Ireland: A friendly Great Western Greenway bike ride to Achill Island

ACHILL ISLAND, Ireland — Instead of asking if I wanted to see the dessert menu, the waiter took a surreptitious look around the restaurant and asked, sotto voce, "Do you want to go to the coziest pub in all of Ireland?"

Before I could answer, he offered that Lynott's Pub, housed in an ancient stone building, had only four tables and that there would likely be a "trad session" — live traditional music — happening.

It was my first night on Achill Island, Ireland's largest island, and I didn't have much of a plan. Nor was there much else to do. I had just finished biking the Great Western Greenway, a 27-mile trail that follows a defunct railroad line stretching from Westport to Achill Island in County Mayo in the west of the country. I was in the mood to celebrate with a pint or two of Guinness.

The waiter, whose name was Edward McNamara, said that he'd call for a taxi and that my traveling companion, Yvonne, a friend from Dublin, and I should wait outside. When a car pulled up and honked a minute later, I hopped in the front seat only to get a surprise. There, in the driver's seat, was Edward, our erstwhile waiter.

"All the taxi drivers were unavailable, so I thought I'd take you myself," he said, stepping on the gas. "Besides, it's a slow night anyway."

I turned around at Yvonne in the back seat and she gave a smile. I knew what she was thinking. This was my fourth trip to Ireland, but, I'm embarrassed to say, I'd never been outside of Dublin. When I had mentioned this, she insisted on taking me to the western part of the country, the "real Ireland," as many people said when I told them I'd be spending a few days in County Mayo to bike the Great Western Greenway. I was experiencing, Yvonne was certainly thinking, a "real" Ireland moment.

Three days before we had our impromptu "taxi" ride to the pub on Achill Island, I was pedaling out of the twee town of Westport. It was a brisk autumn day, and we had a 20-mile ride ahead of us. It's possible to cycle the whole trail in one day, but I wanted to take it slow, so I planned to stop in the village of Mulranny for the night before making the seven-mile ride to the trail's terminus, Achill Island.

Thanks to local bicycle rental companies, dealing with bikes is easy. Westport-based Clew Bay Bike Hire, for example, rents bicycles, helmets and maps, and then picks you and the bike up at the end of the trail and takes you back where you started.

It took about 60 seconds of pedaling to get out of Westport, a town of 5,500 people, and soon I was surrounded by classic Irish countryside. The trail was flanked by sheep-dotted green fields, demarcated by chunky stone walls. Farmers waved, fellow bikers bellowed "good morning" and sheep remained unimpressed.

This being western Ireland, the weather seemed to change every quarter-mile. One minute the sun was kissing my face, then another a slight drizzle was specking up my glasses. We ducked under stone bridges and cruised around long, slight bends, the one obvious sign that the trail was a former railway line.

Begun in the 1890s and lasting until the automobile began growing in popularity in Ireland in the late 1930s, the railway line that would become the greenway mostly served the people of Achill Island, who used the train to transport peat (which is used for burning in fireplaces and furnaces) to bigger cities, such as Galway and Dublin. The line also carried passengers to and from the towns and even hastened a small industry of tourists who would come to sit next to picturesque Clew Bay as well as gawk at the pyramid-shaped holy mountain Croagh Patrick.

But after the railway closed, few people from outside the area came. Hotels that had opened along the railway line — the grand hotels in Mulranny and Westport, for example — fell into disrepair. So did the old railway stations.

In 2010, the unused railway line was turned into a biking and hiking trail, with the locals not sure whether the new function would hasten a renewed interest in the area.

To say the Great Western Greenway is a success would be an understatement. During warm-weather months, the trail is crammed with as many as 1,000 people a day. Cafes, restaurants and hotels along the way have seen a spike in business, and people from all over Ireland and the world are gravitating here to ride the bicycle trail.

About 90 minutes after setting off from Westport, we entered the town of Newport, about 12 miles from our starting point (and two-thirds of the way to that night's destination). In one of the most aesthetically pleasing welcomes I've ever had, a rainbow greeted us, arching behind a sheep-sprinkled low-rolling hill.

From everything I'd read about Newport, there was one obligatory stop: Dominick Kelly's butcher shop. Kelly, I was told, made the best black pudding — also known as blood sausage — in the country. I stopped in, and the gray-haired butcher, standing behind the counter, asked if he could help me.

"Well, I wanted to try your famous black pudding, but I have nowhere to cook it," I said. Kelly cut off a couple of slices and handed them to me. "Just in case," he said and winked at me.

Back on the trail, we passed ancient cemeteries marked by gravestones sporting large Celtic crosses, ruined stone cottages and the occasional medieval abbey. We pedaled into the small hillside town of Mulranny, which overlooks Clew Bay and the majestic mountain, Croagh Patrick, and checked into the sprawling white Mulranny Park Hotel.

The next day at breakfast, I was pleased to see Dominick Kelly's famous black pudding on the menu. It was rich and satisfying — crispy on the outside and mushy (in a good way) on the inside. It was some of the best black pudding I'd ever tasted.

Fortified, we set off on our final day of the bike journey. About two miles in, taking a break to gawk at sprawling, glassy Bellacragher Bay in front of us, we met John O'Donnell, who was raking leaves along the trail.

A caretaker of the Great Western Greenway, John is also one of its biggest cheerleaders. He gets paid for his daily work, but he also volunteers to lead tours of the greenway.

"When you're passionate about something," he told me, his hands resting on the top of the rake, "you can't stay away from it.

"The greenway has been a lifeline for us. Before people would drive through and only stop to refill their petrol tanks or get something to drink. Now they're staying for two or three days."

Yvonne and I carried on, stopping only to try to catch sight of the area's rare wild goats. (We heard them but never saw the hairy, horned, cloven animals.) About an hour later, we were cruising across Achill Island's drawbridge, having completed the journey.

And that night, after McNamara, our waiter/cabdriver, dropped us off at Lynott's, the so-called coziest pub in Ireland, I hoisted a Guinness as a multigenerational group of musicians filled half the space (which wasn't hard considering the pub is about the size of a bedroom).

Was this the "real" Ireland I'd hoped to find? In terms of "authenticity," that's a complicated question. All I knew was this was very different from Dublin.

Case in point: When I asked the woman behind the bar about calling a cab, she got on the phone and 10 minutes later said her sister-in-law lived nearby and was on her way to drive us back to the hotel.

A real Ireland moment, indeed.

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