Looking for eco-friendly activities, transport, accommodation and organic food in Ireland? We discover the Emerald Isle's many shades of green.
Ecotourism may be a recent travel concept, but it has a long history in Ireland where small-scale, sustainable, culturally sensitive and nature-based eco-escapes have evolved naturally around the country’s wild landscape.
Ireland’s natural beauty has always been its biggest attraction, with misty green mountains, a lush interior and wild craggy coastlines attracting everyone from serious climbers, cyclists and surfers to gentle ramblers, history buffs and wildlife spotters. And even now that tourism is a multi-million Euro industry, locals and tourists alike are fighting to keep Ireland true to its green roots.
Green transport for Ireland
For those coming from the UK, the temptation is to hop on one of Ireland’s famous low-cost airlines. But it’s surprisingly easy – and much more fun – to keep your feet on the ground.
Virgin trains (tel: 0845 722 2333, in the UK; website: www.virgintrains.co.uk) run direct from London Euston to Holyhead in just four hours, followed by a foot-passenger ferry into the heart of Dublin with Irish Ferries (tel: 0870 517 1717, in the UK; website: www.irishferries.com). You can make dual bookings costing as little as £50 return through SailRail (tel: 0845 075 5755; website: www.sailrail.co.uk).
Once in Ireland, there is a good train network, well-developed cycling routes, hiking trails and other methods of getting around without deepening your carbon footprint. Another option is to clip-clop down country lanes on your own horse-drawn gypsy-style caravan with Clissmann Horse Caravans (tel: (404) 48188; website: www.clissmann.com/wicklow) in County Wicklow.
Environmentally sound places to stay are commonplace in Ireland: a fact less surprising when you consider that many areas didn’t even have electricity until the 1970s and a traditional ethos still prevails. To witness people living simple, low-impact existence, take a trip to Tory Island, Clare Island, Rathlin or the Aran Islands. Alternatively, there are plenty of places to sleep that combine modern comforts with a clear conscience.
An enduring favourite in northeastern County Down is Anna’s House (tel: (028) 9754 1566; website: www.annashouse.com), a secluded country bed & breakfast that boasts geothermal heating, solar panels, organic gardens and lake views.
Or there’s Ecobooley (tel: (052) 65191; website: www.ecobooley.com), a self-catering cottage in the foothills of the Knockmealdown Mountains, County Tipperary. The cottage was rebuilt with a water turbine fed by a mountain stream, furniture made from spent oak and recycled clothing. The cosy rooms are decorated using organic paints and insulated by sheep’s wool.
Organic, sustainable food
Ireland is also at the forefront of the organic food movement, and nowhere is that more evident than at The Organic Centre (tel: (071) 985 4338; website: www.theorganiccentre.ie) in tranquil rural Rossinver.
These sprawling organic gardens and large sustainable building host innumerable courses, activities and demonstrations promoting organic horticulture, gardening, traditional crafts and sustainable living.
Once you’ve found your feet, you can pick from a wealth of green outdoor adventures: from cycling and walking holidays to surfing on the west coast, whale- and dolphin-spotting to birdwatching, fishing in or canoeing along clear rivers, climbing mountains or delving under them through caves and underground streams. For more information on any of these activities, contact the Tourism Ireland (tel: 0800 039 7000; website: www.discoverireland.ie).
If you’d rather take it easy, hop on one of the bio tour buses run by Ireland Eco Tours (tel: (028) 6865 9171), which are powered by plant oil, to explore County Fermanagh’s nature reserves and historic sites.
If you can’t choose between activities, you can even organise mountain bike away and canoe home trips, such as that run by Corralea Activity Centre (tel: (028) 6638 6123; website: www.activityireland.com) in County Sligo. Groups cycle off-road to discover the local prehistoric tombs and standing stones, then leave the bikes and paddle home across Lough Macnean.
Another novel green idea is to learn traditional survival skills, such as those taught by Lough Allen Adventure Centre (tel: (071) 964 3292) in County Leitrim. Their ‘wilderness therapy sessions’ teach shelter building using natural materials, navigation techniques, fire-lighting using flint, open boat skills and other useful techniques. Then these skills are put into practice on a minimal impact expedition to a remote island in Lough Allen.
Alternative spa breaks
But we needn’t rough it in the wilderness to be eco-travellers in Ireland. Environmentally sound spas, retreats and other pampering are also common.
If you love soft skin but aren’t fond of chemist-bought solutions, then make a stop at one of the many seaweed bathhouses along Ireland’s coastline. You’ll be invited to slip into a bath of hot seawater and slather yourself with gloopy seaweed, freshly harvested from the adjacent shore and then recycled as fertiliser. This centuries-old practice leaves the skin silky smooth, and eases maladies from arthritis to hangovers. Our favourite is creaky old Edwardian Kilcullen Seaweed Baths (tel: (096) 36238; website: www.kilcullenseaweedbaths.com) in Enniscrone, County Sligo.
Or for relaxing three-day eco-retreats, there’s The Ard Nahoo Eco Retreat Experience (tel: (071) 913 4939; website: www.ardnahoo.com) in beautiful Leitrim. It offers daily yoga, soaking and stargazing in an outdoor hot tub, wild herb walks, guest teachers, organic vegetarian food and a chance to relax and explore the beautiful Leitrim countryside.