Ireland adventure holidays get the green light

Tuesday, 16 November 2010 12:00 AM

Mountain biking in Ireland

Mountain biking in Ireland

Think of a classic adventure / active holiday destination. What did you come up with? Bondi Beach, Australia - the surfers' paradise? Queenstown, New Zealand - the adrenaline junkies' Mecca? Perhaps even our very own Newquay for nearby sun, sea, sand and surf?

One location that doesn't usually feature in such a discussion is now striving to compete with the big wigs of the outdoors holiday world.

With 40-foot waves for world-class surfing, night-time kayaking expeditions and hundreds of kilometres of mountain biking trials, Travelbite.co.uk's Simon Willmore discovers the west coast of Ireland is mounting a significant assault on tourists' attention.

Furthermore, the Emerald Isle, in addition to its beautiful lakes, ever-chirpy locals and that famous silly black stuff, is only an hour's flight away. It can offer that 'hit' so many thrill-seekers travel thousands of miles for, without even leaving the EU.

Arriving in Cork on a dry yet cool November afternoon, only the hardy or the foolish - or simply those searching for that 'buzz' would consider a trip to the local water-skiing centre. Yet, that is what I found myself doing, and really looking forward to it. It was admittedly a less attractive prospect than the same activity in the height of summer, but the picturesque lake and surrounding lush, green plant life made it all rather enticing.

Wetsuit zipped up, life jacket clipped, feet wedged in to the ski brackets, I'm sitting on the edge of the jetty, quite literally waiting for my boat to come in. I gently lower my legs into the water and it swirls and swashes around my feet. It's actually warmer than I was expecting, and I consider jumping in, if only to get out of the chilly wind currently gusting around the lakeside.

However, it certainly doesn't feel warm when I get a face full of it only a few moments later. Having just about got the hang of things, I'm holding on, white-knuckled, to the boom fixed on to the side of the boat as we surge across the water. I feel like I'm just about getting my sea legs, after only a couple of minutes, and so, incredibly pleased with myself, I straighten to upright.

Inevitably pride comes before a fall, and . SPLASH. Face first, legs akimbo, skis detached, I plough into the cool liquid below. It had been an early morning and I confess I needed waking up. That definitely did the trick.

Ten minutes later and I'm up and running again. The beautiful countryside rushes by and I'm gliding past the rest of my band of adrenaline-junkies-for the-week on the shore. The combined feeling of success (as a newbie to the sport) and speed is more than enough to keep me warm - but the sauna in the changing rooms is hugely welcomed by all.

There's no rest for the active as we're whisked off back to Cork city centre and, after a quick costume change, straight into loading our kayaks out onto the River Lee. By now, darkness has fallen and the only way we can see our paddling compatriots is by peering through the gloom and locating their hi-visibility vests.

We coast onwards, passing under bridges and pointing out pubs and hotels. It's a strange yet comforting sensation, to push onwards through the darkness, finding the balance between exertion and relaxation, all the while never letting your home for the night leave your sight.

The next morning, we make our way from Cork to Killarney and Ireland's first National Park. Hiking is the order of the day, or rather of the morning, as the list of adventure activities continues to grow.

We plod on through gorgeous green countryside, passing the stunning Torc Waterfall and weaving our way through Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. Johnny Cash's bluesy growl echoes around my head as I find myself singing 'Forty Shades of Green' - and even that feels like an understatement. The trees, bushes hedges, shrubs, even moss, all chip in a new tone, a new mood, a new depth to the scenery.

The panorama is just as dazzling at speed as at walking pace, as we all pile into fast boats and race away towards Muckross House, an equally staggering sight: the huge 19th century mansion looks out over the water.

The same park is the setting for a rather different, and rather less demanding, activity that afternoon. That said, it proves to be just as enjoyable; a horse-drawn carriage, or, as they are beautifully known to locals, a 'jaunting car', takes us through town and into the centre of the park.

We absorb the astonishing tranquillity of the area - this is a park that is mere minutes from the 20,000-inhabitant Killarney centre - and slow down to photograph the native red deer, which have actually been present in this area since the Ice Age.

We finish up at Ross Castle, a wonderfully preserved 15th-century former stronghold for the O'Donoghue clan. The condition of the building is impressive, but it's the view across the Lough Leane lake that will leave you speechless.

Ballyhoura County is our final stop and offers one last chance for adventure. The bike trails - complete with wooden boardwalks, narrow tree-lined passageways and crazily steep inclines - wind their way around the mountains, and offer routes to challenge even the most experienced of bikers. For the less brave / talented / reckless, the fantastic views across the countryside provide adequate outlet for passing time, but I thought I would go for the more extreme experience.

I thrash through the overhanging branches as they whip at me from either side, trying to hold me back as I plummet down the mountain. I career through a puddle, projecting muddy, murky water up into my face and jacket. A skid, a judder, a swerve. A boulder blocks my path ahead and I jolt the handlebars to one side, veering up onto the fern-covered bank before sliding back down to a level plane. Rainwater drips off the trees above and splashes my helmet, and a shriek rings out behind me.

I, somewhat stupidly, instinctively swing my head around to see where it came from. My rookie mistake quickly has consequences as I smash up another bank. I instantly wheel my head back around to focus on the job in hand - now, renegotiating my way back onto the trail from what feels like miles away from the track, halfway up the mountainside.

I manage to wrestle the bike back from the grips of vegetation and bobble and bump my way back down off the bank, my head juddering up and down as I thunder along the mud-spattered path. Another corner, another bounding jump, and all of a sudden we're back on a road, with luxuries such as tarmac and road signs.

We freewheel down to our finish point and I dismount from my trusty steel steed. Piling back into the bus, we're sore, cold, bumped and bruised, but totally invigorated. It's not hard to see why this is so addictive; I'm going to have to come back soon.

By Simon Willmore

More information on activity holidays in Killarney:

For more information on adventure and activity holidays in Ireland contact the Adventure Sports Team at Tourism Ireland by phone on +44 (0)207 518 0800 or see the Discover Ireland website.

Kilfinane Outdoor Education Centre offers activities for all ages.

Ballyhoura Mountainbike Centre has trails for all levels and ages available.

Ballyhoura Fáilte

Hillcrest Equestrian Centre has riding options for all ages and levels.

Ballyhoura Bike Hire has bikes suitable for 12 years and up.

Read more travel features by Simon

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