Connemara: the best of the west

Martin Claffey enjoys a walking break in the stunning surrounds of Connemara.

Kylemore abbey looks like a doll's house from the top of Diamond Hill which is a brisk few hours' climb to its 445ft peak.

TRAVELLING along the Sky Road above Clifden, high above the roaring Atlantic Ocean below, it’s not hard to think you have reached the very edge of the world.

It’s not quite unchartered territory, but for me, it certainly felt that way. Famed worldwide, untamed Connemara remains a perfect option to change pace and enjoy a real Irish getaway that can leave you feeling you’re the first to experience it.

Leaving Galway in my wake, it didn’t take long to kick back. I planned to make the most of my time in the great wide open on offer, and Connemara is a walker’s paradise. So it made sense to stop off in Connemara National Park at Letterfrack and enjoy a few hours scaling the peak of Diamond Hill.

Reaching the middle of the peak is within the competence of even the most novice walker’s ability. The journey from there to the top is not an easy walk by any means, and the top part of Diamond Hill shouldn’t really be attempted in poor or wet weather, but on a clear day, it’s so worth the effort.

From the 445m peak, there are spectacular views in every direction: awesome Atlantic views to Inishturk and Inishbofin; the Twelve Bens point majestically towards the heavens, while down below, Kylemore Abbey sits almost like a doll’s house.

Safely descended from Diamond Hill, I left the natural wonders of Connemara National Park and made my way towards Kylemore Abbey. Originally built as a castle by trader and politician Mitchell Henry almost 150 years ago, WB Yeats called Kylemore a “savage beauty”, and that beauty is unblemished to this day.

The Irish Benedictine Nuns purchased Kylemore in 1920 and converted it to the abbey it is today. With the school closed, Kylemore and its environs remain a hub of activity, with gardens, craft shops, walks and nature trails to enjoy.

The film-makers who brought Harry Potter to the cinema screen considered using the abbey as Hogwarts. It wasn’t chosen for that role, though it was a boarding school through the 20th century up until 2010. Anjelica Huston is among the famous past pupils, and attended when her father, the great director John Huston, was living in Galway.

Clifden, the capital of Connemara is a busy town and has its own place in aviation history; it was here in June 1919 British aviators, Alcock and Brown landed to complete the first ever transatlantic air crossing.

On the right evening there’s some decent traditional music to be enjoyed in local pubs — Lowry’s is a good choice. There’s a proud tradition of high quality food here too, with tempting restaurants like Mitchell’s and the excellent Marconi restaurant at Foyle’s Hotel, where seafood is a speciality, not surprising given the location.

My base in Clifden was the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel. Abbeyglen is a fine choice to spend a few night in Connemara – warm, welcoming, and just like its surroundings, a little bit wild.

The quirky four-star has rightly become renowned for its service. comfort and award-winning food, with Connemara lamb in the upstairs restaurant an irresistible choice.

The highlight of Abbeyglen may not be its jacuzzi and relaxation suite, though, nor the tennis courts or on-site walks. It may not even be the charming parrot Gilbert, keeping an eye on guests.

No; instead it must be the party atmosphere of its famous bar, with sing-songs around the piano the highlight of many a night here. With so many modern hotel bars leaving guests feeling cold, it’s a treat to enjoy Abbeyglen’s homely alternative.

I unearthed a real gem on my second day in Connemara, stopping off at Glengowla Mines, a renovated 19th century silver and zinc mine and one of the most interesting tourist attractions in the West.

Situated 3kms outside of Oughterard on the Galway to Clifden road, Glengowla offers the chance to go underground and sample a real silver and lead mine.

With every step taken deeper underground, this fascinating tour gives a sharp insight into the incredibly hard job of the 19th century miner.

Glengowla is also part of Ireland’s National Seismic Network, with a working seismograph logging real-time information on earthquakes worldwide.

Mixing education, history, technology and storytelling, Glengowla Mines is well worth the visit — indeed there can’t be many Irish attractions which have got the stamp of approval from midfield legend and Republic of Ireland assistant manager, Roy Keane, who opted to bring his Sunderland side here while he was a manager at the English Premier League club.

Back above ground, from Oughterard I made my way towards the fishing village of Roundstone, with its tempting restaurants, pubs, music and artisan shops.

Just a few kilometres from Roundstone lies Innishee, an island linked to the mainland by a bridge and a fantastic place for a walk.

There’s a wonderful looped walk here across easy terrain, passing a picture-perfect harbour in this tranquil place in the shadow of the Twelve Bens.

A weekend break will just skim the surface of Connemara but is an unforgettable experience. This is the perfect place for a walking holiday. If you’re looking to kick back and take things at a more relaxed pace, head into the West.

Where to stay: Abbeyglen Castle Hotel. Two nights B&B and dinner from €95 per night.

What to see: Kylemore Abbey, open 10am to 4.30pm daily. See www.kylemoreabbeytourism.ie or contact the visitor centre at 095-52001.

Glengowla Mines: Open 10am to 6pm mid-March to end of October. Contact 091552360 or www.glengowlamines.ie

Where to eat: Marconi Restaurant at Foyle’s Hotel. www.foyleshotel.com

* For information on taking a walking break in Ireland see

www.discoverireland.ie/walking



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