Bike trails become tourism gem for Ireland

Being the first to discover a new route or experience while bicycle touring is superb, and this was our chance.

Cyclists enjoy the just-opened National Cycle Network trail west of Mallaranny

Cyclists enjoy the just-opened National Cycle Network trail west of Mallaranny

ACHILL ISLAND, Ireland — Being the first to discover a new route or experience while bicycle touring is superb, and this was our chance.

“The trail opened just last week,” said Seosamh O’Dalaigh, as we snacked on coffee and scones at his gallery and art school in Dooega, on the road to Achill Island, Ireland.

“It runs from Mallaranny to Newport, and it’s paved all the way.”

It was unexpected bonuses like this that my wife and I had hoped for when we chose to tour Achill Island, County Mayo.

This large (19-by-22 kilometre), lonely island, anchored to the Corraum Peninsula by the striking new Achill Sound Bridge, rated just one sentence in Fodor’s “Ireland 2006” guidebook. To us, that implied safe and enjoyable cycle touring, well off the beaten tourist path.

Cycling west from Mallaranny, a forest-canopied road opens to the immense vista of Blacksod Bay, a multi-fingered blue carpet encircled by the beaches and bogs of Corraum and the rugged Nephin Beg range.

Roadside stone fences are enveloped in immense displays of golden-yellow Irish gorse and monstrous mounds of purple rhododendrons. Instant guilt consumes me, thinking of the straggly rhododendrons struggling to survive in my manicured back yard.

Achill Island rewards those willing to explore its northwestern reaches with its grandest mountains, Croaghaun (668 metres) and Slievemore (672 metres), most rugged cliffs, and spectacular blue flag beaches (Keem and Keel).

As we cycled toward Keel, the sky darkened, the wind howled, and the Irish mist we’d been sampling became a main course Irish downpour. For the record, this was the only rain we rode in during the two weeks.

A peek out our hotel window the next morning revealed a flag of Ireland struggling furiously not to be ripped from its halyard. A ewe, oblivious to the gale, nonchalantly guided her two black-faced lambs along the sidewalk.

Keel Bay was seething and, across it, the ominous Minaun Cliffs were barely visible through the fog and mist. Two hours later, sunshine appeared, the mist lifted, and we had our first glimpse of the wild beauty of Achill.

We headed for a walk along the three kilometres of beautiful and broad Keel Beach, where what appeared to be about two dozen dark grey seals and/or porpoises frolicked in the crashing waves. As we approached, they transformed into wet-suited teenagers, learning to surf the rollers still cresting from the previous night’s storm.

A short pedal west, not an inch of it flat, brought us to Keem Strand, a beach tucked into a tiny bay sheltered by Moyteoge Head, and as pristine as any in the Caribbean.

Continuing to the cliffs of Moyteoge Head, Achill Head, and Saddle Head requires serious hiking from here.

Cycling northeast from Keel, western Ireland’s tragic history can’t be avoided. More than 80 abandoned stone cottages and “booley” homes (used by those who watched over grazing cattle and sheep during summer) stretch along a gravel track clinging to Slievemore Mountain.

Famine and terrible economic hardship forced family relocation decades ago. Expansive peat bog valleys, mesmerizing in their beautiful harshness, lead to the beaches of Blacksod Bay at Dugort, where life is easier today.

Southeast is the Atlantic Drive, a cliff-clinging 19 kilometre route that must be experienced on a bicycle. To call this one and a half car wide snake of rough tar and chip, that seems sprayed haphazardly on massive boulders and rock-strewn peat marshes without the bother of grading or levelling, a road, is beyond poetic licence.

For maximum dramatic effect, cycle clockwise in the morning and early afternoon. Each kilometre climbs higher, each cliff is more sheer, and the sun adds life to rock faces mimicking wrinkled elephant skin.

During the three hours spent between Cloughmore and Ashleam Bay, we met just four cars. Antarctica has more tourist traffic.

Four glorious days later, convinced we would return to spend a month, we cycled back to the mainland and our opportunity to be among the first to experience the new National Cycle Network trail.

The trail follows a gentle railway grade, 100 metres above magnificent Clew Bay and its 365 islands. To the right were working farms, abandoned stone buildings and pastures stretching to tidal flats. On the left, the eerily beautiful treeless mountains, unending peat bogs, and acidic brown streams that are so much of Mayo and Connemara.

Sheep, brightly stained with reds, blues and lavenders for identification, were our only company as we glided silently back into the Ireland of tourist brochures.