walking on very long beaches

I‘ve always loved walking. For twenty years or more it’s been my main source of exercise, and never more so since I moved to Australia. For me, an hour’s brisk walk (and I walk at six or seven kilometres per hour) clears my mind, resets my brain, opens up possibilities, recalibrates my spine and offers me precious alone time.

On a good day, when I turn back at the park and head east on Altona Esplanade, I feel so uplifted I could lift my arms and fly back to the car. IMG_7274 But it’s taken me twenty years to realise that there is one sort of walk that I adore above all others. I unconsciously seek it out when planning a trip. No other walk every measures up. After two decades of diligent practice I can now say that my favourite pastime is Walking On Very Long Beaches.


I didn’t grow up very close to the coast. It took half an hour by car or bus to get to Sandymount or Costelloe’s beach in Dublin. But all of my family fare better when close to the sea, and most of us now live minutes (or even seconds) from the water’s edge.


I think the turning point for me, though, was ten years spent living in the midlands of England. The closest beach to Leicester was Skegness, and one autumn Sunday I couldn’t take it anymore. I pointed my car east and drove a full three hours non-stop to the coast. When I got there, on a chilly, murky spring afternoon, the tide was out. In Skegness the tide goes out about half a mile, so I had managed to reach the seaside without arriving beside the sea. Defeated, I turned around and drove the three hours back, without getting out of my car.


Fast forward a decade or so to India, when I spent many happy months living in the village of Candolim just yards from a six mile long beach. Each morning I walked south to Sinquerim and the old fort, uplifted by the occasional sight of a dolphin just a few feet away in the surf, feeling like I had the whole beach to myself. Afternoons saw me strolling north towards Calangute, where the only concern I had was how far I would walk before jumping into the water to cool down. That beach gave me my sanity back.


These days I live about a ten minute drive from a nice suburban beach with a lovely boardwalk and a park at either end. Winter and summer, it’s my favourite place to walk: not too busy, just the right length. If I want a change, I can walk at least an hour from Port Melbourne to Elwood before I run out of footpath and have to turn around. And if I tire of bay beaches and need to hear the crash of real waves, the grand sweep of Ocean Grove on the surf coast is only an hour’s drive away.


My ideal beach length is “longer than the time I have to walk it”. In other words, I prefer to run out of time than to run out of beach.


These days, the quantifiable self tells us that we should walk 10,000 steps a day, so I like a good 8-9km round trip walk so I can get my daily quota out of the way whilst staring at waves and getting my ankles wet.


Every trip I take, I search for a location with a Very Long Beach. Tasmania, Ireland, Vietnam, Queensland, USA, the Caribbean: my travels have taken me to, or taken me back to, some of the most wonderful VLBs in the world.

Where are your favourite VLBs?

what’s important?

In no particular order:

Armour (killer heels; a good suit; the perfect lipstick).
Having a vote.
A sense of place.
A feeling of self-worth.
Good red wine.
Freedom to travel.
A nice cup of tea (or coffee, if you must).
Grammar. (yes, I’ve listed it twice)
Knowing where your next meal is coming from.
Access to knowledge.
Decent cheese.
A good winter coat.
The ocean.

are you bikini ready?

At this time of year we are bombarded with magazine and website articles telling us how to get “bikini ready” for the New Year. As a Woman Of A Certain Age with a beach holiday on the horizon, I alternately devoured these articles or shunned them completely, knowing that I had failed in my plans to lose 5kg before our holiday and that my bikini body was nowhere in sight.

Fast forward to the day before we fly. I stand in the fitting rooms in Target with an array of bikinis, having convinced myself that my elegant but sensible black one-pieces would not be enough to tide me over for twelve days on a tropical island. I buy a purple two-piece, two sizes larger than my usual size in the desperate hope that it will somehow make me look thinner.

Two weeks later, after piling on even more pounds in the winter wonderlands of the northeastern United States, I stand on the balcony of our beachfront apartment and know I am going to spend the whole beach holiday in that purple bikini. I am so happy to be in the sunshine, on one of my favourite beaches in the world, with good company and (god help us) excellent food, that I no longer care how I look. All that matters is how I feel, and I feel like a Tropical Queen.

By day two I have perfected my sashay down the beach before immersing myself in the turquoise water to cool down. The purple bikini is now way too big for me, having already stretched in the seawater. I fold the bottoms down to make them even smaller – the suntan is all that matters now.

Every day I watch a procession of tourists walking past. Women of all shapes, sizes and ages sport a staggering array of swimwear. Without the aid of a spreadsheet (this is a holiday, after all) I watch and analyse, and the Five Commandments of Bikini Wearing emerge (specifically for Women Of A Certain Age, but relevant to any woman who is a little less than confident in her appearance).

  1. Choose a bikini. Don’t choose a one-piece. No piece of swimwear is going to make you look like Halle Berry coming out of the sea in that Bond movie, and anyway all that fabric on your tummy in the sun will be really uncomfortable. Relax. You are on holidays. By day three you are going to feel like a Tropical Queen and will believe you look like one too. You look fine, and anyway nobody is watching you because they are either worried about their own wobbly bits or they are already at Tropical Queen status in their head. If you are still unsure, throw a sarong in to hide your curves until day three.
  2. Avoid Large Bikini Bottom Syndrome. You have already decided to wear a bikini. Don’t spoil it by going large. Any stylist will tell you that swathes of patterned fabric draws attention to any area of the body, and anyway it will make you look middle-aged. In the past week I have seen a size 18-20 lady at the water’s edge, shoulders thrown back,  rocking a skimpy sunshine-yellow bikini and looking like a goddess. I have also seen a couple of thin, athletic women of a similar vintage, slightly stooped, looking like apologetic grandmas in their big-knicker bikinis.  Don’t do it unless you have a real reason for that extra support like a post-op scar. You may not be able to see this in the badly lit fitting rooms of your local mall, but take my word for it: you want a fairly skimpy bikini bottom, no more than an inch and a half or 3cm of fabric at the side of your body. If you can find one that ties on the side, so much the better. Remember, the fabric will stretch after a few days and the last thing you want is a bikini bottom that looks like a full nappy, or one that falls off as you get out of the water (it’s happened on this beach twice in the past week).
  3. Bikini tops must be multi-functional, or else you will need more than one bikini. In fact, you probably need at least two or three bikinis for a two-week holiday. Remember, this is essentially your “working wardrobe” of the trip. Never mind how many frocks you pack for the evenings – you will be spending up to ten hours a day in your swimwear, and you will be doing more than lying on a sunbed in that time. Your bikinis need to work for sunbathing, strolling on the beach, jumping into the water and drinking cocktails at the bar. Bandeau type bikini tops are great for minimising tan lines; the ones with a removable halter straps are great for a bit more security when wandering about or when hit by a rogue wave. More well endowed ladies will need properly fitted bikini tops in the appropriate cup size. Again, a halter-neck top will help with the support and look great.
  4. Choose strong colours and patterns. This is no time for nuance: look for bold colours and designs especially if you are a pale-skinned person like me. Pastels are all very well but they look washed out under the bright tropical sun. Go for bright greens, reds, oranges, blues and purples. Avoid all-black items unless you are already sporting a fine tan – if you absolutely must choose black, find one with white piping around the edges. It’s softer on the skin. If you have had your colours done, opt for the stronger colours in your palette.
  5. Accessorise. Again, this is your holiday daywear. Bring cheap and cheerful jewellery to accessorise each piece of swimwear you bring. A pair of matching earrings here, a statement bangle there, some toe-rings, a wide-brimmed sunhat and a matching cover-up or sarong, and you are making an outfit out of your swimsuit. Bring a simple crocodile clip or two if you have long hair. Don’t forget the footwear too: they will have to be sturdy enough to get you down the beach without falling over, but fabulous enough not to ruin the overall ensemble. Think pretty coloured flip-flops or a summery pair of Birkenstocks.

The most important accessory is, of course, lashings of sunscreen. Go one level higher than you think you need, especially if you are aiming for eight hours a day on that sunbed. You can always go down a level after your first four or five days when you have built up a base. The last thing you want is sunburn that keeps you out of the sun, ruins your coordinated look and quite frankly can lead to premature ageing and skin cancer.

Above all remember this: you already have a bikini body. You already look great. You just mightn’t feel great yet. But by day three when the Tropical Queen comes to town, you’ll look back and thank me. Promise.


changing my routine

Summertime is easy. As long as I can get home from work and down to the beach an hour or so before sunset, I am good to go. My favourite place to walk is along Altona beach, the bay stretching out to one side, fancy houses lining the Esplanade on the other. When the wind is from the north the bay can be like a millpond, and the mornings and evenings can be really peaceful. When the wind is coming in from the south across the water, the waves get choppier and the bay turns a darker shade of blue. Either way, it’s my routine.

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walking home to dublin: Cois Fharraige, Co. Gaillimh

Already I am a little bit behind schedule. Just a few kilometres. No good: I will have to re-double my efforts this fortnight.

My walk has taken me south to Rossaveal, where I could have turned off towards the harbour and boarded a fast ferry to the Aran Islands. Soon I can see glimpses of Galway Bay ahead, and I arrive at the crossroads at Ballynahown where there used to stand a big tourist shop selling (naturally green) Connemara Marble, Aran sweaters and other Oirish tat for the Yanks to take home. I know this part of the world very well: I spent a couple of summers down here in the Gaeltacht as a young teenager.

My first bean a’ tí (the lady whose house I stayed in)was a local woman who’d spent quite a few years in the US, so she spoke Irish with a hint of an American accent. The following year, the bean a’ tí was a Londoner who’d married a local man and now took in Irish-language students in the summer. She spoke Irish with no hint of an accent, presumably having absorbed the correct local pronunciation when learning the language.

I know if I walk straight ahead down that boreen instead of following the main road east, there is a big lake in to the right hand side, and if I keep going a mile or so I will find a little harbour with a few currachs turned upside down and a few more moored alongside. Across the bay will be the Cliffs of Moher, and the Aran Islands will be away to the west of me.


The road turns east along the coast road. This part of Connemara is simply called Cois Fharraige, or “beside the sea”. The Gaeltacht school where I went is in the centre of the tiny village of Minna, and the rock nearby where the boys always met the girls in the evening. Down another boreen is a graveyard where we stopped the car one night as grown-ups, and Orlando caught his first glimpse of the Milky Way.

Past Inverin or Indreabháin, I pass the Poitín Stil pub where I remember going with the family on summer holidays with my parents. Later, when I was at the Gaeltacht, my parents came to visit and took me and a neighbour’s child out for the evening, back to this old haunt.

Soon I arrive in Spiddal or An Spidéal, a little fishing village and more recently a tourist destination.

I remember my father and brother fishing off this harbour pier when I was very small. They didn’t catch anything but we bought some fresh mackerel from a local fisherman. My mum took the ribbon from my hair to thread through the mackerels’ gills so we had some way of carrying them. It was a red and white ribbon, and naturally it was ruined after that day. But the biggest memory is the smell of those mackerel cooking, and how amazing they tasted.

In two weeks, hopefully I will be the far side of Galway, somewhere past Oranmore and well on the way to Athenry. And yes, when I get there, we will sing.

walking home to dublin

So, autumn is settling in and winter will soon be upon us. How to keep the activity levels and Vitamin D intake at a reasonable pace when the evenings are closing in and it’s hard to keep motivated?

Well, I have hit upon one way of keeping on track (I hope): walking home to Dublin. Now, obviously it is a long way from here to there, so I had to think of a decent starting point. So what better than a trek across Ireland, starting somewhere on the west coast of Galway and heading east as the days progress?

I have decided Carna, Co. Galway is a good place to start. Our last family holiday was spent there a couple of Julys ago, and we just fell in love with this part of the world. It’s also a part of the world I am deeply familiar with, having spent almost all our summer holidays here.

So I have set off on my solitary virtual walk, taking it slow: only 16-20km a week needs to be covered. This will make sure my summer activity level stays about the same as the evenings close in here in Melbourne.

I sarted two weeks ago, and so far I have come as far as Casla, or Costelloe, walking north-east along the steep edges of Cnoc Mordáin or Aconeera, past Kilkieran Bay with its spectacular views of Gorumna Island and Lettermore in the distance. Inland, a little, to Screeb then south past a landscape littered with bog lakes, boulder beds and other ancient evidence of the glaciation this part of the world experienced.

Soon I will be walking along the coast of Galway Bay, the boreens of my childhood summers all around me, and the Aran Islands rising out of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance to the west. But for now I will enjoy my virtual walk through this little-explored part of my home country.

11 highlights of 2011

It’s been a hell of a year. Tough at times, full of adventure, travel (some work, some play), hard work, sorrow and joy. Here are my eleven highlights of 2011.

1.  Queensland

The year started busy. I spent most of the first three months hanging out in Brisbane with an army of Red Crossers, responding to event after tragic event. The staff in the Grand Chancellor come to greet me every time I checked in with a “Welcome home, Ms Doyle!”. The night before Yasi hit, I sat in a hotel restaurant with colleagues trying to understand the enormity of what was about to hit, the only Irishwoman at a table of battle-hardened Aussies. In Emerald, I met the Governor-General and got a lesson in looking elegant in tropical heat. Some of the people I worked with developed into an amazing support network that I still have today, and one or two deep friendships have developed from the times spent together. I gained four kilos and none of my summer clothes fit anymore, which didn’t matter as I spent the whole of the summer in a white Red Cross business shirt and black cut-off cargo pants.

What I learned: Just because it’s disaster season doesn’t mean you need less fibre – or more alcohol – in your diet. FitFlops are the only footwear you need. Talk about how you are feeling often, and use others to gauge how you are going. Forgive. Hydrate. Never go anywhere (even a disaster zone) without eyeliner: you never know who is going to drop by.

2.  Christchurch

Ten days in ChCh working with the NZ Red Cross after the earthquake was some of the most challenging but amazing time I got to spend this year. I slept in a tiny room in the friendliest little B&B in the world, and got used to the ground shaking beneath me. I saw regular people turn into heroes and find resilience in themselves they never thought existed. I feel privileged to have been able to help in my small way.

What I learned: Always leave your boots by the bed in an earthquake zone, and keep your phone fully charged. Leap instantly to a doorframe when the ground doesn’t stop shaking after five seconds. Be ready to accept help as well as give it. Take a break. And don’t watch live footage of horrifying tsunamis right after coming home.

3.  Lorne

A chunk of normality at the end of summer: the Easter/Anzac weekend down the Great Ocean Road in Lorne with Orlando.  Arriving Good Friday evening with a roast dinner in the boot. Long walks by the beach in unseasonably warm weather. Mid-afternoon naps just because we could. Watching the surfers and browsing second-hand book stalls in the market. A cosy Spanish dinner in a lovely tapas bar on Saturday night. Time to heal and rest and recover and reconnect.

What I learned: Heal. Rest. Recover. Reconnect.

4.  Barbados

A week in Barbados in June, spent mostly staring at the waves (or floating in them) at Maxwell Beach, near Orlando’s parents’ house. Amazing Caribbean food. Weekend nights at Oistins fish market. Plenty of good Mount Gay rum in our afternoon rum punch. Chefette’s legendary all-beef rotis just because they were there. Spending time with Orlando’s Dad. Shopping for jerk seasoning and pepper sauce in the local supermarket. Scuba diving with Orlando in the sites where he learned to dive.

What I learned: One dive is never enough. One all-beef roti is never enough. One box of seasoning shipped home is never enough. One week is never enough.

5.  Mexico

Nearly three weeks travelling through the Yucatan peninsula, visiting Mayan ruins, climbing ancient pyramids, staying in great little guesthouses and eating proper Mexican food. Diving Dos Ojos at last after twelve years of waiting. Gazing out across the jungle with Orlando from the top of a crumbling pyramid in Coba. Margaritas and good tequila. A long walk.  Discovering cochinita pibil.

What I learned: There are only so many tacos, tortas, empanadas, burritos and quesadillas you can eat. The green chilli salsa is the hottest and the best. The Mexicans keep the good tequila for themselves. Never walk home at night through the jungle.

6.  Tasmania

An August weekend with Mena in Tasmania, our favourite state. Gourmet food at Bruny Island and Salamanca Market. The Goddess of Russell Falls at Mount Field National Park. Driving through God’s own country to Lake Gordon. Discovering the secluded beaches of South Arm and falling in love with Opossum Bay.

What I learned: There is not enough time before we die to explore Tasmania the way we want to. You will always buy more cheese than you can possibly eat at the Bruny Island Cheese Company. You don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to discover the hidden gems of this small island; you can do it in a Class A hire car. Always bring layers to Tasmania – the weather can surprise you.

7.  Fiji

What more does a body need than ten days on a tropical island, with a little bungalow, a pristine beach a few feet away, a comfy hammock to swing in, a reef full of fish on the doorstep and more Fijian curry than you can shake a stick at. Diving in clear blue waters with more marine life than I’ve ever seen. Snoozing on a hammock under a palm tree, whenever I want to. Watching a wedding take place on a low-tide sandbar out at sea: the wedding party appears to be walking on water. The graceful hand movements of the women and men as they dance for us after the lovo feast.

What I learned: Never go anywhere without nuclear-strength Baygon. Two swimsuits are not enough for one week. There is always time for a little more snorkelling.

8.  Ireland

Ten days in Ireland might seem short, but when all you want is to visit family and get a little Christmas cheer, it’s all you need. Shopping on Grafton Street with the lights twinkling above. Meeting an old friend by chance in a city cafe. Twenty-four hours in the UK just to catch up on all the gossip with Katharine. Putting up Mum’s Christmas tree one morning, listening to old cheesy Christmas tunes and reminiscing about Christmas trees past.  Christmas present shopping with Ashling and Connor. New puppies to adore. Turkey and ham with all the trimmings. Creating new Christmas family memories, even if they were a few weeks early.

What I learned: Don’t wear your precious Links bracelet over your winter gloves. You will always get a good winter coat in Dublin. Melatonin really helps with jetlag. You can never buy too much Newbridge Silverware jewellery.

9.  Darwin

They asked if I was going to Darwin to see Obama. No, I replied: he is in town to meet me. Memos from the hotel asking us to behave on our balconies (in case the Secret Service shot us) didn’t stop me waving enthusiastically at the Black Hawk helicopter that kept flying past. A lovely dinner with Julie Groome at Pee Wee’s. Celebrating the opening night of Darwin Pride with Chris Power. Power walking early in the morning, then trying to catch up with Hydralyte for the rest of the day. Dragging the living room furniture out onto the balcony for a Friday night feast, because they had taken the balcony furniture away at the start of cyclone season.

What I learned: Behave on your hotel balcony if POTUS is in town. Buy more Hydralyte before you travel in the wet season. Always pack one more white singlet top. Try not to turn into a comedy double-act when presenting serious stuff with Julie.

10.  Altona Beach

The one constant in my year: the boardwalk at Altona saved my sanity more than a few times this year. Park up near the Seaholme end of town, on with the Walkman and the sunvisor (not trendy, but it keep my hair at bay), get some UK garage going and power walk to the other end of the beach or maybe right into the park at Truganina. I know every step of the route and its familiarity soothes me, music or no music, sunshine or no sunshine, high tide or low tide.  It helped me get fit and healthy after the Summer of Love – both in body and in spirit.

What I learned: You can always walk just a little bit faster. Carry another layer with you in the boot of the car unless it is January or February. Sometimes it is best to leave the headphones behind and listen to the waves.

11.  Home

Sounds silly, but with all the travel I did this year, a Christmas and New Year holiday at home in our own house was the perfect getaway. No worries about what shoes to pack. Guaranteed comfy bed and perfect pillow. Only the best local red wine and bubbly served. Friends and family close at hand. The best travelling companion in the world. Excellent wi-fi. No air travel or packing or taxis or travel insurance to worry about.

What I learned: There’s no place like home.