Surfing, sailing and seaweed spas: the pull of the ocean in County Sligo

Ireland has woken up to its world-class waves and in Strandhill, County Sligo, locals and blow-ins have both found an antidote to city living. The town is making a name for itself not only for surfing, but for outdoor adventures and its seaweed spa, too.

By Pól Ó Conghaile
Published 4 Apr 2020, 14:30 BST
Looking down onto Strandhill Beach as a surfer catches a wave.
Looking down onto Strandhill Beach as a surfer catches a wave.
Photograph by Strandhill Community Development Association

It’s a crisp afternoon in Strandhill. Two surfers are walking towards the water, wrapped head to toe in black neoprene, silhouetted by a low winter sun. I feel cold just looking at them. The onlooker beside me agrees. “They’re literally addicted to it. It’s like the priesthood or something.”

I’m a fair-weather surfer, happy with the odd summer outing. Sometimes I stand; mostly I tumble into the great Atlantic washing machine. But these two are on a whole other level, zipping along the breaks, oblivious to the chill. 

“I feel nourished here,” says Melanie White, one of the surfers, emerging from the water with her long hair dripping. She gestures around Sligo Bay. “There’s just something about the place. I love it.”

Melanie runs Rebelle Surf, one of several surf schools in the village. Some of her classes and camps are specifically for women. “It’s a different style of surf lesson; it’s more about what’s stopping you catching the wave. Is it self-doubt? Is it fear?” A generation ago, surfers trickled through, staying in vans and B&Bs. Today, the sport is sexy, equipment affordable, and Ireland has woken up to its world-class waves. Strandhill is home to just a few thousand souls, but summer days see its car park packed out, and a National Surf Centre is set to open this autumn. At the nearby Strand pub, the Guinness toucan has an adapted slogan: ‘Surfing is good for you’.

Adventure tourism companies have sprung up throughout County Sligo, offering everything from kayaking on inland lakes to hiking, biking, sailing and even ‘adventure yoga’ in this outdoorsy oasis. 

Then there’s ‘the mountain’, as everyone calls it. Knocknarea is a 1,072ft-high limestone lump that lords it over Strandhill like a souvenir-sized Table Mountain. To get a sense of the hold it has over locals, I join a short hike to the summit led by Barry Hannigan of Northwest Adventure Tours

“As far as archaeology goes, I think Ireland’s probably one of the biggest unopened boxes on the planet,” he says, taking us past deserted villages, pointing out distant drumlins (low oval mounds) and passage tombs (covered burial chambers). as the incline begins to steepen. I hear the story of Queen Meadbh, the legendary Irish warrior said to be buried standing up in a hilltop cairn, the better to face her enemies. Sligo was also WB Yeats’ ‘Land of Heart’s Desire’, and we can see ‘bare Ben Bulben’s head’ to the northeast, beneath which the poet lies buried in Drumcliff. 

“You can see the specks of surfers from the mountain, and the specks of hikers from the surf,” says Barry, smiling at the notion.

Back in Strandhill, we gather for warming cups of coffee in Shells Cafe. The sun drops over the dunes, and we bask in the glow of good exercise under unexpected blue skies. 

More info: Rebelle Surf runs a women’s surf camp this summer, from 19-21 June 2020. Prices start at €250 (£210) and includes lessons, lunches and yoga.

Published in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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