The world’s longest coastal touring route has just been unveiled — and it’s right on our doorstep. Pól Ó Conghaile and Tommy Barker map the Wild Atlantic Way.
THUNDERING surf. Epic cliffs. Cosy pubs, cracking crab claws and coastal walks that’ll blow off the cobwebs and leave your Facebook friends drooling. The Wild Atlantic Way is the world’s newest coastal touring route, and it’s right on our doorstep.
Strike that. The Wild Atlantic Way is our doorstep.
Stretching 2,500km from Donegal’s Northern Lights to the sizzling kitchens of Kinsale, the tour was launched as “the journey of a lifetime” last month, and its final signposts are slotting into place. It’s already shaping up as an iconic route, and the hope is for a Gathering-like boost to Irish tourism — albeit over years rather than months.
It’s Ireland’s western seaboard, repackaged for the 21st century.
At first glance, it does seem surreally obvious. Hasn’t the Atlantic Coast always been there, after all? Hasn’t Ireland always had captivating coastal views? Aren’t the cliffs, beaches and sea stacks of the west coast already central to our tourism offering?
Of course they are. Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest, however. The decision to channel €10 million into chevron signposts and designated discovery points could be seen as pie in the sky, but it could also be a cost-effective way of packaging a priceless piece of tourism infrastructure that Mother Nature has already built.
It’s a busy world, out there. But something as clean, visual and breathtaking as Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way could just cut through the chatter. It could kick this beautiful coastline of ours into the thoughts and plans of millions of potential visitors.
This really is as raw as Ireland gets. This is spray-in-your-face, mud-on-your-tyres, salt-on-your-windscreen stuff. It’s about jagged peninsulas, deserted villages, brilliant beaches and coastal hubs ranging from Kinsale to Kenmare and Kilkee.
The Wild Atlantic Way is longer than California’s Pacific Coast Highway or South Africa’s Garden Route, has fewer tourists (well, outside of the Cliffs of Moher and Ring of Kerry, anyway), and its halfway house is Galway City.
What’s not to like?
Few people will drive the entire 2,500km, of course. Sure, you’ll find intrepid adventurers taking it on, (Liffey Press are shortly to publish a book by Eugene O’Loughlin, for example, who travelled the route by Harley Davidson). But most of us will be happy to dip in and out, biting off little bits and stopping whenever the mood strikes.
At any rate, whether you walk 10km or drive 1,000km doesn’t really matter. The Wild Atlantic Way is not there to be ‘done’ or ‘finished’. From a marketing point of view, touring routes attract more people, get them to stay longer and spend more money. For the rest of us, it’s another way to sex up a good ol’ fashioned staycation.
Businesses should benefit too. The Wild Atlantic Way is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to jump on board a branding bandwagon with international reach — one that comes with its own ads, marketing budget and app (available end of June).
From culture vultures to adrenaline junkies, bird watchers to big wave surfers, golfers to anglers and families to the far-flung diaspora, the Wild Atlantic Way is a grand invitation to all comers, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s lines from Postscript:
“And some time make the time to drive out west…”
SECTION 1: CORK
Length of coastline: 350 km approx.
Best stretch: With a fist-full of finger-like peninsulas jutting into the Atlantic, this is its like trying to pick your favourite child.
Toe Head is the after-thought, the child that doesn’t ask for anything. Sheep’s Head another of those quieter, less demanding children, with its fantastic 100km walk and loops. Baltimore and the islands are the scatty ones, you’ll be all day chasing them. Mizen Head is the bold one, wild and wacky and wonderful, with tales of €300m drug hauls and even a former Taoiseach washed up on its rocks. So, best stretch? The bridge walk to the Mizen lighthouse, the raw, arching exposed cliff geology and the views to the forlorn ‘Ireland’s teardrop’ outpost that is the Fastnet.
Grab a bite: Well, you’ve all of Kenmare and Kinsale’s food fare book-ending Cork’s 350kms of the Wild Atlantic Way, and with cookery schools and organic cafés in between you’re also likely to pile on the pounds (diet tip? travel off-season, when a lot of places close down).
Glebe Gardens in Baltimore grows much of its produce, and is quietly special, as is Durrus’ Good Things Cafe, but it’s only open in high summer.
For family value fresh off the grill or pizza oven, try the Jolie Brise in Baltimore, or the French-owned fish plant and eatery L’Escale on Schull’s pier for lobster and chips. The only fresher way to taste fish is via a snorkel.
The Big Hit: West Cork’s big hits are its islands — no doubt. Lots of them and loads of access options too. There’s Cape for birds, Sherkin for beaches, Heir for food, Beara for military history, and Garinish for its gardens. Nothing beats getting off a boat to say you’ve arrived. Or, for novelty and suspense, the cable car to Dursey island is a memorable must-try.
The Hidden gem: Well, we could be bold and say the Old Head of Kinsale is hidden, but really it’s more forbidden — as only fee-paying golfers now have ready access to its overly-greened charms. Welcoming hidden gem is the Ewe Sculpture Garden and Gallery in Glengarriff (theewe.com), where art has funky fun with landscape.
The seaside festival: This year, has to be Skibbereen’s Arts Festival in early August, as the town’s lofty building beacon, the new €4m Arts Centre, gets completed. Expect to see stars.
Go wild: Don’t just look at the water, get out on it, either sailing, fishing, whale and dolphin watching, or food foraging. The Wall Street Journal has rolled up its sleeves and extols kayaking in West Cork. www.atlanticseakayaking.com
Best beach: Thank the Lisbon earthquake and a consequent tsunami in the 1700s for giving West Cork dune-backed beaches like Barleycove, and Long Strand, in a more gentle landscape near Clonakilty, backed by woodland walks, a castle, a lake, and smaller coves immediately east and west to discover.
Did you know? You might never leave. There’s a legacy of awed visitors putting down roots, and Cork west and east is heaving with rich, famous and gifted blow-ins. For horticultural exotics — such as a Bamboo Park in Glengarriff — take time out in a West Cork garden, see www.westcorkgardentrail.com, and visit Liss Ard House near Skibbereen for its Sky Garden www.lissardestate.com.
SECTION 2: KERRY
Length of coastline: 350km approx.
Best stretch: I hadn’t heard of Thunder Rock before Commander Chris Hadfield tweeted a photo of the Dingle Peninsula from space, but I have driven around Slea Head. The cliff-hugging coastal road here arcs around the ends of the earth, with highlights including its Blasket Island views and Coumeenole beach (made famous by Ryan’s Daughter).
Grab a bite: There’s stonking seafood available all along Kerry’s Wild Atlantic Way (Spa Seafoods in Fenit, Global Village in Dingle, or QC’s in Caherciveen for starters). Packie’s in Kenmare is my pick (kenmarerestaurants.com/packies), however, for its friendly service and delicious fish. Kenmare also runs a Food Carnival (kenmarefoodcarvnival.com) in July.
The Big Hit: You can argue whether the Ring of Kerry needs its Wild Atlantic Way signposts at all (the classic touring route is already jammers), but there’s no arguing with the scenery. From wow moments at Waterville to the shard-like Skellig islands, this loop even gives Norway a run for its money… and that’s not even starting on the Lakes of Killarney.
The Hidden gem: Did you know there’s a chocolate factory on St. Finian’s Bay? Skelligs Chocolate (skelligschocolate.com) combine a café with an open-plan production facility allowing visitors to see the treats being made and nab a taste. It’s a small, family-run business — so don’t expect Willy Wonka — but its hot chocolate is just the ticket.
The seaside festival: How do you persuade Amy Winehouse, The National, Jarvis Cocker and other acts to perform in a tiny church on the Dingle Peninsula? We don’t know, but that stardust-in-a-small-town vibe gives Other Voices (othervoices.ie) its magic.
Go wild: Funghi isn’t the only animal found frolicking along the Wild Atlantic Way. Dingle Horse Riding (dinglehorseriding.com) offers mountain and beach treks around Dingle, including a two-hour option (€70pp) that combines both. It kicks off on Cnoc an Cairn, before riding through town to the strand by the mouth of Dingle Harbour.
Best beach: Ballybunion has its traditional ladies’ and men’s’ beaches. A short hike along the cliff path brings you to a third alternative — the nuns’ beach. The horseshoe-shaped cove is cut into the coast just north of the castle, and though too dangerous and hard to access for swimming, offers an amazing spread of surf, sand and sea stacks.
Did you know: Climb through the window at Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle Peninsula, and legend says your soul will be cleansed. There’s one problem, however. It measures 18cm x 12cm.
SECTION 3: CLARE
Length of Coastline: 190km approx.
Best stretch: The Dingle, Beara and Inishowen peninsulas are well known. Loop Head, not so much. The off-radar rawness of this West Clare landscape is what makes it such a mind-blowing drive, however — from dolphins in the Shannon estuary to foaming sea arches and a desolate Atlantic lighthouse. It feels like you have the place to yourself.
Grab a bite: Donald Trump may have bought the Lodge at Doonbeg, but he missed a smaller gem in Naughton’s of Kilkee (naughtonsbar.com). This family run pub/bistro does sizzling seafood and steaks during the summer months, but be sure to get in early — the queues are out the door. If you miss a table, skip on down to their chipper nearby.
The Big Hit: Last year, the Cliffs of Moher (cliffsofmoher.ie; €6/€4) attracted almost one million visitors. No prizes for guessing why — these dramatic, 214m cliffs are one of the great set pieces of the Wild Atlantic Way. Don’t forget to leave time for a surprisingly good Visitor Centre, however, as well as the other half of this UNESCO Geopark: The Burren.
The Hidden Gem: Have you ever tasted ice-cream flavoured with sea buckthorn? How about wild hazelnuts, Burren stout or ‘Irish Coconut (yellow gorse flowers)? All are on offer at Bríd and Roger Fahy’s Café Linnalla (linnallaicecrea.ie) on Clare’s Flaggy Shore.
Seaside festival: Think the Burren is barren? Think again. The Burren Slow Food Festival (slowfoodclare.com; May 23-25) is a three-day showcase of the surprising foods produced in and around this rocky national park. It’s organised by Birgitta Hedin-Curtin, whose Burren Smoked Salmon was served for the Queen at a 2011 State Dinner in Dublin Castle.
Go wild: Fancy rock-climbing your way to an awesome view over the Atlantic? Adventure Burren (adventureburren.com) offers half-day outings from €50pp, including all equipment. You can abseil down afterwards, too.
Best beach: Quality trumps quantity when it comes to beaches in Co. Clare. The surfing is great at Lahinch and Spanish Point, hidden gems include White Strand, and Kilkee is a fab family day out, but Fanore offer everything in one place. From the terracotta sand between your toes to wispy dunes and sensational coastal views, it’s a humdinger.
Did you know? You can stay in Lady Gregory’s holiday cottage on the Flaggy Shore. Mount Vernon (mountvernon.ie; B&B from €95pps) dates from 1788, previous guests likely included Synge and WB Yeats, and it’s a Hidden Ireland guesthouse today.
SECTION 4: Galway, Mayo, Sligo
Length: 520km approx.
Best stretch: Mayo’s Great Western Greenway (greenway.ie) can’t be done by car — and that’s exactly what makes it so special. The 42km walking and cycling route traces the course of the defunct Achill to Westport railway line, and the views over the Atlantic and Clew Bay — particularly between Achill, Mulranny and Newport, are gob-smacking.
Grab a bite: Galway and Westport are the big foodie stops on this stretch, but Shells Seaside Bakery & Café in Strandhill (shellscafe.com) is pure Wild Atlantic Way. It overlooks the beach, offers just the right mix of heartwarming brekkies, sweet treats, indulgent wines and home-cooked dinners, and even has its own Surf Café Cookbook.
The big hit: It’s hard to overlook Connemara. For every star God put in the sky, it’s said, he laid a million stones in this gnarly national park. Those stones are arranged to remarkable effect along the Galway and Mayo coastlines — from set pieces like the Sky Road outside Clifden to surreal discoveries like the tidal causeway to Omey Island. Bliss.
The hidden gem: The Connemara Coast road from Galway to Rossaveal is well-known; the coral strand at Carraroe is not. Trá an Dóilín is a tiny cove whose sands are composed of broken seashells and the bleached bones of ancient polyps… magnificence in miniature.
Seaside festival: The Westport Festival of Music & Food (westportfestival.com) is rapidly winning a reputation for its blasts from the past. Bryan Adams, Kool and the Gang and David Gray are this year’s headliners — but it’s not all nostalgia. Daithí and Lisa O’Neil are two Irish acts with bright futures, and culinary rock stars include Rachel Allen, Clodagh McKenna, Ross Lewis and Westport’s own Seamus Commons and Frankie Mallon.
Go wild: Free diving is the art (or science) of holding your breath underwater — think of it as advanced snorkelling with a bit of oceanic spirituality thrown in. Free dive Ireland (freediveireland.com) operates from Mullaghmore during the summer months — its Water Weekend gives a taster of stand-up paddle boarding too (€150pp).
Storms reveal 7,500-year-old ‘drowned forest’ on north Galway coastline
Best beach: There’s no shortage of Blue Flag beaches in this corner of the country, but first among equals for me is Keem Bay on Achill Island. The sickle-shaped strand is scooped out of the mountains and fronting onto a bay once bloated with basking shark. It looks sensational, no matter what the season — and the views stretch to Croagh Patrick.
Did you know? John Lennon once bought Dorinish Island in Clew Bay for £1,700. The Beatle and Yoko Ono also stayed at The Mulranny Park Hotel in 1968, when he apparently treated guests to a pre-release rendition of ‘Revolution’ on the lawn.
SECTION 5: Donegal
Length: 460km approx.
Best stretch: The Slieve League Peninsula is one of Ireland’s best-kept secrets. It’s got everything — soaring cliffs at Slieve League, sugar-sandy Blue Flag beaches like Fintra, warm-hearted towns like Killybegs and Donegal, and the ends-of-the-earth Gaeltacht of Glencolmcille (Ghleann Cholm Cille). It’s the Ring of Kerry, without the tourist traffic.
Grab a bite: The Beach House in Buncrana (thebeachhouse.ie) is a cool and confident little oasis on Inishowen. Donegal — not exactly renowned as a foodie county — has a surprising selection of gastro pubs (donegalgoodfoodtaverns.com) too. Look out for The Lobster Pot in Burtonport, for one — a little gem next to the Arranmore ferry.
The big hit: Donegal doesn’t really do big hits. The Inishowen Peninsula is getting more and more coverage for its stunning aurora borealis displays, however — with recent showings securing front-page coverage in the national papers. Visit Inishowen (visitinishowen.com) has a step-by-step guide on how to chase the Northern Lights in a vintage year.
Hidden gem: Bundoran’s Sea Sessions festival (seasessions.com; June 27-19) has crafted a canny nook for itself, mashing up elements of surf, skate and music into a three-day beach party bringing some of summer’s best vibes to Donegal. The Dandy Warhols are confirmed for 2014, camping is a blast, and tickets are available from €99pp.
Go wild: Donegal doesn’t draw the same volume of surfers as Clare or Sligo — which is exactly why you should go.
Bundoran we know, but Dunfanaghy is the real surprise, with a diverse set of surrounding beaches throwing up waves whatever the weather. Book a lesson with Narosa (narosalife.com) to nail down your own wild Atlantic ways.
Best beach: Stashed away in Ballymastocker Bay on the Fanad Peninsula, Portsalon beach is one of those sweeping Irish strands that could slot into the Caribbean on a sunny day.
A mile of golden sands, safe swimming and a secret surf spot under Knockalla Mountain are complemented by a little cove in Portsalon itself. It has it all.
Did you know? There are 26 offshore islands on the Wild Atlantic Way. Tory is the only one with its own king, however, with a warm welcome for visitors off the ferry too.
TRAVEL DIGEST by Barry Coughlan
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