7 counties, more than 3000 km en 2 weeks time, that’s all I needed to discover all the highlights along the Wild Atlantic Way. It was my own choice to do this early in the year, bearing in mind that this was the best way to avoid the crowds. This was definitely a good choice when we saw how small the Irish roads really were. On most places on the Wild Atlantic Way there was barely room for one car. So make sure you don’t get a car that’s too big. During the entire trip, I was hoping I wouldn’t encounter oncoming cars. If you’re not used to driving on the left side of the road, these narrow roads were quite the challenge at first.
The only downside of traveling in March was that most of the places were still closed and didn’t open until after Easter. Unfortunately I didn’t know that beforehand and it happened quite often that I was left stranded before a closed door. There was also the bad weather, but of course that’s not bound to March. Because I’m from Belgium, I was already quite used to these dark and wet days. We all know people don’t go to Ireland to enjoy sunny days, but to discover the spectacular views.
Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Cork
I was hoping I could start our road trip well rested and that’s where I made my first mistake. Particularly because I forgot we landed on March 17, also known as St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland’s biggest holiday. When we landed, I hadn’t noticed much of it at first. The small airport of Cork was nearly deserted and it seemed that the band that was playing in the arrival hall was just playing for us. This all changed when I arrived in the city and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade was about to start. Even though I wasn’t prepared for this, we decided to join the Irish in celebrating their biggest event. Everybody knows the typical green colours that decorate the streets, and if you have the opportunity to witness this in Ireland, why not? From my own experience I know this is on a lot of people’s bucket lists, just like Oktoberfest in Germany and Cinco de Mayo in Mexico.
We decided to start our trip in Cork and not in Malin Head like many people had suggested. According to different other testimonials, it seemed better to travel from South to North because of the simple reason it was better for the co-driver to enjoy the views of the Wild Atlantic Way. That way he would have a better view on the coastline while the driver could concentrate on the narrow roads.
Because of St. Patrick’s Day I wasn’t able to discover much of Cork itself. The Crawford Art Gallery was open and it was free. Between the sculptures there was even a live band playing. Quite the interesting setting I have to say. It goes that music is everywhere in this city. Also definitely worth a visit is the old Gothic cathedral of St. Fin Barre’s. Close by is the University of Cork. If you like old buildings, just like me, it surely is worth strolling through there. I really liked how nature was slowly claiming the old buildings by wrapping their roots around them, searching for a way in.
Just outside of Cork is Dzogchen Beara, a Buddhist meditatino center. They are still working on their main temple, but the meditation center has an amazing view of the ocean. What more do you need while meditating? This is on my personal bucket list, so I’m definitely coming back here to clear my mind.
To me personally, one day is enough to visit Cork, but that was because I was really looking forward to driving the Wild Atlantic Way. My head wasn’t around a busy city right now, it was craving for nature.
Like most islands, Ireland has no shortage of lighthouses. Ever since I was a kid I really liked lighthouses, because usually these are the places where the sea shows its true strength. So of course I made sure we visited enough lighthouses during our road trip. The first one I encountered was Old Head Kinsale, but unfortunately this was one of those places that was still closed this time of year. There was a monument close by in honour of the casualties during a German bombing on a cruise ship. What many people don’t know is when you walk down a little further down, behind the old ruins, there’s an amazing view on the ocean. Fun fact, this is also the most southern point of Ireland.
Another lighthouse was Mizen Head, that had an even better view on the ocean. The signal station was connected with a suspension bridge and if you’re lucky you can even spot some seals down there.
The lighthouse on Loophead was the only one that was still working (of the ones we saw). It was only natural you could only acces it with a guided tour, so make sure to check the timetables for these tours. In case you’re early, you can still enjoy the spectacular views.
On of the most beautiful lighthouses I have ever seen was Fanad lighthouse, which was also still closed. But the view alone is worth the trip. If you’re lucky with the weather, this can be one of the most photo genetic lighthouses of Ireland.
Roadtripping in Kerry
While driving on the Wild Atlantic Way there are several other road trips worth taking, some of them are considered the best road trips of Ireland. One of them is the Ring of Kerry, that starts in Killnarney National Park. During this little road trip there are a few lookout points, like Ladies View, named after the ladies-in-waiting of Queen Victoria. They were so impressed of the view and I can understand why it’s named Ireland’s most photographed spot.
Another stop on the Ring of Kerry is Torc Waterfall. To get there, I had to walk in a forest for a while that seemed to be immersed in moss. The waterfall itself was impressive, but the 100 steps I had to take to get a view on the lake was rather disappointing. My advise: keep your visit with the waterfall and enjoy your time there just a little longer.
There’s an opportunity to take stunning photographs at Ballycarbery Castle, located on a grass slope looking out to sea. Because of the danger of collapsing, there was strictly no admittance, but even from afar it’s still quite the view. On the island of Valentia, I was scared I wouldn’t be able to see the famous Fogher Cliffs because of the fog. When we arrived, I thought it would be best to start with these cliffs instead of the top of the mountain like most people did. Because of this, we were luckily the fog cleared and we were treated with a spectacular view of Fogher Cliffs. The people who started at the top weren’t so lucky; the mist came back as soon as we made our way to the top. So keep a close watch on the weather and take your chance when it clears up even for just a moment.
Another road trip besides the Ring of Kerry is Slea Head Drive, once described as the most beautiful place on earth by National Geographic Traveler. Of course this is different to everyone and in my case I didn’t share their description. Absolutely worth the drive, don’t get me wrong! This road is carved on the steep mountain and follows every contour of the coastline, giving you beautiful views. Be careful though, because this road is very narrow and has several turns.
In the footsteps of Luke Skywalker
One of the places I was really looking forward to, only to find out it was also closed to the public this time of year. Luckily it was still possible to sail around the islands by boat, clearly a good option if you’re there before Easter, but try to visit when you can actually visit the islands if possible. Just make sure to book in advance, because the amount of visitors is limited. As a Star Wars fan, Skelling Michael is a must-see, especially due to the fact it is now known as the final resting place of Luke Skywalker. Also keep in mind that the sea is very unpredictable and can be quite rough on some places. This was the case with our boat ride. Afterwards it became clear why we were the only boat around, but it was quite the experience, even though it was the first time I got seasick.
From the Cliffs of Moher to Galway
The most famous, and most crowded place we encountered along the Wild Atlantic Way, had to be the Cliffs of Moher. Being on top of cliffs like this made me realise how small I am in this world. The Cliffs of Moher are part of the highest cliffs of Europe, with their 214m in height. If you like birds, you’re golden here. This is one of the places where it’s possible to spot puffins. These cliffs are certainly a worthy name holder of Unesco World Heritage. Keep in mind it’s best to buy your tickets in advance. Even in March this place was significantly busier. So make sure you don’t have any surprises when you arrive.
Many people drive right by the caves of Doolin without knowing this is home to the larges stalactite of Europe, which looks exactly like a draping carpet. To me, caves are really interesting, but being almost 2m tall and slightly claustrophobic, it’s not always easy to visit them comfortably. In their visitor’s center and during the guided tour I learned quite a lot about these caves and their discoverers. Whenever you’re near Moher, don’t miss this!
On my way to Galway we also passed the Burren, a landscape that’s made entirely out of rocks. Even here it can get quite crowded due to the many day tourists from Galway on their way to the Cliffs of Moher. It’s possible to get as close to the edge as you want, on your own risk of course! I’m quite adventurous so I made sure I was able to enjoy these breathtaking views as close as possible.
Further along the Wild Atlantic Way is a hidden beach named Keem Bay. I had to drive over a mountain filled with grazing sheep to get there, so I had to be concentrated on the road to make sure I didn’t hit one by accident. But once I was standing on the beach, listening to the waves crashing in, I was able to relax again.
Tip: to get the most of your stay, make sure to book a room in Sharamore House, a B&B at the beginning of Sky Road. As soon as I entered the driveway, I was greeted by their three dogs, immediately giving me a warm welcome. This is only amplified when you meet the hostess, who will provide you with tons of stories and tips on what to visit and what not.
The most interesting part of Mayo County was Downpatrick Head, a wind-ravaged rock that was separated of the mainland by a storm. The perfect place to start a walk along the coast. An old outpost from during World War II is the only building left standing. By the fact I arrived here early in the morning, me and my brother were the only ones there. Just amazing! On places like this, it’s possible to sit at the edge of the cliffs for hours, just looking how the waves carve the rocks further and further. Another interesting stop is Carrowkeel Passage Tombs, graves over 5000 years old. Bear in mind it’s quite a steep drive up to get there. It’s best to do this with a 4×4, but if you’re careful enough, it’s possible to get there with a standard car. Once I arrived at the top, I still had to climb a bit through the mud. If you’re into stuff like this, make sure to visit these graves. Personally, I didn’t think all the climbing was worth it. Although I hadn’t eaten anything that day, so that might cloud my judgement a bit.
The final stretch
Completely unexpected I arrived in the little town of Ballyshannon, according to the locals the oldest town of Ireland. Of course this isn’t true and they only say this to lure in tourists. The only reason I stopped was the statue of Rory Gallagher, an Irish musician. Apparently he was born in this town and several festivals are being held each year in his honour. I was pleased to find a small museum, above a mattress store, that further highlighted Rory’s life.
Another prime example most attractions were still closed was Donegal Castle. Unfortunately for us at that time, but it might be one of the reasons we’re coming back one day.
Slieve League Cliffs, one of the highest sea cliffs of Ireland and also one of our last stops on our road trip along the Wild Atlantic Way. If we had started from North to South, this view might have been incredible, but the South definitely had more spectacular views. Despite that, it’s still worth stopping at this place, even if it’s just for the drive up. The road takes you really close to the edge of the cliffs, making it a very amusing drive.
Our last and final stop, also the most northern point of Ireland was Malin Head. Due to unforeseen circumstances we had booked our hotel in the wrong town, that made us drive another 2,5 hours to get there. Something that normally shouldn’t only taken half an hour. Malin Head was the same as Slieve League, a perfect place to start with, but there are more beautiful places down south. A very nice place to walk trough nature with a view of the coastline.
More than 3000 km latere and the realisation that two weeks are actually too short if you want to enjoy activities or just to relax at one of the beaches, our road trip along the Wild Atlantic Way was at an end. A trip across a country where it’s possible to witness four seasons in just one day, along small narrow roads just big enough to fit one car. Do you want to get away from it all? Book a flight with Aer Lingus, rent a (small) car and let the Irish roads lead you along the most beautiful views along the Irish coast.