Ireland’s Wonderful Wild Atlantic Way
By Max Hartshorne
If you head west out of Dublin, across the many rolling fields filled with sheep and gentle hills by the side of the motorway, you’ll end up in Killarney, where I began my weeklong journey along Ireland’s west coast.
When you get there, if you’re like me, you’ll be itching to get out and see what else is up the jagged coast. Your trail is already set–and it’s ready for biking, walking, or a leisurely ride by motorcoach.
The Wild Atlantic Way Calling
They call it the Wild Atlantic Way, a seaside roadway that follows Ireland’s jagged west coast for 25oo kilometers, all the way from the Haven Coast in the south to Derry up in The Republic of Northern Ireland.
Small blue directional signs make it easy to stay on the route, marked by the fluttering ‘W’ symbols.
We got a chance to see the towns and incredible landscapes of County Mayo that are in the region called The Cliff Coast, between Westport and Ballycroy, home of a large National Park.
The scenery never fails to impress–but it’s also stark and barren, dotted with abandoned stone houses that are a big part of the history in this part of Ireland.
This is one of the places that the terrible potato famine emptied out in the 1850s, and in subsequent decades more and more families left, leaving only the sad shells of their stone homes, and no one to live in them.
Westport, a Lively Town
For many visitors, their Wild Atlantic Way trips begin in the lively town of Westport, dating back to around 1767, and the main feature in the town is an octagon. It’s not a square, unlike most towns in Ireland, as our local guide, Stephen Clarke made very clear. He also pointed out how important protecting the look of the town is, so it still looks much like it did 250 years ago. Rooflines must remain consistent, so the octagon is preserved.
One of the must-visit places in Westport is the regal Westport House, a castle that just recently changed hands and is now owned by three local men, who also own a nearby hotel. You can tour the grounds and enjoy the sweeping views, along with seeing the stern visages of the Brown family who lived here for decades. During our visit, we met up with a pair of falcon trainers who dazzled us with their avian assistants swooping and diving in pursuit of prey.
Westport is well-known among foodies for having the most awarded restaurants and cafes in all the country, it’s called the Wild Atlantic Way Food Champion.
We sampled the fare in a few of the restaurants, like the Idle Wall, right across from an inlet that goes out to sea and leaves boats on their sides at low tide.
Aine McGuire is the chef here, and in the cozy wood-paneled dining room, she relies on strictly local and impeccably fresh ingredients for everything that comes out of the kitchen.
Dexter Beef, Pan fried local hake, and buttermilk pudding were on the menu–all perfectly prepared for a memorable lunch.
Even her salt was special, some from the sea and some flavored with pork and other spices.
Mixing it Up
Sometimes it’s fun to mix it up a little bit. So we set out during a rainy evening on a fleet of bicycles and did a Westport dine-around, making stops for a starter, a main, dessert and a drink at four different locations around town. Yep, we got a little wet, but by now, we expected that. The Clew Bay Bike Hire crew can set up a similar excursion for you and friends, they also offer kayaking trips in Clew Bay.
With our reflective vests and iPhone flashlights, we navigated Westport’s narrow streets and had fun experiencing so many different venues for one meal. Highly recommended!
The Wild Atlantic Way is a route for all types of vehicles, and the next day we jumped back on bikes for a longer tour.
But this time, the bikes had batteries–electric bikes!–and this made our 18-kilometer route, down the Great Western Greenway, all the more fun.
The stunning vistas of ocean and pristine meadows were just part of the experience–and clear sunny skies were an added bonus. No, Virginia, it doesn’t rain in Ireland every day!
Further north along the Wild Atlantic Way is Achill Island, Ireland’s largest island and home to a fun-loving Frenchman named Francois Colussi.
He runs a BnB, Pizzeria and adventure outfitter built in a former Coast Guard station called Pure Magic.
When Francois is not helping first-time paddleboarders learn to stand up, or guiding a group of kayakers across Keem Bay, he’s busy with his annual kitesurfing competitions and concerts that are big annual events in Dublin.
Colussi travels here on weekends and his staff does a great job making tasty pizzas, keeping the peat fires burning and running the adventure side.
Paddleboarding in November
It was November, but there was no stopping us as we donned wetsuits and went paddleboarding on a pretty little pond on Achill Island with Francois.
He’s quite the storyteller, even though he’s not Irish, and we later learned, over beers at the local pub, how much he loves this remote and somewhat desolate island–Achill–and the 2700 hardy souls who call it home.
One thing we learned at the pub was about the importance of good craic–singing, music, talking, dancing, playing music, all of those fun things that make life worth living, that all take place in a local pub.
Achill of course, has a few pubs, which come complete with the requisite musicians, as well as in this case, three youngsters playing pool while Mom and Dad socialize with friends. The craic indeed was there and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Achill is home to staggering beauty–dramatic 1000-foot high cliffs lit up by sunlight at dusk, and the gentle beach at Keem Bay, a golden arc of sand with cliffs on either side. The island is a perfect spot for kayaking, paddleboarding, and hiking, and is made up nearly entirely of peat.
Coasteering on Erris Head
There are so many ways to enjoy this part of Ireland. Some in our group decided to take the plunge–literally–when they joined Wave Sweeper Adventures for some Coasteering. This involves climbing tall rocks and plunging into the water from a high perch.
It gave the jumpers an exhilarating rush, and the rest of us decided to hike the sweeping open Erris Head coast instead. The hike was stunning, no people for miles and the stark cliffs and green grass along with an old World War II observation tower perched on a cliff.
The Wild Atlantic Way has so much more than what we experienced, it’s a part of the world filled with happy Irish people and plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy it.
Find out more and put this on your bucket list!
Wild Atlantic Way map on Tourism Ireland website
View videos about this route on YouTube
This trip was sponsored by Tourism Ireland, but the opinions are the writer’s own.
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Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.