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Mayo: An insiders’ guide to food, drink, activities and walks

From chic Westport, to wild landscapes of Belmullet, activity-filled Achill and Clare Island

For its size and position smack in the heart of the Wild Atlantic Way, Mayo gets relatively few visitors. Which means there are plenty of opportunities to explore its wild landscapes in some kind of tranquillity.

The county's major attractions – the Great Western Greenway cycle route from Westport to Achill (greenway.ie) and Croagh Patrick (croagh-patrick.com) – can be busy, but get your timing right and you can experience either one in relative quiet. Both are highly rewarding outdoors experiences that are accessible to most age groups.

For a wilder experience, there are some wonderful walking opportunities in Mayo, starting in the county’s rugged northern corner around Carrowteige, as remote a spot as you’ll find without going offshore. Amid the jagged stacks and rocky coves are the mighty (and they are indeed mighty) Dun Chaochain cliffs, whose most spectacular point is Benwee Head, 255m above the icy blue Atlantic.

Two loop walks bring you past the cliffs – the Black Ditch and Children of Lir, 13km and 10km respectively. The latter also brings you past a sculpture of those ill-fated mythical children transformed into swans and doomed to wander for 900 years. If you don’t fancy the walk, you can also drive right up to the cliffs.

To the south and just as remote, the Mullet Peninsula is a thinly populated Gaeltacht that trails some 30km out into the Atlantic. The road south from Belmullet does a fine loop around the peninsula's southern tip, passing beautiful, blue flag beaches at Elly Bay – where you'll have plenty of birds and the occasional dolphin for company – and Mullaghroe, overlooking Blacksod Bay, which is home to harbour porpoise, bottle nosed dolphins and both common and grey seals.

Opening this month for visitors is the Blacksod Lighthouse (visitblacksodlighthouse.ie), which was run by the Sweeney family for generations. It was Maureen Sweeney's storm warning in June 1944 that forced the Allies to delay the D-Day Landings until the 6th.

And if you want some quality golf with your fine views, Carne Golf Club (carnegolflinks.com) is one of Ireland's very best links courses.

Want to go even further off the beaten track? Charter a boat from Belmullet Boat Charters (belmulletboatcharters.wordpress.com) in Blacksod and make your way to the Inishkea Islands, two land masses separated by a narrow channel. Nobody has lived here since the 1930s, but the abandoned village remains: inside some of the cottages are scattered copper pots, as if its owners were in a hurry to leave.

You also have the option of a “catch and cook” charter, where you go fishing first, then eat your catch on Inishkea South – outdoor dining at its finest.

Of Mayo's hundreds of islands, the best known is Achill, which is a cinch to visit as it's linked to the mainland by a swing bridge. For a fine walk, the 7km Granuaile Loop takes in Derreens, Kildownet and Ashleam Bay. You can pick it up at Pattens Bar (Derreens; facebook.com/pattenbar).

For beaches, the star of the show is Keem Beach, but not too far away is Trawmore Bay, a 4km-long stunner between Keel and Dookinelly: climb the cliffs at its eastern end for some stunning views.

At Keel Lough you can try some stand-up paddleboarding or kitesurfing with Pure Magic (puremagic.ie), which also does great pizzas. Achill Island Sea Salt (achillislandseasalt.ie) is a food truck in Bunacurry that serves great coffee and local cakes.

Next to Achill is Clare Island, ancestral home of Granuaile and – so long as you can stomach the occasionally bumpy ferry ride – one of the best spots in all of Ireland to explore. You can visit its megalithic tombs and Bronze Age sites on a guided walk or hike your way up all 462m of Knockmore.

There are the ruins of the pirate queen's castle and of a 15th-century Cistercian abbey, and a set of vertiginous cliffs free of visitors – or protective fences. The old lighthouse (clareislandlighthouse.com) has been converted into a superb boutique hotel.

Mayo's heritage is well told throughout the county. The Ballinglen Museum of Art (ballinglenartsfoundation.org) in Ballycastle opened quietly in 2020 as the new home of a superb collection including the works of sculptor Bill Freeland, Magda Vitale, Mick O'Dea, Donald Teskey and Janet Pierce – all inspired by the rugged landscapes of north Mayo.

The county's most famous site is on a bare hill about 8km northwest of Ballycastle, but to really make sense of the 6,000-year-old structures at Céide Fields (heritageireland.ie), you'll need a guided tour; the award-winning interpretative centre is closed for renovations.

If you want to stay in the area, the Céide Glamping site is due to open later this summer, just in time to watch the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series at nearby Downpatrick Head on September 11th-12th; all you need are binoculars.

Just south of here is Ballina, home to the simply marvellous Belleek Castle (belleekcastle.com), which is worth visiting in its own right, but you can also take part in the newly launched Ballina Treasure Hunt (rachelsirishadventures.com), a self-guided search (with clues) that doubles up as a heritage tour around the Belleek Woods.

The brainchild of Rachel Nolan, you have 24 hours to solve the mystery – and Rachel will deliver your treasure packs to your accommodation the night before. The whole thing ends in the excellent Jack Fenn Courtyard Café at the castle, which has great food and lots of outdoor space.

Photogenic, Georgian Westport is the most visited of Mayo's towns – it's home to Matt Molloy's (mattmolloy.com), probably the most famous pub in the county.

If you want more than just a wander, there are free guided walks in July and August run by the Clew Bay Heritage Centre (westportheritage.com), after which you can feast on a burrito from the Pantry & Corkscrew's pop-up bar (thepantryandcorkscrew.com) on the Octagon.

The Towers Bar (thetowersbar.com) is another good spot for a bite and a pint – it has a great beer garden and a purpose-built playground.

To the west, beyond Louisburgh, the beaches get emptier. The Lost Valley of Uggool (thelostvalley.ie), between Silver Strand and Uggool beach, is an active working farm that also offers fascinating walking tours of the valley's abandoned famine village.

Around here you'll also find Horse Back West (@horsebackwest on Instagram), which organises adventurous beach rides as far down as the mouth of Killary Fjord.

It’s the ideal way to wrap up a Mayo trip.