How Loop Head won the Best Place to Holiday title
This week Loop Head peninsula, in Co Clare, won the ‘Irish Times’ Best Place to Holiday in Ireland award. Why, and how, did it clinch the title?
Cillian Murphy sits at the bar of the Stella Maris Hotel in Kilkee. Outside, the curved strand is taking a pounding from the Atlantic Ocean, providing a swooshing, booming soundtrack.
Since Loop Head peninsula won the Irish Times Best Place to Holiday in Ireland award this week, Murphy’s phone has been flashing continuously. Today locals stop to shake his hand, in the way Co Clare people do when they are uncomfortable praising each other but understand the need to do so anyway.
Murphy is chairman of Loop Head Tourism, and his wife, Mary Redmond, wrote the Loop Head peninsula entry for the competition. Murphy was one of those who, more than a decade ago, thought that the area, with the Shannon on one side and the Atlantic on the other, deserved a bigger share of visitors.
“For years we were watching the development of places such as Bunratty and the Cliffs of Moher, which were receiving great funding and media attention,” he says. “We felt that maybe tourist agencies were marketing Ireland in a particular way and everything was neatly packaged. What tourists were missing, though, was sitting in a pub with real locals or mixing with people for whom tourism is not their main job. They weren’t meeting people who were in survival mode and wanted to share their real-life experiences without wanting anything in return. That’s what we offer here.”
Now Loop Head is a hive of small tourism businesses, such as walking, cycling and driving tours, and dolphin-watching, kayaking and windsurfing. But the peninsula’s main tourist asset is its unspoilt landscape, spectacular cliffs and simple beauty.
The Celtic Tiger barely touched the peninsula, and the brash commercialism that seeped into Irish tourism during the 2000s didn’t affect west Clare. That’s not to say the boom years bypassed it completely – empty holiday homes and cottages are dotted around Kilkee – but there are no convention centres or nail bars.
Yet when the economic tide went out Loop Head felt its absence. A generation is leaving. Many are going too far away to make it back during the summer or at Christmas, and those who stay lack the money to keep the shops, bars and cafes going outside the tourist season.
The social and economic consultant Trutz Haase, who has developed a “deprivation index”, says Loop Head peninsula “fares marginally below the national average in terms of its social and economic composition. Particular parts of Kilkee are considered disadvantaged and fall within the bottom 15 per cent of areas in Ireland.”
Other data point to high unemployment; 2011 figures show male unemployment of 50 per cent in large parts of Kilkee, and one in four parents is classified as a lone parent, which is high for a rural town.
Around the corner from the Stella Maris, Johnny Redmond, owner of the Strand restaurant and guest house, is the fourth generation of his family to run a business here. The past few years haven’t been easy, as many of his customers have emigrated. He took the difficult decision to close the hotel bar, once one of the busiest in west Clare for live music, and turn it into a bistro. It is beginning to work, but the season is short.
The challenge for the region is to attract new overseas visitors and to turn the wave of good PR that has accompanied this week’s award into sustainable profit.
In fact “sustainability” is a sort of motto for Loop Head Tourism. For them it means preserving the environment while selling the experience to visitors.
It’s a bug that Ailish Connolly caught when she moved from Dublin to Kilbaha nine years ago with her husband, the sculptor Seamus Connolly. She got involved in local tourism issues when plans were announced to reopen Loop Head lighthouse.
“There was a proposal to put decking around it and signs up all over the peninsula,” she says. “I was heartbroken, and as we had no local voice on relevant committees I volunteered, and have been volunteering ever since with Loop Head Tourism.”
Bernie Keating, who runs Keating’s Bar in Kilbaha, hopes the renewed energy in tourism can help halt the decline in population locally. “The Loop Head lighthouse and other local initiatives are helping,” he says. “We want to attract more visitors, but we also want to leave the area as it is.”
Despite their achievements, it’s never easy turning an economically struggling district into a great holiday destination. Connolly says she occasionally despairs at the red tape involved in getting local projects off the ground.
“For example, there are three second World War lookout posts on the coast. We want to restore them and estimate it would cost €20,000. The authorities want us to spend €15,000 on an evaluation report. Imagine. We get no funding for our tourist organisation and raise the money from businesses and individuals in the area. Everyone works together, helping out where they can, fundraising and writing cheques for amounts they can barely afford.”
In the award-winning Long Dock restaurant in Carrigaholt sits one of the peninsula’s new entrepreneurs. Thirty-year-old Laura Foley is slightly windswept, having just given a guided walk to a visiting couple. She says she plans to extend her walking tours business, the Long Way Round, by offering walking holidays in the region soon.
Having finished serving lunch, the owners of the Long Dock, Tony Lynch and his wife, Imelda, sit down for a chat over coffee. The talk around the table is of upcoming festivals in the area and the launch next week in Dublin of a new Loop Head food trail. The area’s website needs to be updated, and there are still many media organisations to reach out to.
The celebrations for the Irish Times award took place here the evening before, and everyone resolved that they would be a starting point for something bigger. “People were coming up to me all evening and saying, ‘Well done’,” Murphy says. “I had to keep saying, ‘It’s not me you should be congratulating, it’s yourselves.’ ”