Ireland’s Atlantic coast has always been well known for its wild beauty; but it wasn’t until 2014 that all of that beauty was packaged up properly, signposted well, and organised into the world’s longest defined coastal route. You could probably spend a month driving its 2500 kilometres, from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal right down Ireland’s western coastline as far as Kinsale in County Cork, and still wish you had more time to really see everything.
Most people don’t drive the whole length of the route in one go, but rather dip in and out, or make a few trips to the west to complete it in stages. I’ve never done the whole thing in one go but I’ve been to enough places along the route to know that whatever section you do choose, you’re going to have an absolute blast. Ireland’s pretty good like that.
Seriously. Book your flights, rent a car and see for yourself… here are some of the most amazing things you can do along The Way.
Ok, obviously seeing the Northern Lights is not a given, and is very heavily dependent on whether or not the Northern Lights decide to show themselves. Don’t get your hopes up too much, because the sky will do what it’s gonna do, but there are ways to increase your chances of seeing the great gig in the sky. Check Aurora Service for a good and fairly reliable short-term forecast of the Aurora’s strength. If you find yourself at the top of Ireland but without the lights, don’t worry too much, eh? You’re still in Inishowen, and it’s still epically beautiful, Aurora Borealis or not.
See? Also on the Inishowen Peninsula is the ring fort Grianán of Aileach. It was reconstructed from total ruin in the 1800s, but its modern restoration doesn’t take away from the sense of history and mysticism you’ll feel here. It’s an enchanting place with a whole heap of that famous Irish history, myth and legend attached to it, and it’s an awesome place to go if you want a taste of ancient Ireland. The fort’s position on top of Greenan Hill means that along with the history and mystery, you get panoramic views of Lough Foyle, Lough Swilly, and the surrounding Donegal countryside.
So, a 2,500 km driving route along Ireland’s Atlantic Coast – it’s hardly a surprise to hear that you can eat some exceptional seafood along the way. Ireland has never historically had a ‘cuisine’ that attracted people the way French or Italian food does, but what it does have is the incredible raw materials required to make top class food, as well as a burgeoning food scene that has exploded over the last few decades. Wherever you end up along the Wild Atlantic Way, do a little homework to find the town’s best restaurant, and make sure you eat some fresh wild Atlantic seafood.
Because why on earth wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even really matter if you can’t gallop – a canter, trot, or plodding walk will suffice. The point is to ride along one of Connemara’s incredible white-sand beaches, on one of Connemara’s beautiful native ponies. I did this very thing on a feisty little pony called Monty, on a gloriously sunny September day in Ballyconneely with The Point Pony Trekking, and it’s quite honestly one of my favourite ever memories. Hurtling along the beach with a blast of Atlantic air in your face and the sparkling sea beside you will make you fall in love with Ireland harder than you ever thought possible.
If you have time to visit each of the Aran Islands, do it. But if you have to choose one of the islands, my advice is to head for Inis Mór and hire a bike (only €10 per day). It’s an easy and beautiful cycle out to the famous bronze-age fort, Dun Aonghasa – and if its precarious cliff-edge location doesn’t blow your mind, thoughts of the sheer effort it must have taken to build definitely will. See the fort, then try to find ‘The Wormhole’ (it’s not easy). If you find it, celebrate with a pint of Guinness in The Bar when you get back to the town. If you don’t find it, drown your sorrows with a pint of Guinness in The Bar when you get back to town.
The Cliffs of Moher are the one attraction to rule them all along the Wild Atlantic Way. The most visited one, the most dramatic, the one that perfectly encapsulates all the stuff you hear about Ireland being mysterious, mythical, green, rural and wild. The cliffs are 214 metres high at their highest point, and they are genuinely breath-taking. Take a walk down as far as Hag’s Head (the southern point of the cliffs) and just enjoy the incredible views. There are points where the cliff edge is unstable, so be careful approaching, and be careful near the edge too in high winds. But go and see them, even if heights make you feel funny. They’re phenomenal.
You’re probably under the illusion that surfing is best done in tropical places where the sun shines, coconuts grow and people say ‘dude’ a lot. Well, nobody really says dude in Lahinch, and the closest you’ll get to a coconut is a Bounty bar – but the surfing here is superb, so wrestle yourself into a good thick wetsuit and brave the wild Atlantic. It’s awesome. The beach is huge, with smaller waves and plenty of surf schools that make it a great place for beginners to learn and novices to improve – I went to Ben’s Surf Clinic, which is a great place – but there are bigger, badder swells there for more serious surfers too. Go to Kenny’s Bar for a few pints and some good live music in the evening.
Kerry is an International Dark Sky Reserve, which means it’s skies are particularly good for anyone who loves to see the stars. It’s a double-whammy really; Kerry’s beautifully unspoiled and untouched landscape translates to an equally gorgeous sky-scape, one that’s unpolluted by streetlights, so the stars seriously pop out from the inky sky. Just try to make sure you’re there when the moon is new and the sky is darkest, if you really want the ultimate astronomical experience.
Yes, off the coast of West Cork it is very possible to see all kinds of marine mammals passing by. Take a Sea Safari from Baltimore Harbour with Whale Watch West Cork, and see how many you can spot. Depending on the time of year, you could see anything from from dolphins and porpoises to sunfish and humpback whales – and seeing them in the wild, doing their thing, is very cool. Whales are a little like the Northern lights though – they show up on their own terms, and it’s never a 100% sure thing that you’ll see them. Be patient, it’ll be worth it in the end…
- Dee Murray