The Luck of the Irish

Some people lay claim to convict heritage on even the most remote branch of their family tree. I like to think Irish blood runs through my veins but I am kidding myself too.Guiness

My love affair with all things Irish (Riverdance, van Morrison, U2, Guiness) culminated in my first ever cycling adventure. I started off, over-packed, under-trained and over-optimistic about both the weather (warm and mild as promoted by the Irish prayer) and the hills (gentle and rolling). Before my departure from Australia, I would explain in suitably Irish fashion that I intended to ride only the downhill sections of Ireland. If only that were possible.

I think I was the first person in the history of Ireland to cycle around the island in an anti-clockwise direction. Traveling solo, I was desperate to meet other keen cyclists but the handful I did see were all riding in the opposite direction, i.e. clockwise. A quick wave, perhaps a hello, and they slipped from view.

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway. Souce: Wikipedia

I hugged the coastline, pedalling my way from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, to Bushmills and on to Londonderry (or Derry if you still despise the English). Yes, Bushmills is the namesake of the whisky although I distinctly remember spending most of the time at the Distillery in the ladies’ toilets – stripped to within inches of decency – and standing under (as best I could) the hot air hand dryer. That day’s ride featured rain so hard and consistent that my shoes filled and overflowed and I was rinsed clean more thoroughly than the best German-designed washing machine. So much for my dreams of soft Irish weather.

I must have seemed a little odd to the locals – a single woman, riding solo, anti-clockwise. Striking up a conversation, the Irish would marvel that I was riding so far (only 50-60kms a day) and then comment “I don’t even travel that far on my holidays”. They are in for a rude shock if they ever come to Australia.

One thing about cycling, a bit like walking, is that you have plenty of time to think. I roll along, or struggle along depending on the terrain, and my mind wanders to all that I see. It also gives me the perfect opportunity to develop theories of how the world works. Very quickly, I developed a theory relating to Irish signs. My theory is that there is a factory somewhere in Ireland that manufactures distance markers but to save hassle, the same distance is printed on every sign. This theory is supported by a tough ride into Londonderry. I was sweating it out and reviewing the wisdom of this sort of ‘holiday’, when I saw a sign Londonderry – 45km “You beauty,” I thought “I’m almost there”. I rode for another two hours and passed another sign Londonderry – 45km. What sort of sick joke was that? When I did get to Londonderry finally, and rode out the other side, for interest’s sake I turned around to check the distance sign and, you guessed it, Londonderry – 45km! It was times like that when I knew I was truly in Ireland.

In Donegal, one morning dawned bright and clear but I could see there was a serious wind blowing as I peeked through the B&B curtains. As my ride/route would be changing direction a number of times that day, I was confident that I would soon be enjoying a supportive tailwind, for at least part of the day anyway. My path was to take me to Dunfanaghy, Falcarragh, Meenaclady, Bloody Foreland, Derrybeg, Bunbeg and Gwedore. Don’t you just love those names?

Donegal photo.jpg

Co Donegal, Inishowen Trawbreaga Bay, Five Finger Beach. Source: http://www.irishcentral.com

Needless to say, I had little love in my heart after a mongrel headwind dogged me at every turn. At one stage I had to change down a gear to cycle down a hill. You tell me there wasn’t someone upstairs looking down and having a great, old laugh at my expense. It was a headwind straight from Hell and I developed yet another theory but this one related to conspiracy.

The day wore on and it got to about 2pm and I had had it. It had started to rain again and the time was right to throw an almighty tantrum. Picture: grown woman, kicking bike and shaking her fist at the heavens. “Right,” I said “the next damn B&B I see, I’m stopping. I am officially over it!”

Sure enough, I rode around a corner and there was a rickety sign for a B&B. I rode up to the house, knocked on the door, knocked again and then just opened the door and walked in. Finally an old, bustling Irish lady appeared, took one look at my cold and bedraggled state and pushes me into her warm lounge room. Imagine my surprise when I saw that every

inch of her lounge room walls were covered with gold and platinum records. It appears that I had just invited myself into the family home of Enya and the famous Irish band – Clannad. My B&B hostess was the sister of two Clannad band members and an aunt to three others. I had been priming myself on Irish music before leaving Australia so this was a dream come true. Six degrees of separation and

I was almost a band member. Who would have thought I would have a brief brush with fame in the ‘back blocks’ of Ireland?

The next day I rode into the misty rain, thankfully without the headwind, but with Orinoco Flow ringing in my ears. That damned headwind had been lucky after all.

Sept 1996

Advertisements

A New Newcastle

As a kid, I remember a few trips to Newcastle – a grimy, dark and often raining place that seemed to be trapped in an industrial fug. The city economy, once famous for its ship building and steel works, has since been rationalised into non-existence. I know I am a late bloomer but it was a joy to discover Newcastle on brilliant, sunny Autumn weekend.

Newcastle didn’t automatically pop into my mind as an ideal ‘getaway’ but I have had to revise my estimation. A family commitment meant that we were destined for this coastal city and The Brave Man* decided to make a weekend of it – catching up with friends and generally enjoying what the city had to offer. We were not disappointed.

newcastle_beach_wave

For some stunning Newcastle and coastal photography – check out http://www.shannonhartigan.com.au

He did some bargain hunting via Wotif and found the Newcastle Beach Hotel for a discounted $129 per night. Yes, the hotel was a little dated but the rooms were large and comfortable and ours had a great view over the rooftops of the city and harbour area. I suspect the other side of the building had sea views. It was a little off-putting that everything was automated, with push-button entry cards and not a human in sight, but I guess that made for ultimate independence and flexibility. The best part was the location – right at the very top of the CBD on Hunter Street and the shortest sea-breeze walk to the beach and salt-water pools.

Another plus was the ready access to places to eat. I am the first to admit that I am no gourmand. I hate cooking, and all those TV foodie shows drive me to despair. If you are reading this blog hoping for gastronomic insight, then put down your computer/tablet/phone and step away now. I am a food pleb!

Due to the late hour we grabbed a quick Thai meal at Sticky Rice, just around the corner. ‘Quick’ was the operative word as the food seemed to materialise at our table within minutes – steaming hot and tasty. The serving sizes were ambitious but we did not admit defeat.

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear and we met up with friends for a brisk walk along the coast. I know I am strange but this is my definition of ‘a rage and a good time’. Our walk followed the coastline from Newcastle Beach right up to Merewether Beach – around 5km. This walk has a number of different names but incorporates The Bathers Way (from Nobbys Beach to Merewether Beach) and the Newcastle Memorial Walk (from Strzelecki Lookout to Bar Beach).

In my book, the walk along the edge of the sea is a ‘must do’ activity – especially if you can manage it at sunrise. To start the day with surfers bobbing in the waves and both seabirds and hang gliders making the most of the thermals – nothing could go wrong. A refreshing sea breeze cooled us as we huffed up the stairs and puffed down the paths. It is a lovely walk but be prepared for an elevated heart rate along the way.

The reward for being so healthy and virtuous was a reviving coffee and muffin at the Merewether Surf Life Saving Club Kiosk. We joined the jumble of dogs, leads and strollers and queued for our coffee, happy to watch the local sun-worshippers and enjoying a laidback Saturday morning vibe. The truly virtuous would have walked the return trip – but not us.

In amongst some family commitments we did manage to wander through the Newcastle CBD. It is pleasing to see so many parts of the city being rejuvenated, with old buildings being repurposed as funky bars and interesting shops. The monthly art and design markets and the Newcastle Writers Festival added to the buzz on the streets.

Dinner at the Green Roof Hotel in Hamilton and their Meatball restaurant was a new experience. You can order anything you like as long as it’s a meatball! El Mexico featured pork meatballs over corn chips and guacamole – interesting but missing something essential somewhere. Am I starting to sound like a foodie yet?

Sunday rolled around, our watches were adjusted to reflect the end of Daylight Saving time, and we tossed our clothes back into the bag. To offset some of the damage done to our waistlines in the previous 24 hours, The Brave Man* donned his neck-to-knees and headed for the sea baths and I stepped out onto the coastal walk again. The water report was ‘fresh and crystal clear’ and there was plenty of local sea life sharing the pool to distract swimmers from completing their laps.

Estabar Newcastle Beach - 1

Source: Estabar

We had a last dose of sociability and caffeine at Estabar as we caught up with more friends. Maybe it was the salt air but everyone was friendly and cruisy. We almost felt like locals too. Estabar, overlooking Newcastle Beach, offered an up close and personal view of the half-marathoners sprinting by as part of the NewRun event. We were suitably impressed but not inspired enough to put down our knife and fork and join in. The 10-kers looked more our style, especially those at the tail-end carrying cans of Coke and enjoying a chat. I am not sure if that is the true intent of the event but it has to be better than sitting on the lounge in front of the TV.

All too soon we were back on the road home to Mudgee. The Hunter Expressway has made a noticeable difference to travel times and we went from the centre of Newcastle – with a stop and an eagle-eye on the speed-limit – in 3.25hrs. Too easy.

Thank you Newcastle for the right mix of activity and interest. We will be back.

April 2016

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!