Discover Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way
On a visit to Ireland earlier this year we got our first taste of the Wild Atlantic Way. The new route down the west coast is split into six sections that explore 2,500km of coastal and cultural adventure. Cruising down the whole trail would make a scenic and inspiring road trip, but every individual part holds its own unique charm. These are some of our favourite places to dip into or include in your own Wild Atlantic Way itinerary.
Donegal isn’t part of the traditional tourist trail that draws large numbers of international visitors, but the county has really embraced the Wild Atlantic Way project. You can use the N56 to get from place to place, but the stretches of coastal road like those on the Fanad Peninsula offer a far more scenic drive and the chance to stop at spots like Portsalon, with its golden sand and lonely lighthouse.
Glenveagh’s open terrain and deserted trails invite long, beautiful hikes and there’s some world-renowned climbing, including Ireland’s longest ice climb. The standout features of the region are Fanad Lighthouse and the Slieve League cliffs, which drop straight into the sea in a twisting, curving line that set up breathtaking sunset views.
County Clare’s section of the Wild Atlantic Way is named for the Cliffs of Moher, the Slieve League’s more famous southern counterpart, and there’s plenty to explore further inland as well. The Burren, in the north of the county, is a unique Karst landscape of weathered limestone, stretching in smooth ripples for miles. At a glance, it appears barren and forbidding, especially in winter, but in spring wildflowers submerge the rocks in bursts of colour and there are wild goats, mountain hare, an enormous amount of birdlife and some great short hiking trails.
The distinctive region also gave its name to a trail of a different kind. The Burren Food Trail, part of the wide-ranging community tourism initiative The Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark, is actually a menu of delicious itineraries that lead you through the Clare countryside. There’s a Cheese Trail, a Farm to Fork trail and the salty flavours of the Taste the Ocean trail, all showcasing a different aspect of the region’s produce and introducing you to the passionate people who make, grow and brew there. You’re free to mix and match, tasting and chatting your way through a multi-course tour of the county.
Kerry contains two of our favourite sections of the whole Wild Atlantic Way – spectacular drives along the north-west sections of the Ring of Kerry on the Iveragh Peninsula and all the way down to Slea Head on the Dingle Peninsula. They are stunning routes where the views seem to change every minute, and while they can be crowded in summer, there are always places where you can dodge the crowds. The central area of the Dingle Peninsula has been designated a Dark Sky Reserve, Ireland’s first, and there’s a feeling of emptiness and serenity in its open spaces even before the stars come out. Derrynane, on the far west of the Iveragh Peninsula, is a little pocket of golden sandy beaches from which you can strike off into more rugged and unexplored parts of the Ring of Kerry, and there are inland areas as stunning as the coast, but with a fraction of the traffic.
Killarney National Park, in particular, offers some lovely hikes around Lough Leane, passing the striking Ross Castle and following rivers and streams to rushing cascades in the hills. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting in October, then you might be around for the Dingle Food Festival. The lively celebrations take over the small, scenic town and high local specialties – Glenbeigh mussels, west Kerry lamb and Dingle Gin, voted the world’s best gin at the 2019 World Gin Awards in London. If you’re down at the harbour, keep your eyes out for Fungie, the almost-tame dolphin who’s a regular visitor.
The Blasket islands are one of the most atmospheric spots on the Wild Atlantic Way. They’re less visually impressive than the jutting shard of Skellig Michael, recently popularised (ruined, if you ask some locals) by the Star Wars films, but are an incredible museum of island life. Just a 20-minute boat ride takes you over to where a small community once clung to “the edge of Europe”. The few inhabitants produced a remarkable wealth of literature, about the challenges of such remote living and the sad story of the gradual emigration that led to total abandonment of the settlements there in 1953. From the remains of the buildings and narrow, weathered piers the views stretch out into the seemingly unending Atlantic Ocean.
We’d happily visit Cork for its foodie attractions and rugged scenery, but it has the added bonus of being a wildlife spotters’ paradise. Clonakilty, on the south coast, was listed in the top 100 Sustainable Destinations in the world, and is the only Irish town to be part of the Cittaslow Slow Food movement. Artisans and independent shops fill the streets, there’s a brewery, a distillery and a host of events that showcase local music and food, including the most famous export – Clonakilty Black Pudding, made to a secret, spicy, crumbly recipe.
Clonakilty sits just off the sweep of golden sand known as Inchydoney beach, with brightly-painted buildings adding to the happy seaside feel. While the beach is Blue Flag certified, it’s very much for the diehard swimmers, but there are still a few big reasons to spend some time on the water. Humpback, minke and fin whales are all regular visitors to the seas here, along with dolphins, porpoises, seals and even basking shark. Coastal walkers in search of the marine wildlife also keep one eye on the sky, watching for kittiwakes, gannets and puffins, among many other species.
Where to stay…
Escape the dramatic Ring of Kerry to this serene cottage with wide views over Derrynane Harbour and Atlantic islands.
Wild Honey Inn
Come for Michelin-starred Irish food, cooked with flair – not fuss – for comfort and to connect with the extraordinary Burren landscape.