IRELAND - WILD ATLANTIC WAY
The Wild Atlantic Way, 1600 miles in length, is one of the longest defined coastal routes in the world. It winds its way all along the Irish west coast from the Inishowen Peninsula in the north down to the picturesque town of Kinsale, County Cork, in the south. Ireland`s Wild Atlantic Way on the outer edge of Europe stretches along the west coast of Ireland. It begins on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co. Donegal and goes through the counties Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick and Kerry, finishing in Kinsale, County Cork.
This route from start to finish unfolds the wonders of nature, the power of the ocean and its imprint on the west coast of Ireland, and the stunning countryside in all its diversity. Enchanting villages are nestled along the coast as well as ancient monuments, their origins having long sunk into the mists of oblivion dot the landscape. Behind every bend on this magical coastal road a new delight awaits. The route long is divided into 14 stages for easier orientation.
This stage of the Wild Atlantic Way starts in the very north of the Inishowen Peninsula. Ireland`s largest peninsula is flanked by Lough Foyle on the east, Lough Swilly on the west and the Atlantic on the north. In many places you pass fabulous beaches and views that will take your breath away. You reach the most northerly point of mainland Ireland at Malin Head, on isolated place. At the Gap of Mamore the road winds steeply up to 800 feet to a pass and there is a fantastic panorama view over the whole northern coastline. Now the adventure begins! A gradient of 30 % could remind us of a downhill ski trip in the Alps.
Leaving Letterkenny heading northwards along the banks of Lough Swilly you are thrust once again into the seclusion of the Donegal countryside. The Wild Atlantic Way rises gradually along the edges of the Knockalla Mountain and offers marvelous views of Lough Swilly and Ballymastocker Bay. This particular bay is renowned for its three golden beaches and the British `Observer` newspaper chose it as the second most beautiful bay in the world! At Fanad Head you will find the awe-inspiring Lighthouse towering over the wild waves of the Atlantic. A unique spectacular stage of the Wild Atlantic Way is the Atlantic Drive on Rosguill Peninsula. Another even more dramatic peninsula is Horn Head. The power of the omnipresent ocean is so evident in the bizarre shaped cliffs. From the old signal tower atop the cliffs again you have stunning views from Fanad Peninsula to Tory Island. Incidentally, Tory Island which lies 9 miles off the coast still continues its old tradition of electing a king.
The Wild Atlantic Way continues to twist and turn from Bunbeg in a southerly direction. You pass through the strange but wonderful region called The Rosses with its bogs and lakes. The ocean is dotted with uncountable small islands but also with Ireland`s second largest island, Arranmore. The Wild Atlantic Way takes a short break from the coast after Ardara in order to cross over the Glengesh Pass. Continuing on through Glencolumbkille, a haven of tranquility with many ancient monuments the route meanders along narrow coastal roads unfurling more and more breathtaking views and ending directly above the unspoied Silver Strand. The steep sloping cliffs of Slieve League belong to the highest cliffs of Europe.
Mullaghmore Head is the perfect example to display the wonders of the Wild Atlantic Way. On the west, the Atlantic is demonstrating its prowess and on the east a wonderful beach and a picturesque harbor nestle in the protection of the bay. The ferry for the magical island of Inishmurray departs from here. A visit to the old monastery settlement will transport you directly back to long forgotten times. Now moving on to Yeat`s County `The Land of Heart`s Desire` as he once described it. Benbulben, also known as Ireland`s version of the Table Mountain, reigns over the ocean along the coast whereas The Dartry Mountain range is situated away from the coast. To Sligo`s west there`s a lovely mystical region with traces of the dim and distant past. The largest and one of Europe`s oldest cemeteries of megalithic tombs is to be found here at Carrowmore. The site includes chamber tombs, ring forts, cairns and passage graves.
One of the most impressive stretches of coastline along the Wild Atlantic Way is just a stone`s throw from Downpatrick Head. Dún Briste, the lone sea stack, 165 feet high, stands bravely in the roaring Atlantic. Between Downpatrick and Benwee Head you will discover many more awe-inspiring cliffs, some over 300 feet high. The old barony of Erris is next on the route with the coastline again offering spellbinding views and sea cliffs. It is a Gaeltacht region so people speak Irish. The Mullet Peninsula, an area of unspoied beauty, is completely exposed on the Atlantic side but Blacksod Bay protects it on its easterly side.
This section of the Wild Atlantic Way brings us through `Pirate country` along the shores of Granuaile`s or Grace O`Malley`s pirate kingdom. The Pirate Queen`s home of Carraigahowley Castle (also known as Rockfleet Castle) and Kildavnet Castle on Achill Island are well worth exploring. Achill Island is Ireland`s largest island and it is accessible from the mainland by bridge. The island represents the west coast in miniature form: majestic mountains, clear lakes, expanses of bogs, long untouched sandy beaches, picturesque villages and the highest sea cliffs of Ireland. The Atlantic Dive, boasting some of the most impressive views of the Atlantic, goes along the south west coast of Achill. This coast road along the cliff edge has fantastic views of Clew Bay. On Achill`s west side lies the secluded Keem beach, a sight to behold coming down the cliff-top road. Continuing the journey from Achill to Westport you pass along Clew Bay which, according to tradition, has 365 islands, one for every day of the year. No wonder Grace O`Malley, the fearless sea pirate used this bay as her own.
Spectacular mountain ranges dominate the next stage of the Wild Atlantic Way between Clew Bay and Killary Harbor. The first of these appears just after leaving Westport, Croagh Patrick, Ireland`s sacred mountain. According to legend, St. Patrick spent 40 days and nights fasting, praying and doing penance on this mountain and at the same time banishing snakes from the island of Ireland. Evidence has been found that Croagh Patrick was a place of great importance in the pre-Christian era. A Celtic hill fort was discovered encircling the summit of the mountain. Continuing in a southerly direction the Wild Atlantic Way meanders through the valleys of Doo Lough and Delphi finally reaching Ireland`s only fjord, Killary harbor, extending 9 miles inwards, sheltered on all sides by lush green meadows. Majestic mountain peaks, magic sandy beaches and continuously changing landscapes are the landmarks of the Connemara National Park. Clifden, the capital of Connemara and the aptly named Sky Road offer stunning views over the Atlantic and the islands lying off the coast.
The Wild Atlantic Way continuous along narrow roads with the powerful Atlantic on one side and the rocky landscape of the Twelve Bens and the Maamturk Mountains on the other side through the wild heart of Connemara. The strong howling winds coming in from the ocean accompany one along this exhilarating drive. This is also another Gaetacht region. Over half of Ireland`s Irish speaking population lives in this area. The Irish language, culture and traditions are particularly cherished and protected in this area. The ferry to the wonderful Aran Islands departs from Rossaveal (also from Doolin, County Clare) or you can take a plane from the Connemara Regional Airport. The Aran Islands are a place of tranquil beauty and traditional lifestyle.
The first part of this stage of the Wild Atlantic Way has the effect of making you wonder if you have been beamed on to another planet. The rolling hills of the Burren are composed of limestone pavements. The world renowned Cliffs of Moher are over 5 miles long and tower imposingly over the mighty ocean at the highest point with 700 feet. They are especially dramatic when seen from the water. Not far from the impressive cliffs you will find Kilkee in the heart of West Clare. The Loop Head Drive takes you within yards of the cliffs along the rocky coast of Clare. The rock formations are up to 260 feets high and brace themselves against the turbulent Atlantic time after time.
The mouth of the Shannon, Ireland`s longest river, is home to many species of animals. For example dolphins live and procreate here on a permanent basis. People also used to live in the middle of the Shannon Estuary on Scattery Island to be exact. Ferries run from Kilrush to the island. There are ruins of a monastery, a well preserved round tower, a garrison and an abandoned settlement to be found on the island. There is also a ferry that crosses the Shannon Estuary and brings you on to the Wild Atlantic Way along the wonderful coast of North Kerry near Ballybunion, a popular holiday town with sheer cliffs and beautiful sandy beaches.
The Dingle Peninsula is blessed with never ending sandy beaches both in the north (near Castlegregory) and the south (Inch) of the peninsula. Leaving Tralee the Wild Atlantic Way on its way to Dingle town goes over the Connor Pass, Ireland`s highest mountain pass. The very narrow road in parts twists and turns, rises and falls but always with breathtaking views. If you manage to arrive in Dingle, then the next adventure begins with the Slea Head Drive. This way goes through another Gaeltacht area. Some of the most enchanting scenery in Ireland is found along this drive. Again it is another narrow road winding its way west along the steep rocky coastline. The Blasket Islands lie off the coast here. There is a boat going over from Dunquin to the biggest of the islands, An Bascaod Mór. After finishing the Slea Head tour then Mount Brandon, Ireland`s second highest mountain reigning over the land can be seen. People have lived in this wonderful region for 6.000 years as is evident from the many Celtic and early Christian monuments such as the Ogham Stones, the Beehive Huts as well as church buildings like the Gallarus Oratory or the monastic settlement of Reask.
This stage of the Wild Atlantic Way is very similar to the famous Ring of Kerry. The `Ring` is the most frequently travelled tourist route up to now and goes along the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula. Here along the west of the Iveragh Peninsula the scenery is awesome. It is like stepping into a picture book. The Wild Atlantic Way departs from the `Ring` to continue along the Skellig Ring. This road is not as frequented as the other `Ring` so you can drive at ease, sidestep the hustle and bustle and enjoy this unique scenic route. Highlights are Valentia Island, connected to the mainland by bridge at Portmagee, the drive over Coonmaneaspig Pass and the coves and beaches of St. Finan`s Bay. The boats for both Skellig Islands, which lie 8 miles off the Kerry coast, depart from Portmagee and Ballinskelligs. The Skellig Islands which are really two very steep rocky islands stand proudly in the wild roaring Atlantic. Skellig Michael, which peaks at 700 feet, was the home of a small group of monks in the seventh century. This monastic settlement was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The smaller island, Little Skellig, which is a haven to various seabirds, has one of the largest colonies of Northern Gannet worldwide.
The Ring of Beara is another ring road which has a lot less traffic than the Ring of Kerry. In addition the roads are so narrow that they are not suitable for buses or camper vans. This section of the Wild Atlantic Way is both spectacular from a scenic point of view and the pace of life, traditional, welcoming and at one with nature. The indented coastline and rocky mountains take your breath away time and time again. A stone`s throw out in the Atlantic island lays Dursey Island which is connected to the mainland by Ireland`s only cable car. The journey by cable car which only takes about ten minutes is used both by man and beast. Sheep`s Head , which is near Bantry, is another peninsula protruding into the Atlantic. It is a place of heavenly peace, unspoiled beauty and tranquil scenery. At the most westerly point the tip of the peninsula, the actual Sheep`s Head, there is a walking trail to a small lighthouse, which is built into the cliffs like an eagle`s nest.
The Mizen Peninsula located in the south west of Ireland is a special trip. It encapsulates all the special elements that makes the Irish west coast so unique; wonderful beaches, dramatic cliffs, magical fishing villages, a ruin at Three Castle Head (that would have been worthy as a backdrop in `Lord of the Rings`) and a light tower majestically standing watch over a raging Atlantic. Fastnet Rock, which was known as `The Teardrop of Ireland` as it was the last image of Ireland the emigrants had when sailing for the New World, houses Ireland`s highest lighthouse at 177 feet. The Wild Atlantic Way continues along in an easterly direction towards Baltimore where the ferries depart to the islands of Roaring Water Bay (also available from Schull, Mizen Head Peninsula). Baltimore Beacon, a signal tower offers the perfect view over the islands in the bay. On the one hand this area benefits from a mild climate due to the presence of the Gulf Stream enjoying lush vegetation, but on the other hand it is exposed to the elements of nature. The Old Head of Kinsale, a narrow tongue of land, is flanked by precipitous rocks and with a lighthouse at its most southerly tip. An idyllic dramatic promontory mostly enjoyed by golfers as this land is owned by the well-known local golf course.