Great eco escapes

 

Catherine Mackhas just written 'Ecoescape: Ireland', a guide to 50 of the island's most environmentally friendly getaways. She picks 10 of her favourites for us

IT WOULD HAVE been unheard of five years ago to go on holiday worrying about your carbon footprint. But we are increasingly concerned about the environment, and so, like every other sector, the tourism industry is taking our concerns on board.

Ecotourism is all about changing the way we travel, to do it more responsibly. Fly less, protect the local environment and support the economies as well as the cultures of the places we visit.

The owners of these 10 Irish ecoescapes might use renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power; buy their fruit, vegetables, meat and fish from producers within 10km of where they live; involve a local community that might otherwise be depopulating; engage visitors in contemporary Irish culture, be it cooking or cheesemaking; and encourage their guests to travel "slowly". Ideally, they are doing all of these.

These 10 are from Ecoescape: Ireland, my new book. All 50 of its destinations are dream projects that people have worked towards for years - some are still battling against bureaucratic, financial or personal obstacles to fully realise them.

It was hard to single these 10 out, as I love all 50. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

Ecoescape: Ireland, by Catherine Mack, is available from  www.ecoescape.orgor from good bookshops, for €11.69 (£8.99 in Northern Ireland). Enter the code "ecoIreland" when ordering online to receive free delivery

1 Trinity Island Lodge, Killeshandra, Co CavanAny cynical sorts who think that being environmentally friendly is simply a marketing ploy should visit Trinity Island. A lakeland retreat on its own forested island, this fishing haven is only seconds' walk from the shores of Lough Oughter, with boats you could almost fall out of your bed into in the morning.

The decked terrace overlooks not only Lough Oughter but also the ruins of a 13th-century abbey, home to the earliest inhabitants here, monks from the Order of Premontre.

Tom O'Dowd, the generous, welcoming and fun-loving owner, has worked to prevent its total collapse, typical of his generous spirit. He has also installed a windmill and solar panels, to generate electricity, and replanted 80 hectares (200 acres) with indigenous broadleaf oak, ash and larch.

O'Dowd took us out in his Canadian canoe (available free of charge), sharing some of the history and folklore of the area, where his family has lived for four generations.

Friars and fishermen move over: it is time to share this hideaway with the rest of us.

Trinity Island Lodge, Killeshandra, Co Cavan, 049-4334314,  www.trinityisland.com. Weekends from €700. Weekly rental €1,100-€1,400. Open all year.

A bus serves Killeshandra infrequently. Best to take a bus to Cavan and taxi or cycle 20km to Killeshandra. O'Dowd will meet you to take you to the island.

O'Dowds in Killeshandra, a great favourite with locals, serves home-cooked Irish stew and apple pie. Run by O'Dowd's daughter, who must have inherited the family hospitality gene.

2 Delphi Mountain Resort, Leenane, Co GalwayDelphi might be a motor-free adventure centre, but the manager and co-owner, Rory Concannon, is firing on all cylinders. He has rescued this treasure in the Delphi Valley from receivership and spent two years revamping it to precise ethical standards.

An ecoescape extraordinaire, this stone-and-timber building nestles between two contrasting stretches of water, Killary Harbour and the Bundorragha River. Activities include kayaking, cycling, archery, hillwalking, surfing, rockclimbing and raft-building. All carbon neutral.

Collapsing into my luxurious maisonette suite was so appealing, with French windows opening on to the mountains and logs burning in the wooden stove. I booked in for a seaweed soak. I could hear nothing but the river rushing past us into the bay. Not a whine or a whimper from our children, who had been whisked off to hike in the hills.

Delphi has a water-treatment plant, heating and hot water from wood-energy boilers, recycled paper insulation, water from a mountain spring and a roof made from recycled copper and cedar tiles.

Delphi Mountain Resort, Leenane, Co Galway, 095-42208,  www.delphimountainresort.com.

From €40 per night, for a dorm room with breakfast, to €300 per night, for a three-bedroom, five-star suite. Open all year.

Take a train to Westport; Delphi will arrange transfers. A bus runs in the summer from Galway to Leenane.

Try Blackberry Café, in Leenane (095-42240), which serves local seafood chowder and mussels and home-made bread. Open noon-4.30pm and 6-9pm daily in high season.

3 Creevy Cottages, Ballyshannon, Co DonegalIn 1987 Creevy Pier was destroyed by storms. Soon after, three local fishermen perished because they had no safe berthage. Creevy Co-op was set up to help the community earn some additional income through tourism by restoring derelict stone cottages for renting out to visitors. Kitty's House, for example, is the work of local artisans, with drystone walls and a huge stone fireplace.

Kitty has passed on, but with the help of the co-op she and other past residents have left a fine legacy overlooking her now revived pier. Co-op members have also created a 15km coastal walk as well as operating Creevy Co-op chartered boat service, skippered by a local fisherman.

Committed to green practices, they feed the gardens with rainwater, recycle waste and use energy-saving light bulbs and biodegradable cleaning products. I loved their lemon-juice and vinegar bottles, with a note explaining their antibacterial and cleaning properties. That's Creevy for you: a community that grew in strength through common sense.

Creevy Cottages, Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, 071-9852896,  www.creevyexperience.comand  www.countrybreaks.ie. €585 to €899 per week. Open all year.

Creevy Co-op will pick you up from the bus in Ballyshannon, then take you to your cottage, about seven kilometres away. Creevy can arrange for rental bicycles to be delivered to your cottage.

Catch dinner off the co-op's fishing boat, An Dúanaí Mara, or eat at Shannon's Corner, in Ballyshannon (Bishop Street, 071-9851180), specialising in local roasts and traditional desserts. Open 8am-5pm Monday-Saturday.

4 The Old Milking Parlour, Kilbride, Co WicklowWhen architects Delphine and Philip Geoghegan got a chance to work on their own project, they grabbed it. The buildings were their 17th-century Quaker meeting house and outhouses, a fascinating and important part of Co Wicklow's heritage. Alongside their family cottage, the original meeting house, they have restored the stone milking parlour and created a stylish fusion of old and new.

They have maintained as many original features as possible; four elegant wood-and-glass doors fill each of the cattle entrances, and they have preserved the original partitions, providing a semi-open-plan aesthetic, with one room merging smoothly into another. Underfloor geothermal heating creates an almost soft warmth, topped up by a roaring designer stove, and most of the hot water comes from solar panels. Designer splashes of red or lime green contrast perfectly with the original drystone wall, now painted white with organic paints and lime.

The Quakers would be proud of the Geoghegans, not only for their sublime restoration but also for their fine hospitality.

The Old Milking Parlour, Ballymurrin House, Kilbride, Co Wicklow, 0404-48206,  www.ballymurrin.ie. From €400 for a low-season weekend to €1,100 for a week in peak season. Open all year.

Take the Wicklow bus from Dublin, getting off at the Beehive pub. Or take the train to Wicklow, then cycle or taxi six kilometres to the house.

Wicklow town is a hub of good restaurants and pubs. My favourite spot for buying food to cook at the house was the Dominican Farm Ecology Centre(0404-61833, www.ecocentrewicklow.ie), beside Wicklow Gaol. Organic meat and vegetables, all farmed by the nuns.

5 Little Crom Cottages, Newtown Butler, Co FermanaghDon't confuse Little Crom with Big Crom. The latter is home of Lord Erne and the vast National Trust Crom Estate. The former is home of farmer Damien O'Keefe. But down on the water's edge at Little Crom size doesn't matter. It's the lough that matters. Upper Lough Erne is almost traffic-free, as I discovered on my spin on one of O'Keefe's boats, through the reeds, past mute swans, moorhens and coots.

The two cottages are comfortable and spacious, with oak and slate flooring, wood-burning stoves and solar-heated water to warm you up after some lake swimming.

O'Keefe has been awarded the EU Flower, an ecotourism accreditation, but as a farmer diversifying into tourism who provides bikes and boats, free of charge, in one of the most beautiful areas of Ireland, he needs neither title nor certificate to show off his green status.

Little Crom Cottages, Newtown Butler, Co Fermanagh, 048-67738074,  www.littlecromcottages.com. From £175 (about €225) for a weekend in low season to £525 (about €665) for a week in high season. Open all year.

Take a bus from Enniskillen to Clones and get off at Newtown Butler. The cottages are four kilometres from the town. Try VR Taxis (048-67738999).

Moor the boat at Crom Estate for lunch at its coffee shop. You pay £6 (€7.50) to moor at the visitor centre and have all day to stroll around the 800 hectares (2,000 acres), which include Northern Ireland's largest surviving oak woodland and 800-year-old yews.

6 EcoBooley, Clogheen, Co TipperaryThis cottage was an experiment. Ten years ago funding was available to entice tourists off the Ring of Kerry and into the rest of rural Ireland. Eamonn Looby, the farmer who created this gem, got some to rebuild his disused stone cottage but "keep it as natural as possible". He installed a water turbine in a mountain stream, to generate electricity, fitted a wood-burning stove, built furniture using spent oak, used organic paints and local tweed curtains, insulated the roof with wool and plastered with lime.

If you don't mind rough and ready, rattling pipes, an old kettle on the stove and chats with the wonderfully affable and knowledgeable Looby about water-temperature regulation or renewable energy, this is the perfect budget green getaway, especially for walkers and families. You can stick on the slow cooker in the morning, pull on your boots and walk straight out into the foothills of the Knockmealdowns.

EcoBooley, Clogheen, Co Tipperary, 052- 65191 (best time 7-9pm), www.ecobooley.com. From €130 for a weekend to €350 for a week in high season. Open all year.

Bus from Cork to Clogheen, or train to Cahir (12km) or Clonmel (27km). Phone Looby to arrange a cab or collection. The Ring a Link bus runs on Fridays and Saturdays. Call 1890- 424141 for one from EcoBooley to Clonmel and back (adult return €5). Perfect to catch the Saturday organic and farmers' markets.

Tipperary is full of local food for the EcoBooley larder. One of the finest is Baylough Farm, a walk up the hill from Clogheen. Call 052-65275 for directions.

7 Lough Allen Adventure Centre, Ballinaglera, Co LeitrimThe Wilderness Therapy Weekend is one of the specials on the menu at Lough Allen. It sounds more like a military-style putting you through your paces than a fun getaway. But this centre is not about tests. My childhood memories of sadistic outward-bound teachers were, thankfully, shattered. The owner, Kevin Currid, has an infectious love of the outdoors. They make rafts and shelters, build fires, forage, cook outdoors, sleep in hammocks and laugh a lot.

Currid has just opened this eco-friendly Donegal cedar building on the lough's shores, for classes, meals and general hanging out.

Their showers and heating are solar-powered, backed up by a wood-burning boiler. You can hire canoes and sailboards, have swimming lessons or just use the centre as a base for hiking.

The best option is to get together a big enough group - six or more people - and book in for a weekend on the lough's islands.

Lough Allen Adventure Centre, Ballinaglera, Co Leitrim, 071-9643292. Wilderness Therapy Weekend €190 per person. Closed for Christmas fortnight.

Train to Carrick-on-Shannon and bus to Drumshanbo. Or bus to Dowra. The centre will pick up if necessary.

It is worth the five-kilometre cycle to Dowra to have a pint at the Melrose Inn, locally known as Mel's. This friendly, cosy village pub has a welcoming fire, bar food and traditional music at weekends.

8 Gyreum, Riverstown, Co SligoGyreum breaks all the rules. It is round and its roof, a dark-green cone, slopes down to the grass, just begging to be climbed over, sunbathed on and stargazed from.

Inside feels a bit like a giant yurt, with bedrooms and bathrooms slotted into stone walls, giving them a cave-like cosiness.

Everything is recycled here. More precisely, nothing is new. The curtains look as if they were run up by Colum Stapleton, the creator of this

bit of madness, and the furniture has a late-night-run-around-the-skips feel.

You love it or hate it. I loved it, because it is an antidote to crisp, cold, tourism "commodities". As well as traditional toilets, connected to a reed bed, there is an outside compost loo. The baths are old roll-tops that have seen better days. The stepladder up to the crow's-nest library is not for vertigo sufferers or young children.

All these features make Gyreum worth celebrating. That and its eco-awareness, with a windmill, solar panels, geothermal heating and walking tours.

During my visit 10 tents were erected inside, as it had so many visitors. If that doesn't make you smile, don't even think of staying here.

Gyreum, Corlisheen, Riverstown, Co Sligo, 071-9165994,  www.gyreum.com. €17-€27 per person. Open all year.

Train to Sligo, Ballymote or Collooney, then taxi or cycle to Riverstown. Gyreum will arrange bike hire for visitors.

Clevery Mill, in Castlebaldwin (071-9127424,  www.cleverymill.com), where head chef Diarmuid Cawley grows much of the grub himself. This is a 45-minute walk or a 15-minute cycle from Gyreum. See www.cleverymill.com

9 Cnoc Suain, Spiddal, Co GalwayA white Connemara pony greeted us at Cnoc Suain, high in the boglands overlooking Spiddal. Cnoc Suain, overlooking its own Cnoch a Loch, is in its own league of uniqueness, charm and beauty. Charlie and Dearbhaill, the owners of this homestead, have rebuilt and thatched four drystone-wall cottages, installed geothermal underfloor heating and furnished them traditionally, simply and comfortably.

Join a weekend residential course in anything from herbal cures to watercolours or just use the cottages as self-catering. Twice a week performers (including Dearbhaill, a professional musician) gather in the main house, in front of the biggest log fire I have ever seen. Superb performances, followed by a swift nightcap at Cnoc Suain's own shebeen.

Cnoc Suain is not preserving Irish language, music, cookery and crafts to enshrine them. This is no theme park. It is a place of living culture, oozing with pride and determination to share some of the joys of its heritage.

Cnoc Suain, Spiddal, Co Galway, 091-555703,  www.cnocsuain.com. Residential weekends from €450. Self-catering from €500 per week. Closed November-February.

Train to Galway, then taxi or bus to Spiddal, followed by a five-kilometre walk on road through blanket bogland.

Great lunches at Brigit's Garden, in Rosscahill (091-550905,  www.brigitsgarden.ie), where you can wander through gardens representing Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasa.

10 Hagal Farm, Bantry, west CorkMy hosts, Janny and Fred Wieler, greeted me with herbal tea that looked like a work of art: a glass jug gently infusing home-grown fennel, liquorice root, cardamom and apple, a rose perfectly poised on its rim. This sums up Hagal, where everything embraces nature and beauty.

There is something almost fairy-like about Hagal, in the hills overlooking Bantry Bay. The entrance is via a rose-covered stone staircase, past a herb garden and signs to "the labyrinth".

The doorway to the bedrooms is Hobbit-sized. My room was modestly furnished, warm and comfortable, with fresh flowers, candles and hot-water bottles by the bed. Not that I needed one, with the efficient solar-powered heating. The en-suite loo empties to a reed bed, and water is sourced from the river and nearby well.

Fred's scones will have you signing up for his cookery weekend. Organic vegetarian cuisine at its best, served in a vine-covered conservatory. You can book on to a massage, detox or reflexology weekend, but no one will try to read your aura if that is not your thing. You can just book a bed and see what the fairies have in store.

Hagal Farm, Coomleigh West, Bantry, Co Cork, 027-66179,  www.hagalholistichealth.com. B&B €35 per person sharing. Full board €70 pps. Self-catering house in garden (sleeps six or seven) €100-€125 per night. Open all year.

Take a train to Cork, then catch a bus to Bantry. You can take a cab the 11km to Hagal Farm. If Janny or Fred is in town they will collect you. Two mountain bikes for visitors.

Try lunch at Organico Café (027-51391,  www.organico. ie) - if you can face leaving Fred's cooking, that is.