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Things to do in Carlow

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Carlow “There’s gold in them there hills…”

August 24, 2014

Carlow – An Ecotourism Destination Waiting to Happen?

It’s funny how the world works..

I recently spent a couple of hours chatting with Manchán Magan travel writer, playwright and generally all round nice guy. I didn’t put two and two together at the time, that he was the Manchám who entertains and informs us on Tuesday afternoons on the George Hook show, with tales of off the beaten track travel, history and adventure. I’m not sure how I managed that social faux par but the following day I spotted a link to an interview from Manchám that turned out to be one of the most enthralling and descriptive I’ve heard about our county yet. I’d have to disagree with him about The George Beranard Shaw as have seen some side splittingly funny shows there and some beautiful art in the Visual Centre too, but as for the rest…

Carlow. An ecotourist destination waiting to happenHe describes the beauty and history of our little county as he found it; brought to life the many villages and towns throughout it. He talks about the richness and wealth of Carlow in older days, the architecture, ancient kings and the fast flowing rivers that meander through the pretty Estate villages.

Perhaps his words struck a deeper chord because I’m working with Green and Vibrant to help Carlow tourism promote some events and in doing so have had eyes opened to Carlow’s potential as an ecotourism destination. I’ve also been walking a lot over recent months and taken up cycling, both of which helps to put a new perspective on our surrounding area as maps are taken out and routes searched for.

Carlow is full of interesting places to visit, of history, folklore, craft, art and mysticism. From Art, the Leinster King now buried in the monastery graveyard in St Mullins to the seat of the Kavanagh’s in Borris and onto the home of the Fellowship of Isis at Huntington Castle in Clonegal. The Blackstairs mountains are always within sight, varying from dark and brooding, to close up, green and inviting depending upon the weather that minute, with views from the top of Mount Leinster of five counties and Wales, breathtaking on a clear day.

Carlow as an Ecotourism Destination

Carlow is hugely underdeveloped as a tourist destination and has potential for anyone with an idea to develop.Carlow. There's Gold In Them There Hills... Mary White is leading the way in the foothills of the mountain with Blackstairs Eco Trails and Una Halpin from Wildways Adventures promises outdoor fun for all the family. Go With The Flow river adventures provide canoeing safaris whilst walking opportunities abound with several good walking routes and clubs, as well as the south Leinster way beginning in the small village of Kildavin.

Bianka McDonagh realised the potential here when she bought an eight seater mini bus and set up Carlow Tours. You might spot her driving groups around the countryside, pointing out the popular and unusual places as well as offering made to measure trips for groups, an essential service if villages are to attract tourists without their own transport.

Tea and Scones in Leighlinbridge

It was with great delight that we discovered a local country house had opened tea and craft rooms offering workshop space to craftspeople in the award-winning village of Leighlinbridge. A few sign posts pointing the way to Rathvinden House from the tow path would I’m sure, attract several more river visitors to it too.

My bikeBut there’s scope for so much more.

As far as I can tell there’s one campsite on the Carlow/Wicklow border and only a couple of hostels here. The fast flowing rivers could be much busier too. It’s a rare thing to see a boat chugging along The Barrow and once on the river, the riverside cafés and pubs are a welcome respite to tired walkers, paddlers and cyclists, but there’s not many of them.

On a recent 10km cycle along the River Barrow tow path between Carlow and Leighlinbridge on a beautifully sunny August afternoon, we came across two walkers, one fisherman and no boats on the river. That was it. Lovely if you’re looking for a quite afternoon, but it seemed such a wasted opportunity for anyone who wants to attract visitors to our county, offer employment opportunities and generally help the local economy.

‘Soft’ Adventure Opportunities in Ireland

According to Fáilte Ireland, adventure tourism is big business with 26% of all global travel adventure based and adventure travellers spending 45% more than other travellers. If you’re thinking that adventure holidays are for adrenaline junkies think again. 90% of adventure is described as “soft” and Ireland is considered a “soft” adventure destination with walking in Ireland a key attraction. With such a beautiful, quiet and unspoilt landscape, Ireland’s “soft” adventure experience is about the combination of nature, culture and outdoor activities. Adventure customers are not “young men” either,  51% are women and 42% of adventure customers are aged between 41 and 60.

O'Sheas in Borris

The popular O’Sheas in Borris, perfect stop of for refreshments

If you’d like to read more about Fáilte Ireland’s presentation on Adventure on the Agenda in Carlow, the link can be found here.

Business support

From Carlow Brewing Company

From Carlow Brewing Company

If you have an idea about how you might entertain, educate or simply look after visitors as they tour around the second smallest county in Ireland, there’s a lot of support available to help you develop your idea. Fáilte Ireland are a good starting point as they have a step by step guide on their website to help you develop your tourism idea as well as a useful Ecotourism Handbook. Your Local Enterprise Board and Leader Partnership might be worth talking to as well.

If you like the idea of developing something but you’re not sure what you could do, have a look online and see what others are doing. Original ideas are great but if something is working well elsewhere, it means people are enjoying it. I have to admit that I’ve been eyeing up empty mills on the riverbanks and seeing the potential in them.

In October the ATTA are coming to Ireland for the World Adventure Tourism Summit, providing a ‘high profile marketing opportunity to influence significant tourism decision makers from around the world’. Lets hope they like what they see.

As Manchám says at the end of his interview “this county has so much potential, we really need to support it”.

Postscript: I’d like to point out that this post was never intended to be a list of everything to do in Carlow, more to highlight its potential as an ecotourism destination. It’s down to the hard work of people like Carlow Tourism, the County Museum and others that I’ve discovered there’s so much in Carlow to enjoy.