Isle be back
GO IRELAND: Fiona McCanndiscovers a secluded, blissful getaway destination in the heart of Lake Country, in Co Cavan
WHEN THE possibility of a weekend away with a group of friends comes up, all manner of destinations are instantly suggested. Barcelona. Berlin. Paris. Closer to home? Then Connemara, west Cork, Wexford even. But Cavan? It never really gets a look in.
This, it turns out, is what makes it so appealing. Landlocked and waterlogged, Cavan doesn't feature on the whistle-stop-tour map of the country, and has yet to have its charms sung so loudly that tourist buses and craft shops start taking over. But this means that if you do choose Cavan over Barcelona or Banna Beach, you'll probably have it all to yourself. Which is why it's not a bad idea to bring your friends.
It may be a county without a coastline, or even a bustling city to boast of, but what Cavan does have, it turns out, are some 365 lakes - "one for every day of the year" - and plenty of forests, angling opportunities, forest parks and stony boreens winding through an unspoilt natural landscape with its own particular, understated charm.
None of which, I might add, was what brought us there. The real draw, to begin with at least, was Trinity Island Lodge, a three-bedroomed, stone-walled, wood-fitted, self-contained holiday home complete with sauna and games room. It looked so cozy and inviting in the website photographs that it could have been located slap bang in the centre of an industrial wasteland, for all we cared.
Its online promise was enough to induce four friends and one dog to face into Friday traffic from Dublin and crawl their way north, while two more with a two-year-old in tow beat a path from Carrick-on-Shannon, all convening at the lodge for a three-day stint in Lake Country.
The arrival was an event in itself, along a stony road through the forest in the pitch dark of a November night - take a wrong turn and you could end up mud-stuck and revving blindly, as one carload found out to their dismay - until just when we thought we'd driven off the map and into uncharted here-be-monsters territory, the welcome lights of the lodge appeared.
The lodge's irrepressibly friendly and generous owner, Tom O'Dowd, was on hand to take us around our blessedly warm and tastefully furnished new abode, a converted granary that retains some of its original features, most notably in the "cow-bier" bedroom, which is much more appealing than such a nickname may suggest.
O'Dowd, who, despite having just touched down from New York, displayed more energy than those of us being disgorged from Dublin, gave us a quick tour, explaining the essentials of how to operate the sauna and how to turn on the barbecue for rashers in the morning, as well as the general functioning of a spacious, airy country kitchen that immediately offered itself up for some late-night feasting and wine-guzzling before we all retired to bed without any sense of where we'd all actually ended up.
Morning made everything clear as we took in our stunning location: Trinity Island Lodge, the only house on this forested island attached by a sliver of road to the rest of the world, sits on the edge of Lough Oughter, overlooking an expanse of tranquil water that is home to swans, cormorants and tufted ducks, as well as the bream, trench, eel and pike that swim below the surface. For urbanites like us, it's the kind of isolated splendour that has you sloughing off a week of daily grind and three hours in rush-hour traffic within seconds.
Silence plus fresh air plus fresh coffee (okay, the latter came with us from Dubin - there are some things you just can't leave behind) equals unadulterated bucolic bliss.
Despite the stunning surroundings, however, it's pretty hard to get outside to enjoy them. There's the difficulty of trying to co-ordinate six adults, one toddler and a dog, for starters, added to which it's just so damn comfortable to hang out in the well-lit living space reading the trashy magazines you're only allowed to devour on your holidays, or to bounce between the sauna and jacuzzi bath with an occasional siesta thrown in to balance the exertion of turning the bubbles on and off.
The house's magnetic properties are exactly why it's no harm to book some activity in advance which necessitates a mass exit, if only to galvanise the group into seeing a little more of what the county has to offer.
Such as a trip on a hovercraft. Just half an hour away - back up the stony path, infinitely more navigable in daylight - is an outdoor-pursuits park that offers all manner of distractions, including off-road buggies, clay pigeon laser shooting, and the aforementioned hovercrafts (see panel).
There's plenty more on offer in the environs of Cavan if that doesn't suit - horse-riding, golfing, bike trails and a huge range of water-based activities all take place within easy access from Trinity Island Lodge, though there's also a staggering collection of teddy bears on view at the nearby Bear Essentials (www.bearessentials.ie) if the whole water-and-nature thing isn't doing it for the childer.
Yet the truth is, for a weekend away with friends, there's little reason to really leave the island and its immediate, idyllic environs. There are even canoes and rowing boats (complete with engine if you're really against making any effort) on hand for guest use, with life jackets provided and a quick lesson from O'Dowd on how to start the engine and not fall in.
The canoes provide a particular pleasure. It's a moment of magic to hear the slip of oars against the water and float across the stillness as darkness descends and every sound is amplified in the eerie water acoustics. With a map of the area allowing for proper expeditions to a nearby castle or the town of Killeshandra, there's nothing between you and your inner Indiana Jones but a pair of oars and some elbow grease.
Speaking of which, if you really do fancy lighting out for some of the farther-flung destinations, such as Killashandra, it helps to have the option of an engine on board for a speedy, less exerting return. Rowing is not nearly as romantic on the way back.
If none of this provides enough outdoor entertainment, there are wood trails and walks around the lodge itself, the only other building in sight a ruined 13th-century abbey that only adds to the sense of isolation.
Should the weather get in the way - and in Cavan, like anywhere else in Ireland, it's highly likely - there's a flatscreen TV and a DVD library for home entertainment, with a wood-burning stove by the deep-cushioned sofas. An outhouse next door with a pool room is an optional bolt-hole for any splinter groups, though board games provided in the main house are generally enough to hone the competitive skills of the more combative among your cohort.
It's worth noting that all of this indulgence can take place with a clear carbon conscience, given that O'Dowd has gone a fair way to minimise Trinity Island Lodge's environmental impact. For one, it generates its own electricity from a wind turbine and solar panels on the outhouse. Recycling is encouraged, while the compost heap is a mere trip through the trees.
It's the kind of country life one could get used to, all this fresh air and in-house sauna business. And having enough space to seat six friends (and one two-year-old) around a dinner table, with beds for all just a shuffle away, is the kind of luxury that's impossible to come by given the size of our cramped living spaces in the big smoke.
Now that we are in a recession, it may be time to abandon dreams of your very own country home, and discover the myriad joys of renting somebody else's. So lose the London plans and bin Berlin: Cavan is the new Copenhagaen. You might as well discover it before everybody else does.
* Trinity Island Lodge, Killeshandra, Co Cavan, 049-4334314, www.trinityisland.com
* Fiona McCann was a guest of Fáilte Ireland
* For more information on the area, and a copy of a Co Cavan walks guide, with detailed maps of all the walks in the area, contact Cavan Tourism on 049-4331942 or visit www.cavantourism.com
Where to stay, eat and go
Where to stay
There are plenty of self-catering houses to rent in the Cavan area. For a comprehensive list of accommodation options, contact Cavan Tourism, 049-4331942, www.cavantourism.com.
Where to eat, drink
Pólo'd restaurant. Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, 049-9526228. Open Wednesday to Saturday. Pólo'd offers some of the finest fare in the area. Run by Tom ODowd's brother Paul, it offers an impressive set menu with quality cuisine at delightfully un-Dublin prices.
Maggie's Bar (049-4334407) and the Shamrock Inn (049-4334139), both in Killeshandra, keep local musical traditions alive with live music aplenty as well as impromptu sessions.
Where to go
Outdoors and Dirty (ODD). Brackley Lake, Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, 049-9523877 or 087-2971082, www.odd.ie. This aptly named extreme activity games park offers all manner of water-, land- and generally muck-based sporting activities and team games. Fancy a go on a hovercraft? An off-road buggy race? Outdoors and Dirty, a family-run affair, will oblige, with power-turn dragsters, conflict laser combat and clay pigeon laser shooting also on offer, complete with Top Gun-style suit and helmet. Activities start from €35 per person.
Bear Essentials Teddy Bear Gift Shop and Silver Bear Centre, Tirnawannagh, Bawnboy, Co Cavan, 049-9523461, www.bearessentials.ie. Hand-made mohair teddy bears and one of the largest collections of teddies you're likely to find in Ireland. Also hosts craft workshops and afternoon teas.