A drive along the Wild Atlantic Way is a journey along the edge of Europe – but it feels like the edge of the world....
Between Malin Head on the northern coast and Old Kinsale Head on the southwestern shore lies a 2,500km/1,500 mile trail where adventure and nature collide to create memories as vivid as a seagull’s cry. Take your time, savour the experience, dip in and out. Whether it’s a day’s cycle around a headland or a 10-day road trip, set your own pace. Because this is the Wild Atlantic Way of life…
The touring route is divided into six, so from the tip of Donegal down to the lush lands of west Cork, you’ll find the Northern Headlands, Surf Coast, Bay Coast, Cliff Coast, Southern Peninsulas, and the Haven Coast, to help you find your way. But in truth, you’ll find your own stories, your own magic, as you go. Along these cliffs and rocky headlands, seabirds wheel and seals sunbathe. Out to sea whales plunge and dolphins pop up to say hello. And no matter where you are, the rest of the world and its hustle and bustle will feel a million miles away.
The roar of the waves
The sea is always in charge here. These waters have swallowed countless ships and boats, including some of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and, off Kinsale, the Lusitania during World War I. And yet you’ll also find tranquil bays and miles’ long white sandy beaches, as well as mighty swells that bring surfers from all over the world – supreme waverider, Kelly Slater, describes surfing here as “like a little party out on the water” and a “cold paradise”. Windsurfers, kite surfers, swimmers and kayakers also take to the waters here: try a night-time kayak tour of Lough Hyne, where the star-lit waters twinkle with bio-luminescence.
Islands in the Ocean
The islands off the coast are remarkable, standing strong against the whipping Atlantic. The Fastnet Rock is known as "Ireland’s teardrop", this famous and poignant landmark was the last sight that emigrating Irish people would see of their beloved Ireland as they left for foreign shores by sea; Cape Clear, or Oileán Chléire, is a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) island and is the island’s southernmost inhabited island; the Aran Islands – Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr – are the last lands to the west before you reach America and all three still retain aspects of traditional Irish life; and the deserted Blaskets and Skelligs are haunted by memories of the farmers and monks, who clung onto a hard life despite what the elements threw at them.
Spoiler alert: Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael was once occupied by monks during the 6th century, and is so atmospheric that location scouts for Star Wars chose it for that memorable closing scene of Episode VII. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, a restricted number of visitors are allowed to land on the island each season, but you can still absorb the drama if viewed from a boat tour or from The Skellig Coast. So entranced were the filmmakers during the making of Episode VII, that they scoped out the rest of the Wild Atlantic Way all the way up on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal. So keep watch when Star Wars, The Last Jedi is released at the end of 2017, because even more of the Wild Atlantic Way appears on screen.
History and heritage
People have made their home here for thousands of years. The Céide Fields in Mayo is a 6,000-year-old Neolithic site, and is one of the world’s oldest known stone-walled field system. And on a hill above the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal stands Grianán of Aileach fort – its roots go back to 1700BC, before the time of the Celts. It’s worth noting that if you arrive at this spot when the conditions are just right – and if you’re lucky –the Northern Lights may make an appearance. More recent, though, are the signs of emigration dating back to The Great Famine of the mid 19th century, when millions of Irish people set sail for America and Australia. What’s left behind are relics of where families once thrived, despite the harsh, sometimes brutal conditions. Mayo’s National Museum of Country Life has exhibits that help you relive the stories from this period.
Music, food and drink
The culture of the people who left behind their homes along the Wild Atlantic Way for a new life is strong. The Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking areas, are dotted up and down this coast; and traditional music radiating from the pubs of County Clare’s Doolin and Galway city is enough to set your pulse racing. Food is plentiful – and sensational. Seafood, in particular, is among the best in the world, cooked fresh from the boats, smoked by local producers or heaped into creamy chowder and served with warm soda bread. Wash it down with a pint of stout, or try some local craft beers from the 15 or so breweries along the route. It’s a match made in heaven.
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