Why Carlingford is one of our best kept secrets

 

An official European Destination of Excellence, the Co Louth town has breathtaking scenery, a rich history and terrific pubs and restaurants, yet we often overlook it, writes a mystified Laurence Mackin

IT'S A SOFT Sunday morning, and we have hangovers the size of storm clouds. The previous day a weekend away in Carlingford had quickly unravelled into a full-blown session of singing songs and spouting nonsense, with only creamy pints of Guinness to guide us on the way.

In search of succour we return to the scene of the crime, in this case the beer garden of PJs bar and restaurant. Breakfast will take about 20 minutes to organise, and a short while later it arrives in all its shimmering glory, still salty from the sea - two dozen oysters, glinting in the morning sun, with fresh brown bread that melts like butter and a squeeze of lemon for the non-purists among us, accompanied by pints of stout.

A breakfast of champions, then, to take the edge off the day and start the whole glorious mess all over again.

This is the problem with Carlingford. You arrive with the best of intentions: the hiking boots and outdoor gear are ready to roll, the air off the lough has you sure you can show the Cooley Mountains who's boss and, at the end of it all, you promise yourself the reward of a cool pint or two by a fireside. But somehow it never works out that simply.

Carlingford is one of the northeast's best-kept secrets. Dundalk's outdated reputation has done a terrific job of scaring most people away from the Border counties, but get past the stereotype and you'll find terrific scenery, cracking pubs and restaurants that will have you appreciating the M1 in a whole new light.

Get there now, though: Carlingford and the Cooley Peninsula recently won a European Destination of Excellence award, and the crowds are sure to follow.

The area is suffused in stories and myth. Carlingford is the jewel in the crown of an ancient landscape that has been the stomping ground for Ireland's legendary heroes. Cúchulainn stalked the Cooley Peninsula and the Mourne Mountains, and the region was the background to the bloody epic of the Táin Bó Cúailnge; indeed, you can still pick out the bits of scenery that crop up in this 2,000-year-old tale.

There's hardly a large rock lonely for a story in these parts, and every one of them is true. There is the Long Woman's Grave, the Windy Gap and the mountains themselves - it was from here that Fionn Mac Cumhaill allegedly tossed out a lump of earth to create the Isle of Man, and here he still lies in the shape of Slieve Foy.

The village has lost none of its hunger for a good story. During the Troubles this area was rife with smugglers, wheelers and dealers, flitting from one side of the Border to the other, and the town retains something of the outlaw air - and is all the better for it.

When the foot-and-mouth disease devastated the region, in 2001, local artists constructed and painted wooden sheep that were scattered among the hills to replicate their natural look. There was also a scurrilous rumour that when the Department of Agriculture came to count the sheep, using figures gleaned from the EU's Cap statistics, there was something of a shortfall, and one flock was moved from farm to farm to make up the numbers.

But most people come here for the scenery. King John's Castle keeps a stern if somewhat crumbling watch over the dramatic deep water bay of Carlingford Lough. Across the bay is an allegedly foreign country, and if you rent a few kayaks from the adventure centre, and have the forearms of Fionn MacCumhaill, or more sensibly borrow a boat from the yacht club, you can make the trip across. Less legendary folk can take a ferry in the summer. Keeping the village safe from prying eyes, it seems, are the Cooley Mountains, where you can go on hikes from the challenging to the manageable with breathtaking views as a reward.

The ancient feel is only somewhat broken by the holiday homes on Carlingford's outer reaches, but the incongruous Four Seasons Hotel is difficult to ignore; its ghastly architecture looks as if it was inspired by a ferry that ran aground.

After you've had your fill of landscape and adventure, you can relax in one of the bars - although at weekends things tend to take a turn for the wilder side. The town is not free from the hen-party disease that seems endemic in Irish towns.

This is a minor complaint, though, in a thoroughly charming town - wreathed in myth and mist and hiding in the foothills of the Cooley Mountains - that the rest of the country seems to have forgotten to discover.

What to see, where to go and where to eat

Where to stay

Ghan House (042-9373682, www.ghanhouse.com) matches its mouthwatering meals with luxury accommodation in its elegant setting a few minutes' walk from the heart of the village. It has special packages from €105 per person sharing for one night's dinner and accommodation.

The Oystercatcher Lodge and Bistro (Market Square, 042-9373922, www.the oystercatcher.com) has large bedrooms decorated to four-star standard. There is the added allure of breakfast in bed or dinner in your room.

There are extensive guest-house and self-catering options at www.carlingford.ie and www.carlingford accommodation.com.

An example of a self-catering option is Wood Quay (on the harbour, 087-2053541), which has two houses, one for six people and one for two, with log fires and Agas giving a homely feel.

Then Hard Rock House is a four-bedroom bungalow set into the mountain with a jacuzzi, sun lounge and sea views (Mountain View, 042-9320854).

For those on a tighter budget, the new Foy Centre also offers quality hostel-style accommodation with a few private rooms and several dormitories. Carlingford Community Development, Foy Centre, Dundalk Street, 042-9383624, www.carlingfordbeds.com.

Where to eat

Carlingford has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to food.

At the top end of the scale is the elegant Ghan House (042-9373682, www.ghanhouse.com), an 18th-century Georgian home with a stunning restaurant, cookery school and luxury accommodation. Prices are from €95pps, with specials of one night and one dinner from €105pps.

At the heart of the village is PJ O'Hare's bar and restaurant (Tholsel Street, 042-9373106, www.pjoharescarlingford.com). Slurp oysters down with Guinness around the fireplace in the bar or take a seat in the cosy restaurant upstairs.

Across the street, Magee's Bistro (Tholsel Street, www.mageesbistro.com, 042-9373751) does a fine line in fresh seafood dishes and straightforward, quality cooking. It also offers accommodation (www.carlingford accommodation.com).

Slightly farther afield (essentially a short stumble), Carlingford Sailing Club is gaining a loyal following among locals thanks to its excellent restaurant. Non-members are more than welcome to tuck in, with none of the pretensions that often weigh such places down (042-9373238, www.dcsc.ie.) The club now has a full programme of classes and competitions for all levels.

The sailing club is not to be confused with Carlingford Marina, which also has its own bar and restaurant facilities, with terrific views from the dining room. It offers accommodation of a non-sea-going variety. North Commans, 042-9373073, www.carlingfordmarina.ie.

Back in the heart of the village, Taaffe's Castle bar (042-9373770) usually has some form of entertainment, be it live music, storytelling or simply the cracking atmosphere that usually follows when the pints are flowing freely. The locals say Henry Mac on Thursday night has yet to be upstaged.

Where to go

King John's Castle. This castle takes its name from King John, brother of Richard the Lionheart, though he never had cause to stay here for more than a few days. The Office of Public Works is conserving the area, and the main keep of the castle is locked to visitors on safety grounds, but it still gives probably the best views of the village and lough that don't involve hiking up a hill.

The village itself is built around medieval remains, including Taaffe's Castle, the Mint and the Tholsel, the ancient town gate at which traders had to pay tithes to get their goods to market. The ruins still have battlements, murder holes and slit windows for archers, giving the village much of its ancient atmosphere.

The Tain Trail is a 40km circular route that begins and ends in Carlingford and takes you on a spectacular route through the forest and grass tracks around Slieve Foy and Ravensdale. The trail is broken into several sections, so you don't need to be intimidated by the full circuit. You can hike up Slieve Foy for probably the best views of the landscape.

Adventure-racing fever is also starting to take hold in these parts, and mountain bikes are becoming a more common sight on the hills. It's all a bit unofficial at the moment, but many bikes are also taking advantage of the stunning Tain trail routes.

Carlingford Adventure Centre (Tholsel Street, 042-9373100, www.carlingford adventure.com) is the hub for all things sporty in the village. From here you can hire equipment for rock-climbing, abseiling, kayaking and wind-surfing. It organises group and individual classes, with plenty on offer for children, as well as a language school and cheerful accommodation, whether you're climbing up a rockface or propping up a bar. Check the website for planned activities.

For maps of the area and waymarked trails, and any other information, contact Cooley Peninsula Tourist Office in Carlingford (042-9373033, www.carlingford.ie).