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A personal, pocket guide to the Wild Atlantic Way

Jo Kerrigan enjoys the natural beauty, rich history and the great amenities that have won global fame for Ireland’s west coast

Walk through our history, enjoy our spectacular scenery, experience our western seaboard.

The travel guides may talk of the Camino in Spain, but here in Ireland, we have a long-distance way of our own, far more extensive (and indeed far more dramatic) than that ancient pilgrim route. Just to give you some idea, the Camino is some 800 km in length from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela; our Wild Atlantic Way is over 2,600 km.

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It is in fact one of the longest defined coastal routes in the world. Stretching from Kinsale in Co Cork to Derry in the far north, it encompasses all that is most breathtaking about our wave-washed coastline, where the sea has carved and indented over thousands of years, creating sheer cliffs and sandy beaches, deep inlets and rugged promontories.

Offshore are islands, each with its own story to tell, its own lure, tempting us to take to a boat as so many of our ancestors have done before us.

Here the old traditions are still practised, and our native tongue still spoken. In many ways, travelling the Wild Atlantic Way is a meeting with the past as well as the present.

Of course, it’s a huge undertaking, the entire route. You could spend the entire year walking it. Alternatively, you can drive, or cycle. That’s the great attraction of this wonderful seacoast route – it’s open to all forms of travel (although it might take a bit longer on a skateboard or scooter, they are still options). The main thing is, first to realise what a national treasure this Way is, and second, to get out there and explore it.

Given its 2,600km+ length (and that doesn’t include trips to offshore islands), it is probably easiest to look at the Wild Atlantic Way in sections, and perhaps take one region first, following up with the others. But where to start? At the top or the bottom – the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal or the coast of West Cork?

Halfway through, in Galway of the Tribes, or Lahinch in Clare? The highest cliffs in Europe or our country’s only cable car? Granuaile’s castles or Daniel O’Connell’s home? Islands or museums? They’re all there.

The best thing might be to find an area you really don’t know very well or at all, whether north, west, or south, and make that your destination region for the first all-important trip of the year. Wherever you choose, you can be sure of finding great hotels, wonderful restaurants, welcoming guesthouses, friendly bars and cafes, and, maybe best of all, new friends to make and keep. The pictures you take, the experiences you gain, the scenery that lifts your soul to new heights, will all remain with you forevermore.

To make the choice easier, let’s divide this magnificent long-distance route into four sections: Donegal to Mayo; Mayo to Clare; Clare to Kerry; and Kerry to Cork.

Donegal to Mayo

The Wild Atlantic Way officially starts in the feisty little walled town of Derry on Lough Foyle, with the cannons lining its ramparts a tribute to its turbulent past. It’s a great place to spend the morning exploring and enjoying the local chat, before heading up the beautiful Inishowen Peninsula.

Moville, further north, was one of the great departure points for transatlantic ships taking emigrants to the New World. You have to visit Malin Head, the most northerly point in Ireland, and look out to Inishtrahull Island which over the centuries held a reputation second to none for smuggling.

Down by Letterkenny and on to views of Tory Island from Fanad Head with its beautiful lighthouse. Several ferry services offering trips to both Tory and Gola can be found in one of the many harbours along this stretch of coast.

Whatever you do, don’t miss Sliabh Liag, at more than 600m, the highest cliffs in all Ireland and one of the highest in all of Europe. There is an accurately-named One Man’s Path leading up and over these dizzying cliffs, definitely not one to be tried by those suffering from vertigo.

From here, follow south to Donegal town, then on to lively Killybegs with its crowded harbour of trawlers showing that the fishing industry is alive and well. Cross the county bounds for Sligo, and head out to the ancient Ceide Fields where our far ancestors tilled the soil thousands of years ago.

Then into Mayo and the Mullet Peninsula, of which Percy French wrote so movingly:

And I never can forget you,

though it’s oh so long ago,

In the bog below Belmullet,

in the county of Mayo …

The harsh beauty of this countryside is unforgettable, and must have stayed in the minds of so many who were forced to leave to seek their fortune in far-off lands.

Achill Island is easily reached these days by a bridge from the mainland, and boasts spectacular beaches as well as a deserted village and one of Granuaile’s many castles. Granuaile, that great sea pirate queen, favoured Clare Island in Clew Bay (and is said to be buried there), but to get a good idea of what she really looked like, head for the gardens of Westport House where there is a splendid statue. Look out too for the lofty hill of Croagh Patrick with its many winding tracks worn by pilgrims throughout the years.

Mayo to Clare

Killary Harbour is one of Ireland’s very few genuine fjords, a long sea inlet, with Leenane, long a Mecca for fishermen, at its base. This is Connemara, which perhaps encapsulates all the yearning images of Ireland: whitewashed cottages, blue mountains, stone bridges, and the soft brown of turf bogs.

In fact, Derrigimlach Bog near Clifden is where Alcock and Brown crashlanded on the first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland. Wander the winding lanes around the coast to Roundstone and come to historic Spiddal and Galway city. Or take a voyage out to the three Aran Islands: Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. You will find enough out there to fascinate you for days. Then head for Doolin in Co. Clare to hear some of the best fiddle music in the land.

Clare to Kerry

The Burren, that strange stone landscape, is said to have inspired Tolkien, who spent many holidays there (did Poulnagollum Cave suggest the name for one of his anti-heroes?) It’s another of those unforgettable places, where what seems like blank stone pavement actually hides rare wildflowers within little niches and grykes.

Lahinch is famous for its splendid beach and surfing. Kilkee has been a summer holiday resort since Victorian times. This is the region of the West Clare Railway and you can still see remnants of its famous line along the landscape by the coast.

It is recorded that the railway company used to throw heavy weights into the carriages on wild days to ensure the train didn’t tip over when traversing the windy coastal stretches.

At Moyasta, a museum cherishes relics and history of this legendary train. The dramatic cliffs of Loop Head, the westernmost point in Co Clare, not only boast a wonderful lighthouse, but also featured in Star Wars.

Crossing the Shannon from Killimer to Tarbert, from Clare to Kerry, is something everybody should do, not just once, but several times a year.

Being out on the waters of this mighty river (which here feels more like the sea) gives your journey that great sense of adventure. Once safely on the Kerry side, take a trip upriver to Foynes Flying Boat museum for a peek into the past when great transatlantic passenger flights rendered the long sea voyages obsolete. They have the world’s only full-size replica of a B314 flying boat here.

Ballybunion has the most splendid bay and beach, ideal for family holidays. Tralee not only hosts the famous Rose festival each year, but also maintains a marvelous 19th-century canal.

This is the start of one of the truly breathtaking experiences of the Wild Atlantic Way, the Slea Head drive, by lively little Dingle, full of shops, pubs, and happy people, to Dunquin, and your first views of the legendary Blasket Islands.

Time was, visiting these could only be undertaken on the calmest days, but today’s ferries will undertake the short crossing at most times, and you can wander on the well-worn grass tracks leading from cottage to cottage, and remember the writings of such greats as Peig Sayers, Tomas O’Crohan, and Muiris O’Suillebhain. Better still, buy copies of their books to refresh your memory in the Blasket Centre on the mainland.

It’s further along the coast that glimpses are offered of the Skelligs rising almost sheer from the sea. Skellig Michael was a religious site for centuries, but before that was an ancient druidic site of power. Little Skellig is a haven for wild birds, especially gannets.

You might be able to visit by boat — it depends not only on the weather, but also the crowds, drawn there by Skellig Michael’s brief appearance in a Star Wars movie. Valentia Island, further on, can be reached by bridge. This was where the first commercially-viable transatlantic cable was laid, reaching far across to Newfoundland.

Killorglin is famous for Puck Fair, held on the same three days in August since ancient times. This is the occasion on which a wild goat (echoing very old druidic rites) is hoisted to a high platform and there fed and cared for during the fair, later to be released back into the mountains. Now we’re on the Ring of Kerry.

Derrynane was the home of the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, and his family home can be visited, plus the bay where, it is said, his family occasionally practised a bit of smuggling to and from France.

Kerry to Cork

And so on to Sneem, and Kenmare where it is tempting to linger awhile in the shops and cafes. But the Beara Peninsula beckons, with, at its very tip, Dursey Island and the only cable car in the country. It’s a swaying trip across from the mainland to the island, but worth it for the experience. On the way back, call to see An Cailleach Beara, the Hag of Beara, and pay your respects to this ancient stone which represents the female deity controlling the life and fertility of land and sea. The rich micro-climate of Glengarriff makes it a haven for rare and delicate plants, nowhere more than on Garnish Island where superb Italian gardens are lovingly tended.

Bantry town is a great base from which to explore Sheep’s Head and Dunmanus Bay, before heading out to Mizen Head, held by most to be the southernmost point in Ireland (actually Brow Head, a stone’s throw away, is slightly ahead). The crashing waves here are exceptionally dramatic after a storm, and the old signal station can be visited. The wide golden beach of Barley Cove is rightly famous, and everybody ends up in Crookhaven at the end of the day to enjoy local seafood and chat over drinks.

Baltimore is where the ferries for Sherkin and Cape Clear depart, or you can just enjoy wandering along the quaysides and admiring the O’Driscoll castle. Then it’s on to Skibbereen, Clonakilty, all the beauties of the Seven Heads, and more beaches than you could possibly explore, before the long peninsula of the Old Head of Kinsale, a beacon for mariners for untold centuries, tells you that you are nearing the end of your journey. The bustling town of Kinsale, long famed as a destination for gourmets with its many famous restaurants, awaits. Now it’s time to sit down, relax, and plan your next exploration of The Wild Atlantic Way.

Useful link: www.thewildatlanticway.com