A family break in Mayo


GREAT WESTERN GREENWAY Cyclists meander along the Great Western Greenway from Westport to Achill.

John Gunnigan

Despite being based in Dublin I make several trips each year back home to Mayo. A mixture of family visits or travelling to see Gaelic football matches – often a combination of both pursuits – tends to account for most of the mileage I make to the west. Holidaying on home soil tends to be a much more rare occurrence but last week an alignment of the stars occurred, with some unexpected free time coupled with a decent weather forecast, and so we decided to bolt for it.
In the depths of last winter – when the easy life of summertime seemed impossibly distant – we put two items onto our to-do list as a family for this year. One was to cycle the Greenway, the other was to climb Croagh Patrick and it was these twin aims we had firmly in our sights last Monday as we high-tailed it out of the capital.
By late afternoon we’d checked into the B&B and had braved the icy Atlantic waters at Cross beach beyond Louisburgh. The kids, inevitably, were first in – “It’s not really cold!” (It was) – but I have to admit that plunging under the waves that were breaking powerfully off the ocean fairly shook off the torpor after the long drive.
I’ve been an evangelist for the Greenway for ages, repeatedly encouraging others to cycle it but somehow I’d never managed to do it myself until last week. I’ve become a bit of a bike bore in middle age and have infected my 11 year-old son with the same passion but the ladies of the house don’t share the same fanaticism about the two-wheeled life.
This meant a mix of experience and appetite amongst the five of us for the challenge but we found that the Greenway catered for this kind of variety. We all completed the 42km route – from Achill to Westport – without too much difficulty, taking a steady-as-she-goes approach to the endeavour.  
Clew Bay Bikes were great. We were able to hire the bikes with a minimum of fuss and they then transported us to Achill, setting us loose there. One of the girls had an issue with her saddle that was sorted quickly and efficiently at their base in Mulranney and this certainly made her spin more enjoyable as a result.
The scenery encountered on the way – mountains, sea, rocks and heather – is what makes the Greenway special. Mind you, the near-perfect weather on the day – if anything, it was too hot – didn’t hinder matters either. The sections where the trail veers well away from the road, every so often encountering an impressive cut stone bridge dating back to when the old railway line was laid down, were the ones where the sumptuous natural surroundings could be enjoyed to the full.
My favourite stretch of all, though, was when the trail meandered unannounced right through a farmer’s meadow, the cycle path unfenced on either side. Maybe it was the aroma of cut grass – so redolent of a rural childhood – that turned the moment to magic but I felt that the free and easy way access had been granted through that field summed up nicely all that’s good about the Greenway.
There are, though, a few ways it could be made better still. The kilometre-long on-road bit at the start in Achill isn’t ideal, especially for families with small kids. Ours are that bit older so we were okay but I could see that shepherding younger kids safely along that stretch wouldn’t be fun.
Worse still, though, is the missing section at Newport. As you approach the village from the Achill end the Greenway abruptly stops and it doesn’t restart again until you’re on its outskirts on the Westport road. There’s no signage to let you know what’s happening and Greenway users are left pretty much to their own devices to navigate their way safely to the point where the track gets going again across town. I know there’s an issue with the railway bridge and the tunnel and all that but more needs to be done in the short-term because confused cyclists, significant traffic volumes and a narrow passage through the village is a sure-fire recipe for trouble.
No such problems await the hardy souls tramping skywards on the Reek. I’d done the climb a few times previously but this was the first time the five of us had tackled it together.
Looking back on it now, we’d probably have been better advised not to take to the mountain the day after the Greenway but our timetable meant there was no other option for us but to do it this way. Our legs sure knew all about it afterwards.
Sadly, the weather didn’t favour us the way it had done the previous day. A swirling mist descended as we approached the First Station and the summit remained stubbornly enveloped by the grey clouds all the while we were up there. The view from the top of the Reek is one of my all-time favourites but unfortunately it wasn’t to be one that all of us got to savour there together last week. Next time, hopefully.
We will be back, of course we will. Westport has plenty going for it but in this ultra-competitive tourist market it can’t afford to sit on its laurels either. In this respect, one area that could definitely be improved on is in the range and quality of dining options.
With the honourable exception of the Blue Bicycle in Newport, where they served up a rhubarb crumble that was simply to die for, I was disappointed with the eateries and cafés we sampled along the Greenway. Likewise, for a town of its size Westport isn’t exactly teeming with high quality restaurants, though we were happy, after handing back our rented bikes, to secure a booking at the excellent Sage on High Street. More eateries approaching this lofty standard would certainly enhance Westport’s already considerable attractions.