1 December 2014

Magic: Starlight and spirits in West Cork

The stars shine brightly in the sky above Union Hall.

All the better for fairies, for evening rounds of smoked salmon sandwiches, and for night-time kayaking trips with the Milky Way spread out above you and phosphorescence flashing from your paddle. Welcome to the west.

Union Hall is home to Ireland’s newest RNLI lifeboat station. We asked the volunteers for their insider tips on what to do in the area. If you love nature and the sea, it turns out there’s rather a lot ...

Union Hall RNLI volunteers (L-R): Jim Moloney, John O'Donovan, Tim O'Donovan, Stephen Hurley, Tim FordePhoto: RNLI/Nigel Millard
Union Hall RNLI volunteers (L-R): Jim Moloney, John O'Donovan, Tim O'Donovan, Stephen Hurley, Tim Forde

Whales and dolphins

Deputy Launching Authority Jim Moloney: ‘You should go whale watching. Colin Barnes from Cork Whale Watch is one of the most successful guys in Ireland, I’d say.’

Cork Whale Watch is based at Reen Pier 5 minutes from the village. On a 4-hour trip aboard the Holly Jo, you’re 93% likely to spot whales, dolphins, sunfish and/or basking sharks – a group of beings rather magnificently known as megafauna.

Kayaking by night

Shore Crew Member John O’Donovan: ‘Atlantic Sea Kayaking with Jim Kennedy. Jim is a bigwig in the kayaking world; he’s just got a state award in Mexico for his work there, but he’s based here. It’s well worth a trip.’

Also running from Reen Pier, Atlantic Sea Kayaking runs themed trips for all abilities and experience levels. Highlights include the Starlight Serenade night kayak, and seaweed-themed weekends involving foraging, cooking, eating and spa treatments for tired muscles. Jim shared a seaweed recipe with us:

Where to stay?

Crew Member Carla Nugent: ‘Well I might be biased, but I’m going to have to say my mother’s guesthouse. Shearwater Country House is just above the pier here with lovely views, all rooms en suite. The breakfasts are fabulous; I cook them myself! And we serve Union Hall smoked salmon.'

Union Hall smoked fish products, served up at the Shearwater and available from Glenmar fishmongers in the village
Union Hall smoked fish products, served up at the Shearwater and available from Glenmar fishmongers in the village

What a dive!

Crew Member Tim O’Donovan: ‘Scuba diving is big around here, at all levels. It’s mostly wreck diving. There’s a U boat just outside Union Hall, and further along the coast there’s Kowloon Bridge, the largest dive shipwreck in the world. As well as the wrecks, the marine life here is second to none, because we're the first point of land hit by the Gulf Stream.'

Enjoy your dive safely. Get the RNLI’s tips here.

History and hooch

Station Secretary Marie Nolan: ‘If you go across the harbour to Glandore, there’s a stone circle just outside the village: Drombeg Stone Circle. It’s worth the trip. It looks like a mini-Stonehenge and you can wander around. It’s quite spectacular. There’s quite a lot of historical and archaeological interest in the area, from lookout towers and round towers to the ring fort at Castletownshend.’

The stone circle dates back to 150BC. Today, it’s got a range of spirits named after it. The original Drombeg is a whiskey-style spirit distilled specifically to be a lighter drink. It’s got half the alcohol content of a true whiskey, without compromising on flavour. Drombeg was developed by three Union Hall schoolfriends and is now available in supermarkets all around Cork. Try Fields SuperValu in Skibbereen for the full range (and an irresistible bakery section).

Drombeg Stone CirclePhoto: walshphotos
Drombeg Stone Circle

Blue Flag beaches

Crew Member Aodh O’Donnell: ‘We’ve got a number of fantastic beaches all along the coast, starting in the east from Inchydoney to Long Strand, Owenahincha … all Blue Flag beaches. They're mostly sandy beaches and great for kids, with lifeguards on them during the Summer.'

Ireland has woken up to its surf potential. The waves aren’t just for tourists and madmen any more. Many of the locals regularly take their kids surfing at the weekends, and there are suitable beaches all around the area. But the daddy of them all is Inchydoney Strand, half an hour’s drive from Union Hall.

Inchydoney Surf School runs lessons for all ages and abilities from a breath-taking white-sand Blue Flag sweep.

If you’re feeling less energetic (or if it’s raining, which in West Cork is always a possibility), Inchydoney Island Hotel and Spa is famous for its luxury accommodation and treatments.Winter offers are available, and if great surf and alternative therapies aren’t quite Bondi enough for you, check out Santa’s Big BBQ on Saturday 13 December 2014. From turkey burgers to cranberry chicken wings, it’s Christmas on the beach with epic local flavours.

Big shark

Crew Member Lee Miles: ‘Shark fishing is very big around here. We’ve had the Irish record for the biggest mako shark, as well as records for coley, mullet and haddock. Shark fishing boats go out from the village pier here at Keelbeg.’

The view over Glandore HarbourPhoto: Emma Jervis
The view over Glandore Harbour

Lough Hyne

Crew Member Stephen Hurley:Visit Lough Hyne. It's a seawater lake with unusual fauna. And at this time of year (October) you've got bioluminescence, so if you go down there at night it's absolutely stunning. Or if you can swim go down in the day, put your buoyancy aid on and go down the Rapids, which connect the lake to the sea,

'There’s a channel leading to a nice place where you can moor your yacht, which has been featured in a honeymoon article in an English yachting magazine. And there’s a hill walk above the lake up through the woods.’

Lough Hyne is Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve, just 3 miles south-west of Skibbereen.

There’s information on Lough Hyne at Skibbereen Heritage Centre, as well as an exhibition on the Great Famine of the 1840s, which devastated the town. The centre also offers a genealogy service, helping tourists trace their West Cork roots. It’s popular, not surprising given the amount of emigration from the area during the famine and its aftermath.

Eating out

Shore Crew Member Denis O'Donovan: For food and drink, the Boatman's, Dinty's or Casey's in the village are all good! Moloney's does fish and chips for €5 on Fridays.

'Across the harbour try the Glandore Inn, which has just been sold and is now under new local management. They do lovely hot food overlooking the harbour. And you've got Mary Ann's over on the other side of the parish in Castletownshed. It's a famous seafood eatery for the well-heeled.'

Local prawns and a pint in Casey's bar, Union Hall. Yes, I know it should really be Murphy's in Cork, but I fancied something lighter with my buttered shellfish. Delicious, and we especially approve of the RNLI collection box!
Local prawns and a pint in Casey's bar, Union Hall. Yes, I know it should really be Murphy's in Cork, but I fancied something lighter with my buttered shellfish. Delicious, and we especially approve of the RNLI collection box!

On foot

Crew Member Roland Whelton: There are some nice walks around, like Rineen Woods. If you've got kids, you can tell them fairies live in the wood, and they can find the little fairy houses in the trees, with little doors. There's another nice route along the coast from Sandycove to Toe Head.'

The RNLI in Union Hall

Union Hall's B class lifeboat Maritime NationPhoto: RNLI/Nicholas Leach
Union Hall's B class lifeboat Maritime Nation

Union Hall is Ireland’s newest RNLI lifeboat station. It went on service in early September this year, and the crew were called out on their first shout on 13 November.

They launched their B class lifeboat Maritime Nation after reports of two small boats drifting aground in Rosscarbery. There was no one onboard. But in force 4-5 winds, our new crew showed how well drilled they already are, launching within 7 minutes of the alert being raised.

Lifeboat Operations Manager John Kelleher says: 'I'm very happy with the response time and performance of the lifeboat crew and the shore crew. They have been training consistently every week, it's a big commitment and we are glad to see that has paid off on our first call out.'

Getting there

Union Hall is just over an hour's drive from Cork Airport. The nearest town is Skibbereen, 6 miles from the village.

Have we missed something?

Let us know about your favourite things to do in West Cork below the line.

Our next Spotlight will be on Swanage, Dorset. You can give your recommendations in the comments on this page, or on Twitter: @mazzadi.