A weekend in County Mayo
Galway may be the popular choice of west coast destination but why not go rogue and out-hipster your friends by making Westport and County Mayo your Wild Atlantic stop off instead. County Mayo is perfect for burning the candle at both ends; hiking, climbing, surfing and cycling by day then pub crawling at night.
Westport is the main tourist town of Mayo and the perfect base to explore the county. The attractive streets of the town are packed with cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. Westport will charm the socks of you and will leave no doubt why this is a favourite destination of the Irish. Listen to traditional music in Matt Molloy's Pub, have a delightful meal in the Pantry and Corkscrew then stay in the night in any of the large number of hotels. During the day there's the pretty grounds and impressive main building of Westport House where a tour is good value and there's a quality adventure park for the kids.
There's also a little cluster of hotels and shops down in Clew Bay just outside Westport. The absolute pick of the bunch is The Tower whose lively beer garden offers up fantastic views across Clew Bay and onto the domineering mountain of Croagh Patrick. From here you can also snake between Clew Bay's many islands and view seal colonies with a boat trip. These excellent cruises only go once or twice a day though so plan ahead.
Achill Island is a perfect daytrip from Westport. Driving onto the island via the Achill Sound bridge (no ferries needed) it feels like entering a different, more sparsely populated world. The one main road is surrounded by a mix of rugged coastal scenery, hills and mountains whilst a smattering of white house stick out from the immense green of the fields and blues of the sea and sky. It feels a little bit like you've landed on the set of a detective programme filmed somewhere in remote Scandinavia. At the west end of the island, the terminus of a slightly terrifying cliff side drive is Keem Bay. Here there is, what feels like, a vertical but short climb up to a panoramic viewing point that takes in the surfers below in the bay, the vast Atlantic Ocean, and the mountains up the coast as far away as Sligo and Donegal. Well worth the short slog up barely definable paths.
For a rugged mountain hike look no further than Croagh Patrick. A perfect conical shaped summit holds the gaze from miles around and will draw you in like Sauron's Eye to Mordor. The functional, rocky walk can be a little bleak on the way up but the views from the top are the ultimate pay off. If you're lucky you might pass a few barefoot pilgrims - for this is known as St Patrick's Stack. The round trip takes around four hours from Murrisk.
Cyclists will enjoy the Great Western Green Way which stretches 42 kilometres from the Achill Islands to the town of Westport. There's bike hire and accommodation in Westport as well as the other pretty towns along the route, such as Newport and Mullaranny. One of many greenways to spurt in the country in recent years is not everyone's cup of tea as they are somewhat prescribed linear routes but the Mayo one is ideal for seeing a good deal of the best the county has to offer.
Should you be unlucky enough to visit County Mayo in apocalyptic weather that then there's the rainy day attraction of the National Museum of Country Life. One of Ireland's official national museums - the others being in Dublin - this modern museum is a throwback to an old way of living that was pretty widespread on the west coast until ridiculously recently. It's fairly interesting but for it to supplant County Mayo's beautiful scenery in one's plans it would have to be one hell of a rainy day.
No guide on County Mayo would be complete without at least touching on the religious elements within one of Ireland's religious heartlands. Knock Shrine - where Mary mother of God reportedly appeared to fifteen people in 1879 - acts as Ireland's Lourdes, Fatima or Catholic Disneyland and draws the pilgrims by the thousands each year. So much so that they built the fairly limited regional Knock airport (renamed Ireland West Airport to be more inclusive) in 1985. There's also Ballintubber Abbey - with the amazing moniker of The Abbey That Refused to Die due to the stubborn practice of rebuilding the abbey every time the commited Vikings and English would raid it.