The Wild Nature Stretch
Cork & Kerry.
550 kilometres; allow five or six days for a full immersion, or pick a single peninsula for a day trip.
Did you know:
You can stay in lighthouse keepers’ cottages on the Wild Atlantic Way – at Galley Head, County Cork; Loop Head, County Clare; or St John’s Point and Fanad Head in County Donegal.
So you want to get into the wild. You want to rip yourself out of the rat race, tear your eyes from the screen, gulp down lungfuls of fresh air that seem to actually carbonate you.
I know just the place. But to get there you’ll need a satnav.
‘It’s fairly windy down on the bridge,’ the friendly ticket lady said at Mizen Head Signal Station in West Cork. I grew up an hour from the Irish coast, and I’ve spent a lifetime exploring its nooks and crannies – but that was the first time I truly felt the wildness of its southern peninsulas. Gobs of froth blew from the ocean, plopping onto my car like marshmallows. Out on the water, a trawler was tossed about like a toy in a tub. I walked over the bridge to the old station, and stuck my tired face into the Atlantic wind. The gusts came like punches, the noise was deafening, and I stumbled backwards, laughing.
I guess the Wild Atlantic Way isn’t named for its gentle nature. This 2,500-kilometre touring route stretches from Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula to Kinsale in County Cork – but don’t even think about doing the whole thing. If my travels in Ireland have taught me anything, it’s to tackle things in smaller chunks. And if raw nature is your requirement, nothing will slap you awake like a blowy day on the Mizen peninsula.
This is one of five, gnarly fingers reaching into the Atlantic in West Cork and Kerry. They range from the well-known (the Iveragh peninsula, with its Ring of Kerry) to the off-radar (the 35-kilometre Sheep’s Head, or the Beara peninsula, home to Ireland’s only cable car). You’ll need at least a week to explore them all. If time is limited, stick to one and seek out the devil in the detail… rather than simply skimming the surface.
Take the Dingle peninsula. Last summer, a trip here took me through the lively town of Dingle to Slea Head, where the rocks of Skellig Michael and An Fear Marbh (‘the dead man’) are visible offshore, and a little ticket hut at Dún Chaoin serves as the gateway to the Great Blasket Island. Taking a boat across the sound with my eight-year-old son, our eyes peeled for dolphins and basking sharks, we disembarked onto an island peppered with the husks of abandoned cottages. The wind was calmer that day, but it was whispering with history.
Walking on the beach, we met a visitor. I asked him what brought him to the edge of the Emerald Isle. ‘My daughter had this as her screensaver,’ he said, gesturing around us.
The real thing was a little more invigorating.
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The filmic Stretch
Belfast to Malin Head, County Donegal.
250 kilometres; allow three days for a feature-length trip, or stick to the Causeway Coast for a teaser.
Did you know?
Dancing at Lughnasa, starring Meryl Streep, was filmed in the village of Glenties, County Donegal.
Once upon a time, there were six counties in Northern Ireland. Now, there are Seven Kingdoms. Before Game of Thrones, anyone mentioning dragons, Dothraki hordes or Daenerys Targaryen would have had locals blaming the Bushmills (whiskey distillery). But today, Northern Ireland is home to more filming locations from the HBO series than anywhere in the world, and a whole tourist industry has sprung up around them.
It makes sense. Ireland can be a complicated island, but it’s blessed with cinematic landscapes that stop everyone in their tracks – a fact not lost on Hollywood. The Cliffs of Moher have featured in both Harry Potter and The Princess Bride. You’ll know Ashford Castle from The Quiet Man. But Game of Thrones took things to another level.
Starting out from Belfast, head for Ballygally and its castle hotel, where you’ll find a massive door carved with a wolf’s head (the symbol of House Stark), an afternoon tea including ‘Dothraki trifle’, and a spiral staircase leading to a ghost room (the tower dates from 1625). On a clear day, you can see Scotland. Continue driving north to the Glens of Antrim and on to beautiful Ballintoy Harbour (it doubles as the Iron Islands in the HBO series), with views out to Rathlin Island.
I’ve driven the Causeway Coast in rain and shine, and my advice is to do it off-season or early in the day. The Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede, a 30-metre-high rope bridge first built by salmon fishermen over 350 years ago, are its star attractions – but they can be thronged. Early birds dodge the crowds (and get the best selfies). Or skip the crowds entirely by heading across the border to Malin Head in County Donegal – Ireland’s most northerly point was a location for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. They even built a replica Millennium Falcon there.
It’s gone now. So is Game of Thrones; its final season sees the sun set on the Seven Kingdoms this month. But fans needn’t fret. The epic landscapes remain, and HBO has plans for a studio tour and a number of ‘Legacy Experiences’ at locations ‘on a scale and scope bigger than anything the public has ever seen’. King of the North, indeed.
The Foodie Stretch
Sligo, Mayo & Galway.
350 kilometres; allow three days for the full tasting menu, or spend a night in Galway for a snack.
Did you know?
Irish poet WB Yeats is buried at the foot of Benbulben mountain in Drumcliff, County Sligo. He was inspired by the Leitrim and Sligo landscapes, which are today known as Yeats Country.
Sometimes you learn more about a place through a simple bite of food than hundreds of kilometres racked up on the road. Take a creamy slurp of chowder at Eithna’s By the Sea. Eithna’s is a little seafood place in Mullaghmore, a stone’s throw from the harbour where most of the fish on her menu is landed, and she has a knack for putting plaice on a plate. When I tasted the chowder, it felt warm and restorative, but it also got us talking about nearby Donegal Bay. A spoonful of seaweed and herb pesto steered the chat towards goodies foraged from the coast.
Growing up, I didn’t love food. But nor did Ireland, that short generation ago. We’ve taken an evolutionary leap since then, from basics like bacon and cabbage to an appreciation for the pristine ingredients in our fields and seas. As a child, for example, I remember trips to Galway but nothing of its food. Today, this small, thriving coastal city has two Michelin-starred restaurants. Recent bites have ranged from velvety scallops with celeriac juice, radish and sea campion at Loam (meaning ‘fertile soil’) to a langoustine plucked off the Aran Islands to accompany sea beets and crab cannelloni at West, the contemporary Irish restaurant at Barna’s The Twelve Hotel.
There are more brilliant bites in the bright bowls of plant-based dishes at Sweet Beat in Sligo Town. Or try a plate of oysters or velvety, oak-smoked salmon at O’Dowd’s pub in Roundstone. Trace the tale of that salmon, and it might take you back to mythical stories of Fionn MacCumhaill, or to literal ones like Graham Roberts’ Connemara Smokehouse on Bunowen Pier. Roberts, one of several producers running ‘Taste the Wild Atlantic Way’ visitor experiences along the 2,500-kilometre touring route, smokes his fish using traditional methods, and runs summer tours (booking essential). You’ll never look at salmon the same way again.
Yup, sometimes a simple bite beats a ranging road trip. But here’s a way to do both. Follow the coast from Sligo to Galway, or vice versa. Plan carefully, or move messily, sketching a spaghetti-like trail depending where the food stories take you. That’s another lesson from Ireland: life is a tasting menu.
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