savory and sweet snacks in Swords, Ireland
It was a bittersweet day for me when my worst fears were realized. Not only was there no tooth-fairy, no leprecauns in Kelly Green felt britches and faded orange linen waistcoats, but some moron had dreamed up a saint who gives people their heart’s desire sometime towards the end of December.
We won’t go into what Mills and Boon did to my expectations of romantic love. The charitable part of me that keeps her sunny side up, up, is reconciled to the fact that they were undemanding gateway drugs to Catherine Cookson, Jean Plaidy, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and Judith Krantz, who in turn led me to the righteous path of Molly Keane, Jennifer Johnston and Mary Lavin. Around that time too I discovered boys and my love-life went to hell in a handcart. Saki, PG Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe for kicks, Alan Sillitoe for a bit of rough, (foreign exotica is in the eye of the beholder), and oodles and oodles of action thrillers from Frederick Forsyth, John Le Carré, Martin Cruz Smith and Jack Higgins.
So much for secondary school. Afterwards I became even more promiscuous and genre-hopped at a wanton pace – so long as it was in English and not work-related – I was all over it, which, by way of unforeseen side benefits meant that I spent a lot of time alone, giving me the perfect lifestyle for a food critic. I gradually learned math: one and one don’t always add up to two, when one is reading and the other one is eating, it just adds up to a bigger one. So I dedicated myself to reading and eating less, and focusing on exercises and timetables more. And the sweet part of the bittersweet cataclysm of lost innocence, mentioned above? Santa’s cliché about you better be good for goodness’ sake turns out to be the meaning of life. Not 42, as Douglas Adams would have you believe.
Cycling to your daily breads. And cakes.
If you’re visiting Ireland these are some personal recommendations that can help you have a high-quality, high-calorie vacation without it pushing any of your organs over the edge. And yes, the same person who told me about Santa, told me your wallet’s an organ.
Landing in Dublin airport means you are a mere two and a half miles from Swords, Co. Dublin. There you will find a café called La Boulangerie Francaise, in Applewood village that serves up delicious food. It’s a bakery, so there are bread-based snacks from pizza to quiches for those who prefer savory lunches. This shop is enough by itself to put Swords on the map (the town’s the county capital of north Dublin, has a number of good hotels, restaurants and pubs on Main Street, has a hip VIP nightclub called Wrights, sits on a pretty estuary, has a medieval castle and abbey ruins and is worth considering as your Ireland basecamp), but this is a feature about snacks and more particularly, cakes. So Pilgrim, while the trails I’m about to outline will take you north, south and west – east plops you into the sea – they will always bring you back to the Cusack’s bread and butter puddings, croissants, tartes aux fruits, biscuit and cream slices, chocolate balls and cake.
The Swords Cycle Centre is your third port of call (I’m assuming you’re going to book your accommodation before you get here, so you might want to drop your luggage there either before or after the Boulangerie Francaise).
Depending on the time of year you get here the short trails for cycling form a 10, 20 and 30-mile radius from Swords.
Five miles from Swords takes in Donabate and Portrane, or Malahide and Portmarnock along the coast. The topography is ideal for leisurely cyclists as the hills aren’t Olympian but the views are. Heading south first to Malahide and Portmarnock you’ll pass a swan sanctuary, views across the river mouth to a couple of spectacular houses one an ascendancy-style mansion that’s only open to art and architecture societies, and the other a magnificent old stone farmhouse previously owned by one of Ireland’s sexiest film stars, Stephen Rea. Malahide village itself is a chi-chi modern marina with noteworthy cakes but as they’re global franchises such as Starbucks I’m sticking to mom and pop shops, or mom and mom shops (whatever) that are little mouthfuls of Ireland that send your endorphin levels through the roof. Portmarnock strand is your destination. In summertime it’s the usual beach fare of beautiful bodies, 99s and suncream, and in winter it’s a spectacular spot for your awesome, nature’s powerful and moody, Instagram vacation shots. And whaddya know? Your 10-mile round trip has made you ravenous for more cake. Win, win.
For 10-mile jaunts you could continue in that direction and take in Howth Head. You’re also taking on a Tour-de-France style gradient though (OK, so, it’s still a hill, not a mountain, but you’re talking 171 m or 561 ft), which will require a picnic (not to mention a defibrillator). Howth’s a small fishing port so there are a number of great seafood restaurants here, a harbour pub called The Pierhouse with a famous mandolin-led trad session on Sunday mornings and is home to the north side of Dublin’s millionaires.
For less strenuous cycles, you could head back from Portmarnock in the direction you’ve come and instead head out north along the coast to take in Donabate and Portrane. You’re literally hugging the coastline for much of the journey. Back at Swords Estuary you take the north bank (bring bread for the swans, ducks and cranes in the reserve because unless you’re a ‘wild life’s supposed to eat wild things’ kind of bird lover you’ll be sorry you missed the opportunity to interact with them). If you’re really clever you will time this jaunt to coincide with the tides as a low tide means you can cycle around the coast to Kilcrea, a townland en route to Donabate that offers you a couple of lovely options: Newbridge House and Gardens or a further trip along the country roads to Corballis and then Donabate strand with its Martello Tower and cliff walk to Portrane’s privately-owned one. Serious bird-lovers can divert at Newbridge desmesne up Turvey Avenue, which is the entrance to a huge bird sanctuary. It gets its most exotic visitors from November to March so if you’ve planned a winter trip to Ireland this is a highlight.
There’s an urbanite’s 20-mile roundtrip to be made every day if you prefer to take in a few streetscapes or famous Dublin landmarks like the Stag’s Head. OK, obviously I meant the Douglas Hyde Gallery, National Museum, Book of Kells at Trinity College, Chester Beattie Library on Dame Street or even some world class theatre in the Abbey, Gate or Olympia. We seem to be losing sight of the cakes here people. The Kylemore is a network of cafés that have been serving Dublin people cakes for generations. I can’t honestly say it’s Nirvana for cake-lovers but it’s a Dublin thing, whole swathes of kids got their first éclair here. The café at IMMA has wondrous cakes (let the others go see the exhibitions, you just head straight to the basement). What was formerly known as the Tea Rooms at the Clarence Hotel (U2’s city centre Art Nouveau/Deco hotel) in Temple Bar was worth dressing up and asking for the dessert trolley. (All of it.) Cleaver East is the new restaurant, run by Malahide chef Oliver Dunne whose just desserts are obviously taking on the mantle of a much loved restaurant. (I’ve now found myself a new mission in life, checking out the Malahide and city centre options.)
Inland cycles from Swords
A loop into the countryside could take you north on the dual-carriageway (a Goldilocks road, not as big as the forbidden-to-cyclists motorways, not as narrow as the scenic secondary roads) from Swords in the Balbriggan, Rush and Skerries direction. Both Rush and Skerries are charming sea-side villages with great beaches for summer sun-bathing or water sports. Balbriggan's got fab beaches a little further north and a soon-to-be improved harbor area, so personally, I'd use it as a destination point to get to fast on the dual-carriageway and mooch back along the coast road through Skerries and Rush (see below).
But a better loop for newcomers to the area goes due west from Swords and meanders around townlands like Oldtown, Ballyboughill, Rolestown, St Margarets and back to Swords. Snack lovers will time their hunger to be sated at The Grange Gallery and Restaurant in Oldtown, which has a mixture of crafts for the home, a fine art element in the galleries upstairs, and a lovely café for cold wet days that spills out into a country-style courtyard for fine ones.
Leaving Swords via the Brackenstown Road on bicycles can be tricky as the road is also popular with streams of cars during commuter times (before 10am and after 4.30pm), but if you're in a group you've more mass to forewarn on-coming traffic. In ones and twos, I'd head out the Rathbeale Road (the R125), where'll you'll find Kettles Country House Hotel just before you reach Rolestown.
Kettles Hotel in Lispopple, like the Waterside Hotel in Donabate, get a mention for snacks because a couple of the cycling trails mentioned here take you away from towns with cafés or restaurants I've been in.
Both of these hotels have good value restaurants that offer smaller meals as well as being popular with natives for dining out. Kettles is a second-generation hospitality Mecca for locals, having recently morphed from the Rolestown Inn into a contemporary country hotel. The Waterside in Donabate enjoys a beachfront terrace with its restaurant that is usually packed with happy eaters even off-season.
Otherwise, vacation accommodation in Swords ranges from small to large hotels, guest houses sometimes called Bed and Breakfasts that are available through networks such as airbnb.com and homestay.com