So you want to get into the open. You want to ditch the desk, kick the city and treat yourself to a game-changing, cobweb-blasting, mind-blowing reboot? You’ve come to the right place, says Pól Ó Conghaile
Right now, Ireland’s biggest little secret is a long-distance driving route called The Wild Atlantic Way. Charting almost the entire length of the western seaboard, this is shaping up to be one of the most captivating coastal drives on earth… and it’s here in Ireland!
This is as real and 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, posting pictures from the very edges of Western Europe. It’s just you, the open road, and stop-offs ranging from cosmopolitan cities to lands that time forgot.
The Wild Atlantic Way is a work-in-progress. Signage and Discovery Points will be fully in place before the 2014 season, but for the moment, it’s fresh from the box. It’s like Norway’s Atlantic Drive, California’s Pacific Coast Highway or South Africa’s Garden Route – without the tour buses and tourist traffic.
Take a spin before or after TBEX Dublin, in other words, and you’ll have the Wild Atlantic Way to yourself. Well, almost. You may of course meet somebody fishing off the rocks at that cove in West Cork. You may run into a few locals bringing cattle across the causeway to Omey Island. But who’s counting?
The Wild Atlantic Way is not there to be ‘done’ or ‘finished’. You can, of course, drive all the way from Donegal to Cork (assuming you have several weeks to kill, or a very cool boss). But it’s just as enjoyable dipping in and out, driving for a few hours, or several days, stopping when the mood strikes. It’s completely up to you.
Take the Beara Peninsula. Everybody knows the Ring of Kerry, but this driving loop (one peninsula to the south) offers all the drama with a fraction of the traffic. In the space of an afternoon, you can follow corkscrew roads, float over foggy mountain passes, discover old copper mining villages and kick back on empty beaches before ending up at the launch point for Ireland’s only cable car. The unique transport link takes up to six people on a 15-minute journey to Dursey Island offshore. It’s an unforgettable ride.
Fancy spending the night in a lighthouse keeper’s cottage on Loop Head (this little nugget was voted best place to holiday in Ireland by the Irish Times newspaper)? What about joining Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking for a paddle along the West Cork coastline? Or renting a surfboard in Bundoran, County Donegal – a surf town ranked by National Geographic as one of the 20 best in the world? “The water may be cold, but the pubs and locals are always warm,” the magazine chimed, a sentiment that applies to the entire coastline.
Surfing is one of the fastest-growing sports in Ireland. From Inchydoney to the Inishowen Peninsula, schools are introducing beginners to Atlantic breakers. In winter, humongous slabs thump against the Cliffs of Moher and Mullaghmore, where the country’s first-ever big wave competition was held in 2011. Type ‘Mullaghmore’ into YouTube, and you’ll see the kind of monsters we’re talking about.
But surfing is just the start of the activities. You could tee off on one of Ireland’s many links golf courses. You could cast a line into Clew Bay, or ride a Connemara pony in Clifden. Legend has it that the breeds are descended from Arab stallions that swam ashore when the Spanish Armada was wrecked in the 16th century.
Not that you have to be super-active to get under Ireland’s skin. Memories are just as easily forged by a cosy fireplace in Clare, or soaking in a seaweed bath in Sligo. You can slosh about in the surf, or you can watch your partner or pals suffer from the comfort of a beach bar or seaside hotel. The pace is for you to decide.
Don’t worry about the weather, either. This is a year-round route. On dark winter mornings, you might catch surfers slinking out on jet skis, storms battering lighthouses, blowholes like the Nine Daughter’s in Ballybunion – into which an ancient chieftain is said to have thrown his daughters – venting fury. In gentler weather, kids go rock-pooling, birders break out the binoculars, Dolphin Watch boats head out from Carrigaholt. And no matter when you travel, or how remote you end up, you’re never far from a fresh bowl of seafood chowder, a creamy pint, or a piping hot cone of fish n’ chips.
If you write or post about your experiences, you’re in good company too.
WB Yeats was smitten by Sligo, and is buried under Ben Bulben Mountain. Further south, another Nobel Prize winning poet, Seamus Heaney, took his inspiration from the Burren National Park: “And some time make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore…” he wrote in ‘Postscript’.
The Wild Atlantic Way: Wild, rugged, liberating.