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The Beaches of Connemara

The Beaches of Connemara

To be barefoot on a Connemara beach in April is the closest I think I’ll ever get to a miracle. We had driven down to the west coast from Belfast the night before and the weather had been wild as we arrived in to the mountains. The wind was howling and the rain turned the landscape in to a muddy watercolour painting with hundreds of waterfalls washing across the roads taking us to Letterfrack. April showers take on a new meaning in Connemara and it was safe to say that expectations for the weekend had taken a back seat as we finally approached Rosleague Manor, our base for the weekend. We ran up to the entrance to avoid getting soaked and when entering the hallway it felt like the antithesis of outside. There was an instant feeling of warmth from the open fires burning in the drawing rooms to the friendly welcome from Mark (a third generation member of the Foyle family who runs Rosleague) and I thought to myself, “even if it rains all weekend I reckon we’ll be just grand in here”.

We had gone to bed early that night, weary from the long drive and hours of conversation on the road. While I was delighted to be curling up in a beautiful bed in a manor house, I secretly hoped for a miracle, just a patch of blue sky so we could see the views that I knew were around us. The next morning I was woken up by the sunlight streaming through the curtains at about 6.30am and it took me a moment to register why I was awake so early. I eventually realised that it was sunlight, SUNLIGHT, that woke me up! I bounced out of bed and practically ran to the lake to soak in the morning (you can hear more about this walk and see photos in my previous post here).

After breakfast we set off on our drive, energised by the sun that continued to beat down with no cloud in the sky for competition. We took the Sky Road, an obvious choice on a day like this which provides the most amazing views of the Atlantic and the hundreds of islands that seem to hug the coastline like barren satellites. We stopped off at as many beaches as we could as the temperatures started to rise to a balmy 15 degrees and that’s when I found myself at Mannin Bay, barefoot without a cardigan or goosebump to be seen!

Blue skies met even bluer waters and I had to keep reminding myself that I was in the same part of the world I fell asleep in. Connemara is truly a land of contrasts with a clear day completely transforming the coast and the mountains that loom over it. The mountains became golden with the few clouds creating shadow shows as they drifted lazily across the sky.

We drove most of the day beach-hopping and stopping off for seafood when our stomachs began to rumble. We ate outside on the streets of Roundstone at O’Dowd’s; me wolfing down crab claws and Andrew his staple of battered fish and chips. I drank a glass of white wine and could feel my chest burning a little as the sun bore down and not a trace of wind could be found in the air. I felt unashamedly smug as I closed my eyes and soaked up every ounce of vitamin D I could manage since it had been about 6 months since my poor bones felt anything like it.

Connemara is famous for its wild weather and landscape but few know the Connemara we got to experience last weekend. The turquoise waters, the white beaches, the burned cheeks from the Spring sun. If you ever find yourself as lucky as I was then please make sure to visit the beaches I have listed here. I’m sure they’re just as beautiful when weather is bit more turbulent, the seas furiously stormy and the wind blowing because that is the romantic view most have of the west coast but when the winds settle, the clouds part and the sea calms, well you have a pocket of paradise right before you.

THE BEACHES OF CONNEMARA

Mannin Bay

The water here is spectacular so no surprise that it’s a favourite spot for water sports. If you’re not too keen to brave the water by snorkelling then you can take a kayak out and spy the marine life swimming beneath you in crystal clear waters. It was empty when we were there and incredibly peaceful too so you might just get the water all to yourself.

Omey Island

The island is connecting to the mainland by a tidal strand that is only permissible during times of low tide. The strand is popular for families who fancy a bit of sand castle building and beach combing but we ventured on to the island itself with hardly a person in sight. There’s a beach on the far side of the island which was deserted and felt incredibly private save for a few neighbourly heifers and their calves.

Dog’s Bay

This is probably the most popular beach in the area and for good reason. The bay provides safe calm waters for young kids to splash about it and the water is just as clear as Mannin too. The long white sandy beach is great for walking off a lunch and the mountains behind you provide a stunning backdrop to gaze up at when you walk back to your car. Roundstone is close by too and a lovely harbour town to grab some lunch in.

Coral Strand

Typical of Ireland this beach is known for its folklore since it’s said that if you pick up a fistful of coral sand in each hand you have two choices. If you want to have luck in love then you through the sand in your left hand over your left shoulder. If you want luck in money then you should through the sand in right hand over your right shoulder. You can’t do both though, sure ye can’t have too much luck! Apparently this beach has some of the warmest waters too so shouldn’t be too terrifying to take a dip in if you’re feeling the need to cool off from the Connemara heat.

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

Beer Pairing and Four Poster Beds at Castle Grove House

The snow is falling incessantly outside my bedroom window this morning, tiny flakes tapping at the glass to remind me how much things can change in a matter of days. Only a week ago Andrew and I were on our way to Donegal for the night, arriving at Castle Grove House under blue skies and bright sunlight that only fed false promises of Spring. Oh to feel just a wee bit of heat again!

We had been invited to Castle Grove by Ireland’s Blue Book as part of a beer-pairing night the hotel were hosting in their award-winning restaurant (with local brewery Kinnegar’s providing all the pairings!). This was one of the first events I have ever been invited to as a blogger so I was unashamedly very excited about being there! It’s no secret that Andrew and I are lovers of Donegal since we usually visit the county every few months so we were never going to turn down a chance to spend a night in digs on the north coast, especially when there were craft beers involved!

Neither myself or Andrew had been to Castle Grove before and as we pulled in to the beautiful country lane that took us to the banks of Lough Swilly where the house is nestled, it felt as if we had crossed in to a different era completely. The manor house sits proudly as it would have done when it was first built in 1695 except the Grove family have been and gone and now the Sweeney’s are holding the fort and welcoming in fresh faces in to their home.

Inside it felt like not much had changed either; fires were crackling in grand fireplaces in numerous rooms downstairs, beautiful antiques decorated corners that I am sure had heard plenty of stories and old paintings hung on the walls above the sweeping staircase that led to the bedrooms upstairs, all of which were named after Irish literary legends (we were in the Jonathan Swift room which was just a bit fitting what with his connection to our hometown of Armagh!).

The room itself was not just a room but more like a suite straight out of Downtown Abbey equipped with a four poster bed and a cabinet full of crystal I was too terrified to touch. There were parts of the suite that were a wee bit dated (the bathroom for example looked like it hadn’t been updated in a few years) so lovers of modern finishes may not feel quite at home here. Personally I loved the quirky charm especially the bed since I had never slept in something that was so like the bed of every princess story I had ever read.

Though what struck me most about the house was it’s warmth. Everything about Castle Grove exudes the feeling of being so welcome, of being looked after and mollycoddled the minute you step through the door. Irene Sweeney, the manager and figurehead of the house, could always be found mingling with guests, tending to the fire and ensuring that everyone’e needs were met. She was genuinely delighted to have people coming to visit her wee part of the world and hosting events like the beer-pairing night was a way for her to showcase the house and everything Donegal has to offer.

Which as it turns out, is a lot. The beer pairing event delivered more than we were expecting, each course having been meticulously curated by Chef Brady and the head of Kinnegar Brewery, Rick LeVert. The Donegal oysters specifically were a sensation for me (Andrew is still sitting on the fence when it comes to oysters) and the dessert was practically licked off the plate. Each beer was introduced by Rick allowing us to understand why the flavours on our plate were designed around the flavours in our glass. It was obvious that great care had went in to the night which, judging by the hum of contentment around room, was a complete success.

I practically had to roll myself out of the dining room after we finally finished eating, only having enough energy for a few moments by the fire before collapsing in my fairytale bed. Next thing I knew it was morning which I welcomed by opening the shutters of my sash windows half-expecting cartoon birds to flutter around my head. We woke up slowly leaving just enough time to meet in the dining room for breakfast (are we the only one’s who leave it until the last 10 minutes?) which was the obligatory full Irish breakfast and lots of tea.

The sun was streaming in and not wanting to miss another moment of Donegal fresh air, we said our thankful goodbyes to Irene and the staff after a quick stroll around the grounds. We were told to make a beeline for Portsalon where we could find blue flag beaches empty of crowds (and in true Donegal style it over-delivered). We drank in the salty air and when the Atlantic winds settled for just a moment we could feel the head of the late-February sun on our backs, a sensation I can barely remember feeling now it’s snowing outside!

Not wanting to end things with Donegal just yet, we took a drive to Glenveagh Castle (so I could play princess just a little longer) which surprisingly neither of us had visited before. It’s actually younger than Castle Grove but looks like it’s been hidden on the lough for centuries longer. There’s a great trail for walkers and cyclists from the visitor centre to the castle but for those with little time or patience (or unruly kids) can hop on the minibus which saves a fair amount of time.

The views are incredible once you reach the castle with Scot’s Pine trees decorating the edge of the lake, providing plenty of magical forest walks. There are beautiful gardens to stroll in too which I can only imagine are even more outstanding in the summer. The views reminded me of Connemara, another essential destination in Ireland where Glenveagh Castle could be compared to Kylemore Abbey as a diamond in the midst of a wild landscape.

There is a real rawness to Donegal that I think has percolated to the people who live there. The people are as open as the land and the sea that batters it’s north and west so it’s only natural to feel yourself open up once your feet are on the ground there. For me there is a collective sigh from my mind and body when I’m Donegal, I release everything I’ve been holding within me and I feel instantly lighter, more open. It’s no wonder I felt so welcome by everyone at Castle Grove, it’s doors are open like the people inside, happy to invite anyone in need of a warm meal and cosy bed or even just a drop of tea by the fire.

Bali: A Guide to Canggu & Uluwatu

Bali: A Guide to Canggu & Uluwatu

I am one of those travellers’ that researches relentlessly before a trip. I want to discover hidden secrets, places to eat in that locals rave about, beaches that won’t be crowded all because I’m terrified that I’ll miss something fantastic. This might take the joy out of it for some people but it’s almost my favourite part of a trip, to get to know a place before I even put my feet on the ground.

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Hindu blessings which decorate the streets all over Bali

Canguu (pronounced chan-goo) was where we decided we would begin our Balinese adventure since it was known to be a bit more chilled out than it’s noisy neighbour Kuta. Kuta is a popular spot but is renowned for being full of drunken Aussie’s and having mopeds bumper to bumper so we thought we would keep our distance and seek solace at a safe distance.

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I had mentally prepared myself for Canggu before we left, imagining surfers walking barefoot down the street, surfboard in one hand and chai latte in the other. I imagined trendy shops selling clothes that were too cool for me and yoga studios filled with flexible tanned bodies. And while all of this was definitely true, I hadn’t expected to love it quite as much as I did.

Canggu has an atmosphere that immediately relaxes you. Everything is slow-paced (sometimes a little too slow-paced for my hungry belly) and you never have to stray too far to find delicious food and even more delicious cocktails. We were also surprised by how spread out the area was even though it still had that surfer-village feel to it making it fun to explore on our moped in the evenings. In fact, we loved it so much we ended up coming back to stay on our last night in Bali!

Where to Stay

During our first time in Canggu, we stayed in this Airbnb which served us very well. We had a pool right outside our door which was shared but we only ever saw one other person there so it felt very private. The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, even dropping us to a restaurant one night to save us walking around looking for a taxi.

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We stayed there three nights and found it very handy to walk to nearby restaurants and cafés. They didn’t serve breakfast but this made us get up early and explore the area more in the mornings (always a good idea when you’re feeling a little jet lagged like we were).

My favourite part about this place was the bathroom which sadly I didn’t take a photo of. It was huuuge! The shower was open and in the middle of the room and the water felt like heavy rainfall which was perfect for washing the sand out of some tricky areas if ye catch my drift.

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On our second trip to Canggu we stayed in this joint for one night which was a little closer to Kuta than before. It was a bit tricky to find on the moped but that meant it was super quiet at night. We had our own private pool here, kitchen, two bedrooms and a massive bathroom that was probably the same size as our whole ground floor of our house!

We had staff come in and cook breakfast for us in the morning and the late check-out time meant we could swim in the pool and soak up the morning sun while we could. I loved it here and wished we could have stayed a little longer. Next time I guess!

Where to Eat & Drink

Scouting out places to eat is the best activity on holidays, isn’t it? And my oh my were there plenty of choices in Canggu!

Here are a few of my favourites:

Little Flinders

A great spot for a Nalu Bowl (I didn’t know what it was either until Bali but it’s the most colourful and delicious way to eat breakfast!). It’s an Australian-owned joint which has been finished beautifully so definitely an Instagram-worthy spot if you are that way inclined.

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Betelnut Café

Another healthy stop to un-do all the cocktails you had the night before. The upstairs area is open which makes it a great place to cool off and enjoy some kombucha or vitamin-packed smoothies. No one needs to know that you were actually a rum-swigging, table-dancing minx the night before.

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The Grass Terrace

We ate here soon after we arrived at our villa like a pair of ravenous hounds. The food was simple but really yummy and satisfied our weary bodies immensely. They also do an all day happy hour meaning 2 for 1 cocktails ALL FRIGGIN’ DAY. You can’t say no to that, can you?

Finn’s Beach Club

We spent most of our last day here drinking cocktails and watching the sun set in to the ocean which was a perfect finish to our trip. Unfortunately there is an entrance fee (around £15 for the whole day) but our accommodation gave us free passes which meant we didn’t have to pay in. The club has pools, a gym, spa and multiple restaurants to eat in as well as being right in front of the famous Berawa surf break. The waves in front of the club are easy to learn in which is what Andrew did while I read by the pool drinking multiple margaritas!

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Warung Dandelion

This was an authentic Indonesian restaurant with the friendliest staff we encountered in Canggu. The restaurant is beautifully decorated and feels very romantic with candles flickering everywhere. The food is just as lovely, I inhaled my tuna which was cooked in a banana leaf in about 5 minutes! This restaurant is a good choice if you fancy somewhere with a relaxed atmosphere that serves excellent local food.

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Potato Head Beach Club

Andrew and I were recommended this place by his friend who has been to a Bali a few times and we went along for dinner one evening, not too sure what to expect. What we didn’t expect was a swanky beach club bar that blew our little tourist socks off. To be fair, the prices here are a little more than what we were used to but it is very cool and we loved the laid back atmosphere. We found a day bed pretty easily as it seems to be quieter in the evening and dined like royalty for the night. It was definitely one of the most expensive meals we had but we both thought it was worth it, especially the cocktails which were divine!

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Old Man’s

We just had a few drinks here after dinner at Warung Dandelion but this was still a fun place to check out for some dancing and people watching. It’s a popular haunt for the surfer’s who drop by here on their back from the waves so it has a very chilled out atmosphere, perfect if you fancy going somewhere in your flip flops and shorts!

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Where to Explore

We only had two full days in Canggu so we didn’t have an awful lot of time to explore. On our first day we had a late breakfast and had a nosy through the many many shops that are dotted on the main streets before spending a few hours down at Old Man’s Beach paddling in the waves and drinking some very tasty Bintang (when in Rome, eh?).

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In the evening we were hoping to catch the sunset at Tanah Lot temple but we hadn’t anticipated the sun setting so early and so we actually managed to just miss it! I was a little gutted that we missed the opportunity for photographs but the sky was still a dusty pink and we were able to take a few just before the sky darkened. The temple is Hindu and is perched on a rock that becomes an island when the tide rolls in. It is definitely worth a visit if you want to see a temple that is hundreds of years old, much older than the hundreds of temples that are lived in by families throughout Bali. There are also markets on the path to the temple so it’s very handy for picking up a few souvenirs if you’re visiting towards the end of your trip!

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What I loved most about that evening was the drive there on the back of the moped with Andrew driving. As the sun was going down the colours around us seemed to deepen with the rice paddy fields turning this vibrant green. The air was warm and I just remember smiling and telling myself to never forget that feeling. I have a few videos from that drive which I will re-watch forever!

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The following day we took the moped down to Uluwatu which was a little more of a trek than we had realised. The traffic in this part of Bali is crazy and it took us a good two hours to get from Canggu to Nyang Nyang beach which was only about 20 miles away. What I would definitely advise if you’re renting a moped in this area is to invest in a mouth mask because the fumes are difficult to breathe and my lungs were impacted from not having one – rookie error!

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We also had a little scare when we thought Andrew’s wallet had been stolen from our bag which I had been wearing on the back of the moped. Luckily for us, Andrew was just having a senior moment and had forgotten that it was actually in his pocket (this was after he nearly had a meltdown as we were buying litres of water for the beach) but it served as a lesson because it’s very easy to get pick-pocketed on a moped. We were also sure to keep our hands close to us while we were trying to work Google maps on our phones because it’s so easy for someone to just take it out of your hand and scoot off!

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Despite the few hiccups, Nyang Nyang beach made it all worth it. There are no signs so you will have to use your phone and there’s also a fair climb down the cliff to get to the beach but the views are so beautiful you can stop as much as you want. There are people selling water and snacks along the walk but we brought our own because we’re stingy and were terrified there wouldn’t be enough snacks.

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When we reached the bottom we were greeted by a herd of cows who were taking a break from the sun under the trees like they too were on their holiday. The beach itself was practically empty and we found a spot to relax and take in the turquoise waters. We spent a few hours here, bringing the sensation back to our asses (mopeds are not kind to the derrière) and going back and forth from the water.

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There just so happens to be a boat wreck at Nyang Nyang beach which just so happens to be covered in colourful graffiti which had absolutely no reason for my decision to bring Andrew there at all. Promise. But since we were there I thought we might as well have an impromptu photoshoot where I skipped about like a so-called model and had no shame in posing since there wasn’t a soul to judge me (apart from Andrew which he definitely did but he took the photos anyway – what a guy).

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Not an ounce of shame there – spot the bikini line?!

After the photoshoot we started the climb back up the cliff, taking plenty of stops because we were sweating buckets, and then hopped painfully back on the moped to make our way to Uluwatu Temple. The temple is quite touristy and is famous for it’s beautiful sunsets so we tried to find areas that were a little quiet. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any English guides and we missed out on learning a bit about the temple but it was still beautiful to walk around and see the views from the cliffs.

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There are a few rascals about the temple that we encountered and actually watched thieve a pair of sunglasses right from a man’s head. The monkeys are fairly brazen so I wouldn’t recommend visiting the temple if you are a bit skittish. They didn’t bother us but we were careful not to wear anything on our head because we didn’t want to give them an opportunity!

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And that’s the guide for Canggu, with Uluwatu thrown in for good measure! I hope you can make use of the advice but all I can say is ENJOY EVERY MOMENT. Bali is a place with extraordinary landscapes and beautiful people that will make you glow from the happiest part of your belly.

Have fun!

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A Cuban Adventure Part 2 – Viñales

A Cuban Adventure Part 2 – Viñales

We planned on getting a bus from Havana to Viñales but realised too late that you had to pre-book (small piece of advice!). We managed to find a taxi driver that could take us all the way for $80 and for the convenience of having a car all to ourselves we were sold. The driver was an English lecturer and we had a great chat with him during the 3 hour journey through Piñar del Rio.

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It amazed me how the car managed to make it up the hills as we began to rise over the mountains. The roads were incredibly twisty which wasn’t doing Andrew or his car sickness any favours. The views were breathtaking, deep lush valleys and horse and carts carrying the produce. We arrived in to the town which is basically one street and fell in love with the place. We had booked to stay at Casa Nolo which was a bright pink house on the edge of the town and cost $25 per room per night. We sat outside waiting for our hostess Vana, watching the hens run about loose and local girls doing each other’s hair on the porches.

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Vana arrived and was the loveliest ball of energy. We were staying on the top floor which was so spacious and we had a massive terrace all to ourselves. The bathroom shower was a bit unique in it’s plumbing and electrics but we didn’t get any shocks so can’t complain too much. We had dinner on the roof which was a complete feast – soup followed by lobster with salad and homemade crisps and only $10.

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The next day we had booked a horse trek through the valley and tobacco fields. We met our guide Lazaro in the morning and he looked at our attire and shook his head. We stupidly hadn’t brought long trousers and he told us in broken Spanish that we would suffer for it later. We also met another couple who would be joining us – Walter and Innes both from Belgium. Innes was fluent in Spanish and proved an absolute lifesaver in translating Lazaro’s mumbles and the guide at the tobacco farm.

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Andrew had never ridden a horse before and I highly doubt I will ever see him on one again. When we met our horses there was this beautiful big black horse called Negreto and another smaller brown one called Dancer. Common sense made me assume I would be getting the smaller one but it turned out Lazaro had a great sense of humour and saw an opportunity. Andrew was assigned to Dancer and he quickly realised the reason for his name. Dancer didn’t trot like a normal horse but danced about the trek throwing Andrew every which way causing him to howl with pain when we burst in to a canter. We all laughed an awful lot, Lazaro included. Andrew was less impressed!

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Being able to see the valley while riding a horse was incredible. Looking up to see dramatic cliff faces and lush green crops against the red earth was something I will never forget. The tour of the tobacco farm was great and the guides were so knowledgeable about the land. We felt extremely cool lighting up the cigars they had just rolled for us and because they had dipped them in honey, they actually tasted really good.

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After the tobacco farms we were brought to a natural pool hidden in a cave. I think they oversold this place a tad because when we got there it was actually a dark pond with murky brown water. They had the cheek to ask us for an extra $2 to get entry but luckily Innes was able to tell them where to go in Spanish. The walk through the cave was a health and safety nightmare with a few random torches. We braved the water although I wasn’t sure what the hell was swimming beneath me! I would recommend asking to see photos of these ‘natural pools’ before you visit them!

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We a fantastic steak at El Olivo this night followed by several Ron Collins. We sat on the terrace sharing a cigar and thought we were the bees knees. Cue an embarrassing conversation with our hostess when we got back with Andrew repeating ‘Me llamo Andrew’ – cringe!

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The following day was one of Andrew’s favourite trips of the holiday. We had booked an old Chevy to take us to Cayo Jutias, a beach on the coast about an hour and half away, with our new friends Innes and Walter. The car didn’t travel above 30mph the whole journey although it was hard to tell because the speedometer didn’t work. It didn’t matter because the drive was so beautiful.

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What we didn’t expect was how stunning Cayo Jutias would be. The sand was white, the sea was the most amazing blue and there was a beach hut nearby ready to supply us with food and some cocktails – absolute heaven!! We were told that this was a great place to snorkel however this isn’t all that true. The water is crystal clear but the sea grass didn’t offer a wide variety of marine life and we gave up after about 20 minutes. There were some terrific walks along the beach though and we didn’t have to go far to have the beach all to ourselves. It was such a wonderful day.

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On the way back we ran in to a thunderstorm which proved how old the Chevy was. Andrew’s passnger window only went up half way and the driver had to cover the rest with a plastic bag. This didn’t work too well and it wasn’t long before Andrew was ankle deep in rainwater. The sound of the thunder and the intensity of the rain was such a sight though we loved every second.

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Despite us lathering ourselves in suncream we still got burned. Andrew’s feet were practically purple and only added to the injuries he had accumulated on the horse trek the day before. Note: bring plenty suncream with high SPF and effective aftersun!

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Our last night was spent with on the terrace watching the sun set and eating more of Vana’s great food. The conversation was starting to dry up with the Belgians and we were finding ourselves in the holiday predicament of being stuck with another couple. Unfortunately we we were spending the next day with them in a car travelling to Trinidad so we had to be as polite as we could!