Having a Ballina Mayo town: a trip to the Wild Atlantic Way
A relaxing stay with fab food was music to my ears on a trip to the Wild Atlantic Way
The west of Ireland is wide awake and rocking! It most definitely was when I spent a weekend in Ballina last September during the amazing Other Voices festival to catch performances by indie folk group The Villagers, Tennessee singer-songwriter Julien Baker, Egyptian-Belgian artist Tamino and BBC Sound of 2018 artist Sam Fender among many others.
The Mayo town came alive with the sound of music as dozens of performers staged concerts at venues across the town for the free music and arts festival, some of which you can catch on RTE2 on February 28.
I was lucky enough to catch an intimate performance by The Villagers in the stunning setting of the 25-year-old St Michael's Church.
The picturesque town on the Wild Atlantic Way has an array of great restaurants and while Other Voices was on, they also staged a fabulous Food Fleadh showcasing some of their best produce and proving that they could give any big city a run for its money.
During my weekend I was in foodie heaven with some magnificent meals in restaurants such as Luskin's Bistro, Jack Fenn's The Courtyard Café at Belleek Castle (which won Georgina Campbell Café of the Year 2018), Crockets Quay Bistro and Bar Square.
I was staying at the superb Mount Falcon Estate, which is clearly popular with many famous faces as I spotted Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who was also in town for Other Voices, on a nearby table during a rather brilliant breakfast.
On the issue of food, the hotel's AA-awarded Kitchen Restaurant is renowned for its local fare cooked with a French twist. The beautiful hotel, set within acres of dense woodland, is a glorious Gothic manor that's been imaginatively converted into a luxury hotel, with turf fires burning throughout, which ensures it retains that old charm. The estate also offers up a choice of self-catering lodges, from woodland and lakeside to stone courtyard, meaning family groups can mix and match accommodation to suit all needs.
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The country hotel retreat also has its own pool and spa and if you have time check out some of its country pursuits, including falconry, clay pigeon shooting, archery, walking trails, bike hire, a golf driving range and a woodland playground. The glorious River Moy flows through the grounds, ripe with salmon, and the house overlooks her own lake, teeming with rainbow trout.
During my stay, I also checked out the super-stylish Ice house just outside the town. In the late 18th and early 19th century, tons of wild salmon were preserved here under ice before being shipped to the fish markets of Dublin and Liverpool.
It was complete and utter relaxation to sit in the hotel jacuzzi and soak in a seaweed bath overlooking the River Moy and the woodlands beyond.
Apparently, the seaweed-bathing tradition in the west of Ireland dates back 300 years. Seaweed naturally absorbs its nourishment from the ocean and as a result, is packed full of minerals and vitamins that cleanse and purify the skin, aiding its natural ability to heal and repair. So all you need to do is lie back in the warm water and immerse yourself in the seaweed to enjoy all the benefits it brings.
When I could drag myself away from the outdoor jacuzzi, I enjoyed a massage at the Chill Spa, which perfectly cured my aching back and limbs after the three-and-half-hour drive from Belfast (and less than two hours from Enniskillen).
Once done there, we made our way to the bar where we enjoyed, perhaps overenjoyed, a cocktail mixing class with the master of mixologists, Leo. His creations showed real flair and an intimate knowledge of drinks pairings.
Another superb building worth checking out is Belleek Castle. Everybody wants to be king (or queen) of their very own castle and its owner Paul Doran gets to be just that.
He runs the incredible 19th century manor hotel with his partner Maya Nikolaeva and I have to say it is one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited.
After a lovely lunch in Jack Fenn's The Courtyard Café, which last year deservedly won Georgina Campbell Café of the Year 2018, we embarked on a tour of the imposing structure, which is surrounded by acres of forest.
Built in the 1800s by Sir Arthur Francis Knox-Gore, a tour of the castle should be a must for anyone who ever visits the west of Ireland.
You will get to see its impressive rooms and its Marshall Doran Collection, named after Paul's mariner, antique dealer and adventurer father who built up quite a treasure trove after acquiring the abandoned former ancestral home of the Knox-Gore dynasty in 1961. He even carved much of the bar out of wood salvaged from a Spanish galleon.
The Marshall Doran Collection includes a large selection of fossils dating back many millions of years and the largest private collection of arms and armour in Ireland. It also features a four-poster bed which once belonged to pirate queen Grace O'Malley.
As well as being a great tourist attraction, I hear its two AA Rosette restaurant is rightly lauded for putting together some of the most ground-breaking dishes in the country and it has become an increasingly popular wedding venue.
If you have time, take a stroll through beautiful Belleek Woods in the grounds, one of Europe's largest urban forests. Along the way you may spot some interesting sights including the graves of Sir Arthur Francis Knox-Gore who was laid to rest with his beloved horse, and his son Sir Charles Knox-Gore who was also buried there along with his dog Phizzi.
You will also see the concrete ship SS Creteboom which lies abandoned in the water of the River Moy.
There were so many other things to see and do there and across Ballina but unfortunately I just didn't have time so I am planning a return asap.
You will most definitely have a ball in Ballina. The people are amazing, the food fantastic, the scenery stunning and it truly does cater for everyone.
Martin stayed at the Mount Falcon Estate in Ballina. Check out mountfalcon.com.
He enjoyed spa treatments and a cocktail-making class at the Ice House Hotel. Check out icehousehotel.ie or call 0035396 23500.
He dined at Luskin's Bistro, Jack Fenn's The Courtyard Café at Belleek Castle, Crockets Quay Bistro and Bar Square.
You can book a tour at Belleek Castle by phoning 00353 9622400 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out belleekcastle.com
Other Voices Ballina will be shown on RTE2 on February 28 and March 21.