east to west

The day starts soft, and I dodge the showers getting everything out to the car. My belongings seem to have expanded far beyond a single backpack: a shopping bag full of Irish teabags and birthday presents, a holdall with my footwear. The worry of shrinking back to one piece of luggage is a few days away yet, so I kiss my brother and sister-in-law and drive away – auspiciously, in the wrong direction.
Back on track with the satnav, I follow turf trucks, tractors and crazy tradesmen through the country roads of west Kildare towards the heart of the Bog of Allen. Bungalows gleam in the sunshine; gardens and hedgerows are ablaze with colours as the late summer brings out red fuchsia, orange montbretia, purple redshank and mauve hydrangea.


I drive along, close to Kildare’s border with Offaly, passing brown barns and raised bogs and nature reserves and hayfields and canals. 


I stop at Rathangan as the Angelus rings out. The Spencer Bridge at Lock 23 dates from 1784; sadly the lock here is no longer in use because of a nearby culvert collapse, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. I sit and take in the silence for a few minutes before driving on.

Past a busy Monasterevin, I hit the M7 and return to the twenty-first century. I speed past towns and villages whose names used to be milestones on my regular journeys between Dublin and Cork back in the late eighties: Urlingford, where I always stopped at Kavanagh’s petrol station for the best scones in the midlands; Twomileborris and Horse and Jockey; Mitchelstown, where the creamery was, and Fermoy where you knew you were firmly back in Cork. 

At Watergrasshill I get a fit of the nostalgics and come off the motorway early to find the cottage in Glanmire where I lived happily for two years. Up a winding country road in Eastcliff, here it is: Woodbrook, with the steepest driveway in the world, sitting alongside DJ Rockin’ Gerry’s house on the cliffs above the Glashaboy River.


Heading into Cork I get stuck in the wrong lane and end up circumnavigating the famous Bells of Shandon before escaping the city. Motorway soon turns into main road, then into country road as I turn left at Crookstown. I stop to top up my water bottle and find myself at a road sign pointing me to the “Ambush Site”. I’m in Béal na Bláth, where Irish patriot Michael Collins was shot dead in an ambush on 22 August 1922. I detour up a boreen and pay my respects at a high Celtic cross on the spot where he fell. A fitting thing to do on the centenary of the 1916 rebellion.

Béal na Bláth, Co. Cork

Over the Cousane Gap, the scenery gets more and more spectacular. I catch a glimpse of water and a blue “Wild Atlantic Way” signpost, and I know I am almost there. I check into my B&B and stroll downtown to the centre of Bantry town. The weekly market is just finished and Wolfe Tone Square is awash with Hiace vans, packing cases and half-deconstructed awnings. 


Down past the railway cottages at the pier, a Lottery-funded footpath provides spectacular views across Bantry Bay to Whiddy Island. The tide is almost out and the smell of the seaweed brings me back to childhoods in Galway. There’s heat in the evening sun, and I stop to peel off a few layers before turning back.

Bantry Bay
Later, in O’Connor’s restaurant, I feast on seafood chowder and a huge lump of monkfish, all local produce. The place doesn’t seem that busy but as I finish up round nine in the evening, quite a few people start steaming in. I’m tempted to find a friendly bar with some live music but the long drive has finished me off. 
locally caught roasted monkfish and Asian noodles in O’Connor’s of Bantry

Even though it’s close to ten at night it’s still broad daylight as I tuck myself up in my little single bed with a glass of red and a handful of Oatfield Emeralds to watch the best of the Late Late Show.

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take the long way home

It’s easy, when you live very far from places you love, to go back and see them through the same lens again and again. So it has been recently with Galway and Connemara. The Cois Fharraige road out of Galway towards Spiddal and beyond holds so many memories for us that it has become our default entry and exit route from the rest of the region.

Today, we start our slow journey home from the west coast, taking a road less travelled for us. Heading back from Leenane towards Clifden, we take a narrow left turn just before Kylemore Lough, towards Lough Inagh and Recess. This is the Inagh Valley or Glen Inagh, a wide sweep of staggering beauty nestled between the Maamturk Mountains to the west and the Twelve Bens to the east.

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The Wild Atlantic Way signposts do not direct tourists this way, and we encounter only a few other souls on the ten-mile stretch. The weather is blisteringly hot and unusually calm for a late summer’s day in the west: as we move further from the coast we watch the car’s temperature gauge rise from 20C to 26C.

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Neither of these mountain ranges are high. The highest point in the Maamturks barely scrapes above 700 metres, whilst Benbaun in the Twelve Bens reaches 729 metres. By contrast, the highest mountain in Ireland, Carrauntoohil in County Kerry, reaches 1,038 metres. But the wide sweep of the valley, the dappled sunshine, the vivid greens making way for silver-grey quartzite rock, make this one of the most beautiful vistas in Ireland.

Lough Inagh itself is a great fishing spot along with nearby Derryclare Lough. Fishing enthusiasts come from all over the world to fish these waters for spring salmon, grilse, sea trout and large indigenous brown trout. We stop at the gates of Lough Inagh Lodge and take in the view.

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Turning left and eastwards at Recess, we drive to Maam Cross then north to the little town of Maam. We’re in different country already. The higher mountains have given way to lower hills and a little more vegetation. The short road from Maam Cross to Maam is again spectacular, and we pull over to the side of the road more than once just to take it in.

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Down in the village of Maam, we are surrounded at all sides by the Maamturk Mountains. Keane’s pub has a blackboard outside offering soup and sandwiches. It seems the right place to stop for a pot of tea. Mum finds us a seat outside and I navigate the dark interior to place our order. “What sandwiches do you have?” I ask. “Well,” says my man, “we have ham, and cheese, and tomato, or any combination of the three.” Right so. Two pots of tea, two ham and cheese toasted sandwiches, two packets of Tayto. We’re all set.

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Last time Mum was here she said she thought this was what heaven looks like. Sitting in the summer sunshine with the beauty of Connemara all around, I’m inclined to agree.

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An Englishman sits beside us with his little blind dog called Shaddy and a half-finished pint of Guinness. He points to a white bungalow with a black tiled roof a couple of miles away. “That’s our house. My wife comes from round here, and we spend a couple of months here every summer.” God’s own country, indeed.

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Refreshed and ready for the off, we have another choice to make. Back to our “normally, usually” route, or find another road home? The Englishman recommends a route around the eastern shore of Lough Corrib, the westernmost edge of which is just down the road. I have not travelled that road for decades.

We set off in the evening sunshine and almost immediately come across a sequence of beautiful views across Lough Corrib, each one offering up a little more of the second biggest lake in Ireland.

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We stop briefly in Cornamona and wish we had packed some food to take advantage of a lovely little picnic ground right on the shores of the lake.

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A little further away from the lake shore, the picturesque village of Cong is decked out with more street flowers than seem possible. We don’t have time to stop and enjoy the waterways connecting Lough Corrib to nearby Lough Mask, or the riverside pubs and footpaths: the shadows are lengthening and we are a long way from Dublin. Nonetheless we can’t help ourselves one more detour towards the similarly pretty village of Clonbur and onwards to the Mayo border. We sit on the shores of Lough Mask, wishing we had one or two more days to explore this beautiful region.

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The road from Cong through Headford to Galway city takes us a little further from the shores of the Corrib, but we catch glimpses of the dark water in the evening sun. Our next trip to Galway will likely include a few days in this neck of the woods, still technically Connemara but a gentler landscape somehow.

Now and again it’s good to take the road less travelled, to remind yourself what else of beauty is right around the next corner.

Supertramp: Take The Long Way Home

wild atlantic way – the killary

Day three of our Wild Atlantic Way road trip brings us north to Leenane, on a sunny morning promising to turn into a late summer scorcher.
We check in at Killary Fjord Boat Tours for a ninety minute cruise. The twin-hulled Connemara Lady carries 150 passengers and promises a stable ride: no seasickness or your money back. We are welcomed on board by a local crew member whose smile and easy manner seem to indicate how happy he is in his work.
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We’re still not convinced by the sunshine: this is Ireland after all, and a cruise to the mouth of a west-facing fjord still promises to be pretty chilly. I’d convinced myself to wear shorts that morning and now I feel a little exposed. We steel ourselves and choose an outside spot nonetheless.
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The Connemara Lady departs on time. The scenery is outstanding, made all the more beautiful by the sunshine which continues unabated.
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The recorded commentary points our gaze to the aquaculture in the fjord – mussel and salmon farming for the most part – and also to the signs of pre-famine life along the banks of the river.
IMG_0187We see clear signs of “lazy beds” on the nearby slopes, the grassed-over ridges and furrows of failed potato crops that were never harvested. Nearby, ruined villages stand as monuments to families who died, emigrants who never returned, communities that were decimated by the potato blight.
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Even with echoes of this sorrowful time all around us, the green and blue backcloth all around us is just spectacular and made even more so by the strengthening sunshine. Passengers quietly remove sweaters and rain jackets or move into the shade. We turn our faces to the sun and know that somebody above is looking out for us. Today is the perfect day to take this journey.
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At the mouth of the fjord, at Fox Island, the Connemara Lady turns around and heads eastwards towards Leenane. I can see a group of people walking an old ruined road on the south edge of the fjord, something I file away for another trip, another late summer morning. The greens and blues of the landscape become even deeper as we watch the world go by from our vantage point.
IMG_0195Who could have imagined such stunning weather after the terrible summer Ireland has just experienced? I close my eyes and tilt my face to the sun, breathing in the clean Atlantic air. This is why Connemara is my favourite place on earth.
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lowe alpine AT voyager ND65+15 – review

now updated to include review after first use

After weeks of research and surfing the net, I set my sights on the Lowe Alpine AT Voyager ND65 + 15 travel pack. An hour at the local Bogong comparing it to the Lowe Alpine Travel Trekker (weird upside-down opening) and the Deuter Traveller 70 + 10 (lovely but far too big) confirmed my choice. Continue reading

walking on very long beaches

I‘ve always loved walking. For twenty years or more it’s been my main source of exercise, and never more so since I moved to Australia. For me, an hour’s brisk walk (and I walk at six or seven kilometres per hour) clears my mind, resets my brain, opens up possibilities, recalibrates my spine and offers me precious alone time.

On a good day, when I turn back at the park and head east on Altona Esplanade, I feel so uplifted I could lift my arms and fly back to the car.

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But it’s taken me twenty years to realise that there is one sort of walk that I adore above all others. I unconsciously seek it out when planning a trip. No other walk every measures up. After two decades of diligent practice I can now say that my favourite pastime is Walking On Very Long Beaches.

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I didn’t grow up very close to the coast. It took half an hour by car or bus to get to Sandymount or Costelloe’s beach in Dublin. But all of my family fare better when close to the sea, and most of us now live minutes (or even seconds) from the water’s edge.

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I think the turning point for me, though, was ten years spent living in the midlands of England. The closest beach to Leicester was Skegness, and one autumn Sunday I couldn’t take it anymore. I pointed my car east and drove a full three hours non-stop to the coast. When I got there, on a chilly, murky spring afternoon, the tide was out. In Skegness the tide goes out about half a mile, so I had managed to reach the seaside without arriving beside the sea. Defeated, I turned around and drove the three hours back, without getting out of my car.

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Fast forward a decade or so to India, when I spent many happy months living in the village of Candolim just yards from a six mile long beach. Each morning I walked south to Sinquerim and the old fort, uplifted by the occasional sight of a dolphin just a few feet away in the surf, feeling like I had the whole beach to myself. Afternoons saw me strolling north towards Calangute, where the only concern I had was how far I would walk before jumping into the water to cool down. That beach gave me my sanity back.

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These days I live about a ten minute drive from a nice suburban beach with a lovely boardwalk and a park at either end. Winter and summer, it’s my favourite place to walk: not too busy, just the right length. If I want a change, I can walk at least an hour from Port Melbourne to Elwood before I run out of footpath and have to turn around. And if I tire of bay beaches and need to hear the crash of real waves, the grand sweep of Ocean Grove on the surf coast is only an hour’s drive away.

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My ideal beach length is “longer than the time I have to walk it”. In other words, I prefer to run out of time than to run out of beach.

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These days, the quantifiable self tells us that we should walk 10,000 steps a day, so I like a good 8-9km round trip walk so I can get my daily quota out of the way whilst staring at waves and getting my ankles wet.

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Every trip I take, I search for a location with a Very Long Beach. Tasmania, Ireland, Vietnam, Queensland, USA, the Caribbean: my travels have taken me to, or taken me back to, some of the most wonderful VLBs in the world.

Where are your favourite VLBs?

laos food odyssey

>Ten days in Laos: a chance to experience a new cuisine, try some new dishes and savour some street food.

I knew little if anything about Laos or its food traditions before we arrived in Vientiane. Immediately the French influence was apparent: fresh baguettes sold in the street, and handful of nice-looking patisseries and decent wine readily available at a decent price. The Scandinavian bakery was doing good business in its own shop and supplying many eateries around town, including our own hotel, with fresh breakfast croissants and more.

But what is a typical Lao dish? The very first thing we tried was laap (also spelt larp), a commonly-served warm salad dish using whatever minced meat you prefer – chicken, pork or beef. Apparently it is also served raw like ceviche but we didn’t see that offered anywhere. The meat is seasoned, cooked then tossed with raw vegetables, usually including mint, morning glory (a river weed cooked as we would use spinach, asparagus or broccoli), bean shoots and spring onion, and served on a bed of lettuce or cabbage leaves. Eaten with sticky or steamed rice it goes down a treat.


My Western-style breakfast in our Vientiane hotel included the tastiest, freshest eggs I have had for a while, plus some locally-gathered wild mushrooms which were meatier and tastier than any mass-produced white mushrooms we eat at home. Divine. Eggs loomed large most mornings, and we were fortunate enough to have our breakfast/brunch along the riverside for almost every day of our stay in Laos, no matter what the town.

A trip to a local waterfall saw us snacking on Lao pork buns, which were suspiciously like Chinese pork buns except the pork filling was augmented by pieces of hard-boiled egg. Much better!


On our road trip to Luang Prabang, our bus ticket included lunch at a basic roadhouse halfway through a ten-hour journey. The food was ready for us as we disembarked: a beef dish and a pork dish, simply seasoned and cooked, and a couple of vegetable dishes, all served with either steamed rice or on top of freshly-cooked noodle soup. Three days into our journey it was just like home cooking and we devoured it. I’m a sucker for something simple with rice.


Luang Prabang is a World Heritage site, and there is no shortage of boutique hotels, cute wine bars and pleasant restaurants. We dined one evening at Tum Tum Cheng, famous for its head chef’s homage to dishes prepared for the Royal household, and its cooking school. The deep fried spring rolls were to die for (this became a popular starter for us in Laos and they never disappointed), but the main courses were a little disappointing. My Luang Prabang stew was tasty enough but bland, and Orlando’s spicy pork was not so spicy. We resorted to our emergency stash of chilli sauce sachets kept in my handbag for just such an event.

At 150,000 Lao kip (approx. $19) including my 200ml carafe of wine, Tum Tum Cheng was probably one of the most expensive meals of the holiday but in terms of taste and price it was totally eclipsed by the exceptional dinner we had the next night at a little family-run roadside eatery with three tables. Orlando’s “fried pork with chilli and less” (sic) and my “fried mini local noodles with pork” were accompanied by a handful of the tiniest, hottest chillies we’ve ever encountered and cost 40,000 kip (less than $5) for two. Delicious, honest home-cooking again – can’t beat it. We loved it so much we went back next day for lunch.

Luang Prabang’s night market was pretty good value for money in terms of eating out. One small laneway was transformed in the evening into a typical Asian food market, with noodle soup, Luang Prabang spicy sausage, barbecued fish, chicken and pork, fresh fruit and more all available for pennies. Totally tourist-oriented unlike most of the other night markets we ate at, the food was nonetheless hearty and nicely presented on a banana leaf.

There were two types of local sausage in Luang Prabang. One looked a little like a black pudding although the inside was much more finely chopped. We tried this one twice, one at a family stall down a back street one afternoon, and once more as a packed lunch on our two-day boat trip up the Mekong (matched with a few triangles of The Laughing Cow longlife cheese: marvellous).
The first sausage was much more herby than spicy, but the second was like a good Italian sausage with just the right amount of chilli kick mixed in. The second type of local sausage was longer and thinner, stuffed with excellent lean pork and again well seasoned. We loved both.

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our boat picnic of Laughing Cow and sausage
(OK I added lime and chilli crisps too!)
Northwards by boat into the country and smaller villages, we broke our two-day trip up the Mekong in the small village of Pak Beng which is well-placed to cater for travellers thanks to the Lonely Planet. The main (only) street is lined with guesthouses, eateries and a couple of bars. We chose the one with the sign that made us laugh the most: “Lovely Jubbly” restaurant which proudly announced that “My wife is a very good cook”. And she was. We both chose the pork laap which was fresh, perfectly seasoned and most welcome after a long and tiring day lying back on our boat watching the Mekong and its villages float by.

This was our last official meal in Laos too, although we didn’t know it at the time. Next morning we breakfasted on freshly-made minced chicken, egg and salad baguettes made at our guesthouse before embarking for our second day of river travel, and by nightfall we were over the border in Thailand and dining on home-made noodles courtesy of Dan, the campest guest-house host in town.