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A wild way to see Irish coastline... Despite never seeing any marine giants KATE PROCTOR has a whale of a time in Ireland.

Byline: KATE PROCTOR

IT WAS billed as a whalewatching trip, a three-day break in West Cork that promised to be a treat for wildlife lovers. We might have the chance to see humpback whales up close as they come near to shore to feed on herring, we were told.

So when the centrepiece boat trip was called off the day before due to rough seas, it is an understatement to say there was disappointment.

It says much for the beauty of this corner of Ireland that such disappointment was short-lived.

The region revealed itself as an absolute gem of a mini-break destination with an abundance of beaches, landscapes, music and history - as well as a mouth-watering adventure for food lovers.

West Cork tends to lose out to the Ring of Kerry and the town of Kilarney in wooing vast numbers of visitors. Cork city, too, can often be the sole destination of weekend visitors.

But all that is about to change as the region finds itself at the heart of the newly established Wild Atlantic Way, a signposted 2,500km trail hugging Ireland's rugged coast from Donegal to Kinsale.

In West Cork the adventure takes in Dursey Island, the tip of the Beara Peninsula, Mizen Head, Skibbereen and the charming town of Clonakilty, which was the base for our stay.

We flew Aer Lingus flight from Newcastle to Cork. Armed with a map of the Wild Atlantic Way and a hire car, we set off on the trail. So new is this route that signs for it only went up in the summer.

Our first destination was Baltimore, a village on the Atlantic steeped in history, and notably the setting of Des Ekin's best-seller The Stolen Village, a tale of Algerian pirates capturing the village's women and selling them into slavery in North Africa.

Whale expert Nic Slocum recounted Baltimore's past while chatting to us against the panoramic backdrop from the Baltimore beacon. While whale watching was sadly off the day's agenda, he has an excellent track record.

He takes visitors out to see a whole manner of different breeds from April through to February. The spring season starts with minke whales, porpoises and basking sharks; in the summer there are common dolphins.

And in September humpbacks appear and can stick around until winter. On a good day he's even spotted whales from the beacon; sometimes they have come close to the shore in search of herring.

We'll have to wait for smoother seas.

On to Mizen Head next, a drive which passes through picturesque painted shopfront towns and lush coastal countryside.

Even in autumn the fuchsias are in full bloom due to the mild Gulf Stream climate.

From the visitor centre, the waves breaking against the cliffs were the biggest I've ever seen. There's also the chance to walk across a much-celebrated new bridge linking the headland to the Mizen Head Signal Station.

We turned back on ourselves to drive to Rosscarbery Bay, about an hour back along the Wild Atlantic Way, for lunch at the Celtic Ross Hotel.

It's here that I first sampled wonderful West Cork smoked salmon, caught in nearby Unionhall. It was fantastic to drive out to the small fishing community later that night to see fish being brought in from the boats.

Neil Grant, the hotel's general manager, told us: "Everybody comes to the Ring of Kerry but there's the hope that Wild Atlantic Way will draw people a bit further South West. We're not worried about being slightly off the beaten track, because that's part of the charm."

|KATE PROCTOR Toomore Altar Tomb, a place on the way " Indeed, it is. We go via Drombeg stone circle - the most visited megalithic site in Ireland - then head back into Clonakilty, where we stay at the lovely 31-room Clonakilty Hotel on Wolfe Tone Street.

New owners Christopher and Patricia Byrnes are passionate about sustainable tourism and making the town a destination for visitors all year round.

That night we dined in the hotel restaurant and sampled delicious breaded mussels, followed by a main course of lamb shank, all locally sourced. I also had my first taste of Murphy's (when in Ireland...) Set up for a good night, we headed to the famous De Barra's Folk Club just up the road to see electroviolinist Justin Grounds. Next day, I confirmed nothing can set you up for the day more than a fried breakfast with the local speciality Clonakilty black and white pudding.

Pretty much all the menu can be sourced within a two-mile radius.

Our last day was a busy one, taking in the stunning Blue Flag beach at Inchydoney Island. Alone, apart from a handful of surfers taking on the waves, we walked for a mile or so along the beach's white sands. The pure colour of the sand in West Cork is said to be due to changing sea currents following the devastating earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal in 1755. Yes, really.

near the Wedge to stop offMizen Head At the Clonakilty Hotel, Chris Byrnes told us over dinner he was sceptical at first, too. But history (well, Google actually) reveals many of the once prosperous harbours in West Cork suffered in the decades following the earthquake.

The sea began to silt up and changed its fortunes forever. Nearby Timoleague, with its beautiful Franciscan ruined abbey, is an example of a community which once sat proudly on the cusp of an entirely navigable sea, but which is now on the edge of mudflats at low tide.

The four-star Inchydoney Island Lodge and Spa, which sits in the middle of the beach, must have one of the most incredible locations of any Irish hotel, and each room has its own spectacular sea view.

Its spa is also incredibly popular, thanks to a seawater pool. We had lunch in its more relaxed bar area, where I enjoyed crab claws and fillet of Atlantic cod. Back in Clonakilty, the charming Model Railway Village is a huge draw for families - it attracts 40,000 visitors a year - and a fun place to go with children, who get to follow the miniature trains as they whizz around.

As a history buff, it was a shame not to have had time to visit the Michael Collins Centre at Castleview, Clonakilty, which is the childhood home of Ireland's most famous Republican, who was shot on a road outside the town in 1922.

The place is run by two members of his family and, with 2016 billed as a key year for Irish tourism due to the centenary of the Easter Rising, it will no doubt see a huge rise in visitor numbers. I made do instead by checking out his fine statue in Emmet Square, close to where he lived for a time.

Before returning to the airport we headed into Cork where we went to the English Market and crossed the River Lee to play the Shandon Bells in the tower at St Anne's Church - an absolute must, despite its no doubt annoyance to the nearest neighbours.

And, do you know? By the end of the trip we had almost forgotten its initial attraction was supposed to be whale watching.

| Kate Proctor near the Toomore Altar Wedge Tomb, a place to stop off on the way to Mizen Head NEED TO KNOW KATE PROCTOR | stayed at the Clonakilty Hotel, Wolfe Tone Street, Clonakilty, Co. Cork, Ireland as a guest of the owners. A double room per night, with full Irish berakfast, starts from [euro]79. Visit www.theclonakilty.com.

She flew with Aer Lingus - see |www.aerlingus.com for regional fares and departures.

Whale watching - weather |dependent! - is available from Whale Watch West Cork in Baltimore. See www.whalewatchwestcork.com

CAPTION(S):

The view over the bay at Baltimore, above, |and from left is the Inchydoney Island beach, the Clonakilty Hotel, the bridge linking the headland to the Mizen Head Signal Station and the Baltimore Beacon
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:Feb 21, 2015
Words:1325
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