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The chowder and the glory: Ireland by bike

Clifden, County Galway. Photo/Getty.

Fuelled by black pudding, stout and oysters, Bevan Rapson samples Ireland by bike.

I didn’t always have the full Irish breakfast (bacon, sausage, eggs, black pudding, beans, soda bread, etc) on our cycling trip to Ireland. One morning, I had Oysters Rockefeller: oysters in a velvety sauce topped with breadcrumbs, a dish named, due to its richness, for the wealthiest-ever American, John D. Rockefeller. This is not a dish at any risk of winning a “heart tick”, and even those prepared to overlook its artery-narrowing qualities might wonder if it would be better suited to later in the day, probably with a glass of something chilled to wash it down rather than a pot of tea.

But at our quayside hotel in Clifden, County Galway, in the far west of Ireland, with the sunlight glinting on the harbour across the road, the Oysters Rockefeller were offered for breakfast and, after a split second of consideration, I thought, “Why not?”

A breakfast dish from left-field suited the surroundings. Built nearly 200 years ago to house the Clifden harbourmaster, The Quay House is today a hotel, packed with collectables, period furniture and paintings, as if an entire series of Antique Roadshow has piled into one building. Climbing the stairs to our bedroom, past the lamp-bearing bronze cupid and antelope horns, we’d met the glass-eyed gaze of a tiger whose head and skin adorned the stairwell wall. “He was a killer,” murmured our host, Paddy, possibly mindful of sensitivities the feline artefact might stir. In such surroundings, and after my first night in an antique four-poster, who was I to baulk at something a little different for breakfast?

With my order taken, I had a moment of misgiving: the traditional full Irish had served me so well. I would particularly miss the black pudding. But when the oysters arrived, any doubts were forgotten. Oysters Rockefeller, I can attest, make an excellent breakfast. Leaving the table, stuffed with oysters and awash with tea, I doubted I’d ever be hungry again. But then the kilometres ticked by, lunchtime rolled around and my thoughts inexorably turned to chowder.

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A road along the coast, near Clifden.
You might imagine from the above that cycling, for me, is mainly about the mealtimes. That would be an exaggeration, but certainly one of the advantages of spending a few hours on a bike each day is that energy stores must be regularly replenished. It’s a health and safety issue.

No, I’m not out to break any cycling records, and I’m definitely not a Mamil (middle-aged man in Lycra). Jenny and I aren’t Finos (fifty-somethings in orange), either, notwithstanding the obvious safety benefits and stylishness of high-viz.

But we do like holidaying on a bike. The Otago Central Rail Trail gets some credit for that. Since doing the Otago trail a few years ago, we’ve tackled quite a few of the routes on the national network: Northland’s Twin Coast Trail from Ōpua to the Hokianga; the Hauraki Rail Trail through the Karangahake Gorge and back and down to Te Aroha; the Timber Trail in the central North Island; and Tasman’s Great Taste Trail from Nelson to Motueka. Along with the scenery and access to hidden corners of countryside, we’ve encountered everything from unseasonable snow on Mt Pureora to a track closure by disgruntled tangata whenua in Northland and what – through clouds of midges – looked awfully like “dirty dairy” on the Hauraki Plains. We’ve found that, along with the exercise, cycling gets you up close to a place in a way you’ll never experience from behind a car window.

Which is why, on a visit to Ireland, we wanted to go cycling. This happily led me to Oysters Rockefeller for breakfast in Clifden and, on that same morning took us to the “Sky Road” overlooking Clifden Bay and the offshore islands of Inishturk and Turbot, where we had to keep stopping to take in the coastal views appearing around every corner, each vista surpassing the last.

Pouring a traditional refreshment in a Dublin pub.
In Dublin, a few days earlier, where our accommodation was close enough to the Guinness brewery that the air at our window smelled like malt, our city bike tour of notable sights had the added benefit of extricating us from the high-summer crush of tourists on the pavement.

Riding single-file behind our guide Evan, we breezily criss-crossed the inner city, though heeding his warning about the danger to cyclists posed by the tracks for the Luas light-rail system, which he claimed is known by some Dubliners as “the Daniel Day” and others as “the Jerry Lee”.

Early stops on our route included historic locations such as the General Post Office, headquarters for the Easter Rising of 1916, where bullet holes are still to be found in the masonry, and Dublin Castle, long the seat of British rule over Ireland. In the cultural quarter of Temple Bar, we paused at the Clarence Hotel, owned by U2’s Bono and The Edge, just long enough for Evan to touch on the mixed feelings provoked by the wealthy musicians’ shifting of their tax affairs to the Netherlands.

Between bursts of cycling, Evan’s patter skipped entertainingly across the centuries. Literary Dublin was one focus, our route taking in landmarks such as St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift is buried (and Handel’s Messiah was first performed, in 1742); the house in Portobello where George Bernard Shaw was born; and Merrion Square, where a statue of Oscar Wilde reclines languidly across the road from his childhood home.

The Wilde statue was commissioned by Guinness, as it happens, so it was only right that our ride was broken at a canal-side pub. An expat Irish friend once claimed his first glass of Guinness on his visits home was always dispatched in one draught. For this, my first sampling of the famous stout in its native surroundings, I had a cyclist’s thirst but restrained myself sufficiently to leave at least a couple of rings of foam on the glass.

And while a second glass might have been tempting, we had a few more kilometres to cover yet, including a visit to the symbolic heart of modern Dublin, nicknamed Silicon Docks, home of the European headquarters for Google and Facebook, among others. Here, while high-spirited children did bombs off the wharf, Evan was drawn again to touch wryly on taxation issues – in this case on the low corporate tax rate that encouraged the high-tech giants to make Ireland their home. Facebook, he pointed out, opens onto the thoroughfare of Misery Hill, a name believed to relate to the lepers who once congregated in the vicinity.

A way with irony seems a common Irish trait, and Evan, who mixes bike-tour guiding with work on behalf of the city’s homeless, employed it with a gentle touch. A degree of disillusionment with the ways of the corporate world is probably understandable in a country known at the turn of the century as the “Celtic Tiger”, but which suffered a severe economic downturn in the global financial crisis.

Though the ups and downs might have lent modern Dublin a slightly scruffier air than more prosperous capitals, and much of its recent architecture pales beside the Georgian magnificence of its heritage buildings and neighbourhoods, a bike tour – and Evan’s wry commentary – showcased perfectly the Fair City’s enduring charm.

Moyrus Beach, Connemara, where the water was perfect for swimming.
And so to the west, Connemara, and among many other things, a tale of two beaches:

On the balmy afternoon before our first day of riding on the Wild Atlantic Way, we took a preliminary spin along narrow country roads from our Carna hotel to Moyrus Beach. There, sprawled on white sand, it felt like Northland rather than Ireland. The effect was doubled when we lowered ourselves tentatively into the water, teeth gritted, and found the temperature entirely pleasant. Compared to some South Island beaches (did somebody say New Brighton?), it was downright tropical.

A couple of days later and just 50km or so north as the crow flies, our route took us close enough to Glassillaun bay, looking out onto the remote mouth of Killary Harbour, a fjord dividing the counties of Galway and Mayo. With the mid-afternoon sun beating down, we made our way through dunes to the beach, to be met by a friendly collie. A sprinkling of sun seekers were splayed out in their deckchairs, though – and this should have been a warning – not one showed any sign of having been swimming. Gaily, the new arrivals dashed down to plunge into the ocean, whereupon a life-preserving reflex took hold, springing us almost instantly back onto the sand. Through chattering teeth and purple lips, we confirmed to each other that the waters of Glassillaun Bay were colder than any we’d ever swum in. Anywhere. Apparently, they arrive from deep, frigid Atlantic currents, unlike those we’d encountered in the sheltered shallows of Moyrus. On the bright side, we might have just set a record for the world’s shortest swim, though none of the deckchair occupants seemed to have noticed our feat. Only the welcoming party wagged his tail appreciatively.

 The cycling was much more consistently enjoyable. Over three days of about 50km a day, most of the ride was along quiet roads lined with wildflowers, often with only the mountains, panoramic seascapes and hum of our own tyres for company. When any traffic was encountered, the drivers were unfailingly polite, waiting patiently for a good spot to overtake and giving a wave as they passed. Unlike in New Zealand, they waved with all their fingers.

We rode independently, setting our own schedule and pace, though once or twice a day an athletic, Lycra-clad figure would cruise up beside us on his racing bike, share a couple of laconic observations, then power off into the distance to touch base with other touring parties in the general vicinity. This was Michael, confirmed “Mamil” and affable tour operator, enjoying his own spin for fun while keeping an eye on the punters.

The route he’d devised took us on the first day from Carna to Clifden via quiet coast roads and the quaint village of Roundstone; day two offered the Sky Road, a visit to the Connemara National Park at Letterfrack then a coastal and lough-side cycle through to Leenaun, on the banks of the upper Killary; our final day carried us inland, and over a pass before descending to Clew Bay and our route’s end.

On some stretches, we saw stacks of freshly cut peat, and at the national park visitor’s centre took in an exhibition on the stuff. A map indicated in orange the areas of remaining “blanket bog” around the world and my eyes naturally flicked to the bottom right corner, where our own South Island bore a healthy splash of pigment, provoking a throb of bog-related national pride.

Another thing Ireland and New Zealand have in common is sheep, although we discovered some Irish farmers, in these parts at least, lavishly mark their stock with stripes of red or blue paint – sometimes both – in a way we’ve never seen at home. Or was a frustrated local graffiti artist tagging animals in the absence of railway carriages? The sheep bear it stoically, either way.

The view of Clew Bay and its islands from the top of Croagh Patrick, a two-hour hike.
But did I mention the chowder? The Connemara version, crammed with local seafood, is just the lunch for a cyclist whose Full Irish – or Oysters Rockefeller – at breakfast seems like a distant memory. One night, I couldn’t say no to chowder as a starter at dinner, too, but came perilously close to having to skip pudding. Didn’t risk it again.

The dinners were up there with the breakfasts and lunches, with seafood often hard to resist. We ate cod and bass, turbot and hake, oysters and great steaming bowls of blue-black mussels, tiny by New Zealand standards, but lip-smackingly sweet and flavoursome. And, yes, the odd pint of Guinness provided the ideal pre-dinner aperitif – and once, in a crammed Clifden bar, the appropriate accompaniment to a raucous session of traditional Irish music that went on long into the night.

The other beverage worth another mention is tea, which in Ireland is reliably hot and strong and served in generous potfuls, so that a couple of thirsty cyclists can return for seconds and thirds to wash down their lunchtime sandwiches and chowder or, after another couple of hours in the saddle, the scones and jam at afternoon tea.

The gigantic calorific intake was justified, honestly, especially on our last day in the west, when our route took us along the shore of moody Doo Lough and over the pass that provided the one slightly grunty climb of our trip.

We descended to Louisburgh on Clew Bay for one last, lunchtime bowl of chowder, before spinning along the bay, to the pretty Georgian town of Westport, resisting a side trip up Croagh Patrick – (Saint) Patrick’s Stack – a mountain climbed by thousands of pilgrims every year on the last Sunday in July. Ireland’s patron saint is said to have fasted and prayed on the summit for 40 days in the year 441. Good on him, though to be fair he didn’t have the modern Irish hospitality industry providing so much in the way of alternative consolations.

A free-ranging Irish sheep, dyed to indicate ownership.
Along with the painted sheep, county flags provide an occasional splash of colour against the west-coast landscape’s predominant greens and blues. Maroon and white in Galway, green and red in Mayo, they reflect a passionate parochialism that comes to the fore in the hurling and Gaelic football seasons.

In the north, though, flag-flying goes to another level entirely. We rounded off our trip with a visit to Belfast that coincided with “the marching season”, when loyalist neighbourhoods are festooned with Union and Ulster flags and bunting. Our Belfast bike tour began a stone’s throw – an unfortunately apt measurement – from the Shankill Rd, a thoroughfare associated with loyalist paramilitarism during the Troubles, and took us past the scorched site of one of the huge bonfires that had burned a couple of nights previously to celebrate victory in the Battle of Boyne in 1690.

History looms large here, obviously, and the tour takes in such landmarks as the historic law courts building, which remains protected behind high security walls, and the Europa Hotel, known as “the most-bombed hotel in Europe”, having suffered 36 attacks.

But the Europa, our guide Gary noted, is also where President Bill Clinton and his entourage stayed while promoting the peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Thanks to that deal, signed 20 years ago, Belfast can today be appreciated for much more than the landmarks of its troubled past.

A cloudless high-summer day didn’t hurt as we set off on fat-tyre cruiser bikes that softened the ride over the odd stretch of cobbles, past Belfast’s several “oldest” pubs. The grandest buildings here are Victorian and Edwardian, reflecting a different age of prosperity compared to Georgian Dublin’s.

Our tour took in such splendid 19th-century gems as Queen’s University and the Botanic Gardens, but first we headed down to the River Lagan that flows through the city to Belfast Lough on the Irish Sea. Here, the expedition’s happy-go-lucky vibe was confirmed as Gary got Belfast’s own Van Morrison blasting through the speaker on the back of his bike. The anthemic whoops and yells of “Caravan” accompanied us across the pedestrian bridge and along the banks of this once-horrendously polluted waterway, recently cleaned up in one of many projects around Belfast funded from Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that largesse – and the vexed border issues posed by Brexit – Northern Ireland voted against the UK’s chaotic split from the European Union.

We rode on to the waterfront precinct that through shipbuilding produced much of Belfast’s original prosperity. Here, on the site of the famous Harland & Wolff shipyard, the Titanic Experience attracts streams of visitors, keen to learn about the city’s maritime heritage and in particular about the ill-fated liner and its sister vessels that were built here. Harland and Wolff built a lot of ships that didn’t sink, but thanks to popular culture, the famous failure is what sells tickets.

Our party cycled on, to the end of the surprisingly narrow slipway where the Titanic was launched on 31 May 1911. Here, with our heads full of stories of the golden age of trans-Atlantic passenger ships, we looked up to see a blue sky scored by vapour trails, tracing the paths of aircraft that now ferry multitudes every day between Europe and America.

Soon enough, an airliner would carry us back to the other side of the world, but happily we still had a few Irish kilometres to ride, more sights to see – and another lunchtime couldn’t be far away.

Fact file

Ride Wild offers cycling tours and packages on the Wild Atlantic Way and beyond, to suit cyclists of all abilities.

Dublin City Bike Tours charge €27 ($45) for a two- to three-hour tour, leaving from Isaacs Hostel in Frenchman’s Lane, near Dublin’s central bus station.

Belfast City Bike Tours charge £25 for their three-hour tour, which starts at Norm’s Bikes, Smithfield Marketplace, Winetavern St, Belfast.           

Bevan Rapson’s cycling in Ireland was hosted by Tourism Ireland and Ride Wild.