For most of us, seaside resorts aren’t just places with a beach that we might go to for a week in summer. They represent cherished memories of childhood, when the end of school and the promise of warm weather saw us pile into the back of the family Cortina and make our way seaward with unguarded optimism, a prayer to the weather gods and the bribe of a 99 on arrival – so long as we behaved. In the days before cheap flights to places with guaranteed sunshine, the Irish beach town reigned supreme – in all weathers.
In a year when the likelihood of a foreign sun holiday seems pretty remote, the pandemic has reintroduced us to the charms of a holiday along the Irish costas. If you haven’t been to the Irish seaside for a few years, it should come as no surprise that, while the fundamentals remain unchanged, most resorts have evolved with the times. Most have their favourite, which they return to again and again, but just in case you’re looking for somewhere new to discover, here are some worth considering, and what’s on offer this year.
Achill Island, Co Mayo
The handiest island to visit is also one of Ireland's finest. The wide stretch of sand at Keel Beach (and the surrounding facilities) has a wonderful old school feel, particularly on a busy summer's day. But drive for just a few miles and you can be at one of the most blissful bays in Ireland. Keem Beach wins all the beauty points, the curved bay gleaming in the sunshine on a fine day. Its status as one of the best beaches in the land means the tiny cliff top road that leads there can get very busy on a good day, so get there early if you can.
If you want to stretch the legs, the 6.7km Granuaile Loop walk is a lovely route taking in Derreens, Kildownet and Ashleam Bay, with gorgeous views along the way. It begins and ends at Pattens Bar, where there's plenty of space to park.
For a shot of adrenaline, head up to Pure Magic (Slievemore Rd) on Keel Lough, where you can try your hand at kitesurfing or stand up paddleboarding, or send the kids to give it a bash while you explore the island. There's reasonably priced accommodation in the Lodge, and a restaurant that dishes out rather good takeout pizzas.
Fans of decent coffee will love the new truck that's parked up outside Achill Island Sea Salt (Bunacurry). The Carrow coffee is roasted in Sligo, but there are also treats for sale from the local bakery, Cácaí Acla, as well as their own salted caramel fudge. There are usually a few trucks parked up at Keel Beach during the summer, so keep an eye out for the Nádúrtha Soul Foods set-up, where you'll find virtuous smoothies and vegan nachos to enjoy on the sand.
Ballybunion, Co Kerry
When the sun shines, Ballybunion is the most beautiful place on earth, its regularvisitors will happily – and confidently – tell you. Kerry bluster perhaps, but as the sun sets over the tawny-coloured beach, casting shadow over Mount Brandon and Loop Head in the distance, suddenly the claim doesn't seem so preposterous.
The beach is really three beaches – Ladies, Men's and, abutting the famous golf course, Long Strand. A vertiginous cliff walk above Ladies Beach leads past the Nine Daughters' blowhole (in local lore it's the site of the cruel end for nine young girls who disobeyed their father and planned to run off with Vikings; these days it's home to resting starlings) to the Virgin Rock archway and Nuns Beach, which is more secluded than the main strand.
Ladies and Men's are great for families – the waves are small and constant and there's plenty of shallow depth for the kids of play in. They're also great beaches for surfing novices; during summer the Ballybunion Surf School on Men's Beach gets pretty busy. Other popular activites include Collins' Seaweed Baths on Ladies Beach, which have been in business since the 1920s.
There’s a small cafe attached to the seaweed baths, but for something more substantial you’ll have to make your way up to Main Street, which is lined with all kinds of takeaways and restaurants. Gourmandise Time is an authentic French patisserie while Coast Café does excellent coffees; for the best ice cream in town, look no further than Sundae’s, which besides homemade ice cream also makes its own mini donuts.
Of the selection of fast-food joints, Mario's is the spot for a fine burger 'n chips. Namir's does excellent Mediterranean/Middle Eastern fare – plus the story of Iraq-born Namir and his Irish wife Kay (they met in a hospital in Baghdad while she was caring for his mother) is the stuff of a romantic movie. There's more high-end dining on offer at Stroller's (Links Rd) in Teach de Broch, a boutique hotel that is next to the golf course. And finally, there's the most enduring of all of Ballybunion's culinary traditions: periwinkles, which come in brown paper bags and are sold in the car park above the beach: the seller will even give you a needle so you can get right into the shell.
Ballycastle, Co Antrim
Ballycastle Beach is a great all-rounder – it’s good for both surfing and swimming, though bear in mind there are only lifeguards there in July and August. Really, though, you’ll be just as happy strolling along the sand, the craggy peaks of Fair Head rising from the distant surf.
For the picnic to end all picnics, make your way to Ursa Minor (Ann St), on the main street leading down to the sea. This bakery is famed for its sourdough, and you'll find it in plenty of restaurants along the Causeway Coast. Grab one of the veggie-packed takeout plates from the café, or simply fill your arms with still-warm loaves of sourdough and pretty little cakes (think rhubarb and custard brioche and chocolate hazelnut tortes). The coffee is excellent, too.
Nothing beats the joy of sitting by the sea with a warm parcel of fish and chips in your lap, as you watch the rolling waves. Morton's (Bayview Rd) is a dream of a chipper, sat right on the marina, serving up fish caught from their very own boat. If you're staying nearby, their fish market is incredible, with local lobster, crab and scallops for sale, too.
When you're tired of the beach, you can nip over to Rathlin Island on the ferry – the crossing only takes 25 minutes. If you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the elusive puffins, which come back to the island in spring and early summer. The RSPB West Light Seabird Centre is about four miles from the harbour, so hire a bike if you want to pay them a visit. Otherwise, wander down to Mill Bay from the harbour, to spot the island's native seals lolloping around on the rocks.
Barleycove, Co Cork
In West Cork, beautiful Barleycove beach is both a source of enormous pride and a jealously guarded natural treasure, but you can only hold onto a good thing for so long. On fine summer days, the floating pontoon bridge that brings you from the carpark to the broad beach sees a steady stream of sun worshippers – including families comforted by the knowledge that the shallow tidal basin is one of the safest places for the little 'uns to splash about.
The beach itself is a stunner, at the top of a sheltered bay hemmed in by two long bluffs and backed by large sand dunes that melt into the surf. To the west is Mizen Head; to the east, Brow Head at the tip of the Lyroe Peninsula – the other part of Ireland to feature in Star Wars.
Although Barleycove isn't a traditional resort, it's a contender for Ireland's most gourmet beach, such is the choice of fine grub in the surrounding area. It's only 10 minutes to Crookhaven, where you can sit outside O'Sullivan's (1-4 Rock St) with a fresh crab sandwich or a superb bowl of chowder – and wash it down with a pint of Murphy's. (If Barleycove beach is full, Galley Cove and Cockle beaches are two beauts about 1.5km west of Crookhaven.)
At the top of the peninsula is Ballydehob, which in recent years has established itself as West Cork's culinary hub. Robbie Krawczyk's Michelin-starred Restaurant Chestnut (Staball Hill) does a sensational takeaway three-course set meal, but if you're beach-bound his "crann box" (€42) is packed with delicious charcuterie and local cheese. Every Wednesday, Ron D's food truck serves up American-style grilled sandwiches on their own homemade sourdough (get there early because when they're gone, they're gone), while former Fred frontman Joe O'Leary and his partner Caroline run Levis Corner House (Main St) and are a mini grub industry unto themselves: as well as the award-winning pub and live music venue, they run a fruit & veg stall every Wednesday and this summer are introducing a food truck – we're told they'll serve some of Ireland's best ramen noodles.
Duncannon, Co Wexford
Wexford has no shortage of fine beaches (we're looking at you, Curracloe and Ballinesker), but any list must include Duncannon. In summer, this small holiday town is packed with visitors – mostly for the one-and-a-half kilometre-long south-facing beach that looks out over the Barrow estuary and across to Hook Head and the hilly Waterford coastline.
The beach itself is a mile-long stretch of sand that in August is transformed into the surrealist landscape that is the Sandsculpting Festival, which takes place over two days at the beginning of the month. But it’s not just about sand sculptures – the competition is accompanied by other challenges, including crabbing, fishing and oyster-eating; there’s a food market, live music and plenty of activities for kids – allowing for whatever restrictions will be in place at the time, of course.
At other times, the beach is great for water-based fun, much of it run out of the Shielbaggan Outdoor Education Centre, which organises kayaking, surfing and coasteering activities for all ages, as well as a range of land-based activities from archery to rock climbing – kids can abseil from Duncannon fort and there's also a high ropes course through the trees about 15km outside of town. And if you're looking for a more sedate kind of activity, a visit to Hook Lighthouse is recommended: not only is it the world's oldest working lighthouse, but the views from atop its 115 steps are sensational.
All this activity can bring on a hunger. For the freshest seafood in town, Roche's (Quay Rd) is the place –everything served here is freshly caught or sourced locally, including the excellent cheese. Just 3km north of town is Kevin Dundon's Dunbrody Country House Hotel – the eight-course tasting menu is a gourmet feast of fresh Irish produce. Drawing diners from all over the county is wonderful Mary Barry's a low-ceiling, timber-panelled pub in nearby Kilmore Quay that does exquisite seafood fresh off the boat. If you're self-catering, you're best off doing it in New Ross, 24km to the north.
All of the pubs in Duncannon do trad music during the summer, which lends the town something of a festival atmosphere.
Dunfanaghy, Co Donegal
Compared to Donegal's more famous resort towns like Bundoran or Buncrana, Dunfanaghy feels undiscovered. It's not, of course: the in-the-know crowd from across the border have been summer settlers here for decades, while the last few years has seen this pretty one-street town in the shadow of beautiful Horn Head bloom from quiet getaway village into sophisticated summer hub for surfers, diners, walkers and cyclists.
You have your choice of beaches. Wide, virtually empty Killahoey is a Blue Flag beach that creeps into the heart of the village, but the most popular beach of all is Marble Hill, about 5km out of town, just beyond Port-na-Blagh: this is where you'll find most of the action (and most of the static caravans). On the far side of Horn Head and accessible via a 20-minute walk through and over marram dunes, is Trá Mór, an isolated 2km-long crescent that is one of Ireland's most beautiful beaches. There are plenty of others nearby too, including the aptly named Five Fingers Strand at Ards Friary, which is made up of five little stone beach coves, each only big enough to host a handful of people.
Perhaps the biggest transformation in town has been to the dining scene. In the heart of town, Arnou (Main St) is a daytime cafe that transforms into a gourmet burger joint and wine bar after 5pm. Just up the street, you can get superb pizzas at the Rusty Oven – in the back of Patsy Dan's bar, which is the best place in town for a pint. Nearby, the brand-new Casa Café Deli does gourmet sandwiches and tasty breakfasts. For fine dining, The Cove (Rockhill, Port-na-Blagh) is the best choice in town.
Also on Main St, Simply De Vine is the place for homemade ice cream; they’ve just opened a second branch, on the beach at Marble Hill; also on the beach is The Shack, which does ice creams and coffee.
Lahinch, Co Clare
If Lahinch was a little closer to the equator, its main street might be lined with five-star hotels and its summer season would be garlanded by a film festival. No matter: the Irish Biarritz has plenty to crow about, beginning with a huge, crescent-shaped strand facing into sheltered Liscannor Bay.
This is one of Ireland’s premier surf spots, and in summer the beach is full of eager surfers being put through their paces by one of a handful of surf schools. But Lahinch remains, above all, a family beach, and the surf schools have long since plied their busy trade without disrupting those whose greatest ambition is to stretch out on a towel after paddling about in the shallows.
It’s all a question of timing, though: at low tide the beach is wide and vast, but at other times the beach can virtually disappear; currents are also strong in parts, but beach zoning and the lifeguard service help maintain safe swimming conditions.
The seafront is lined with food options. Surfers love Randaddy’s, next door to the Seaworld & Leisure Centre. The all-day menu smacks of Mediterranean freshness, but with lots of local ingredients, like Burren smoked salmon with a grainy mustard and bacon salad. They also do a tasty takeaway box – perfect for a beachside picnic.
Picnic hampers can also be filled at Hugo's Deli (9 Kettle St), while if you're looking for the freshest cod 'n chips, look no further than Spooney's, which serves up a contender for Ireland's very best fish 'n chips daily from 3pm. For high-end seafood, Barrtrá (off the N67) is the spot – a whitewashed cottage about 4km south of town along the N67 that serves exquisite fish dishes garnished with veg from their own kitchen gardens – and served in a glass conservatory with views over the fields and down to the sea.
If you want to combine pints and grub, sea-facing Main Street is where you’ll find Danny Mac’s, the Shamrock and O’Looney’s.
Skerries, Co Dublin
Generations of Dubs never had to go far to enjoy a holiday by the seaside, such was the appeal of Skerries in the north of the county. The fun park is gone, but the town is still as popular as ever during the summer – and old school aficionados can still play the amusements in Bob’s Casino, restrictions allowing.
But this handsome harbour town is all about the water, which laps up onto its two main beaches. South Beach is flat and you can walk out in your depth, which means it’s better suited to families. In good weather it’s a major spot for kite-surfing, windsurfing and SUPing. North Beach is a rockier beach and not ideal for lying on, but it has concrete struts that make for great diving spots at high tide.
Dividing them is Red Island, a mini headland that is also home to two bathing spots – The Captains and, facing onto South Beach, the Springers, which are recommended for experienced swimmers and include a small changing area; they're Skerries' version of the Forty Foot in Sandycove. The harbour is on the north side of Red Island, with many of the town, cafes and restaurants lined up along Harbour Rd.
Stoop Your Head (19 Harbour Rd) is a family-run restaurant that does the best seafood in town – grab a Rockabill crab open sandwich and watch the boats in the harbour (they also do takeaway at weekends). Nearby is the Goat in the Boat (26 Harbour Rd), which is the best place for coffee. Virtually next door is the wonderful Storm in a Teacup (Harbour Rd), which serves homemade ice cream.
Highly recommended are the Italian-owned Café Piccolo (Thomas Hand St), which serves homemade pastries and authentic pasta, and Olive Café & Deli (86 Strand St), which is a great sit-in option, or you can prep a gourmet picnic from the terrific deli. If you're looking to splash out, there's always the modern Irish cuisine of Michelin-starred Potager (Church St).
Strandhill, Co Sligo
When a seaside resort is this popular (despite the fact you can’t swim in its waters) you know it must be on to something. Strandhill is the darling of the Sligo coastline, mostly because it’s so much more than just a beach – the bars, restaurants and activities are top notch, too.
The beach itself is a beauty, even if the waters are treacherous. The majority of visitors head south – often with a cone from Mammy Johnston's (Shore Rd) in hand – for a stroll along the spit of land that curls into the bay. Things are a little quieter on the walk north, where the sandy path weaves between grassy dunes, all the way to the ruins of Killaspugbrone Church. You'll find a sheltered little bay just a few steps away, named Nun's Beach.
Local brewery The White Hag often sets up shop too, so you can enjoy a pint of IPA on one of the picnic tables outside
If you do want to get in the water, you have to hop on a surfboard. Lessons run regularly with Sligo Surf Experience (Shore Road), with five-day Ocean Warrior Surf Camps for kids in June, July and August, once restrictions are lifted.
You're spoiled for choice when it comes to places to eat. There's almost always a long line outside Shells Cafe (seafront) but it's definitely worth the wait. Visit on a Sunday, and you can pop into the Strandhill People's Market (Sligo Airport), where a disused airport hangar is filled with local stalls, selling everything from hearty paella to artisanal hot dogs. Local brewery The White Hag often sets up shop too, so you can enjoy a pint of IPA on one of the picnic tables outside. Reopening dates have yet to be announced, so keep an eye on their website.
Parking in Strandhill is notoriously tricky, particularly on a nice day. Your best bet is the main car park on the Shore Road, but you can always chance your arm along the seafront, where cars creep along between the surfers peeling off their wetsuits, in the hope of finding a spot.
Tramore, Co Waterford
Tramore has come a long way since the kiss-me-quick amusements of many an Irish childhood summer. And while Waterford’s second-largest town remains one of Ireland’s premier seaside resorts, it has evolved with the times, which means that you can now get artisanal coffee and homemade sourdough sandwiches along with candyfloss and burgers ‘n’ chips – and even those can be pretty good.
The whirl of fairground rides and amusement arcades still dominate the western part of the beach, but if you take the 2km-long Doneraile Walk you'll get to the beautiful Guillamene Cove, which is for serious swimmers: steps lead down into the water or you can dive off the little pier; right next to is another beaut, Newtown Cove, which is quieter still (although in summer it's all relative) – and the best of the beaches for a relaxing picnic.
Tramore is full of places to eat. It's hard to beat Dooly's for fish 'n' chips. At the eastern end of the prom, beyond the amusement park, is Moe's Café, which is the town's surfer hotspot; a few doors away is Brooklyn, another popular cafe. Back up in the town, the Seagull Bakery (4 Broad St) does superb pastries and homemade sourdough, while the retro-style Pier Café (Newtown Rd) on the road to Guillamene Cove is recommended for its tasty menu (the monkfish tail is delicious), fine coffee and – on a nice day – the fine views from the outdoor seating.
The forecourt of a service station is an unlikely place to find healthy treats, but Unbeetable Food, a food truck at the Pickardstown Service Station on the Waterford road does fresh vegan and vegetarian food served in biodegradable containers – along with a fine selection of teas and coffees. You can eat on site at the sheltered outdoor seating, but this is also a good option for a beachside picnic.
And what about an end-of-the-day pint? The upper-level beer garden of The Vic (Queen St) has great views over the town, while, further down the street, Martha’s is a more traditional pub that does live music.
Five beaches worth discovering
Dog's Bay, Co Galway Beautiful white sand made from crushed seashells, which gives this beach a slightly tropical feel; on the far side of the sandspit is its twin, Gurteen.
Ballydonegan Beach, Co Cork Just southwest of Allihies, this is a white sand beach formed by crushed quartz washed down from the old mine workings nearby.
Lacken Strand, Co Mayo Just northwest of Killala, the huge expanse of golden beach is a delight – and a popular spot for surfers looking for good waves.
Ballymastocker Bay, Co Donegal Tawny-coloured strand by the shores of Lough Swilly once declared the second-most beautiful beach in the world by the Observer Magazine.
Goat Island Beach, Co Waterford Hard to find but all the better for it: this sheltered, secluded beach about 5km west of Ardmore is very much a local favourite.