Northern Ireland: Green and very pleasant
For Catherine Mack, getting back to nature in the wilds of Northern Ireland meant exploring the Mourne Mountains, then recovering in a bath of local seaweed
You first catch sight of the Mourne Mountains 30 miles south of Belfast. I stopped on the coastal road at Dundrum to survey this impressive collection of natural granite sculptures, from the rugged craggy tors of Slieve Binnian to the smoother humped-back slopes of Slieve Donard, the highest in the range at 2,790ft.
Somewhere among the scenery, tucked into a valley near Bryansford, lay Tory Bush Cottages, my place of rest for the night.
The dwellings at Tory Bush are all built in the local clachan style, with whitewashed walls and slate roofs. My room comprised a huge one-bedroomed apartment above the reception, newly built using sustainable techniques.
"Insulating with sheep's wool brings money to other farmers like me," said owner David Maginn, an enterprising farmer who has also installed solar-powered washing machines (using water from a rain-collection system), recycled cardboard instead of plasterboard, and a wood-pellet boiler.
I watched the sunset reflect myriad golden shades off the mountains in what seemed like the cottages' back garden; an hour later there were still shafts of light pushing their way through the mist. By morning, however, a low mist was hovering. Nevertheless, there were enough crags and crevices visible to send me scurrying to my walking boots.
Loretto Coyle, a local guide, had agreed to take me out on the slopes of Slieve Loughshannagh, following the Ulster Way – a designated walking-route around Northern Ireland. We wouldn't need to follow it too closely, though. "We can go anywhere we want," said Loretto. "This is free ground."
As we walked, Loretto pointed out swathes of peat bog, white bog-cotton flowers, several varieties of moss (some as smooth and velvety-black as this island's most famous refreshment), as well as identifying the various peaks.
It didn't take long before we were traversing the Mourne Wall. Twenty-two miles long, this connects 15 summits including Donard, Binnion and Commedagh. The local water-authority commissioned it in 1904 to enclose land draining down to two reservoirs, the Silent Valley and Ben Crom. About three feet wide and eight feet high in parts, and stretching, unbroken, into the distance, you can see why it took 18 years to build; its existence is one reason why the area is being mooted for National Park status.
Loretto and I parted company in Newcastle, the Mournes' urban hub. I was going to ease my muscles in a uniquely Irish way: a hot bath of seaweed. It's a traditional Irish remedy for rheumatism and arthritis. "Soak" – one of several seaweed bath-houses in Ireland – was perfectly located on the Promenade to soothe my middle-aged muscles.
I locked myself into a private room for an hour, lay back in a bathful of heated seawater (piped from across the road) and poured in a bucket of the green stuff, sustainably harvested that morning by Soak's co-owner, Dermot Devine. It was a weird sensation: floating in seaweed, popping the slimy pods, and rubbing it over my body. But minutes later, my skin was as smooth as the Mournes' moss itself. I did several circuits from steam-box to bath, finishing with the recommended cold shower.
The next stop on my route was the Gortin Glens Forest in County Tyrone. It lies 90 minutes' drive from Newcastle, along country roads which cling to the slopes of the Mournes. It was too late to go into the forest when I arrived, so I checked into the nearby Omagh Hostel – located on an organic farm run by Marella and Billy Fyfe.
When Marella told me I was sharing the hostel with a couple of "woofers", I wondered if this was dubious local slang. But she explained that WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is an international network enabling travellers to see the world and get free food and board, in exchange for help on the farm.
"I couldn't run the hostel and farm without my woofers," said Marella, as she tickled the belly of one of her latest acquisitions, a young black pig ("my best recycling bin"). Recycling is one of many green practices carried out at the hostel, which aims to be carbon neutral by the end of this year.
The next morning proved to be rather wet, so I joined the woofers in the warmth of the polytunnel for some seed planting. ("As long as you bring your wellies and are happy to get mucky, we welcome anyone," said Marella.) Then, once the skies had cleared, I headed up to the Gortin Glens, following walking trails through some of the 4,000 acres of lush, coniferous forest.
I was soon mesmerised by the endless towers of Sitka and Norway spruce trees, but the high point was following the Pollan Burn, a stream which tumbles down the mountainside in a magnificent waterfall, where dragonflies darted madly through the rainbows.
Then it was onwards to Blaney, County Fermanagh. I based myself at Innish Beg cottages, on the shores of Lower Lough Erne. Gabriele Tottenham, my host, also owns the Blaney Spa and Yoga Centre, a few minutes' walk from the cottage. Hoping that tree, mountain and cow-face yoga poses might make more sense here, I booked a one-to-one session for the morning of my departure.
Gabriele was quick to emphasise the one-star accreditation of my simple white cottage. It was one of the original farm cottages; she restored it 15 years ago into a charming one-bedroomed loft dwelling. But the "fairy woodland walk" from the cottage to the jetty on the lake's shore, the rowing boat with oars poised for guests to use, and the wild orchids and strawberries scenting the misty air upgraded it to five-star immediately.
Paddy Jones, a local farmer, runs a canoe- and bicycle-hire business at Boho (pronounced "Bo"). You can canoe the nine-mile route from Boho to its source at Lough Erne, but I opted for a gentle two-hour canoe down (or possibly up) the sultry Sillees, then swapped canoe for bike, and cycled back on country lanes.
Saluting the sun during my early-morning yoga session on the veranda of Blaney Spa was the highlight. Embracing the elements seems the most natural thing to do here, even if you're in the cow-face pose while you do it.
'Eco Escape: Ireland' by Catherine Mack (Markham, £8.99) is available from www.ecoescape.org
The writer travelled to Belfast International with easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) , which flies from a range of UK airports.
A range of ferries runs from Liverpool and Scottish ports to Belfast.
Car hire was through Dan Dooley ( www.dan-dooley.ie )
Tory Bush Cottages, Bryansford (028 4372 4348; www.torybush.com ). Two-night stays at the Ecoloft start at £130.
The Omagh Hostel, Omagh (028 8224 1973; www.omaghhostel.co.uk ). Dorm beds start at £12.50, doubles at £30, room only.
Innish Beg Cottages, Inniskillen (028 686 41525; www.innishbegcottages.com ). Self-catered weekend breaks start at £120.
Blaney Spa & Yoga Centre (028 6864 1525; www.blaneyspaandyogacentre.com ).
Soak Seaweed Baths (028 4372 6002; www.soakseaweedbaths.co.uk ). Single sessions cost £20.
Boho Eco Hire (07801 190 8076; www.bohoecohire.com ). Bike hire from £15, canoe hire from £20.
Outdoor Ireland North (028 4372 5191; www.outdoorirelandnorth.co.uk ) offers half-day Blue Badge guided walks from £15 per person.
www.greenbox.ie ; 0871 998 7099
www.discovernorthernireland.com ; 028 9023 1221