Every part of Mayo has its charms, but one town has an unrivalled tourist reputation, as local Neill O’Neill explains
ON the edge of a sapphire blue ocean amidst rolling green hills, there is a town in Mayo unique among all others. Where the sacred mountain of Croagh Patrick rises like a citadel guarding its picturesque surrounds, Westport nestles on the shores of Clew Bay, in the south-west of the county.
A relatively new urban centre in historical terms, and one of the few planned towns in Ireland, Westport has achieved international acclaim in recent years and is now considered one of the country’s premier tourist destinations.
From its tree-lined boulevard, through which the placid Carrowbeg River flows, to streets filled with colourful, traditional shop fronts and flower baskets, there is something about Westport that makes all visitors feel at home. A town of rare and unmatched character, in which tidiness, heritage, preservation, community endeavour and environmental awareness are all hallmarks, Westport has developed an enviable but deserved reputation, both in Ireland and abroad.
Winner of Ireland’s tidiest town accolades in 2001 and 2006, this heritage town maintains a quaint old-world charm whilst offering world-class facilities and amenities, and easy access to some of the most stunning parts of Ireland. A gateway to Connemara and several of Mayo’s off-shore islands in summer, Westport also offers some of the best dining in the region, with local seafood produce from the pristine waters of Clew Bay a speciality in many restaurants.
No trip to Westport would be complete without a stroll around the taown and a chance to browse the many niche shops and boutiques that occupy its centre streets. Sensitive planning rules have kept large retail developments hidden on the town’s outskirts, preserving its charming core for the enjoyment of everyone.
Matt Molloy’s pub on the main street is home of the celebrated Chieftains’ flautist, and one of the most renowned traditional music venues in Ireland. While this unique experience should not be missed, you are also likely to stumble upon a spontaneous music ‘session’ – regardless of the time of day – in several of the town’s other pubs.
Visit the Clew Bay Heritage Centre at Westport Quay – once a bustling harbour and port, the area is now a pleasant and well-serviced recreation area – or take a guided walk of the town’s historic centre. Bring the entire family for a fun day out at Westport House, where endless entertainment abounds, or make the trek up Croagh Patrick to say a prayer in the uniquely-set church on the summit – or simply for the breathtaking view that has inspired countless generations. If that doesn’t consume all your energy you could always try a round of golf at Westport’s 18-hole championship parkland course, now in its centenary year, or leave an Atlantic spray in your wake as you exercise a pony at low tide on one of the countless local strands.
Westport also has many fine hotels, B&Bs and plenty of self-catering accommodation to suit all budgets. For the weary traveller looking for some pampering, there are half a dozen spas in the town, each offering a range of therapies and treatments.
Good planning or just pure luck will have you arrive in Westport when one of the many annual festivals is taking place. These include the free open-air summer music festival, where top Irish and international bands can be heard plying their trade to large audiences at The Fairgreen in the town. The Westport Arts Festival runs for ten days each autumn and transforms the town with colour and music, whilst amongst the other annual events, the Horse Fair each September is one of the most traditional in the country.
There are also many walking and cycling trails around Westport for families to enjoy, with detailed maps available in the Tourist Office which is located in the centre of town. Between the public Leisure Park and the hotels, there are six fully-equipped leisure centres in Westport, each with a heated swimming pool, while the multi-screen cinema in town shows daily screenings of all the latest movies. Another simple activity favoured by families in Westport is feeding the resident ducks in the town river, or in the pond at The Quay.
From first inspiring impressions on the town’s main approach road where the peaks of Croagh Patrick and Clare Island rise like the towers and turrets of a faraway fairytale palace – across an expanse of shimmering water once compared by William Makepeace Thackeray to the Bay of Naples – to the hospitality and charm that are the essence of the town, Westport is waiting to be discovered.
For more information see www.westport tourism.com or www.destinationwestport.com.
The Browne family first came into ownership of lands at The Demesne outside Westport in the third quarter of the 17th century, and immediately set about transforming the area and building a stately home. Today, Westport House remains one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture anywhere in Ireland, and is still in the ownership of the Browne family.
Built on a site where legendary Pirate Queen Granuaile – a descendant of the Browne family – once occupied a fortress, this magnificent and historic home was designed by architects Richard Cassels and James Wyatt as the official residence of the Marquess of Sligo. Lord Jeremy Altamont – the eleventh Marquess – and his family still live on the estate.
In the 1960s the estate was opened to the public by the Browne family and since then millions of visitors have filed through its many opulent rooms, which still contain their original furnishings and fittings, fine decorative plaster-works, period antiques and works of art.
The 300 acres of parkland which surround the house contain a river, lake and waterfalls, and activities and attractions which are sure to entertain all members of the family. These include a log flume ride, swan pedaloes, a miniature railway, animal and bird park, pitch and putt, tennis and slippery dip slide. Summer 2007 saw a new departure for Westport House when they joined forces with Killary Adventure Centre to offer activities such as archery, rock climbing, kayaking and laser combat games on the sweeping estate, and plans are in place to erect a pirate swing-boat amusement ride in the coming months.
There is also a large, fully-serviced campground, bar, restaurant, shop and recreation room in one corner of the estate.
Potential visitors to Westport can now get a photo-realistic representation of the town’s historic core, after it became the most accurate town model to be hosted on Google Earth last January.
Designed by local company AMT3D, the model was created using state-of-the-art 3D technology and allows internet users all over the planet to walk through the streets of Westport from the comfort of their homes.
The model is perfectly accurate and shows the town’s streets, buildings and monuments in their exact locations and to a precise scale. Though only the main streets of the town are mapped at present, the project is on-going and will soon incorporate all the streets and out towards The Quay area.
To visit interactive Westport, log on to www.earth.google.com and after completing any downloads, type Westport in the search bar.