www.ireland.com/travel – The Irish Times – Discover Ireland
For sheer stress relief there’s nothing quite as effective as trying to catch the surf along the Irish coastline – especially if you can follow it up afterwards with a nice warm bath. Emma Cullinan gave both a try in Inchydoney.
The rain advances towards my window across the sandy bay, splattering against the glass in heavy bursts carried by periodic surges of wind.
When I had accepted an invitation to go surfing – half an hour before – the sun had been out, although even then it was just providing weak heat. This was an Irish spring after all.
It just seemed a deliciously ridiculous thing to do. To venture into a winter-cooled sea and learn something new. The rest of my party wasn’t keen – and with whale watching and facials in the Inchydoney Thallasotherapy spa on offer as alternatives, I could understand why.
But that human need to try new things and also relive spectacular past moments nagged: my childhood Christmas plunges into the sea – with a clutch of siblings and cousins – were obviously calling. The best childhood memories involve the sea and yet, as adults, most of us steer clear of the briney.
Rod was waiting for me at the West Cork Surf School hut. He was standing in for the owner Colum, who had made a snap decision to surf in Bali for three weeks. News was out that the surf was up out east.
Rod had just finished his day job in Cork and driven down here to finish the working week instructing me to ride waves.
“I thought we’d have to call it off for a moment there,” said Rod, referring to the recently departed rain storm. It’s good to know that even seasoned surfers don’t feel the need to brave the sharpest of elements.
Having rolled rubber up over our bodies – to defy the cold sea – we waddled in our wetsuits over to the surfboards. The only other natural substance I’ve slid across is snow and the equipment – in the form of skis and snow boards – doesn’t come much taller than the person they’re attached to. So when a nine-foot surfboard is handed to me I wonder how I’ll ever control the thing both in the water and out. If you carry one on your own the wind turns you into a human sand-yacht.
The only other natural substance I’ve slid across is snow and the equipment – in the form of skis and snowboards – doesn’t come much taller than the person they’re attached to. So when a nine-foot surfboard is handed to me I wonder how I’ll ever control the thing both in the water and out. If you carry one on your own the wind turns you into a human sand-yacht.
The two of us carry one end each and walk past the front of the Inchydoney hotel – and its decently dressed clients – in our black skin-tight suits and head calmly down a slipway into the sea. As we descend into the water I discover that wetsuits work wonderfully.
The waves are small, which is a relief. I hop up onto the board, lying tummy down with my toes tucked over the back. Lesson one is on how to catch a wave. “Paddle, paddle, “says Rod as a breaker comes my way and I do a pathetic front crawl – arms outstretched across the board – happy in the knowledge that Rod will give me a push to assist propulsion. I instantly understand the appeal of surfing as I glide into shore on substantial wave power. Exhilarated I grab the board and head straight back out to sea. I really, really want to do that again……and again.
After four tries Rod breaks the news that I really should try to stand up. We wade out onto the beach, lie the board onto the sand (digging a hole for its rudder-thingy) and he demonstrates. “You lie on your tummy like this. You tuck your toes under like this and then you….” Flip, suddenly he’s standing up.
“Some people,” he smiles indulgently, “cheat and get onto their knees first, before standing.”
I don’t feel ready to mock such a two-phase advancement to an upright position. Had I had about six month’s warning I could have toned my stomach and arm muscles to aid the upward propulsion. Instead I just lay on my stomach, on a board, on a beach – watch by a fit surfing instructor – wondering how I was going to get my body from down to up in nought to two seconds.
It happened – with a lot of effort – but it can’t have been a beautiful sight because Rod was soon eating his mocking works. “You might want to try kneeling first,” he suggested.
Back into the sea, wave comes, I pretend to paddle, Rod pushes the board and I’m off. Crawl onto knees and then up, a bit too late, just standing on a motion-free board long after thee wave has broken.
Determination takes over – I go again. Stand up, fall off, go through a spin cycle under water, find feet, back out to sea and again. I’m torn now; Rod is getting colder and colder but insists I carry on. “You have a go and warm up,” I say, but he won’t.
As I get churned under water, struggle to stand up and wade endlessly back out to sea I’m having the best time. I haven’t laughed so consistently for ages – probably due to weakness and helplessness as well as the feel good negative ions being hurled around by the sea.
Climbing back onto the board becomes more and more of a fish flop – if the whale watchers came by now they’d surely think they’d found a prize (albeit beached) specimen. I’m drenched, I’m exhausted and pathetically giggly and gliding helplessly along on waves. I don’t really crack the standing – only ever getting to my feet long after the wave has gone.
Eventually Rod is beginning to turn blue with cold and I’m turning to jelly, so we head back to the hut. Then the cold hits and luxury, I pad next door to the Inchydoney hotel, run a very deep hot bath and bliss out – happy that I pushed myself to do something that was bit of a struggle.
For all the relaxation treatments available to stressed out office workers – the best antidotes to everyday life are up mountains and in the sea.
Sunday Business Post
“You’re doing great!” Colm the surfer grinned as the full force of the Atlantic Ocean slammed into my surfboard, which slammed into my chest, which knocked me breathless. Breathless, but not, unfortunately, unable to draw a breath of pure seawater as I disappeared beneath the waves.
Gulping and snorting saltwater while tumbling over and over, I thought about the one piece of advice Colm – aka Big Red – had given us back on the beach: never turn your surfboard between you and the waves. Because if a wave hits you, the board could knock you out and under.
As seawater streamed from my nose and stung my eyes, I’d like to say I thought about getting right back up on that goddamn board. But mostly I just thought about the pain in my nostrils – which were burning like I’d snorted caustic soda – and whether my hair was a mess.
Taking three steps forward and two steps back, I battled back from the shore to the implacable Colm. He was waiting waist-deep in water, dressed in a wetsuit, yellow cagoule and green woolly hat.
Big Red: “One more go then?”
Wee Blondie: “One more go then.”
And another and another until finally I was up, riding my first wave. Surfing coach Colm McAuley runs the burgeoning surf school on Inchydoney Beach, just two miles from Clonakilty in west Cork. Although, you wouldn’t think it when you see the car he’s driving. Colm trundles down the drive to his surf hut, past the Mercs, Beamers and Audis parked outside the Inchydoney Lodge & Spa, where I am staying for the weekend. In his rusting white Ford Escort estate, tail lights missing and a window permanently down, he seems more Del Boy than Big Kahuna.
But Colm is a fully-insured ISA qualified instructor and lifeguard. His strong sinewy frame and mess of red hair speak of a life lived out of doors. “It’s hard to keep a car with all this saltwater around,” he says laconically. I glance up to the car park above and have a wee smirk, thinking about the guests bent on rejuvenation while their swanky vehicles are being devoured by the grey mist of the sea.
Standing barefoot in a puddle, I prise on a damp, smelly layer of neoprene and wonder if, after only one night in Inchydoney, I could be turning soft. Because for the first time in years, I’m not really looking forward to getting into the sea.
The day before I had driven from a frenetic, pre-Christmas Dublin to the very tip of west Cork. It seemed like the edge of the world.
The Lodge & Spa sits on a headland on Inchydoney Island, and each room looks out over the pale crescent beaches to the Atlantic and beyond.
Inchydoney promises relaxation, rejuvenation, excellent food and wine and yes, unadulterated luxury; my every whim catered for. But, unusually for a member of the female species, luxurious surroundings make me a little nervous.
Claustrophobic, even. I had come to West Cork to look out to the sea and not back at the land.
My usual holiday trips consist of waking up and crawling out a tent door, not waking up, slipping on my complimentary robe and switching on the cable TV. I’d be more likely to be found showering under a cold pump than being hydro-massaged by automatic multi-jets.
But walking into the foyer of Inchydoney Lodge & Spa, the open fire and proffered glass of port is hard to resist.
The old Alsatian guarding the doorway winks and snuffles his approval. Just this once, I decide to give in and be pampered.
My travelling companion is a bit harder to convince.
En route to our bedroom we pass smiling men and women wearing nothing but towelling robes and slippers. “It’s not very. . .manly,” he hisses.
By the next day, he’s in his own robe and slippers and making his way to the hotel’s thalassotherapy centre. The centre is divided into private rooms where you can have aeromarine baths, a seawater jet shower, algae application, cryotherapy (leg wrap of marine algae to improve circulation), pressotherapy (promotes lymphatic drainage), marine brumisation (inhalation of ionised seawater mist to improve breathing) and physiotherapy.
There is also a steam room, sauna, gymnasium, beauty clinic, and a relaxation room overlooking the ocean. Below, a heated seawater pool has counter current swimming, waterfalls, geyser spas, microbubble seats, underwater massage seats, neck showers and an aqua-gymnastic area.For Inchydoney guests willing to step outside the spa, the surrounding area offers much to explore. The hotel staff can arrange excursions to the Old Head of Kinsale golf links course, horse riding and deep sea fishing and diving. Shoppers can while away the afternoon in Clonakilty, and the nearby villages of Timoleague and Courtmacsherry provide a good day out for families. Timoleague is known for its impressive ruined Franciscan Abbey which was sacked in 1649.
The more active can arrange to go deep-sea angling or shark fishing, or book horse riding at the Courtmacsherry Hotel. Watch the windsurfers bob like Subbuteo players in the grey green seas of Courtmacsherry’s Ardigeen firth; one flick of a finger of wind and they are off, careering across the waves.
If watching this high-octane living is too much exertion for you, head to the pier house pub – known locally as John Young’s – and meet the locals: Dutch, Belgians, Austrians, Swedes, British and, if you’re lucky, maybe even a few Irish. Contemplating the spa treatments ahead of us, we decide to stay indoors and take the plunge in the seawater pool. We marvel at the luxury of swimming in the sea, inside, while looking at the sea, outside.
Then my companion begins to look shifty. “I was thinking, well, with all this wind, it would be a waste not to get my kite up on the beach – you go on ahead and get wrapped in seaweed,” he says.
But I am adamant; I’m not going into the breach alone.
And to convince him that spas are not just for girls, I have lined up an afternoon of ‘manly’ spa treatments, including a deep tissue massage – with a masseuse, of course. I decide to avoid all the pummelling, prodding and pasting the spa has to offer, and go for a Reiki session and an Elemis facial with Anna, my therapist. I ask Anna if Reiki involves all sorts of spooky goings on with body energy and spirits, while secretly believing that it’s a load of hokum.
She just smiles. I discover that Reiki is a completely calming, destressing hour, where Anna’s hands act like a mini solar panel on different parts of the body. She concentrates on ‘aligning the energies’ in my head and shoulders, where she says I have a lot of stress.
Anna also works around my heart, which she says “needs nurturing’‘. At the end of the session, I remark at the warmth of her hands.
“They’re freezing,” she says, holding them out. “The heat was your energy.” The spooky feeling about Reiki returns when I touch her hands and they are indeed stone cold.
The entire session, including a facial, lasts three hours and I emerge from the room in a bubble of calm. I find my companion back in our room, supine, and still wearing the ubiquitous cotton robe. He ouches about the rigours of an unrelenting massage while I ooh and ahh about my reiki and facial. We both realise that all this relaxing doesn’t stop you working up an appetite, and rush to dress for dinner.
Sating that appetite is where Inchydoney excels.
From the first hors d’oeuvre to the last petit feure, Inchydoney is culinary heaven.
As we watch the ocean crashing from behind the panoramic windows of the Gulfstream Restaurant, I am sure Anna must be putting her magic hands to work in the kitchen too.
Inchydoney uses fresh local produce to create a fusion of modern French and light Mediterranean cuisine.
Head chef Mark Kirby excels with coastal seafood – turbot, sole and shellfish – made all the more enjoyable by the fact that the calories of each meal are kept to a minimum. And so, when I step out of the hotel the next morning for my appointment with Colm the surfer, I’m not quite the girl I was. After only one day, Inchydoney living has softened me up.
Or maybe I’m not merely put off by the rain, cold and waves. Having swam, bodyboarded, dived and snorkelled in the sea for years, maybe this waterbaby is just afraid of failure.
But then we’re on the beach practising the one swift movement that brings you from paddling to surfing: pushing up with your arms, drawing your knees into your chest, slamming your feet down spread apart, knees bent, arms out. And then we’re in the sea, doing it for real.
After the lesson I run shivering from the beach in my swimsuit, dripping triumphantly through the hotel lobby. Would I swap my wetsuit for a cotton robe? No thanks. Luckily, at Inchydoney, you can have both.
There was a time when surfing was considered a sport for warm weather countries, one to be enjoyed in bright blue waters by good looking Australian and American guys and girls. Over the past ten years however, that perception has been altered considerably. Nowadays, images of Irish surfing are being used to promote the country as a tourist destination, advertise mortgage rates and sell mobile phones.
Those marketing ideals, however, couldn’t be further from the core values that are to be found at the heart of the Irish scene.
An intrinsic need to be able to escape to the beach whenever the waves were promising led Little Island man Jason Coniry to set up his own business. Coniry opened Incide surf shop on Bridge Street a decade ago, but became involved in the sport almost ten years before that, “I met a few guys through water safety and as surfing is a full-on lifestyle, I got addicted,” he explained. “There were about ten of us that surfed together in Cork for about five years before anybody started to take it up. I travelled and lifeguarded around the world for a time and I knew then that I wanted to make a living from it. I also wanted a lifestyle that meant I could go surfing anytime the surf was good.
“The surf can be as good as anywhere on its day but we don’t have as many of those days in Cork as they do in Clare or Donegal. It’s reasonably consistent in Inchydoney and Long Strand but what’s really noticeable is the industry as a whole in Cork. Tubes, a high street surf shop and Incide are in the city. There are shops in Kinsale and Clonakilty as well as a number of surf schools and these are all proper legitimate businesses which employ people. We’re actually opening a second shop in Clonakilty ourselves in the coming weeks.”
Surfing has seen a massive growth in popularity across the world in recent years, along with several other board-based sports. This has had a knock-on effect in Ireland, especially with many more thousands of Irish people having travelled more extensively throughout the past decade.
“Surfing and skateboarding are far more sociable than other sports,”
Jason continued. “You go and hang at the beach for a couple of hours with your friends. This isn’t just a sport – it’s a culture and a lifestyle. Fashion goes with it, along with certain genres of music.
Everybody aspires to it, whether they are a solicitor or someone claiming the dole, because once they are in the water there are no social barriers, everyone experiences the same thing and that’s a very powerful bond.
“Just last week I was out surfing and the sun was absolutely incredible. The sky went through all shades of orange, purple and pink and there were only about five or six people at the beach. You’re experiencing something that’s fairly unique on a regular basis. A big part of it is simply being absorbed in nature – as clichéd as that sounds.
“I go to South Africa and a place called Jefferys Bay every second year. The last time I was there, I met guys in the water who were a bit cold at first but when I said I was Irish, there was a certain respect there. They know the waves are good but that the water and conditions are cold and we get a credit for ‘roughing’ it. When we’re surfing in January, we know the people we meet are passionate about what they do. It’s not about how they look when it’s lashing rain and two degrees. Right then, it’s only about the surf.”
Colum McAuley grew up in Bantry and has loved almost everything to do with water sports since he was a young boy. He set up one of the first surf schools in Cork on Inchydoney beach. All his instructors are trained lifeguards and are qualified through the Irish Surfing Association (ISA).
“When I first started West Cork Surfing about 12 years ago, I would have known everybody driving around with a board on their car roof – that’s how small the surfing community was,” he said. “It’s all changed now though. I think a lot of that has to do with how much people have travelled and the ‘cool’ factor that’s there at the moment.
“The school is as busy as ever. We’re open seven days a week during the summer and mainly weekends and for private groups during winter.
The downturn hasn’t really affected us but the weather always has a massive impact. Normally we would tip away over Christmas and the New Year but you couldn’t even drive to the beach for a couple of months this year.
“The problem with surfing here is that conditions are different every day. Perfect days – with good, clean waves – are few and far between and you might need to do a lot of travelling to get to a location where the conditions are what you are looking for. If people are going to stick with it, they have to put up with all these things. It’s important they realise that learning to surf is a slow process.
“The vital thing is regular practice. You’re back to square one even after a month. If I don’t surf myself for a couple of weeks, I feel rusty, like I’ve gone backwards a little. In that sense, it’s an incentive for everybody that surfs regularly to stay fit so that the next time there’s a lull in waves for a few weeks, you’re still strong going back in.”
One man well placed to give an opinion on how Irish standards compare internationally is Australian Wayne Murphy. Born to Irish parents on Rottnest Island – just off Perth – he has been surfing for over 40 years and has also been a judge and commentator on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) tour.
“It was the surf that attracted me ten years ago, I knew I wouldn’t be competing with mad Aussies for waves!” he revealed. “Ireland has world- class surf and what has made it more palatable is the incredible growth in wetsuit technology. They were like cardboard ten years ago and it was only the tough and hardy people who were out there. Now there are boots, gloves, hoods – everything you need to be comfortable.
“It can still be cold enough but if you’re keen, you can get waves all year around. Ireland, being an island, has loads of different types of waves in a small, small area. We have point breaks, reef breaks, river mouths, sand bars, big waves, small waves, medium waves and because of the twisting, undulating nature of the coastline you only have to drive a couple of miles away to find somewhere more favourable if you don’t like what you see.
“I live in Mayo but I come down every summer and work here with West Cork Surfing for the three months. Every summer when I head back home, people think I’ve been in Spain or Portugal because of my sun tan. I’m always saying ‘No, I’ve been in west Cork’. My family come down with me and have some fun on the beach for a couple of months. If I had my way I’d move down here tomorrow.”
Wayne believes Ireland’s potential as a surfing nation is only in its infancy. He’s positive we’ll have a competitor on the professional circuit and possibly even an Irish world champion some day in the future. However, he’s equally as keen to emphasize that water safety is critical for beginners, intermediates and professionals alike at all times. “Some people only surf for the fun but a couple of hundred more take it up full-time every summer. Ireland is an island and for a long time the sea has been a taboo. In the old days fishermen drowned in the sea but people are now learning how to recreate safely and it’s important surf schools and adventure centres instill that awareness in their courses.
“We had a guy pulled out of the sea by a helicopter at Inchydoney last week simply because he ran out of gas. He thought he knew enough to get out of the situation but despite being a triathlete, he couldn’t make it back. People can jump in too deep, too quickly and think they know it all. After 40 years, the more I surf, the more I respect the sea. You really need to have your wits about you, especially because of the currents created by the coastline in Ireland.
“Surfers like Fergal Smith are making incredible inroads on the international scene right now. We are not world beaters but we are starting to get second generation surfers coming up through the ranks now and they, hopefully, will start to make the breakthrough. The European titles are being held in Bundoran in September and while Ireland are not going to win it, they will do well.
“It might be another five or ten years before we get an Irish cailín or buachaill challenging to get on the world tour but it’s not that far away because we have the training ground and an incredible variety of surf. Put it this way – I hope to see an Irish world champion in my lifetime.”
Colum McAuleySurfing: How to get started…
“We give two-hour lessons in which we give people the very basics – from how to put wetsuits on right through to getting into the water.
We teach in most conditions and if people come back for a couple of more, we can give them an introduction to rip currents and conditions.
People who have their own gear often ask what they’re doing wrong and I know without getting them in the water, just by looking at their board and knowing their experience, that it’s too small for them. By getting a lesson, you can try different size boards and we have all the rest of the gear as well.
All I want to see is a person catching a wave and standing up on the board and if the board isn’t helping them do that, then the equipment is wrong and they need to use a different one. When we first started we used all sorts of boards, some of which were probably too small, and that meant a slow learning curve for us. With the right gear and the right board – along with a few tips and the right instruction – the learning curve is quicker.
People should always observe the beach and the conditions before heading into the water and ask others, who may have local knowledge, about how the waves are. You can come to a beach one day and have waves but there could be a lot more water moving around the next day with currents people mightn’t be aware of. People often don’t like asking questions because they are afraid of showing up their knowledge but that’s the only way to learn.
As I see it, people are going to go surfing anyway so if I can get them doing things properly, I’d prefer to give them that extra knowledge. I have a fair bit of experience in the sea between surfing and sailing and if I can say something to somebody that some day might click back with them and get them out of a situation, I’d consider that job done.”
Jason ConiryGetting set up
“I advise people to get at least one lesson so that they have an idea of what they are getting into before buying any equipment.
If you are getting any of the beginners’ boards, they are priced in the region of €300. A wetsuit that will keep you warm all year round and is from a top international brand with a proper guarantee is available for about €150. Once you have boots, a pair of gloves and a hood for the depths of winter, you’re ready to go.
After that it’s only petrol money. There are no membership fees, there are no pay-as-go fees like golf, you don’t have to replace equipment regularly and you don’t break a lot of gear. It’s actually a relatively inexpensive lifestyle once you get yourself set up.
I would also suggest people go to a shop where people actually participate in the sport when they are buying any equipment – it’s the same for any sport – as the staff will be able to give plenty of good, practical and honest advice.”