Coasting in search of wild west adventure

 

PETER MURTAGHtakes to the road along Ireland’s western seaboard for a drive that will soon be a major tourism route

COULD IRELAND have a road, a route of such majesty and appeal that one day it might attract visitors in the way that, say, the Garden Route in South Africa or the Great Ocean Road in southern Australia do? Well, yes, is the answer, and inside Fáilte Ireland, they’re plotting to make it happen.

The germ of the idea emerged last October when someone in the organisation wondered about marketing a road to Achill in Mayo as The Wild Atlantic Drive.

“So we said to ourselves, well, if we’re going to do that, why not go the whole way, north and south?” says Paddy Matthews, Fáilte Ireland’s destinations development manager who works out of its headquarters on Dublin’s North Strand.

The notion of a “drive” was changed to a “way” to broaden the appeal to cyclists and walkers. And so was born a project that is becoming The Wild Atlantic Way.

The idea is simple enough.

Take the existing coastal road up and down the western seaboard between Derry and Cork, a route of some 1,400km, develop it, package it and market it to visitors – from abroad and other parts of Ireland. The trick is to do it by taking what is there already – remote and wild beauty, coupled with people who in the main are warm and friendly and have a vibrant culture and history – and draw people into it without compromising it.

“It’s all about giving visitors choice and depth of experience,” according to Matthews.

That means providing information that is simple and clear but also has depth. So the Wild Atlantic Way must have a logo and signage along all parts of the route that will be clear and communicate instantly to the traveller where they are and where they are going. And there must be regular points along the way that provide in-depth information: stories about the landscape and people, what went on there in times past, what goes on there now.

The route will have a main spine – the Wild Atlantic Way proper, as it were – but off it, there will be loops and spurs taking visitors to places of interest. At present, Fáilte Ireland is considering breaking the whole route into eight identifiable sections.

Each would have a Gateway – roadside signage that announces clearly that one is entering a specific part of the Wild Atlantic Way; Connemara or the Ring of Kerry are obvious examples.

Within each of the eight parts, there would be Orientation Points – lay-bys at the first suitable place after the Gateway where drivers would obtain, from signage, maps and narrative, an idea of what lies ahead in terms of what to see and where to go, and the stories associated with the area.

At various key locations along the way, there would also be Discovery Points, substantial lay-bys with information panels containing up to five stories associated with the locality – stories of history, myth and legend or notable individuals or families associated with the area, and in-depth information about the people and activities associated with the place.

The plan is that the Discovery Points have a “wow” factor and encourage people to linger, perhaps for a picnic.

The Belfast office of The Paul Hogarth Company, landscape architects and urban designers, has done some serious work on how the Wild Atlantic Way might be created into what Fáilte Ireland hopes it will eventually be. Its report on Connemara is worth reading (available at irishtimes.com/blogs/ wildatlanticwayirishtimes.com).

Last month Minister of State for Tourism Michael Ring announced €1.8 million had been allocated to implement most of the report’s recommendations for the Connemara section of the Wild Atlantic Way. (Doubtless if the Minister gives the go-ahead for the development of the entire route as suggested, someone somewhere will christen it the Ring Road . . .)  Over the next three months, the precise route and branding will be finalised and then plans will be laid for development with a view to launching The Wild Atlantic Way next year.

For Fáilte Ireland, the next three months of the planning phase will be intense and involve local authorities, heritage and wildlife interests. People who live along the western seaboard, or who have an interest in tourism and how the project might be developed, should get their ideas in now.

“We’re open to all ideas. We want to hear what people’s ideas are and what their best Wild Atlantic experiences are,” says Matthews.

In the meantime, I am going to ride my motorbike along what is currently the indicative route – seeing what it has to offer, and what people along the way think about it. I’ll be reporting what I find daily in the newspaper and also blogging online, where readers can make their contributions.

Tomorrow: West Cork, from Clonakilty to Allihies