It was St Patrick’s Day 2015 and I was with family and friends at Skibbereen’s parade. I had just started working as series producer on RTE One’s Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way so I had made some skirmishes along the West Cork/Kerry coast in search of new stories and experiences for the TV series.
The Wild Atlantic Way road sign, with its distinctive wave logo, was a relatively new feature along the coastline.
But that day, watching the floats go by, I noticed that nearly every single one — from local school kids to businesses — carried the Wild Atlantic Way logo with pride.
It was then I realised this remarkable concept had been truly embraced by the people who would benefit from it most.
Because the success of Fáilte Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way isn’t an accident.
It’s been a good few years in the planning and a large part of that has been regular meetings and consultations with the communities up and down the west coast.
So now, as tourists traverse along this spectacular sea route, all of the people they meet, from the cafe owner to the tour guide, right down to the local they stop to ask directions, have bought into and feel they are part of the Wild Atlantic Way.
The Wild Atlantic Way is the longest defined coastal route in the world, coming in at just over 2,500km. Full of secrets and meanderings, it’s a truly magical and, for some, spiritual place.
But I believe the concept of the Wild Atlantic Way has reinvented the west coast of Ireland and made us stop and realise just what we have on our doorstep.
We’re all familiar with the stories of German and Dutch nationals coming to the West of Ireland back in the 1970s to discover a hidden paradise far away from the industrial, polluted continent.
ack then, many of us scoffed at them and wondered why they wanted to swap sophisticated urban living for what many of us still perceived as a rural backwater.
Cromwell’s cry, ‘To Hell or to Connaught’ was still in our minds as the west conjured up images of horses and traps and thatched cottages with no running water or electricity.
Ironically, this perception of a place where time has stood still has now become one of the Wild Atlantic Way’s biggest selling points.
The difference of course is that tourists can escape into its wild natural beauty while enjoying the highest standards of food and accommodation.
Because as well as realising the value of our unspoilt landscape and ocean, we’ve also come to appreciate the incredible food that comes from it, from grass-fed beef to the freshest line caught fish to home grown fruit and vegetables.
This re-evaluation of the west has also extended to our relationship with the Atlantic Ocean. For an island nation, we’ve been notorious for turning our backs on the sea.
For centuries, the Atlantic spelled hardship and foreboding. But technology has completely transformed this.
New advances in wetsuits allow water enthusiasts to take to the sea in summer or winter and enjoy hours of spills and thrills without having to endure the blue lips and chattering teeth of our childhood.
So the west has become a ‘Cold Water Paradise’, attracting some of the best surfers in the world to Donegal, Clare, and Kerry.
But you don’t have to be a hi-tech
surfer to enjoy the ocean. One of the lovely delights I experienced were Kilkee’s Pollock Holes in Clare.
At low tide every day, you can access natural swimming pools which have been eroded into the black rock.
Underneath the clear Atlantic water, you can access a little microcosm of the ocean, with beautiful coral and fish species.
You don’t need big oxygen tanks and high tech diving gear. Just grab a good snorkel and dive away to escape to another world.
I’ll never forget my two children’s excitement and enthusiasm as we joined a group of locals on a warm summer’s evening, feeling the warm rock beneath our feet as we all dived in.
Unlike TV crews, not many of us will take the time to travel the whole of the Wild Atlantic Way.
So Fáilte Ireland has divided the route into six regions and they truly reflect the changing landscape of our western seaboard.
The Haven coast features the inlets and tiny coves of Kinsale and Bantry Bay and the exotic Gulf Stream.
The South West features the five great rocky peninsulas of Cork and Kerry. This is truly ‘next stop Manhattan’ territory.
‘Hard land, warm heart’ is the catch phrase for the Cliff Coast which runs from north Kerry to Clare and up to Galway.
The Atlantic skims around the huge beaches of the Bay Coast. Don’t forget, Connemara means ‘inlets of the seas’ as Gaeilge and this region — which goes up to the magnificent and wild Erris Beo in Mayo — is described as a salty, fresh air playground.
The Surf Coast runs from Erris through Sligo’s beautiful Yeats country and up to Donegal. It gets its name from the Wild Atlantic Way’s two most famous surf spots — Bundoran and Mullaghmore Head.
In fact it was the Britton family from Donegal who brought back surfboards from California in 1966 and put Ireland on the surfing map.
inally the Northern Headlands is described as untouched and virtually unexplored. Wonder at the marvel that is Sliabh Liag, Europe’s highest sea cliffs.
And don’t waste your money heading to Scandinavia to experience the Northern Lights because the skies of Donegal regularly feature the purples, pinks, and greens of the Aurora Borealis.
For many, including those German and Dutch nationals who arrived here all those years ago, the west has become a sanctuary and a refuge, a place where you can reinvent yourself.
Throughout our trip up the coast, we met many people who were drawn here for peace and contemplation.
So we sat with film star Jeremy Irons in his pink castle on West Cork’s Roaring Water Bay and heard how one of the biggest appeals for him is that it’s a long, long way from anywhere.
He described the West of Ireland as ‘gold dust’ and urged us to mind it carefully.
At Macalla farm on Mayo’s Clare Island we met Ciara Cullen, an American woman and her family who live an idyllic existence running yoga and mindfulness courses.
On Lough Hyne, we embarked on a moonlit kayak with Atlantic Sea Kayaking’s Jim Kennedy, who makes his livelihood on this beautiful stretch of water.
Sitting, listening to the lapping water and watching the glow of the moon on the lake, Jim confessed to enjoying the best office in the world.
But sometimes it takes someone from the outside to make us realise what we have.
Like Dubliner Julie Ormonde who came to Kerry’s Skellig peninsula over 20 years ago with her four children as part of the Rural Settlement Scheme.
One starry winter’s night, her youngest son headed out to get some turf for the fire and called his family out to witness the night sky.
That heralded the start of a one-woman campaign for Julie as she realised the jewel on which they were sitting.
Her tenacity and hard work paid off and the Skellig peninsula is now recognised as the best place in the whole of the Northern Hemisphere to witness the sky at night, having been awarded Gold Tier Status by the International Dark Sky Association in 2014.
I joined her and a group of star gazers on Bolus Head on a cold Easter night. We watched until the light left the sky and it became truly dark, so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of you.
And the night sky came alive in front of us. Stars, hundreds of stars, shining with a light and intensity I’ve never seen before.
That night, Julie made the lovely observation that when she brings families out to witness this celestial wonder, grandparents become as excited as their grandchildren.
“And that can’t be obtained from a screen or a movie,” she maintains.
And for me, that’s the real beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s a chance to truly connect with nature and the landscape and allows all of us to become children again, experiencing what it means to try things for the first time, and all of the joy that brings.