The Mayo town of Westport lies hard by the Atlantic Ocean almost as far westward as you can go, next stop America.
It was recently voted Ireland’s best place to live after a fierce competition in which Irish Times judges visited hundreds of spots around Ireland to compare to each other.
What is fascinating is how little dispute there was that Westport had won.
Beauty spots like Killarney and Dingle, hip urban enclaves like Rathmines in Dublin and many other long revered locations never seemed to come close.
I had never been to Westport, though my brother-in-law hails from there, as you almost have to be going there specifically, as against a spot you may pass through.
On a recent visit I decided to check out what all the fuss was about. The Irish Times criteria was not just beauty, but also community spirit and drive, affordability, good dining, cleanliness etc.
What I saw in Westport was lots of all those features.
At first glance the town has a San Francisco feel, with the houses and businesses located among several fairly steep and picturesque hills.
The riot of color and different paint hues is immediately apparent. Far too many Irish towns are dull and grey with little attempt to spice them up.
Westport is the very opposite, a kaleidoscope of different hues of colors that set off against the summer sky and give the impression of a little Shangri-la.
One of my immediate tests of how good any town is to check out the number of bookstores, which I believe sends its own message about culture and access in a town.
Westport certainly measures up, and books focused on local knowledge and topics certainly abound.
In one small store we found old editions of the works of Dylan Thomas and Jonathan Swift, both incredibly well-priced. It was a good omen.
The main streets might remind American visitors of The Hamptons in New York with lots of upscale little stores selling baubles and antiques of all descriptions -- a browser’s delight.
The people staffing the stores were universally friendly and keen to chat, giving that west of Ireland propensity to accept the proverb that when God made time he made plenty of it.
An old town clock, a winding river, a feeling of a close-knit community going about its business makes Westport feel special.
Matt Molloy’s pub in the centre of Westport is a well-known landmark. Owned by the famed Chieftains musician, it has a wonderful old feel to it, an authentic Irish pub in a world full of poor imitations. Though we visited during the day there were several present and a music session was promised for that night.
We stopped in a local bar/ restaurant where the seafood chowder had just won an international award and the smoked salmon and brown bread was to die for. If it is seafood you want, Westport certainly has it.
We took a drive out the coast road toward Louisburg with the mighty Atlantic to our right and the small villages that dot this part of Mayo to our left. In the distance the small islands that dot the coastline were visible on a clear summer day. It was an uplifting and scenic drive.
Two points of negative note. The traffic jam in the town on the way back in was of epic proportions, and looking at the price of property it is clear that living in this little paradise doesn’t come cheap even with Ireland’s property collapse.
After a day spent there it looked to me like the Irish Times jury picked wisely. Well worth a visit if you get the opportunity.