The Loop Head peninsula in Co Clare has been named the "Best Place to Holiday in Ireland" in an Irish Times competition. The competition reflects the fact that Irish people have holidayed at home in large numbers in recent years. In 2011, 57 per cent of Irish holidays were taken domestically.
Visitors to Loop Head can take part in a range of water-based activities, including kayaking, paddle boarding and windsurfing. In 2010, the area won an Eden award, which recognises sustainable tourism in Europe, for its aquatic activities. Since then, a number of new tourism businesses, including walking and cycling companies, eco-camping, and driving tours have been established, and most are members of the Loop Head Tourism business network.
The gateway to the area is the seaside town of Kilkee, popular with generations of beachgoers from Limerick. The town’s handsome Victorian seafront, Blue flag beach, Pollock holes natural swimming pools, cliff walks and golf course compensate for some overdevelopment around Kilkee.
In addition to B&Bs and self-catering houses, visitors to Loop Head can stay in a range of characterful accommodation, such as the old lighthouse keeper’s cottage at the peninsula’s most westerly point, and the ecological campsite, Pure Camping.
“The motorway coming to Ennis four or five years ago made a big difference to Loop Head,” says Mary Redmond, who wrote the initial entry for the competition on irishtimes.com. “I think prior to that it was seen as inaccessible, but we’re trying to promote the place now. There’s a great community thing going on. A really good feeling.”
And if the tour buses now arrive as a result? “Well there’s a plan for that. We want to protect the peninsula itself, but Kilkee is built for mass tourism. Buses can stop there, and we’ll bring the visitors round the peninsula in small minibuses, driven by local guides. That way it remains a community initiative and visitors still get that authentic, unspoilt experience.”
The 1,400 entries to the competition indicated certain preferences among Irish holiday makers, notably a desire to holiday by the sea, to visit the west of Ireland, and to find value.
Eurostat figures show that home holidays tend to be shorter, three days on average versus nine for foreign holidays, and to result in less expenditure than trips abroad. In 2011, Irish tourists spent €1.3 billion on 6.2 million home holidays, and €5.1 billion on 4.7 million foreign ones.
Loop Head was the judges' unanimous choice. Tour guide Steve McPhilemy described it as a "new and radical" tourist destination, and Margaret Jeffares of the Good Food Ireland organisation said it was a beautiful destination, loved by Limerick and Clare people for generations, that deserved to be brought to a wider audience.
Rosita Boland, Irish Times journalist and a judge in the competition, said: "This competition was partly about finding lesser-known places, and also acknowledging what's being done in areas to make the best of what they have. Loop Head does that really well, has a diversely beautiful landscape, is remote, and has great tourism initiatives."
Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green Party and a judge in the competition, said: “For me this is bottom-up tourism. I had heard in the ether, about a buzz, an optimism around Loop Head tourism.
“I hadn’t been there before but was struck by how stunningly beautiful it is,” said Ryan. “The cliffs around Loop Head are as good as any in Ireland. I had a seaweed bath, had a lovely dinner, and I thought, No wonder the Victorians chose to come here all those years ago.
“I met four or five businesses that had set up in recent years. It’s small local businesses like this that can bring people back from Western Australia and other far-flung destinations. Tourism is one of the ways we can fight depopulation and emigration,” said Ryan. “Now I’m looking forward to a break there myself with my family, cycling out to the lighthouse, going dolphin-watching, and swimming the Pollock Holes.”