The shores of west Cork are known for their for abundant seafood and excellent surfing, but there are saltwater pursuits of another kind worth discovering.
A stay in Inchydoney Island Lodge & Spa, overlooking the Atlantic ocean, introduced us to a jewel of west Cork, the wonderful Lough Hyne. The only inland saltwater lake in Europe, Lough Hyne is connected to the Atlantic by a slender channel, and is Ireland's first marine reserve, which sustains a diverse population of more than 1,000 marine plants, animals and fish. Researchers have been coming here since the 1880s, but it's the modern pursuit of starlight kayaking that brings us to its shores on a chilly spring evening.
Atlantic Sea Kayaking, run by husband and wife team Jim and Maria Kennedy, take groups out on the lake, starting an hour before darkness each evening. At the moment, you can expect to launch around 9pm, with the latest trips starting at around 9.30pm in summer.
They have teamed up with Inchydoney Island Lodge & Spa to offer weekend kayaking packages that combine two nights’ accommodation with a starlight kayaking trip.
At the lake, before the light fades, Jim and his team get you kitted out in dry suits, teach you the fundamentals of using the two-man kayaks, and get you out on the water. You don’t need any special gear – just some warm clothing and a change for afterwards. It’s a gentle, relaxed pursuit suitable for all abilities, and bigger kids will happily splash along with an adult shipmate.
With no light pollution, a clear sky here is breathtaking.
As night falls, the lake takes on a magical air; nocturnal animals make themselves heard and birds call out. On the night we visit, the water is like glass; stop paddling, and you drift along silently. The guides share their knowledge of the lake, its marine life and coloured history. There’s an old Famine village on one shore; in the middle, a castle has a romantic (if not entirely accurate) history involving kings and magic; you learn about the unique tidal nature of the lake: it fills twice a day on an asymmetrical tide, taking four hours to fill, and 8.5 hours to ebb.
A handful of times each year nightfall coincides with the tides and if you’re lucky – and we were very lucky – you can kayak out of the lake, wait 20 minutes for the tide to turn, and kayak right back in. With no light pollution, a clear sky here is breathtaking. As we wait for the tide to turn, earlier cloud cover breaks to afford us an excellent view of the night sky (and allows us to engage in some competitive constellation-spotting). Venus and Mars twinkling above are mirrored below as bioluminescent sparks in the lake. This phenomenon is worth the trip alone. Drawing your paddle through the pitch-black water prompts microscopic organisms to give off little twinkles of light (think of it like underwater fireflies). Multiply it by a thousand and it’s like your own private light show.
All too soon we return to shore, happy, a bit soggy (listen to those tips about how to avoid splashing water down your own back) and very grateful to be met by Maria with mugs of steaming hot chocolate and coffee, and locally made cakes.
Back in Inchydoney we thaw out in time for a late dinner – which is another nod to the sea, thanks to a fresh catch from Union Hall, just down the road. As the season continues, you’ll need to eat before you head out as you’ll be landing back in your hotel room close to midnight.
A kayaking break at Inchydoney Lodge & Spa, includes starlight kayaking, two nights’ accommodation – most of the comfortable rooms have private balcony or terrace with views of the Atlantic Ocean – and breakfast on both mornings in the Gulfstream Restaurant. The hotel also makes the most of the west Cork seawater with its heated seawater therapy pool, access to which is included in the package, along with the spa’s sauna, hammam and relaxation areas. A range of thalassotherapy seawater spa treatments are also available. Prices from €208 per person sharing. See inchydoney.com, atlantickayaking.com