Travel Black Book Ambassadors Series

Westport: Ruins and romance in Ireland

The best of home: Ambassadors to Singapore provide an insider's guide to their favourite destinations

Who: Mr Geoffrey Keating, 59, Ambassador of Ireland to Singapore

Favourite destination in Ireland: Westport is a charming town in the wildly beautiful County Mayo on the western Atlantic coast of Ireland.

SEE

From ruined Norman monasteries to romantic mediaeval castles overlooking the Atlantic to the Georgian splendours of Westport House (www.westporthouse.ie), there are many beautiful places to visit.

A special place, however, is the Museum of Country Life at Turlough Park (www.museum.ie/Country-Life). It showcases the traditional way of life of people in Ireland, who worked the land and fished the seas according to the season, as well as their crafts, music, storytelling, beliefs and superstitions.

Turlough Park has a special connection with Singapore. As you approach the house, you pass a statue which was commissioned by the Singapore Government to commemorate Brother Joseph McNally, who taught in Singapore for many years and founded Lasalle College of the Arts.

He was born nearby in Ballintubber and a short drive will take you to Ballintubber Abbey (www.ballintubberabbey.ie). It celebrated its 800th anniversary last year and there is a Mother and Child sculpture cast by Brother McNally.

About 20km south of Westport, travellers willing to go on a hike will be rewarded with a glorious view from the peak of Croagh Patrick looking out west over Clew Bay. Croagh Patrick was an ancient pagan site of pilgrimage dating back to about 3,000 B.C.

It is still a place of pilgrimage and, every year on the last Sunday of July, thousands climb the mountain, some with bare feet.

It is from here that it is said, after having spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting on the mountain, Saint Patrick came down and banished the snakes from Ireland.

The ascent begins in the village of Murrisk, a short drive from Westport, and should be attempted only on a clear day.

PLAY

A great way to relax is to listen to traditional music in one of the town's pubs. Matt Molloy's (www.mattmolloy.com) is owned by a member of The Chieftains, a well-known traditional Irish band. Here, local musicians gather to play traditional Irish folk music every night.

One of our favourite activities is to drive west from Westport along the southern coast of Clew Bay, to enjoy the stunning views of the sea. We continue through the picturesque village of Louisburgh (louisburgh.com) and on to the end of the road where it meets the bulk of Mweelrea mountain.

  • Getting there

  • From Singapore, fly to London's Heathrow Airport, then transfer to Gatwick Airport, also in London. There, take an Aer Lingus flight to Ireland West Airport Knock, the closest airport to Westport, which is 55km away.

    Alternatively, fly from London to Dublin, the capital of Ireland. From there, you can rent a car, or catch a bus or train. Whichever the choice of transport, the journey to Westport takes about three hours.

    Tips

    • You will have to hire a car to get around Westport and explore its surroundings. The roads around Westport are quiet and the worst hazard you might encounter is a herd of wandering cows or a few stray sheep. Make sure your car has a GPS and that you have a good map.

    • Irish weather is unpredictable. I recommend dressing in warm clothing or wearing layers which you can take off easily. It can be wet and windy, so take along rain gear and a waterproof hat.

    • The West of Ireland is safe, the people are generally friendly and prices tend to be lower than in Singapore.

    • Based in Westport, you could fit a lot of activities and sights into seven to 10 days. Each season has it own colours, but spring and autumn are great.

There, at the mouth of the Killary Harbour, lies one of the finest beaches in Ireland, called Thallabawn or Silver Strand. We walk down to the sea, which, reflecting the sky, can be green or blue or slate grey.

We then turn north and clamber along the grassy headland and come to another silvery beach. Depending on our pace and the clemency of the weather, the walk takes two to three hours, but it is a relaxing and invigorating experience.

Another stunning beach is Carrowniskey, nearer to Louisburgh. It is so wide and flat that every summer, horse races are held here (www.carrowniskeyraces.ie).

The Great Western Greenway (www.greenway.ie) is a 42km off- road walking and cycling path along the route of an old disused railway line between Westport and Achill. We usually hire bicycles from Clew Bay Bike Hire in Westport (www.clewbaybikehire.ie) and ask them to take us to Achill. From there, we cycle back.

On the way, we often visit Burrishoole Abbey, a ruined 15th-century Dominican friary romantically situated by an inlet to the sea, or stop in the small but lovely town of Newport (www.newportmayo.ie) and eat at the Blue Bicycle Tearooms (www.bluebicycletearooms.com).

We often drop in to the fabulous Kelly's Butchers (www.kellysbutchers.com) to buy some of its award-winning sausages and black and white pudding (pork sausages made with oatmeal and pigs' blood, in the case of black pudding). It also has delicious bacon.

There are also festivals throughout the year to suit most tastes, including the Folk and Bluegrass Festival in June (westportfolkbluegrass.com), the Westport Festival of Chamber Music in September (tinyurl.com/hc2ec7n) and the Westport Arts Festival from September to October (www.westportartsfestival.com). The one that might appeal most to a Singaporean traveller is the Westport Food Festival in June (www.westportfoodfestival.ie), featuring the best local ingredients and dishes from the region's best producers.

EAT

It was fully booked when I tried to dine there this summer, but with its focus on local, seasonal, fresh and foraged produce, The Idle Wall's (theidlewall.ie) menu looks lovely.

Another highly recommended restaurant in Westport is Sage (www.sagewestport.ie), which also uses fresh, locally sourced ingredients. If you order before 6.30pm, there is an early-bird menu which costs $33 for two courses or $39 for three. For the a la carte menu, prices are $7.50 to $13.50 for starters and main courses are $30 to $39.

Few tourists would know about the Thursday morning country market tucked away in the heart of Westport (tinyurl.com/jljbj4q). It opens from 8am to 1pm. You can find local organic vegetables and herbs, fresh fish, local cheese, delicious home-baked breads and cakes, jams and chutneys, as well as handmade soaps and textiles there.

The market has a cafe where you can grab a good strong mug of tea, eat a fresh scone with creamy butter and jam and watch the locals in action.

For breakfast, the Irish traditionally eat porridge with just sugar and milk, but it is delicious with honey and cream or a fruit puree such as apple or rhubarb.

This is followed by bacon, sausage, black and white pudding and eggs in any way you prefer them. You eat this with toast or, more traditionally, Irish brown soda bread with butter and marmalade, accompanied by tea or coffee.

When in Mayo, I recommend that you also try the local seafood: mussels, oysters, crab, lobster and mackerel fresh from the Atlantic. Mayo beef and lamb are also superb, fed on grass watered by the rains sweeping in from the sea. And, of course, you have to try the potatoes, preferably freshly dug and eaten with butter and a little salt and pepper.

SHOP

Browse the small shops of Westport and pick up local craftwork and textiles. Also, check out the local fish shops and Kate McCormack & Sons, a butcher in Bridge Street, which has a good selection of cheeses and jams, and a cafe.

Drive 40km north of Westport to the town of Foxford, which is known for its woollen products, shawls, scarves and throws.

At Foxford Woollen Mills (www.foxfordwoollenmills.com), founded in the late 19th century by the local Sisters of Charity to provide employment, you can see the weavers at work. They have an outlet in Bridge Street in Westport.

Also check out Marlene's Chocolate Haven (tinyurl.com/jdvxsbh) in Westport.

STAY

Last year, Jane stayed at the Elephant Guest House (elephantguesthouse.ie) and liked it.

Go to www.ireland.com to search for accommodation. All the listings are places that have been approved by the Tourist Board.

One quirky thing to do is to rent a property from the Irish Landmark Trust (www.irishlandmark.com). These range in size and cost and are usually interesting buildings. Jane and I once got a great weekend deal for the Lighthouse Keeper's cottage at Loop Head in County Clare, a stunning location overlooking the Atlantic.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Ruins and romance in Ireland'. Print Edition | Subscribe