The t-shirt printing store boasts tops with the slogan ‘Westport – voted the best place to live in Ireland’. However, it failed to declare by whom and more importantly, why? We were keen to investigate this further, so when we saw that Westport also hosts ‘Ireland’s best loved heritage attraction’ it was our first port of call.
Built on the foundations of one of ‘Pirate Queen’ Grace O’Malley’s castles in 1650, Westport House is a grand stately home set in large gardens. It has over thirty rooms, some of which are gloriously decorated and definitely worth investigating. They include a lavish dining room, a bedroom painted with the famous willow tree Chinese love story, grand marble staircases, opulent reception suites and a cosy book brimmed library.
We learned of the house’s history, including all about the previous owners, notably lovable rogue turned hero Howe Peter Browne. He was the second Marquess of Sligo and best buddies with Lord Byron and British Prime Minister Robert Peel. He is remembered as a flamboyant successful racehorse owner, criminal archaeologist, father of fourteen children and liberator of Jamaican slaves.
It was a bit of a challenge to extract the details from the information panels as the amount of copy was quite overwhelming and the print was so small. But when in an antiquated establishment, going old school and using the bygone ways of concentration, determination and dedication overcame this literary test.
There were some strange exhibits too, including a mini waxwork museum of famous Irish people and a childishly decorated dungeon, as well as the huge funfair section set further away in the grounds. It was a shame that the house could not be kept completely in a period style, there are so many interesting artifacts and historical significance which were slightly lost on the visitor.
After exercising the brain we were keen to continue with the assessment of Westport’s accolade and see if the restaurants were also of a high standard. After seeking a local recommendation we popped into the seemingly popular Pantry and Corkscrew, suitably adorned with many foodie awards. They squeezed us in and gave us the Early Bird menu option, a bargain of two courses for the price of one. The restaurant likes to use local produce and so I chose the mushroom risotto for starters, made using a Westport beer and the organic Irish beef burger for mains.
It’s a very quaint little place, with the decoration themed after the pantry name and customised with cuckoo clocks, miniature houses, embroidered handbags and old suitcases. I felt as if I had stepped into the chef’s home and they were cooking from their heart; top grade informal dining. My risotto was earthy and full of flavour; I particularly liked the parmesan crisps which gave a nice decorative element and an additional textural dimension.
The burger was good, I would have preferred that it was ever so slightly bigger and had more cheese running through it. I must though, give a huge shout out to the homemade tomato ketchup. I normally prefer mayonnaise, but this sauce packed a punch of real tomato flavour and put the big bottle brands to shame. I was converted to the red side for one night.
After a good night’s sleep, our next assignment in our assessment of Westport and it’s best Irish town status involved taking part in a physical activity. We had previously been tipped off about the Great Western Greenway, a former railway line that is now a cycling and hiking track and winner of a ‘Destination of Excellence’ award in 2011. Originally the railway was built to bring prosperity to disadvantaged areas and was successful in doing so until the paved roads brought the more popular cars and buses. Now it benefits from the spoils of a new wave of tourists enjoying an almost traffic free 42km spectacular trek.
We opted to take the shuttle bus from Westport out to the end of the line at Achill and to cycle back at a relaxed pace in order to appreciate the outstanding natural beauty. The going was almost completely flat and had plenty of en route portaloos, which made the journey so much more pleasant. It was an absolute pleasure to take in the sensational landscape, and lucky for us, illuminated in snazzy sunshine. John Lennon liked this area too, he bought one of the islands in Clew Bay, which we passed on the way. It is a sea full of ‘sunken drumlins’, oval-shaped hills formed by glaciers that now appear as islands after the rise in water levels. We paused to take photos and greeted every passing cyclist, taking our time to enjoy the journey to the maximum. I felt exhilarated as I pedalled past islands, cottages, sheep, hills, fish farms, and sculptures, just oh so pretty!
We stopped off about two-thirds of the way in the pretty town of Newport. A tempting sign advertising cycle racks and a garden lured us into the Blue Bicycle Tea Rooms. We hit gold as not only did the honey and rooibos tea come in a proper teapot with china cups but the salad came with the most gorgeous slabs of divine goats cheese. Now that’s what I call a proper reward for all that biking.
Back in the saddle, we continued onwards, finishing up in Westport, 49 kilometres and five hours later. I awarded myself a ‘medal’ of a commemorative t-shirt. Yay!
After a nice wash and brush up we sauntered over to Westport Quay to appraise The Tower bar and restaurant. On a busy evening, the fantastic staff managed to not only find us a free table but also to accommodate our request to sit outside and enjoy the sunset until our food was ready. We simply couldn’t resist the stunning views of Ireland’s holy hill, Croagh Patrick mountain, out over to the sea whilst sipping a large white wine. It’s definitely an impressive setting.
Before long we were inside and slipping down some super fresh local oysters, directly from Clew Bay, where we had cycled past earlier. This was swiftly followed by a humongous pot of mussels, sourced from Killary, which is a few kilometres south. I devoured the tasty molluscs that were cooked in a garlic and cream white wine sauce, which was, unfortunately, a little thinner than we liked. Nevertheless, the impeccable customer service made us feel like we were really well looked after and overall left us feeling we had experienced a very special evening.
The final test of Westport’s claim to fame was to extensively sample the live music scene. We ended up on a little crawl, popping into various pubs, sampling the ales and checking out the tunes. The musical entertainment on offer ranged from politically inspired ballads to tales of the hardships of sheep shearing in Australia and the classic popular Irish tunes. There definitely was a real depth of traditional music and the audiences that were mainly of the older generation particularly appreciated the acts. I found it very interesting and also nice to see regional Irish pubs packed out with people applauding the displays of cultural vigour and passion. Just another string to add to Westport’s bow.
Our appraisal was complete. In our opinion, Westport did live up to its recognition as a lovely town. We absolutely loved the fantastic countryside; I count the Great Western Greenway cycle as one of my favourite days out ever. It was also a joy to experience customer focused restaurants showcasing the wonderful local produce. As a mecca for trad music, Westport certainly is vying for top billing, with plenty of bars alive alive-o with terrific folky sounds. As to whether it is the best place to live in Ireland, well you might just have to go and verify that for yourself.
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