Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, a 1,500-mile touring route along the rugged western coastline, offers far more than stunning scenery. We present ten great ways to get out on the water, ride horses on the beach, spot whales, explore legends, cycle the seaside, and walk through eons of history.
Meet the King of Tory Island, Donegal
Tory Island off Ireland’s northwest coast has hosted early saints and mythical demons and is currently home to a king. Its central southern coast features Christian remains dating to St. Colmcille’s stay in the sixth century, while the eastern end—characterized by jagged tors, or rock spires—was the legendary lair of Balor of the Evil Eye, a giant. Patsy Dan Rodgers will give you the inside story on both. He holds the ancient honor of King of Tory and welcomes visitors off the ferry at the pier. He’s a renowned painter too, part of the Tory school of painters along with Anton Meenan and other islanders. A walking loop of the island takes in all of the highlights, including a sixth-century stone bell tower, a lighthouse, and an unusual Tau cross, one of just two in Ireland. According to folklore, if you land three successive pebbles on the island's Wishing Stone, a flat-topped tor, your wish will be granted. The island is 45 minutes from Magheroarty and 90 minutes from Bunbeg on the Tory Island Ferry.
Explore Ruins and Legends on Coney Island, Sligo
There’s a lot to explore on secluded Coney Island: a ring fort likely dating to the Iron Age, a star-shaped earthen fort, a holy well, and famine houses. St. Patrick is said to have bestowed the island with a stone wishing chair so magical you could only use it once a year. Maritime archaeologist and Seatrails director Auriel Robinson explains historical facts and local lore on a walking tour that launches with a boat crossing from Rosses Point. “There’s such a sense of antiquity and wildness there,” says Robinson. “I love the tales of mermaids snagging the islanders’ fishing nets at night.” The island strategically guards Sligo Bay and features dunes, loads of wild rabbits, and one pub—McGowans—licensed to sell alcohol since 1836. Located in an old cottage, the pub exudes authenticity with historic photos and old oars hanging on the walls.
Ride Horses on Deserted Beaches and Islands, Sligo
Trawalua Strand near Cliffony isn’t accessible by car, so it’s typically deserted—you’re more likely to see cows wading in the water than people. Classiebawn Castle, previously owned by Lord Louis Mountbatten, crowns a hilltop overlooking the two-mile strand and two offshore islands. The beach makes a memorable horseback-riding destination with Island View Riding Stables, even if you have to dodge the occasional cow. The four-hour Island Trek traverses the beach and crosses a channel at low tide to O’Connor’s Island. Take a picnic, poke around the abandoned farmstead, and look for seals and seabirds. In 1588 three Spanish Armada ships wrecked on the linked barrier beach, Streedagh Strand, after defeat by the English fleet. A longer ride continues on to Dernish Island, which features ancient standing stones and mound graves. As an alternative, try the Beach and Bog ride that combines Trawalua Strand with a loop through a peat bog where turf is cut and dried in traditional small stacks.
Cruise to the Island Stronghold of a Pirate Queen, Mayo
In the 16th century, Grace O’Malley, known as the pirate queen, wielded power and exacted payment from ships for passage through her waters with a fleet inherited from her chieftain father upon his death. Her home base was Clare Island in Clew Bay, where you can see her tower house and her grave in the nearby 13th-century Cistercian abbey cemetery. While there, check out the abbey’s well-preserved medieval roof and wall paintings depicting dragons, musicians, and men on horseback. The sites are part of the Clew Bay Archaeological Trail that also includes a megalithic court tomb, Bronze Age promontory forts, and ancient cooking mounds on the island. Rent bikes to get around, or take a taxi tour of the mountainous isle. The 1806 Clare Island Lighthouse, perched atop high cliffs, is now an inn and provides guests with 360-degree views of O’Malley’s fiefdom from the lantern tower, as well as unique rooms with turf stoves or fireplaces. Head to Sailor’s Bar and Restaurant for fresh pollack in beer batter and traditional music. The island is a 20-minute cruise from Roonagh Pier; Clare Island Ferry offers a shuttle from Westport.
Cycle a Seaside Rail Trail, Mayo
The Great Western Greenway is a rails-to-trails cycling route from Achill Island to Westport. It follows an old train line skirting Clew Bay with gentle grades and expansive coastal views. The 26-mile route is the longest off-road cycling experience in Ireland, but you can easily choose your distance with Clew Bay Bike Hire. The company has five locations along the route and offers a free return shuttle service back to your start location, as well as electrically assisted bikes and trailside assistance. Owner Travis Zeray says you can cycle the whole trail in about four hours but advises allowing more time to take in the views, explore the landscape, or stop for a bite to eat. He recommends the homemade scones at Yvonne’s Traditional Cottage in Rosturk. On a nice day, opt for the Greenway to Seaway package combining cycling from Westport to Mulranny or Achill with a two-and-a-half-hour cruise back to Westport. Look for dolphins and fish for mackerel as the boat threads through the numerous islands in Clew Bay.
Sail on a Traditional Galway Hooker, Galway
Galway hookers are traditional wooden sailboats developed for strong seas. In the past they mostly took peat from Connemara to the Aran Islands and returned with limestone for the soil. After the last commercial voyage in the 1970s, they nearly disappeared from these shores. Now there’s a small fleet of these iconic boats remaining, noted for black hulls and red sails, and enthusiast owners race them competitively. Just one boat, the Flower of Youth, built in 1895, has a commercial license to take up to ten passengers, presenting a rare opportunity. Book a two-hour sail through Wild Atlantic Adventures, departing from Roundstone. These boats have no engines, so traditional skills still rule, although there is a motorboat standing by. The crew tells sailing stories, explains hooker history, and shows you how to take the rudder and steer the boat. Yet crewmember Eoin Cox says the real beauty of sailing is the silence, with only the sounds of the wind in the sail and water lapping at the boat. Watch Galway hookers sail from the shoreline during regattas in Spiddal, Kinvara, and other harbor towns.
Experience the Strange Land of the Burren, Clare
The Burren’s cracked limestone landscape hosts over 600 arctic-alpine and Mediterranean plants, as well as archaeological sites and monuments older than Egypt’s pyramids. There are mysterious stone dolmens, prehistoric stone wedge and court tombs, and nearly 500 stone and earthen ring forts. To understand this strange terrain, take the morning guided bike tour with Cathleen Connole, owner of Burren Fine Wine and Food in Ballyvaughan. The trip includes iconic Poulnabroune Dolmen, built 5,800 years ago and resembling a stone table on a massive scale; the well-preserved circular Caherconnell Stone Fort, dating from the tenth century; and a coast down Corkscrew Hill, a three-mile road with switchbacks and views of Galway Bay. The nearly three-hour trip ends with a breakfast of homemade bread, organic smoked salmon, and free-range eggs. There are also guided hikes with gourmet lunch or afternoon tea included. Stop at the Burren Centre in Kilfenora to further explore the complexities and mysteries of this nearly hundred-square-mile, lunar-looking landscape.
See Marine Life in the Waters Around Dingle, Kerry
Fungi the bottlenose dolphin arrived in Dingle Bay in 1984 and perhaps had so much fun playing with the boats in the protected harbor that he stayed. There are a number of boats offering dolphin cruises from the pier in Dingle town, and Fungi does not disappoint, leaping from the water and riding boat bow waves. Rent a kayak for a chance to see Fungi at water level. The Dingle Bay Charters Eco-Tour provides Fungi-watching as you head out of the harbor on a five-hour cruise around the now uninhabited Blasket Islands. Guides point out seals, puffins, seabird colonies, and red deer on Inishvickillane, and scan for minke whales and basking sharks. Go ashore on Great Blasket to explore the cottages that were abandoned due to island hardship and hear tales of shipwrecks. At Dingle Oceanworld, you’ll be surrounded by native fish from these waters while walking through a clear tunnel in a massive tank. There are more than 500 species in the aquarium, including sand tiger sharks, rays, and tropical fish, plus gentoo penguins. Don’t miss feeding time.
Hear the Bird Chorus by Kayak, Cork
Dawn and sunset are the most lyrical for birds. Their distinctive songs help them attract mates and mark their roosting spots. Atlantic Sea Kayaking in West Cork has found a sheltered inlet surrounded by woods that magnifies the bird chorus on the placid water, acting like a natural bird echo chamber. Owner Jim Kennedy, one of the only Level 5 sea kayak instructors in Ireland, says the sound is a symphony in May and June. The two-hour dawn and sunset kayaking trips launch at Reen Pier for a gentle paddle to Rineen Inlet, accompanied by a bird expert who helps identify the birds in the chorus. For a different kind of musical kayaking journey, there’s the Starlight Serenade night paddle with classical musicians. Marvel as phytoplankton in the water fluoresce and shimmer with every stroke, then raft together with other kayakers to listen to the live music drifting across the sea, finishing the evening with tapas made of local edible seaweeds.
Go Whale-Watching in West Cork
The waters off West Cork are excellent feeding grounds for a number of cetacean species thanks to the narrow continental shelf and the supply of nutrients from the Gulf Stream, says Nic Slocum, a trained zoologist and operator of Whale Watch West Cork out of Baltimore. The various species come in close due to the plentiful fish, plankton, and sand eels, and can return quickly to deep water. The most frequent summer sightings are minke whales, harbor porpoises, basking sharks, and sunfish, but orcas and pilot whales can also be spotted on rare occasions. Pods of more than 50 common dolphins cruise these waters from August to November. A small number of larger fin and humpback whales arrive in late fall, following the herring run. The Whale Watch West Cork boat is a stable, purpose-built, 34-foot catamaran well suited for the open sea and licensed for just 12 passengers. The four-hour tour circles the Fastnet Rock in calm seas, stops at Cape Clear Island for refreshments, and takes in two rocky isles covered with Atlantic gray seals. Sunrise and sunset tours add colorful skies to the whale sightings.