Driving The Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland
Stretching the entire way along Ireland’s west coast, from its most northerly point at Malin Head, County Donegal, to the colourful foodie town of Kinsale in southern Ireland’s County Cork, the Wild Atlantic Way is 2,600km of unbridled coastal bliss.
Encompassing some of Ireland’s most famous natural landmarks, including the Cliffs of Moher, the route also takes in a myriad of other coastal sights and regions, from the better-known areas like the Ring of Kerry and Connemara, to lesser-known (but no less beautiful) areas such as Sligo, Mayo and parts of West Cork.
It’s hard to believe that this spectacular route (and the longest defined coastal drive in the world to boot) is less than a decade old in its current form. Dreamt up by a team of strategists and the Irish tourism board’s marketing team, the Wild Atlantic Way was officially launched in 2014. It was a concept that took off with great gusto. Its well-marked route, together with the fact that one can easily break it into sections that link with other major cities in Ireland, means that at least a section of the Wild Atlantic Way makes its way onto nearly every Ireland itinerary.
Why The Wild Atlantic Way needs to be on your Ireland Bucket List
Over the millennia, Ireland’s west coast has succumbed to consistent battering by the tumultuous and mighty Atlantic Ocean, which has etched magical coves and inlets, deposited glistening silver sands and created awe-inspiring fjords and cliffs along the island’s shoreline.
This shoreline is fringed, in many places, by vast expanses of heather-strewn bogland, cloud-shrouded peaks and mountains and undulating coastal tracks that weave their way alongside the ever-changing but always magical bluey depths of the sea.
The Wild Atlantic Way’s most popular stop-offs are fully deserving of their accolades, but the sections of the Wild Atlantic Way that have charmed me most have been the raw and rugged lands of Mayo and Sligo, which are some of the lesser-visited areas by visitors from abroad.
Experiencing these regions was an entirely elemental one – in vast expanses of untouched landscape you feel smaller, more insignificant – and I became acutely aware of my own small role in Ireland’s long timeline, and my place amongst her people, as I climbed sacred mountains and trudged the same ancient routes as my megalithic ancestors had done, thousands of years before me. For me, it led to feelings of deep connection to my land of birth, further cementing a love of my country and its people that I know I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
What to expect along The Wild Atlantic Way
Those without Irish roots are not precluded from enjoying the rich offerings of this extensive coastal route, however. Any nature lover will be suitably enthralled by the myriad of water-based activities on offer, the diversity of flora and fauna and the dramatic peaks that border the water’s edge. There are greenways to be cycled, ancient castles to be explored and purple-hued mountains to be scaled.
Every place you go, there is the warm welcome of cosy pubs, an abundance of world-class seafood and delectable dining that focuses on provenance. While the scarred landscape holds reminders of a sad history – famines, civil wars and oppression from a colonial overseer – the outlook today is very much a positive one, rooted in the future in its modernity and one which has a lively spirit that is absolutely unquenchable.
Really, the only way to experience the Wild Atlantic Way is to drive it for yourself. This is an itinerary that you’ll want full control of, as in fact, you’ll find yourself not sticking to the itinerary at all. Instead, you’ll be enticed to stay awhile longer at empty beaches with Caribbean-like waters, find yourself drawn to examine that castle on the hill, or end up feeling right at home in a local pub, curled up by the fire not wanting to leave.
The most important piece of advice I can impart is to take your time. This is a route from which you can reap the benefits of slow travel, and the best way to do it is to truly immerse yourself into a region for a few days at a time. To properly cover the route in one single trip, you would arguably need two to three weeks. Most will not have the luxury of all that time, so instead, I’d suggest picking one or two sections of the Wild Atlantic Way to do at a time. As a guide, you’ll need three to five days to properly explore each designated area.
So, which sections should you prioritise seeing first? The beauty in the route is that while yes, it does trace the sea the whole way along Ireland’s west coast and with that, much remains the same throughout, each section of the route will appeal to different types of travellers.
Starting in the south, the area of West Cork and the Beara Peninsula are amongst the Wild Atlantic Way’s most unspoilt. Home to the foodie town of Kinsale and cute coves with calm waters, West Cork is also home to a vibrant arts & crafts community. Next up is County Kerry – known in Ireland as “The Kingdom” – which includes some of the most popular spots on the route in the form of the Ring of Kerry, the Skellig Islands and the Dingle Peninsula.
Moving further up the coast, are the counties of Limerick and Clare. Key callouts here are the famous Cliffs of Moher, the otherworldly karst landscape of the Burren and the lively town of Doolin, famed as a hub for traditional Irish music. Continuing up is the bohemian university city of Galway and its abundance of nightlife. From here it is easy to reach the desolate wilderness of Connemara, where great shadows cause the light to dance across mountains and where tropical beaches are fringed with green fields.
The ‘wildest’ part of the Wild Atlantic Way is that which stretches north from here. Firstly, are the counties of Mayo and Sligo. In Mayo, you can climb Ireland’s holiest mountain, Croagh Patrick, see great sea stacks and discover oodles of world-class beaches. Sligo is a mythical, magical place. The land that inspired much of W.B. Yeats’ writing, its roots are firmly pinned in prehistoric Ireland and Celtic folklore and you can’t help but be bowled over by Benbulbin and Knocknarea – mountains which both hold places in ancient tales. It’s also home to some fantastic surfing.
Lastly, is the 4km stretch of coastline that Leitrim lays claim to, before the final county that is included in this route – Donegal. Donegal packs a punch, boasting Europe’s highest sea cliffs in the form of Sliabh League, windswept headlands, golden beaches, mountains, lakes and authentic Irish villages amongst some of its charms.
Whichever part of the Wild Atlantic Way you end up choosing to focus your time on, you won’t be left disappointed. This incredible coastal route is one of the best road trips in the world and should find itself firmly on everyone’s bucket list.
About the Author
Isabelle Hoyne is based in Dublin & Kilkenny, Ireland and the voice behind Cultured Voyages . Her blog focuses on luxury travel for culturally curious travellers, who enjoy laying their heads down in unique, luxurious properties at the end of a day’s exploring.
Through a combination of detailed travel guides and carefully curated accommodation round-ups, the blog helps readers craft enriching and memorable travel experiences that incorporate the best food, accommodation and historical and cultural offerings in a given destination.
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