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Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way
Photoessay of Ireland's breathtaking west coast
I was born and raised in Ireland, and still go back a couple of times a year. So a regular question I encounter from friends and colleagues is “where should I visit in Ireland?”
There are basically two itineraries:
Itinerary 1: Dublin
You fly into the capital, and never leave the city. You spend a lot of money in Temple Bar drinking overpriced beer before getting stabbed by the locals as you stumble home.
You have experienced Ireland in the same way someone visiting only New York City has experienced America. But because it is easy and convenient, too many visitors stick with this option.
Itinerary 2: The West Coast
The other option is to hit the west coast, which savvy marketing types have relabeled the “Wild Atlantic Way.” But…it is basically just the west coast, starting in County Cork in the south, and ending up in Donegal up north. It incorporates the most jaw-dropping scenery sights in the country, including the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, and the medieval city of Galway.
Ireland is a small country, but doing the full trip requires some time. On a recent trip, the family and I started from Killarney, before spending most of our time in Donegal.
Hack! Start each day with an Irish breakfast
Per Napoleon, an army travels on its stomach, so getting a solid start to the day is important. After a few days you may struggle to walk upstairs, and feel a tingling sensation in your extremities. This is normal.
Since I am from Kerry, lets start there
The Ring of Kerry is justifiably famous, including Kenmare and Dingle.
Though its not a stop on the Wild Atlantic Way, take some time in Killarney. It has a reputation as a tourist trap, but tourists go there for a reason. There is nothing like its national park, Irelands first, which covers 10,000 hectacres. It has an endless array of hikes or easy walks besides beautiful lakes, and the sheer scale of the park means it is easy to find isolation. The park abuts the town itself, so you have no excuse not to take advantage.
If you are up for a light mountain hike, the view from Torc Mountain, which has a relatively well-groomed path to its peak, is worth it:
Between Kerry and Galway, Clare offers some good places to stop, such as the Cliffs of Moher, or the small town of Doolin. I did not take many pics in Galway that did not involve Guinness. Our plan to take the ferry to the Aran islands, which are now experiencing a post Banshees of Inisherin boom was scuppered by high seas.
Galway my favorite Irish city, and really built for visitors. The heart of the town is pedestrian-friendly streets. Lots of great bars but shout out to Tigh Neachtain for not changing an iota for decades, and high praise to Ean for food.
Heading further north into Sligo, its an easy stop to explore Benbulbin, a flat topped rock formation. It was a bit hazy the day we visited, so here is a clear image from a professional photographer that also incorporates Mullaghmore, and Cassiebawn Castle, which has its own complicated history.
Donegal is sort of a mirror to the more touristy Kerry, but rising in prominence, what with Sarah Jessica Parker having a holiday residence there and New York Times write-ups. We spent most of our time in Donegal, using the very lovely Harvey’s Point as our base.1
If you can only do one cliff experience in Ireland, there is a good chance it will be the Cliffs of Moher. Which are amazing and worthwhile. Sliabh Liag is lesser known, but taller, and for my money, more beautiful. If driving, your best bet is to stop at the visitor centre, and for a few euros take the shuttle bus up. There is a closer car park, but you end up on a very narrow road to get there, and still leave yourself a decent hike to the views. Which are spectacular.
If you have the time, you can easily spend a few hours walking along the cliff edge.
And when you are done, grab a coffee and lobster roll before heading home.
Donegal has fantastic beaches. On a sunny day, you can convince yourself you are in some undiscovered part of the Mediterranean.
But beach wear in Ireland also includes a rainjacket and umbrella.
Glenveagh National Park is also worth a visit in Donegal, though not on the coastal route. From Donegal, if you are willing to drive for a couple of more hours you can make it to the Giants Causeway in Antrim. This is not technically part of the Wild Atlantic Way, since it is part of the United Kingdom. It is easy to miss the border — a topic which has generated much negotiation after Brexit — but the sheer volume of Union Jack flags you pass in small towns will soon let you know where you are.
Hack! Driving in Ireland
Ireland poses some challenges to visiting drivers. You are on the opposite side of the road. Wild Atlantic Way routes may be quite narrow, sometimes with a large cliff drop on one side, and a large bus coming against you on the other side. If you are a nervous driver, think about using buses (no rail system on the west coast). If you have a group, look into hiring a small bus — a knowledgable driver can also be a godsend. That said, hiring a rental car gives you the most flexibility. If you go that route, here are some tips:
If you are not used to a stick shift, spend the extra money to get an automatic. One less thing to think about as you drive.
Ireland has good primary roads. The Wild Atlantic Way will sometimes take you off those, but stick with them as much as you can. Google maps will often send you down a country boreen to save you a couple of minutes (pretty sure the road below was not the best route to Galway), so check your route before following blindly what it advises you.
Please note that any commercial entities I mention here did not provide me any recompense, the cheap bastards.