It was time to fill the backpack, charge up the camera and remind myself once again, to buy a flask. Last Sunday, my cross-county road-trips resumed service for the first time in four months as I booted off for a morning hike at one of my favourite West Cork destinations, Gougane Barra.
In that blissful, if blustery, morning sunshine, I hiked up the Slí na Sléibhte mountain trail, winding high into the Sheehy Mountains where parched hillsides peppered with stray Sitka spruce gave an air of Californication to the rugged Cork landscape.
The crowds weren’t too far behind me, either. Leaving Gougane at lunchtime, an saol is a mháthair seemed to be descending into this glorious Gaeltacht treasure, with the narrow byroads bumper to bumper with nature seekers. It was clear to see: when it comes to walking, hiking and lacing up for the great outdoors, our grá for gallivanting is greater than ever.
Hiking holidays may well have been on the mainstream ascendancy pre-Covid, thanks to the growing culture of everything from caminos to greenways. But lockdown life has massively accelerated the appreciation of the slow adventure life. In a way, walking has been our collective therapy over the last year. It’s offered us our daily dose of exercise, fresh air and shutting us off from the breaking news around us while connecting us with our environment like never before. And for Ireland’s tourist industry, trends — and indeed deals — are showing that, just like our must-pack comfort blanket, we travel consumers want to bring those daily walking rituals through to our holiday downtime too.
In anticipation of the latest reopening, tourism providers are currently hatching deals and plans to woo the walking set. No more so than in Wexford, where a countywide collection of 56 marked walking trails is establishing the region as one of Ireland’s most infrastructure-fit walking destinations.
“I think our temperate climate means that the South East, and particularly County Wexford, is a perfect year-round walking destination for all to enjoy,” Micheal Delaney, Chairman of Wexford Walking Trails, told me this week.
“All in all, the pandemic has been a game-changer for walking trails throughout Ireland,” he adds.
“People have a new appreciation for the benefits of what has been on their doorstep all along and I believe this will endure long after the pandemic is over.”
In an age when tourists really value active, tangible experiences, Michael sees the massive benefit of the county’s designated trails with hopes to extend routes further to develop the region’s walking appeal.
“We’ve ongoing plans to link up with walking trails in Wicklow, Waterford, Carlow and Kilkenny and we also hope to connect with our neighbours in Wales in a very exciting inter-regional initiative for intrepid walkers.” This Celtic Routes project between Ireland’s Ancient East and West Wales is definitely one to watch.
When it comes to accommodation, hoteliers are also realizing how the most natural amenity like a local walk, embellished with add-ons like a picnic or packed lunch (high in local produce, low in plastic is the way to go here) is the ideal way to give the visitor the fundamental requirement they’re seeking on a holiday – a sense of place and a taste of the locality. One of the many hotels catering to the movement is Kingston’s Townhouse in Killorglin, set on the dramatic doorstep to MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.
“I love the outdoors and always looked at New Zealand in terms of an ideal destination and that’s who we aspire to,” owner Erwin Kingston tells me.
“We have all these incredible natural resources on our doorstep so when we were creating our hotel, we really geared it towards the outdoors and added a dry room, a sauna, a storage area for bikes and boots to the property.”
For Kingston’s, that investment is paying dividends. Last summer saw them partnering up with guided hiking specialists Kerry Climbing to offer what’s proved a hugely popular stay, eat and hike package.
“Our guests get a guided tour of Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohill and then join us back in our pub for wood-fired pizzas! They rave about the experience and while I think a lot of people in Ireland tend to associate hillwalking with an older set but we’re seeing a real mix in demographic,” he adds.
“I think younger people nowadays are looking after their fitness and gymming, so when they go on holiday they want that challenge too.” The hotel is a hit for walkers of all levels with the region offering a paradise of less strenuous routes. “Well that’s the beauty of Kerry,” says Erwin.
You’ve also walking routes to enjoy like the Kerry Way and The Windy Gap or you can just wander the foothills of Carrauntoohill and stare up at Hag's Head.” E
rwin sees the development of The Reeks district brand as a gamechanger in the growing culture of walking holidays in Ireland. “Watch this space!” he says.
Imagine having Gougane Barra to yourself when all those day-trippers (like myself) go home? A stay in the valley’s postcard hotel allows you to do just that — few properties in Ireland offer such a soulful, switch-off location. Guests can avail of spectacular Gougane Barra Forest Park on their doorstep with several hiking routes available as the hotel is a short stroll from the Slí Gaeltacht Mhuscraí, a 50km trail across the region’s stunning mountains. Keep tabs on the hotel’s soon-to-be-launched new website with owners Katy and Neil Lucey promising great walking packages. For a teaser, B&B summer B&B rates start from €158 per couple. gouganebarrahotel.com
Looking for a break in the Sunny Southeast? The four-star Ashdown Park Hotel in Gorey is offering a two-night Tracks & Trails package, allowing guests to pair walking Wexford’s trails with a little hotel luxury. The offer includes two night’s B&B accommodation along with a “Taste of Wexford” three-course evening meal for two on a night of your choice. For your walking, you’ll receive a Redmond Farm picnic for two along with their “Off the Beaten Track” Map offering the best beaches and routes. Back at base, enjoy a back massage for two before relaxing in your room’s fluffy rooms and slippers.
Whether you’ve ambitions to tackle Carrauntoohill or prefer the idea of a gentle ramble around its foothills, Kingston’s Townhouse makes a perfect boutique base to unwind after your day. They offer summer B&B rates from €135 per couple. For that guided experience, the hotel’s 'Hike, Eat, Sleep' package includes your tour of Ireland’s highest mountain with the friendly folks from Kerry Climbing, as well as artisan pizza for two in their family-run pub. From €285 per couple; kingstonstownhouse.com
Connemara, with its lonely coastal roads, national park, and ethereal mountain trails, is a walker’s dream. The family-run Carna Bay Hotel offers two nights B&B plus a three-course evening meal on one evening of your choice along with a full day guided tour of Connemara along with a packed lunch. €230 per person sharing. The hike itself is an 8hr guided adventure along the back roads and coastal paths of rugged Connemara and the tours are offered as gaeilge too, if you’d like to brush up your cúpla focail during your summer in the Gaeltacht. The offer has a four-person limit making it an ideal getaway for a group of family or friends. From €230pps; carnabay.com