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Walking the Wicklows, a Slice of Heaven

© By Judi Lees

  "Once downhill, follow that leean to the right," directs our guide, Liam Murphy, as our group of seven looks where he is pointing far below. From our hillside perch, our eyes, once again, absorb another picture postcard scene, the brilliant green Glenmalure Valley dotted with a few buildings that make up the tiny hamlet of Drumgoff on the banks of the Avonbeg River. This day, we have followed a high ridge to reach 650 metres in the Cullentragh Mountains before dropping down into rolling hillsides. At times we tramped through friendly farmer's yards and, at times, nudged up against sheep.
     Now, as we ramble at our own pace, I'm trying to figure out Liam's 'leean' we are being told to follow when we arrive at the valley floor. Then I figure it out - he's pointing to a tucked away 'lane' that diverts from a trail. I roar with laughter. "It's day six of this hike, Liam, and I'm still working on your accent," I tease as we have had these conversations before - how is a Canadian supposed to know that a sliath, (pronounced sleeve) is a hill? Good natured teasing has been part of the Irish walking experience on this six-day adventure with SouthWest Walks Ireland.
     While we didn't follow all of 130- km-long, famous walk through the Wicklow Mountains, we did cover 12 to 18 km a day gaining elevation of between 600 to 900 metres on trails that crisscross forests, bogs and alpine regions before slipping down into picturesque villages in this area known as the Garden of Ireland. The highlights and challenges were many, not the least of which was the weather. While the first day began damp - or 'soft' as our delightful Liam described - take day three as an example of how the idiosyncratic Irish weather toyed with us.
     The sun shone brightly as we trekked, overlooking Lough Dan, one of the largest lakes in the Wicklows. Liam, ever cheerful, led our little international group consisting of Irish, Dutch, American and me as we proceeded steadily uphill. As we ascended the Scarr Summit, amid heather and wildflowers clinging to steep terrain, the clouds lowered, rain lashed and wind whipped. When we clustered together just below the summit to eat lunch, I wondered whether we would ever see the sun over Ireland again on this trip.
     We did. Soon clouds lifted, displaying an astounding panorama of verdant mountainsides spangled in Bog cotton, clumps of golden grasses and minute, colourful flowers. Descending through shoulder-high ferns, I was mesmerized by the loneliness and beauty of the wild Irish countryside. A few hours later, we arrived at Pinewood Lodge in the picturesque village of Laragh. The rest of the week, the sun bathed us in warmth and a breeze kept us comfortable.
     Also comfortable, was our diverse and charming accommodation. The Strand, built in the 1870s by Oscar Wilde's parents, is still a charmer and is located in Bray, a seaside village so picture perfect that it is favoured by the movie set, i.e. 'Far and Away' with Cruise and Kidman, was set here. Glenmalure Lodge originated as a coaching inn in 1801, offered turf fires and traditional music. In Laragh, we stayed in Pinewoods, a country inn run by a friendly family and perfect walking distance to the historic Glendalough.
     The beauty of this walk is that it combines fabulous hiking and scenery with history. (Also, it is easily reached just outside Dublin.) From Laragh we walked to Glendalough ('valley of two lakes) where, in the 6th century, St. Kevin founded a monastery. Today visitors stroll remnants of the 10th and 12th centuries - a superb, round tower, stone churches, and faded Celtic crosses and gravestones, amid tangles of greenery and wild rhododendrons. Despite the fact that sightseers swarm (coach tours stop here), I found myself flashing back to scenes from the historic novel, 'The Princes of Ireland' to relive scenes from the tumultuous early days when Christianity arrived here.
     Once the monastic site has been explored, the allure for hikers is the network of trails that lead up Lugduff Mountain. We trudged 1 ½ hours uphill, past waterfalls and through forests of pine, spruce, larch and fir, sometimes following convenient boardwalks. We emerged above the treeline at the Spinc - which means 'pointed hill' and it is. Tiredness forgotten, we were euphoric at our surroundings as we followed a ridge that looked out upon the monastic site and two brilliant blue lakes far, far below. In the world of hiking, this is as good as it gets.

Judi Lees is 2002 winner of Choice Hotels Award of Excellence for Best International (Travel) Article and Thailand Award for International Media. She has written for The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, many magazines and www.traveltowellness.com .

Photo Credits
Judi Lees
Tourism Ireland

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