When planning our eight-month, fifteen country motorhome trip - the windswept Wild Atlantic Way seemed a great starting point before setting sail from Cork to France.
We were warned by friends that the weather can be atrocious even at the height of summer. How right they were!
Leave Work To Travel trio–Sharon, Steve, and travelholic golden retriever, Bracken, set off in high spirits on one of the world’s most iconic road trips spanning 1,600 kilometres.
Pop the kettle on and find out if it lived up to our expectations.
The Wild Atlantic Way’s dominant factor is the Atlantic ocean which covers 20 percent of the earth’s surface. Add to this Irish charm in spades, blustery gales, copious amounts of Guinness and the adventure begins.
Wet weather gear and warm clothes are a must and be prepared to be exposed to the ocean’s elements at key stop off points called Signature Points which include Malin Head, the most northerly point of mainland Ireland.
Also unmissable are the dramatic Cliffs of Kerry which tower over 1,000ft above the Atlantic, the Slieve League Cliffs in County Donegal and the Moher Cliffs in County Clare, all of which have withstood the test of time over 400 million years ago.
Our trip stared with the ferry from Holyhead, Wales to Dublin and from there driving accross the middle of Ireland through Northern Ireland to the far north west corner of Ireland and the start of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Variety really is the spice of life and our explorations packed in an eclectic mixture of campsites, car parks, country parks and desolate, unspoilt beaches.
Camping sites - some with few facilities - were on the whole overpriced at 25-30 euros for one night – some also charging a massive a mark-up for clapped out washing machines.
We opted for more cost-effective and ‘colourful’ options including overnight parking outside the police station in Killarney town centre where we felt very safe having checked it was okay with affable duty officers. Other times we found roadsides and car parks on our very useful Park4night app.
Beacons of Light
When it comes to lighthouses, there are certainly no shortage of them on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Ireland boasts eighty beacons of light including Fanad Head, a working lighthouse on the northernmost point of the Fanad Peninsula and voted one of the most beautiful in the world.
The convivial Lighthouse Tavern, a fabulous pitstop which affords glorious views of the lighthouse and the rugged coastline, provides an effusive welcome and refreshments.
The second great lighthouse we saw was the Loop Head Lighthouse in County Clare at the end of the Loop Head peninsula, where there has been a lighthouse since 1670.
Our third and final beacon of light was Mizen Head in County Cork regarded as the most southerly point of mainland Ireland, where for a few minutes we could see the Fasnet Rock, before the mist and the rain shrouded it in the gloom.
Here there was a small and interesting museum and an insight into the lives of the men who manned the lighthouse.
While exploring the beautiful Beara Peninsula, which overlaps the border of Cork and Kerry, we fell upon a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat located on the cliff top overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Designed as an environment for inner transformation, Dzogchen Beara is certainly conducive for quiet reflection. We enjoyed the gardens and the café with its health boosting offerings during a quick stop.
Past Troubles and Future Hopes
A trip to Ireland is not complete without remembering its country’s turbulent history.
The Doagh Famine Village in County Donegal captures the hardships of the famine crisis which wiped out one million people during the 18th century. Fascinating insights include original houses, the hardships overcome and the symbolism and importance of Irish Wakes.
A more recent reminder of bitter battles is memorial dedicated to Lord Mountbatton which overlooks the Atlantic at Mullaghmore in County Sligo.
On August 27, 1979, the second cousin of the late Queen Elizabeth II, was killed by an explosion on his boat during a fishing trip near the family home.
Casualties of the horrific event included his wife, Lady Bradbourne, and their grandsons Nicholas and Paul aged just 14 and 15. His plaque is a stark reminder of dark and troubled times.
While not directly on the Wild Atlantic Way, a slight detour to Killarney and Killarney National Park was well worth the enjoyment of the glorious mountains, lakes, and woodland, where also saw the old 15th century Muckross Abbey.
Another slight detour off the main WAW route took us to Limerick and King John's Castle, a 13th-century castle, built next to the River Shannon. The castle hosts a museum and exhibition showcasing 800 years of history. It is also regarded as the source of the five line style of poetry.
Back on track and the charm of Galway, voted among the world’s top six friendliest cities, is contagious – as are its sunsets.
A poem called ‘Galway Bay,’ composed by an unnamed local doctor in 1947 and made famous by Bing Crosby, captures its beauty:
“If you ever go across the sea to Ireland
Then maybe at the closing of your day
You will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh
And see the sun go down on Galway Bay.”
Our raft of ‘firsts’ on this trip included stopping overnight at a dockside car park. The one at Galway was perfect for walking into the bustle of the lively, cobblestoned, Quay Street and its live music in bars and restaurants.
Having explored virtually every island on our Scottish explorations, we took a day trip from Galway to the quaint and traditional Aran Islands, a group of three islands, the biggest being Inishmore which has a population of just 800.
On returning to Galway, Saturday night was in full swing. The Irish are renowned for their zest for life and fiddles, drums, harps, and tin whistles fuelling high spirits and impromptu dancing.
Locals and visitors let their hair down, singing and jigging to the contagious beats.
Among our highlights was ascending the six-hundred-metres-high Slieve League cliffs where we felt like we were on the edge of the world.
Sharing the views with visitors worldwide in unusually streaming sunshine at the top of cliffs was exhilarating.
If you love people watching, look out for Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick who have a holiday home nearby. Locals relished sharing with us how the Sex and the City icon swaps her Manolos for ‘flatties’ when cliff walking.
The tea shop at the ticket office is a great pit stop for a well-deserved brew and obligatory scone with lashings of jam and cream as an end-of-walk treat!
Water water everywhere
Whether it be the ocean, rivers, Lochs or rain, the most pleasant were the waterfalls.
The first we saw The magnificent Glencar Falls in County Leitrim. They were the inspiration for the Ireland's graet poet William Butler Yeats and is featured in his poem ‘The Stolen Child’.
‘Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,’
Then onto The Aasleagh Falls, on the River Eriff en route to Clifden.
Driving through the Conor Pass, a dramatic 12-kilometre drive crossing from the north to south shore of the Dingle Peninsula with steep drop-offs on one side and the overhanging rocks, on the way to Dingle, through mist and rain, it was not a surprise to see more waterfalls.
Having set off from the Inishowen Peninsula in the north, our three-week adventure ended at The Old Head, Kinsale, in County Cork, where just off the coast, the ocean liner the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U Boat on May 7, 1915 with the devastating loss of 1,198 lives.
It was blowing a proverbial hooley when we took the obligatory photos at the last stop off point. Of all the things we will miss about Ireland, the weather would definitely not be among them.
While at the last stop, it’s also worth wandering around Kinsale, a picturesque and colourful historic port and fishing town regarded as Ireland’s gourmet capital. The fish chowder soup was among the best we’d demolished.
Our 1,450 mile journey, had given us spectacular and diverse landscapes that included coastal treasures, waterfalls, bogs, mountains – not to mention the hair-raising Conor Pass.
From Kinsale it was a short trip to Ringaskiddy and the ferry to France, and the next seven months touring.
Many people regard Ireland is the most magical place on earth. We were certainly enchanted by its copious charms, indomitable forces of nature, and Guiness, the ‘Black Stuff’ – Sláinte!