Wild Atlantic Way, County Donegal to County Cork, Ireland
The Wild Atlantic Way is far more than a scenic route from County Donegal south to County Cork along Ireland’s untamed western coast. The 1,491 miles were designed to be driven in small sections, allowing time to revel in the stories, sights, and history found around each bend in the road. “The most mystifying poetry of the route for me lies no doubt along the Mayo coastline, replete with thunderous views, land art, living 5,000-year-old ruins, and mesmerizing islands,” says Travis Price, a frequent visitor to Ireland’s western coast. “It is indeed a place where the soul catches up with body, the craic [fun] of daily life is abundant, and truly the ancient Irish spirits are soaring into the salt laden air. The word authentic literally disappears, as there is indeed no other than that there.”
How to Get Around: The Wild Atlantic Way is divided north to south into five sections: County Donegal, County Sligo to County Mayo, County Galway to County Clare, County Clare to County Kerry, and County Kerry to County Cork. Each section includes three suggested "signature experiences,” such as cycling a particular pathway, visiting a nearby beach, or taking a ferry to an offshore island. If driving the County Donegal section of the route only, fly into Belfast International Airport. Otherwise, fly into Shannon International Airport in Limerick.
Where to Stay: Kathleen and Michael Conneely’s Faul House Bed & Breakfast is only 1.2 miles off the Wild Atlantic Way on County Galway’s Ardbear Peninsula. Located on a quiet daffodil- and bluebell-lined lane leading to the sea, the modern farmhouse is surrounded by the family’s 40-acre Connemara pony farm. Spring visitors (the inn reopens for the season March 24) can celebrate the arrival of the farm’s latest foals, and, April to June, can join the Conneelys in the bog for the harvesting of turf for the inn’s peat fires. Rates include a full Irish breakfast (you can collect your own eggs from the resident chickens) served with homemade brown bread and piping hot tea.
Where to Eat: Before or after driving through the Burren & Cliffs of Moher GeoPark, stop at Café Linnalla in New Quay. The artisanal shop serves preservative-free ice cream made with fresh milk and cream from Brid and Roger Fahy’s Burren dairy farm. In Galway, bypass the restaurant at McDonagh’s and head straight to their bare-bones Fish & Chip Bar for flaky, fresh-from-the-docks fried cod and a hefty mound of thick, hot chips.
What to Buy: Watch weavers work traditional looms upstairs at the Donaghy family’s Studio Donegal, a one-stop weaving and garment making studio and retail tweed and woolens shop in Kilcar. The neighboring spinning mill, Donegal Yarns, produces many of the yarns used in the shop. Buy skeins of yarn or finished products like handwoven Donegal tweed jackets, Gatsby caps, and handbags; merino wool scarves; and blankets woven in colors representing the five "Donegal days": summer, rainy, winter, stormy, and payday.
What to Watch Before You Go: John Sayles’ 1994 film The Secret of Roan Inish is a mystical fable set on Ireland’s wild western coast and is accompanied by a lilting Celtic soundtrack.
Cultural Tip: Road signs in Ireland typically are bilingual, with the English written under the Irish. However, on rural roads in Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas you may encounter Irish-only signage. Two important terms to know before you go: geill sli (yield) and tigh (pub).
Helpful Links: Tourism Ireland
Fun Fact: “Signature experience” No. 14 is taking a ride on Ireland’s only cable car, which crosses over Dursey Sound from the Beara Peninsula to tiny Dursey Island. When the car is running, visitors can make the ten-minute trip (and watch for dolphins below)—when there’s room. There only are six seats, and when the island’s residents make the ride, they may be accompanied by their sheep or cows.
Staff Tip: If you're looking to save time by skipping a few hot spots, don't even think about bypassing the Connemara region. In Clifden—an hour's drive from Galway city—take the Sky Road. You'll feel like you're at the edge of the Earth, not just of Ireland. While you're in the area, make sure to take the extra time to see Kylemore Abbey, a truly stunning Gothic manse turned Benedictine monastery tucked into a hillside like it was meant to be a secret. —Leslie Magraw, Blog Editor, National Geographic Travel