Ernest Hemingway once said, "it is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best". On a recent trip to Co Mayo I fully appreciated what he meant.
Since my childhood I've been visiting family on Achill Island, and have travelled the road between Westport and Achill Island many times. But it wasn't until I cycled The Greenway that I really appreciated the incredible beauty of the area.
The Great Western Greenway is the longest off-road cycling and walking trail in Ireland. The track runs along the disused Westport to Achill railway track, which closed in 1937. It is 42km of traffic-free cycling with some of the best views in Ireland.
Cycling the Greenway couldn't be easier. Clew Bay Bike Hire is a five-minute walk from Westport train station and provides bikes, maps and all the gear needed for the cycle. Clew Bay Bike Hire also has tag-along for kids, making it an option for a family holiday. You and your bike can be dropped to your starting point of choice and then all you have to do is cycle home. The full route can be done in one day and there are a number of pick up points along the way if you get tired and want a lift back.
I saddled up and headed off from Achill. With the bald peak of Slievemore (671m) at my back I was soon meandering around the Currane Peninsula amidst jaw-dropping beauty. The Atlantic Ocean and mountains merged to make a dramatic scene and I peddled the well-designed path at a leisurely pace.
The 13km mark provides a perfect spot for a lunch at the Mulranny Park Hotel. Perched on high ground, the hotel overlooks a stunning stretch of golden sand. I enjoyed the view while eating a tasty lunch in the Waterfront Bar. The hotel is well-known for its fresh local seafood and freshly baked breads. The banana bread and sundried tomato and parmesan bread are very tasty.
The folk at the hotel are responsible for devising the Gourmet Greenway, a food trail which showcases artisan food produced along or near the old railway line. The featured producers include Carrowholly Cheese, the Curraun Blue trout farm and Croagh Patrick Seafoods. Kelly's Butchers in Newport is a popular stop - proprietors Seán and Séamus, clad in their striped aprons and straw hats, give the butchers an old style feel.
Their award-winning sausages and puddings are popular, and if you have the guts try their Putóg, which is black pudding cooked inside a sheep stomach.
I went for a 'lighter' tasting with James McDermott at Murrevagh Honey. I tried honey harvested by hand straight from the hive. It had a delicate taste and was very light in colour. Apparently, this is due to the bees gathering their pollen and nectar from the Mediterranean Heather, fuchsia and blackberry bushes; whereas commercial bees have a very different diet. This business venture started as a hobby for James and within three years he expanded from one hive to seven. James said that he can't meet the demand there is for the honey, which he sells for €5 a jar.
Back on my bike I took on the longest section of the route, from Mulranny to Newport, which covers 18km. This section was equally as beautiful as the previous one, with the mountains meeting the sea of Clew Bay and its 365 islands. Croagh Patrick towered above like the North Star leading me home.
Nevin's pub is the halfway point between Achill and Westport and its good quality pub grub is worth stopping for. On a fine day you can sit out the front and enjoy the sea view.
The 11km from Newport to Westport is less scenic but pleasant nonetheless. The trail leaves the sea and passes through wooded areas. Another bonus of this section is that the trail is sparsely populated, which makes for relaxing cycling.
The finish line, Westport, was recently voted by Irish Times readers as the best place to live in Ireland. It's an attractive town, built on the hill surrounding the tree-lined river Carrow Beg. The locals take great pride the town's appearance and there are plenty of floral window boxes and brightly painted buildings lining its street. The town's accessibility to the mountains and the coast provides an ideal setting for outdoor activities such as white-water rafting, coasteering, horse trekking, caving, rock climbing and zorbing.
It was fitting that my cycle trip ended with yet another taste sensation. An Port Mór is a Gourmet Greenway–recommended restaurant and is situated in a quaint laneway in the heart of Westport. Chef-Proprietor Frankie Mallon's philosophy is to use seasonal, local and artisan produce. The emphasis is on local fresh seafood and shellfish, in particular lobster, crab, scallops and langoustines from Clew Bay. I enjoyed a delicious warm lobster salad for starter and hake for mains.
So Hemmingway would have been proud. Not only did I feel the contours of the land, I also got to taste them.
For more information on The Great Western Greenway visit: www.discoverireland.ie/greenway
For information on The Gourmet Greenway visit: www.mulrannyparkhotel.ie/gourmet-greenway-mayo
If you are interested in adventure sports in Westport visit: www.adventurewest.ie
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