Wrapping Ireland’s western shores, the Wild Atlantic Way is the world’s longest defined coastal drive. The route spools for 2,750km, starting from the dramatic cliffs at Malin Head in the north and skirting nine impossibly photogenic counties, before ending in the sleepy olde-worlde cove of Kinsale in the south. Towering headlands, historic villages, secluded beaches and unbridled wilds: this road trip ranks high among the world’s most scenic. The Wild Atlantic Way is not solely comprised of endless coastal road, though. From active adventures and intriguing history to the Emerald Isle’s finest gastronomic delicacies, the picturesque drive has plenty to offer all tastes. Here, we explore the best of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Dense woodlands, crystalline loughs and soaring peaks: every turn along the Wild Atlantic Way uncovers a new wonder. Whether committing to the entire stretch or navigating a smaller section, there’s plenty to discover. The stunning segment between Erris and Galway Bay, a pretty 45-minute drive from Ashford Castle, deserves a special mention. Known as the Bay Coast Route, it skirts miles of pristine sandy beaches fringed with sparkling waters. The road circumnavigates Clew Bay, the largest bay on the Wild Atlantic Way and a remarkable example of Ireland’s sublime natural beauty. Patched with sunken drumlins, which rise up from the mirrored expanse of the Atlantic, it’s said that there are 365 of the uninhabited islands, one for every day of the year.
Mulranny, an idyllic village nestled on the cusp of Clew Bay, is an ideal base from which to admire the view. Bordered by Bellacragher Bay, it’s a seafarer’s paradise, with kayaking, sailing and surfing aplenty—and, when in need of a refuel, excellent dining. Abutted by the Nephin Mountains, keen hikers and naturalists won’t be disappointed, either. Mulranny is nicknamed the Hill of the Ferns, with heather clouding the fringes of its shores and colour-popping fuchsias lining its winding pathways to the beach. In peak summer, seek out the cool shade beneath the ancient birch, hazel and ash trees in Mulranny Wood.
Longhaired, bearded, mottled and with very handsome horns, Mayo’s Old Irish Goats are a characterful breed with a lineage that stretches back to the Ice Age. There are plenty in the area surrounding Mulranny. The goats are fiercely protected by local environmental efforts, and wanderers through the Wild Atlantic Way can do their bit by stocking up on unique volunteer-made weaves, knits and felts from Mulranny’s Gift of Hands.
Stark and ethereal, Connemara’s Derrigimlagh Bog makes for a scenic stop along the Bay Coast Route. Blanketed with rolling wilds and patchworked with lakes, its well-traversed Bog Road leads to two important historical sites. Don hiking boots and visit what remains of the world’s first permanent transatlantic radio station, which cast out its inaugurating signal in 1907. Further along is a memorial marking the landing point of the world's first transatlantic flight in 1919.
A stone-cast road bridge connects Keem Strand to Achill Island’s rugged, exposed mountains and sand-brushed beaches, also along the Bay Coast Route. On Achill, Slievemore Mountain’s pointed tip pierces the sky and overshadows a long-abandoned cluster of stone cottages known as the Deserted Village. In the medieval era, families lived here during the summer months to allow their cattle to graze; an ancient practice termed booleying. Strolling between crumbing cottages, the windswept silence punctuated by the occasional bleat of sheep, it’s an attractive reminder of the island’s wealth of history.
The Cliffs of Mohar should top the itinerary for first-timers to the Wild Atlantic Way. Best explored by following the Cliff Coast Route, the towering sea cliffs hit heights of 214m and roll out across 14km of coastline. A place that ‘catches the heart off guard and blows it open’ is poet Seamus Heaney’s apt description. Gaze out towards the peppering of Aran Islands or the razor-sharp Dingle Peninsular, or back at the charming cottage-fronted Galway Bay, depending on where you pull in. Classified as a UNESCO Global Geopark, as well as a Special Protection Area, the cliffs are certainly worth the two-hour drive from Ashford Castle.
Nearer the castle, Burren National Park’s unusual bouquet of flora lures naturalists. The unique World Heritage karst landscape is replete with Mediterranean and Arctic-Alpine blooms, sprouting side by side, and megalithic tombs that predate the Egyptian pyramids. Sea birds, falcons and myriad bats swoop above, while goats, foxes and hares duck through the undergrowth.
Picturesque swimming spots and walking trails weave through the Wild Atlantic Way. Less than two hours from Ashford Castle, the Shannon Blueway is a mosaic of marshlands, boardwalks and canals perfect for paddling, walking and cycling. For those seeking more of a challenge, there’s the sharp peaks of the Twelve Bens range or the sacred pilgrimage mountain Croagh Patrick in Mayo to conquer. Equestrian types, meanwhile, can explore the Wild Atlantic Way on sure-footed Connemara ponies.
On some days the waves pound furiously, while the next, poetic stillness steeps the Wild Atlantic Way’s jagged Surf Coast Route, which snakes from Donegal Town to the age-old barony of Erris. This track draws keen wave-riders from across the globe, eager to take on the robust surfs at wind-whipped Mullaghmore Head and Downpatrick Head, overshadowed by its colossal sea stack.
Off these shores, Blasket Islands’ blustery beaches and tall, churning waves are another surfers’ paradise. A beacon of light to the islands, Loop Lighthouse has marked the tip of Loop Head since 1670. From this panoramic ledge, witness the hypnotic smack of the Atlantic against the sheer granite cave-pocked cliffs below. Glance up to spy an occasional whale breaching, or bottlenose dolphins playing out at sea.
Cycling enthusiasts have every reason to explore the Wild Atlantic Way on two wheels. Clifden’s 20km Sky Road takes in the Inishturk and Turbot islands and is flanked by pretty beaches, perfect for a dip or a picnic lunch to break from the saddle. Elsewhere, the Great Western Greenway is revered the world over. The country’s longest off-road cycling trail spans 43.5km and links scenic Westport with Achill’s verdant hills. Enjoy moderate gradients and captivating sights that offer spectacularly varied vistas depending on the season.
Ireland’s natural larder offers an experience to remember, and many tour the Wild Atlantic Way purely to feast on award-winning regional delicacies. The humble potato is given a delicious upgrade with traditional boxty pancakes, while seaweeds such as carrageen moss have been thickening soups and desserts for centuries. A hearty Irish potato dish that’s made with kale and butter, colcannon is paired with freshly caught Atlantic fish such as mackerel, salmon and trout in many local restaurants. Creamy seafood chowder, Irish smoked salmon and crunchy fish and chips are more popular menu options.
Sampling Burren Smokehouse’s famous Atlantic salmon is a must when near the Cliffs of Mohar. The salmon is cured in sea salt, before being smoked over local oak wood, following an ancient method. The entire process is sustainable, and visitors are invited into the smokehouse to learn how it’s done.
Family-run Eithna’s by the Sea in Sligo is a bright and cheery option. Its menu satisfies seafood fans, too, with Mullaghmore lobster a speciality. From these scenic tables, it’s possible to watch fishing boats coming into Donegal Bay with the day’s catch. Eithna’s fresh-from-the-oven apple tart is also a reliable local favourite.
With sheep-spotted hills and a natural bounty, farm-to-fork cuisine is de rigeur along the Wild Atlantic Way. Ashford Castle’s The Dungeon serves traditional Irish fare in an atmospheric setting. The menu features plump Dooncastle oysters, traditional, piping hot Irish Stew, corned Irish wagyu beef and, of course, the catch of the day—all sourced fresh from local suppliers.
In recent years, artisanal dairy farms have seen a revival in Ireland, with small producers across the Wild Atlantic Way creating cheeses from cow, goat and sheep milk. Cahill’s Ireland’s prize-winners include a stout-marbled porter cheese and a tangy Ballintubber Cheese with Chives. The Cheese Press in Clare is where to find delicious regional cheeses, all made locally using Irish milk. For something sweet, rhubarb ice cream from North Clare’s Cafe Linnalla is a summer essential.
Cosy Irish pubs
The Wild Atlantic Way is lined with an array of atmospheric watering holes in which to refuel and meet friendly locals. At Ashford Castle, guests can relax in The Prince of Wales Bar, which dates back to the 1800s. Kick back with an Irish whiskey or enjoy cocktails inspired by the castle’s architecture and past. The Bellini contains a splash of Guinness for an extra local feel.
Less than an hour away, the medieval city of Galway hosts a plethora of centuries-old pubs, including the lively gastropub John Keough’s The Lock Keeper, where a strong hand of French wines and Champagne awaits. Or cap off the day in Tigh Neachtain, which pulled its first pint in 1894 and whose roaring fires and dark, wooden benches add to its classic Irish charm. Further down the coast in Clare, Durty Nelly’s is one of the country’s landmark pubs. Built in 1620, the historic thatched public house was where Bunratty Castle’s guards used to quaff.
Visitors travel from all corners to experience the Wild Atlantic Way. The nine counties it traverses have reported increasing visitor numbers year on year. “Guests cover one section and return to cover another to eventually complete the entire route,” says Paula Carroll, Director of Sales and Marketing at Ashford Castle.
The Call of the Wild campaign encouraged locals to post photographs on social media using the hashtag #MyAtlanticWay last October to December. The aim was to showcase the raw beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way from a community perspective. Sporting personalities from each county, including hurler David Collins from Galway and Gaelic footballer Lee Keegan from Mayo, helped launch the initiative with great success. More than 4,000 uploads of stunning scenery and smiling locals enjoying their favourite spots joined the campaign.
Supporting local businesses and initiatives is important to Red Carnation Hotels. Ashford Castle’s award-winning spa is stocked with organic Irish beauty brand Voya, hailing from Sligo along the northern slice of the Wild Atlantic Way. All Voya treatments incorporate hand-harvested seaweed. A firm favourite among visitors is the Voya Seaweed Hot Stone Massage, where warmed Atlantic seaweed, known for its skin-nourishing properties, is layered on the body, with smooth, heated stones placed on top to encourage deep relaxation. It’s the perfect way to unwind after a long drive to explore the extraordinary natural beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way.
A convenient gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way, stay at Red Carnation Hotels’ Ashford Castle to experience Ireland’s astounding natural beauty.