Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way showcases the abundant attractions of the Emerald Isle’s gorgeous west coast, from West Cork to Donegal. The well-signed, easy-to-navigate route showcases 157 ‘Discovery Points’, where drivers can stop and learn more about the must-sees and lesser-known diversions of this fascinating area.
Cork is the third-largest city on the island of Ireland and has one of the largest natural harbours in the world. This historic trading port, established by the Vikings in the 10th century, has plenty of worthwhile attractions: the 16th-century Blackrock Castle; remnants of the city wall; the breathtaking Holy Trinity Church and St Fin Barre’s Cathedral; the unsettling 19th-century former prison Cork City Gaol; the Crawford Art Gallery; and St Anne’s Church, where visitors are invited to tug on the Shandon Bells. As for food, the English Market’s reputation for gourmet shopping and eating was alluring enough to attract Queen Elizabeth II during her 2011 visit.
Fifteen minutes drive northwest of Cork is the impressively preserved, 15th-century Blarney Castle. Tours of its many levels culminate in an unusual activity: being dangled backwards off the castle wall by a polite gentleman to kiss the fabled Blarney Stone, a ritual said to bestow the gift of eloquence.
Declared Ireland’s tidiest town in 2011, Killarney is a convenient staging post for several important sights. Southwest of the city on the shores of Lough Leane is the formidable late 15th-century Ross Castle, one of the last holdouts during the Irish Confederate War. Afterward, it’s a quick boat ride (summer only) to Innisfallen Island for a look at Innisfallen Abbey, founded in 640 and occupied by monks for some 850 years.
Budget about four hours for Killarney’s Muckross House, Gardens and Traditional Farms. This vast historical and cultural attraction features a 65-room mansion, built in 1843, including substantial original furnishings and gildings. Then it’s outside for walking or cycling around the sprawling gardens, including a front lawn big enough to accommodate several simultaneous soccer matches. Finally, there’s the long trek through the Muckross farmhouse and barn exhibits featuring a cow-milking lesson, soda bread-making and Clydesdale horses.
Killarney is the virtual cherry on top of the 179km, legendarily picturesque Ring of Kerry. Those who planned ahead can diverge at roughly the halfway point to Portmagee for the ferry to the Skellig Islands, featuring a 6th-century Christian monastery and views of the second largest puffin colony in the world. The five-hour journey requires booking at least two days in advance.
Dingle, the most westerly town in Europe, was historically one of Ireland’s main trading ports, but is now home to a population of only 1,920. Dingle’s main activities include boat tours, absorbing the local Irish music scene and eating at singular shops like Murphy’s Ice Cream, routinely declared to be among the best ice cream in the world. Nearby on the harbour promenade is a bronze sculpture of Dingle’s most famous resident: Fungie the bottlenose dolphin. Fungie, who appeared in the area in 1984, regularly visits and entertains tour boats.
The Blasket Islands Centre, at the most westerly point of the Dingle Peninsula, memorializes the now abandoned settlement on Great Blasket Island. Its tiny population – just 175 people at its peak – lived such dramatically unique lives only 2km from the mainland that they attracted the attention of anthropological and linguistic scholars. This tiny population produced several accomplished writers. Its dwindling population eventually forced an evacuation of the last 22 residents to the mainland in 1953. Boat tours to the island, weather permitting, allow for a thorough exploration of the crumbling cottages, hills and fields.
Lively Galway may seem glaringly modern at times – a quarter of its population are students – but it is the only large city where one can routinely hear Irish spoken on the streets. The Latin Quarter, situated on the left bank of the River Corrib, is arguably Galway’s most colourful and culturally vibrant area. The city’s best-known and eclectic independently owned shops, pubs, restaurants and hotels are clustered here, as well as Galway’s Saturday Market, Galway City Museum and the internationally acclaimed Druid Theatre Company.
The remainder of Galway is (unsurprisingly, considering its age) a history and heritage treasure trove. To appreciate the city’s storied, bloody history, a guided tour with Gore of Galway is a good idea, recounting tales of hangings, plague, famine and indiscriminate slaughter.
Westport, defined by its pleasing Georgian streetscapes, also offers wide-angle photography bait like Clew Bay and the Croagh Patrick mountain range. It’s a designated Irish Heritage Town and, like Killarney, a frequent winner of the National Tidy Towns Competition and other civic awards.
When you can extract yourself from Westport’s tidiness, a good way to get the heart pumping is with Walking West, an association of qualified marine and countryside guides located in South Connemara, who lead mountain hikes, coastal walks, bog walks and island trips in the Connemara region, incorporating elements of culture, language and heritage.
Sligo County’s connection to the sea is omnipresent. Its surfing, especially around Mullaghmore, is world-renowned, and waves swell to 15m high in peak season in late winter and early spring.
More serene diversions in Sligo include pubs, live music and restaurants and businesses that have embraced a locally sourced ingredient – seaweed. You’ll find seaweed in breads, salads and side dishes while dining in the area, but if that’s not enough, you can immerse yourself in the stuff at Voya Seaweed Baths in Strandhill. A 50-minute soak in a tub filled with hot, oily, greenish-brown Atlantic seawater and a bucket of hand-harvested, fresh seaweed is popular with athletes. The high concentrations of iodine in the seaweed fronds is said to be a cure for stresses and strains.
In nearby Grange, the low-impact Streedagh Spanish Armada Walk is a combination of culture, maritime archaeology and the story of the ill-fated Spanish fleet that wrecked some 25 ships in the area in the 16th century while fleeing a failed invasion attempt on England. The spectacular scenery is an added perk.
Windswept and rugged Donegal County may be an unconventional summer retreat, becoming positively grim in winter, but people that persevere to reach this northerly outcropping of Ireland are rewarded with elbow room and singularly beautiful scenery, like 600m-high Sliabh Liag (aka Slieve League), one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe.
Boat trips take people below the looming cliffs for the imposing view and a chance to spot dolphins, seals and even whales. Hardier souls are invited to take a swim in one of the coves. (Wetsuits provided.) Alternatively, the winding and spectacular drive to the top of the cliffs is rewarded with a breathtaking view of the sea and vast landscape. Steep hiking trails lead even higher up the cliffs.
Barely 15 minutes drive from Sliabh Liag is the Glencolmcille Folk Village, one of Ireland’s best living-history museums. The cottages, furnishings and artefacts are exact replicas of the dwellings and belongings of local people in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
The wind gusts around the Grianan of Aileach Ancient Stone Fort (1700 BC), situated on a hilltop 250m above sea level are, frankly, disquieting. People wearing loose or billowing clothing will experience a sensation similar to a kite just before takeoff. The fort has been identified as the seat of the Kingdom of Aileach and one of the royal sites of Gaelic Ireland. Though the base is original, much of the fort has been reconstructed.
One of Donegal’s top cultural sites is the Doagh Famine Village, an outdoor museum dedicated to the period from the Famine of the 1840s through the 1900s and the present. The singular challenges of living in this harsh, remote region during a time of such hardship are sobering. Highly recommended are the guided tours, which are informative, thought-provoking, tragic, and yet funny.
For sheer bragging rights, Banba’s Crown on Malin Head, the most northerly point of the Irish mainland, is a good final stop on the Atlantic coast tour. Unexpectedly, this happens to be statistically the sunniest place in Ireland. And among the windiest. An appropriate end to this tour is a pint in Ireland’s most northerly pub, Farren’s Bar Slievebawn in Malin Head.