked by gulls, razorbills, and then, one, two… one thousand puffins! It’s quite a buzz and the curious (almost disconcertingly trusting) birds are happy to oblige as I all-four on the grassy verge to snap them. After whale-watching in West Cork and puffin-watching in Wexford, one thing had delivered my most memorable experiences in Ireland in quite some time. Nature.
To get to the Saltee Islands, skipper Declan Bates offers several daily sailings throughout the summer at a seriously reasonable €30. Booking is refreshingly old-school, it’s best to text Declan on 087 252 9736 with your date and numbers. Note that puffins typically leave the Saltees for sea by August so head there quick to see them this season!
For more active outdoor attractions, you can kayak down the wildlife rich River Slaney with gopaddle.ie (€35) or go sea cave kayaking off Hook Head with The Irish Experience (€55).
Featuring its own heritage gardens (which bring a touch of Madeira to Wexford), the manor’s rooms are plush, luxurious and full of period drama. Supper here was all homemade and homegrown and included a sublime starter of fresh artichokes. Elsewhere, my room at The Ferrycarrig Hotel was a plush ivory suite, not at odds with a Kardashian home make-over, and featured a balcony overlooking the Slaney Estuary. I even had a swallow’s next on my balcony!
kilmokea.com (from €80pps),
ferringcarrighotel.ie (from 54pps)
Any town that hosts its own seafood festival can be relied upon for a great catch. For my lunch at The Silver Fox in Kilmore Quay, a hearty consommé followed by a duo of hake and monkfish with chilli and lime was just the treat after a morning puffin watching. Elsewhere, Chef Paul Hynes at La Côte in Wexford is guaranteed to serve you a seafood dish to treasure while The Wilds of Enniscorthy is a great spot for a delicious brunch based on local artisan supplies. Think of it as Wexford on a plate!
Wexford Trails is a network of all-levels treks across this particularly bucolic country. In Kilmore Quay, the Ballyteige Burrow (known to locals as the Burrow) is one of the finest sand dune systems in Ireland where you’ll be joined be a range of birdlife from linnets to pipits.
Elsewhere in the county, Askamore in North Wexford takes in the region’s often overlooked hilly climes, while the Courtown Woodland walk offers an idyllic forest walk from the cedars to the sea - wexfordtrails.ie.