A century-old bathhouse is doing a roaring trade in affordable spa treatments, writes Nick Fisher.
If I turn my head to one side, I find I can actually breathe through the seaweed. And as I inhale, hot fleshy fronds fall into my mouth. At first I was wary of them. Now, I've started to nibble the fronds. In fact, I can't resist them: they taste and feel like salty pencil rubbers with an inner layer of softened fingernail. Bizarrely delicious. With a warm, complex smell, like damp dog and hops.
Hot seaweed is piled over my body and my head, and through the steamy haze I can just make out the figure of my middle son, Rex, who's 15. He looks like a Dalek. His body is encased in a plywood box. His head protrudes through a hole in the top, and great white clouds of fresh seawater steam-curl from the box and around his neck, like a frilly collar. His eyes are glazed. He looks like he's on drugs.
We are sharing a cubicle at Kilcullen's Seaweed Baths on the edge of Enniscrone beach in County Sligo, north-west Ireland. I'm in a huge, ancient, cast-iron bath with crackled cream enamel, and I've decided to float on my back in the green water, piling mounds of luscious fleshy seaweed all over me. I float easily in this salty hot water and, as I close my eyes and breathe through the steamy fronds, I, too, feel like I'm on drugs. "Sure, there's no time limit," a red-haired, freckle-faced teenager had told us as she showed Rex and me to our bedsit-size cubicle. "If the bathwater comes cold, there's plenty more hot in the tap."
She then showed us a wooden lever inside the box that, if pushed, would gush Industrial Revolution-size clouds of seawater steam into the cabinet. She suggested we take it in turns: one in the bath, one in the steam box, until we were both perfectly blanched. Then, she suggested, we should scoop the seaweed out of the bath, pile it into the bucket provided, let out our bathwater, and take it in turns to stand under a fireman's-hose-like shower of fresh cold seawater.
Lying in the bath, I can feel a warm mucous slime beginning to cling to my skin. It's womb-like. Soft and velvety. Sensual. People with skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis, as well as sportsmen and women, love these baths. Many of the local pensioners have season tickets ("To warm their old bones in the winters") and I'm told it is a very popular hangover cure. After the hot silky seaweed soak, the stinging, cleansing pins-and-needles of the cold seawater shower leaves a bather feeling newly minted.
The baths are housed in a structure built in 1912, with flat roofs to hold the huge reservoirs that are filled twice a day with seawater pumped from Enniscrone bay. Standing outside, Rex and I lick honeycomb-flavoured ice-creams and stare across the large, billiard-table-flat sandy beach towards the US. There's no land between us and New York.
Actually, we're in Ireland for salmon. The River Moy, flowing from Loch Conn to the estuary at Ballina, is the most prolific salmon river in Ireland. And 3.2 kilometres of the middle Moy, in County Mayo, flows along the edge of the Mount Falcon Hotel's 40 hectares of lush wooded grounds.
My wife, Helen, and I and our four children are staying in a self-catering cottage overlooking the hotel's trout lake. Three of my children caught salmon on the first morning. The Moy is teeming with fresh-run fish. Anglers have been enjoying a boom in salmon catches ever since the Irish government was finally persuaded, in 2007, to close down the commercial driftnet fishery that captured thousands of Irish salmon on their return migration from feeding grounds around Greenland.
In a week spent travelling the west coast from Mayo to Donegal, we fish rivers and lakes, swim in the sea, hike across peat bogs, climb "One man's path" up Slieve League, the 600-metre sea cliffs that fall in a sheer, testicle-shrinking drop to the white-topped sea below. We drink Guinness, and row across a bay to a sheep-inhabited island no bigger than a football pitch, where we barbecue mackerel and eat them with soda bread and horseradish sauce.
The things we enjoy the most about Mayo are the things that haven't changed for decades: the sea, sand, salmon, scenery and the people.
"Would you be wanting to take your seaweed home with you?" asks Ted, a biochemistry student from Galway University, who is working during the summer holidays at Kilcullen's, which was opened by his great-grandfather 100 years ago.
My mouth opens and shuts like a fish. I don't quite know how to answer his question. He then explains that some people like to reuse their bucket of serrated wrack (Fucus serratus) in a bath at home. The wrack is harvested by hand, by his cousins, from the beach at low tide every day except Christmas Day. Some people also like to take it home to spread on their garden as fertiliser. Sadly, I have to decline this delightful offer. I just know Ryanair will have a small-print policy about seaweed in hand baggage.
Getting there From Dublin, trains journey daily to Ballina. See irishrail.ie. The nearest airport is Knock (Ireland West). Hire cars available at the airport.
Staying there Mount Falcon, Foxford Road, Ballina, County Mayo, has self-catering cottage stays from €135 ($171) a night and rooms from €140 a night. See mountfalcon.com.
Soaking there Kilcullen's Seaweed Baths, on the harbour road at Enniscrone, County Sligo, is open daily, 10am-8pm (noon to 8pm from October to May). No bookings required. Hot seaweed baths from €25 a person. See www.kilcullenseaweed baths.com.
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