When it comes to road trips the Wild Atlantic Way has to be among the best in the world. However, it can be so much better when removing the limitations of borders and restrictions of inland attractions. As technically the Wild Atlantic Way only include destinations on the west coast of Ireland. But many must-see attractions are also found along the way, and while the west coast of Ireland is ridiculous scenic at times, a road trip of neverending seascapes will become a tad monotonous for many. And just a road trip in Ireland, without the inclusion of Northern Ireland and the Causeway Coast, is wrong (despite being different countries, with different tourist boards, and Northern Ireland is not really on the Atlantic coast). I have therefore put together my own itinerary, called the Extended Wild Atlantic Way, which brings together some of the better coastal and inland sights along the way.
Where to Start?
Ironically, I feel that the best starting point for the Wild Atlantic Way is in Belfast, Northern Ireland or at least it is likely the most convenient for those flying in from abroad. Where there are large airports (e.g. Belfast City Airport), with cheap and easy car hire, and the start of the northernmost point in Donegal (Malin Head) is just 2 hours away. Not to forget the Causeway Coast and attractions along the way. Dublin Airport, on the other hand, is on the east side of Ireland, and it’s more than two hours to reach the nearest point of the Wild Atlantic Way. Where it’s smack in the middle of the route. So it’s just impractical. Alternatively, more domestic airports, include Donegal Airport and the City of Derry Airport both in the northwest, then Shannon Airport and Cork Airport in the southwest.
Hints and Tips
While actually completed the Wild Atlantic Way through three different stages, but I am sharing it here as the best route for everyone, from top to bottom. Each time we would have started out from Bangor, Northern Ireland, which is where we are often based, and again it’s not so far from Belfast. We would then take on short overnight stays and weekends covering individual sections of the Extended Wild Atlantic Way. Most times we would use our own car here, although we have rented out of Belfast before at the City Airport (Belfast Rental Comparison here). From here it is roughly 1 hour to the Causeway Coast, then 1 hour again to reach the borders of Donegal and Ireland and the official Wild Atlantic Way route begins. And it is just very simple to follow, with incredibly well-signposted routes either North or South along the coastline. Just look for the blue wave signs below. Using GPS/satnav we would then add in the occasional inland excursions to must-see-attractions along the route, then it’s really it’s easy to reroute back to the coasts again. Before leaving we would always have hotels booked the entire, using free cancellations through Booking.com, so we can change and reroute if plans change along the way.
The Causeway Coast (NI)
Starting from Belfast our initial route takes us through Ballymoney and the dark hedges, a sinister tunnel of intertwined beech trees made famous from the Game of Thrones series (Bregagh Rd, Ballymoney BT53 8TP). In fact many of the landscapes along the Causeway Coastline have featured on the Game of Thrones incl. Ballintoy Harbour, Murlough Bay, Cushendun Caves. But I won’t go into them all as there are a lot of close-knit attractions along this coastline and I’d definitely spend at least one night here, if not two (Causeway Coast hotels here). Some of the must-see attractions along this coastline would be the famous basalt columns at the Giant’s Causeway, views over the ruins of Dunluce Castle, and, for the more adventurous, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which links 30 metres high above surf and rocks to the tiny island of Carrickarede. I do know this region well having studied at University nearby (UU) and lived in Portstewart, and a couple personal highlights include the Old Bushmills Whiskey distillery (for obvious reasons) and a trip out to Rathlin Island. I plan to add more specifics at some point, but I have covered some of the areas in our Top 10 Northern Ireland Attractions.
Leaving the Causeway Coast we skip past Londonderry (sorry Londonderry) and cross the borders to County Donegal and the official start of the Wild Atlantic Way. If using GPS satnav try the easy-to-remember town of Muff which is found a short distance from crossing the border. We are now in Inishowen peninsula which is the largest peninsula in all of Ireland as we continue along the Wild Atlantic Way travelling up towards Malin Head and the most northerly point of the island of Ireland. To be honest, this is not the most exciting attraction along the way, but it is geographically interesting, where it is also possible to see the Northern Lights from this point. From here on it is all south as we follow on the opposite coastline stopping at a stretching sand beach called Five Finger’s Strand. There’s really some beautiful sands along this side of Donegal and a night on the west coast works well (list of hotels here) before continuing on to Slieve League. Slieve League would be the main attraction on Donegal’s Atlantic coast with sea cliffs so big I had to photograph in a panoramic setting. Otherwise there are other inland excursions possible, Glenveagh National Park well worth considering, but we decide to follow on the coast and Wild Atlantic Way.
Sligo and Benbulben
We leave County Donegal via Bundoran’s Tullan Strand, another of Donegal’s scenic beaches, as we continue towards County Sligo. Along the way we skip through County Leitrim (sorry Leitrim) and begin travelling inland towards Benbulben, which is a large rock formation found in County Sligo. Benbulben is part of the Dartry Mountain range here, in an area also known sometimes as “Yeats Country” after W. B. Yeats, an Irish poet and foremost figure of 20th-century literature (I had to Google this). But you’ll find many references to Yeats throughout the journey, so now you know why. Anyway, from here we turn back to the coastline which can be seen on the horizon from Belbulben, as Sligo slopes down towards the Atlantic Sea. We set our GPS to Rosses Point which is one of the popular beach resort areas of the region and is in fact familiar to me from past family holidays. I was very young at the time and I can only remember a day running through endless sand dunes, and returning to the car to finding my Easter Eggs had melted inside. Sligo is a popular beach resort area and is great for short breaks and escapes. But today the weather is miserable, so we continue on to follow the Wild Atlantic Way. (Sligo hotels here for those planning to stay).
Mayo and Achill Island
From Sligo we continue on into Mayo, which is a huge county, but we don’t really see much inland as we follow the coast and the Wild Atlantic Way. In fact, we are now on a mission to find some sheep which is an obsession with Fanfan. This brings us to Achill Island which is the largest of all islands off the coast of Ireland and is connected by road. These areas are now feeling more remote and rugged than before where Achill stretches out with seemingly endless peat bogs which apparently consist of 87% of the island. Along the coast it is rugged and mountainous and Croaghaun makes a good example as the highest sea cliffs, not only in Ireland, but Great Britain as well (third highest in Europe). It is a fair hike to reach them however, so we don’t, but we do follow the winding cliffside roads to the starting point at Keem Bay which is one of Achill Island’s Blue Flag Beaches. It’s a beautiful bay area here surrounded by dramatic mountains and cliff faces. Anyway, we are here for sheep, and we do find lots. On Achill Island many are wild and left to run around as they please. At parts we would stop the car to look at them only to find ourselves surrounded as they chase towards us expecting food I am guessing (although they’re not big into chips). We again stayed the night in this area (Achill Island Hotel) before forwarding towards the borders of County Galway.
Connemara (Co. Galway)
Crossing over to County Galway we start at Leenane (Leenaun) a beautiful valley village found between mountains and the shore of Killary Harbour fjord, a famous inlet which forms a natural border between Galway and Mayo. We are now in Connemara which, to simplify it, is the name for the region west of Galway City (there is probably more to it). Having overindulged on coastal views over the past days we decide to travel inland for a bit, as we travel towards Connemara National Park, and Kylemore Abbey which was founded by Benedictine Nuns who fled Belgium in World War I. Kylemore Abbey, along with its surrounding Victorian walled gardens, would be the highlight of this area although the landscapes across Connemara are hard to beat. I do prefer the inland routes of Connemara with empty and vast landscapes of hills, lakes and peat bogs. The area is also famous for Connemara Single Malt Whiskey which compliments the area well with its ridiculously peated flavour and, unlike Scottish whiskys of Islay, it has no smoky tones. It tastes a bit like licking the hearth. Anyway, after some inland exploration we join again with the Wild Atlantic Way as we follow the coastline route towards the city of Galway (here for Connemara Hotels).
The City of Galway
Instead of Connemara we decide to stay in Galway City which is an easy winner for the must-see city break along the way. It’s also roughly half-way through the Wild Atlantic Way route, so it does make sense to take a break to enjoy some city experience, culture and shenanigans. In size, Galway City is still a smallish harbour city, found where the River Corrib meets with the Atlantic coast. It is also found just next to our coming destination as it sits on the border of County Clare. Anyway, it’s a great place for jars of Guinness, double Jimmy’s (Jameson’s Whisky) and craic (the Irish equivalent of banter). Galway City has a reputation for being a student city and almost always has a lively night scene. At the same time it still has traditional Irish charm with cobblestoned streets, boutique shops and winding alleys. It is also a huge tourist destination making it an ideal place to find the more common cliches of Ireland such as traditional Irish music and dance. These aren’t so easy to find in sleepy rural and coastal towns. Anyway, I’d definitely give it a night or two before we’re onto the next leg of the Wild Atlantic Way (list of Galway hotels here).
The Burren (Co. Clare)
As we continue into County Clare, we cut off again from the Wild Atlantic Way, as we travel into the centre of the Burren. This area for me is fascinating with its karst landscape, vast cracked pavements of glacial-era limestone, cliffs and caves, fossils, rock formations and archaeological sites (Wikipedia). With few landmarks along the way we set our GPS sat nav to the Burren Perfumery, and it brings us through some of the most fascinating landscapes we’ve come across. This includes wild horses on mountains and hairy cows on the roads. We barely pass another vehicle in the hours of being there, yet we’re in one of the busiest tourist areas of Ireland. I don’t even think busses could fit on these windy roads. So this was quite possibly the highlight of the Wild Atlantic Way to date, even though we managed to miss the lesser known attraction in the area with Father Ted’s house. It’s really just someone’s house these days but, due to popular demand with Father Ted fans, the family living there offer tea and home-made baking by appointment. They also ask, out of respect, for tourists not to turn up unexpectedly for photos, so we of course skip past (we couldn’t find it). On a return this area would be a really nice area to stay (The Burren Hotel here) but instead we double back to meet again with the coastal route.
The Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Moher are found on the coastline of the Burren and I do recommend following the route from Galway (and this is why we doubled back). As we travel to the cliffs we pass some of the most magnificent coastal scenes with crashing waves and cliffside roads. There really is a lot to see here and we unfortunately didn’t have much time. But the cliffs themselves (Cliffs of Moher Guide here) are unmatched as you can see from the photo below. At the same time the cliffs rank among the top-visited tourist sites in Ireland, with almost one million visitors a year. It is touristy in this area and they come in by the bus loads from both Dublin and Galway City (this is why we were so surprised at the peacefulness of the mountains of Burren). For fellow bird nerds the Cliffs of Moher are also home to thousands of seabirds, including puffins although I didn’t get a glimpse on my visit. It is also possible to see the Aran Islands from the cliff tops and they can be reached by boat from nearby Doolin (seasonal) which itself is renowned for traditional Irish music. This would be a good stop for the night (Doolin hotels here).
The Ring of Kerry
We then pass through Limerick, a county which hits the coastline, and makes a convenient starting point for the North West region via Shannon Airport. Otherwise it’s more of a quick pass through into County Kerry, where one of the highlights would be Dingle, although we rushed past on this itinerary. Instead we based ourselves in Killarney National Park (Killarney Hotels here), which also marks the start of the Ring of Kerry, where the roads also follow the Wild Atlantic Way along the coastal side. But I will forever recommend a stop at Killarney, and to explore the sights of the connecting National Park, and maybe climb to the Gap of Dunloe given time. Otherwise the Wild Atlantic Way route share similar to previous destinations, where some of the better views are found around, and after, Com an Chiste (Coomakista). With roads winding up and around some rather scenic coastal hills and mountains.
The roads leaving the Ring of Kerry into Cork are again ridiculously scenic, as the coastline continues down towards Mizen Head, and the most southwestern point of Ireland. Which is more geographically interesting than anything, however, the views and scenery on the approach to the Mizen Head visitor centre are again worth it. And there’s always the option of crossing the bridge to the Signal Station (fee of around 7.50 Euros). But we were lazy and just put the drone up to get some nice views from above instead. For there, following east along the southern coastline for 20 minutes or so, finds Brow Head, and the Southernmost Point of Ireland. Although there’s not much going on here, until the next and last featured point of interest on the Wild Atlantic Way, with the lighthouse at the Old Head of Kinsale (Cork hotels here).
Return through Waterford
This route is more like a run for the finish line (or the starting point when coming from Dublin). And while Waterford again is not included in the official Wild Atlantic Way itinerary (it’s not on the west coast of Ireland) this in no way means the coastline lacks the same natural beauty. The county really just got a dud deal in being the cutoff, without the same exposure as its neighbours, although this means it is quieter and less explored. So for me Waterford is like the finish line of the Extended Wild Atlantic Way, and the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore is without a doubt the winning trophy at the end of it all. As these wild and rugged coastlines are much more enjoyable when watched over from luxury and comfort, where the Cliff House Hotel has easily the best sea views of any hotel in Ireland.