IRELAND’S MAGNIFICENT REALITY SHOW
At first blush, hurricane-force winds, horizontal downpours and a thunderous sea lashing up against some of the highest and most jagged cliffs in Europe, wouldn’t normally be on my bucket list. But driving Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) is an absolute must. As the world’s longest defined coastal driving route, it is one of the most multi-experiential adventures to be had. Besides, when the sun shines (which is often), the opportunities for discovery are endless – settler cottages, castles and stately homes, centuries-old beehive-shaped stone huts, hiking the edge of the world, surfing Blue Flag beaches, local craics in cosy pubs, artisan weavers and potters, and offshore islands where the pace of life harkens to an earlier decade.
Winding for 2,500km between Kinsale and the Inishowen Peninsula, Ireland’s WAW leads visitors to an Ireland beyond kissing the Blarney Stone or the Guinness Museum. Drive the entire route (allow about two weeks to make the most of spontaneous detours), or opt for sections. These can be planned by county, roughly as follows: Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo and Sligo, and Donegal.
Like an Irish yarn, distractions along whatever route you choose are numerous, intriguing, entertaining, and unexpectedly farm-fresh flavourful. Instagram worthy? You betchya. Good for FaceBook bragging rights? Absolutely.
For example, in Kinsale (Co.Cork) head for the gorgeously restored Victorian railway station, home to the Cobh Heritage Centre. Here’s where to trace your ancestors through the Irish Emigration story, and learn more about the ill-fated Titanic and Lusitania. The sinking of the latter in 1915 saw the loss of 1,100 lives, including Americans, and was pivotal in the United States joining World War I. As you travel the County Cork coastline, and beyond, watch for all manner of shipwrecks from those torpedoed in World War II to vessels to the dangerously beautiful coastline. One lies at Rossbeigh Beach (Co.Kerry). Driven aground in January 1903, a storm in early 2014 raised it to the surface, like a ghost ship sailing through the sand.
Pushing 300-million years old, the Cliffs of Moher (Co.Clare) stretch for five miles along the coast, towering 702 feet above the crashing Atlantic waves and offering many walking trails and abundant birdlife. In “Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince”, Harry & Professor Dumbledore "apparate" on a rock off the shore from forbidding sea cliffs and enter a cave to find one of the Horcruxes. That footage was filmed on location at the Cliffs of Moher.
For a change of pace, head for Kylemore Abbey (Co.Galway). Built as a family home in the 19th century, an Order of Benedictine Nuns took it over where it ran a girls school for a time. Today, the nuns still sell their honey, jams and chocolate in the gift store that’s filled with local wares, and oversee a very good lunch spot. Stroll the magnificent grounds, visit the delightful chapel as well as the impressive walled garden. Then catch a ferry from picturesque Clifden to Inishbofin to bask in the warmth and hospitality of remote island living. Sheep are everywhere. Wind is frequent. Stories of island life are poignant. And of all things? Cromwell’s Barracks guard the harbor against any notion of a Jacobite uprising!
Back on the mainland, leave the wheel to walk or cycle the Great Western Greenway (Co.Mayo), a 42km route that traces a defunct railway line with breathtaking views and splendor. Rejoin the WAW for an hour’s drive before heading inland about 12km to Ballymote, (Co.Sligo).
This is W. B. Yeats country, land of stone circles, and Temple House, a wonderful B&B respite from the road. This Georgian Mansion has been in the Perceval family since 1665 so treasures, memorabilia, and nick knacks abound. Everything here is authentic, including the stories. There’s a crumbling 13th century Knights Templar castle by the lake, 2,000 gambling sheep, a walled garden, and so much more. Dinners are superb and require advance reservations.
Back to the wilderness, and it’s hard to beat the moorland, mountains, lakes and woods of Glenveagh National Park (Co.Donegal). Inspired by the Victorians’ love of romantic highland retreats, Glenveagh Castle is certainly visit-worthy as are the Italianate formal gardens. For me, however, it’s the Inishowen Peninsula that steals the show. In driving the 160km/100-m circuit, the sweeping beaches and soaring cliffs leave you breathless and at Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point, there is the promise of something even more precious: the night-lit skies of Aurora Borealis displays.
Ireland has always packed a punch that belies its size and while many up us go for the music, the culture, Guinness and sheep, it’s the untamed wilderness of the world’s greatest drive that will truly steal your heart.
IF YOU GO:
1) Streedagh Beach (Credit: Tourism Ireland)
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