Nervous driver Alicia Burrell isn’t about to let the jitters stall her road-trip dreams. She sets off solo along west Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – the perfect taste of tarmac for fly and drive first-timers
Right on cue, the rain clouds rumbling over the mountains release their load. Fat droplets pelt the windscreen as I pass the eerie skeleton of an abandoned church in Donegal’s Glenveagh National Park, then skirt around pewter-grey loughs whipped into a frenzy by the ruthless wind. At home, I’d call this weather miserable. In Donegal, it’s magnificent. This is a place that shines when it pours.
I’m only an hour into my six-day road trip along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way and already I’m smitten. Each roller-coaster twist and turn draws a sharper intake of breath. The landscape is so green no verdant adjective could do it justice (the perennial favourite ‘emerald’ doesn’t come close). Sunshine darts across the dewy hills making them sparkle like diamonds.
But here’s the thing: I don’t love driving. While the views are beautiful, my heart is aflutter for another reason – nerves. In London, where I live, I always choose public transport over the stress of a car. My reluctance behind the wheel is so bad that it’s stopped me ticking off travel’s ultimate bucket-list item: the road trip.
Until now, that is. I considered other first-time drives: Route 66? Too far. Italy’s Stelvio Pass? Too scary. I needed a starter-friendly route with knockout scenery, plus a sense of familiarity in case anything backfires. Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way? Green light.
The route curves along Eire’s western edge for 2,500km and packs in the holy trinity of scenes: soul-stirring countryside, wild coastlines and charming villages. As a bonus, the Irish speak English (helpful should I break down), drive on the same side of the road (no panicky approaches to roundabouts) and the distances are manageable (no at-the-wheel fatigue). Most coach tours head straight for the famous southern counties of Clare, Kerry and Cork. But I want a gentle introduction so decide to start in emptier Donegal, Sligo and Mayo, to be sure of open roads before finishing in Galway and Kerry.
I realise I’m smiling rather than grimacing as the rental car handles hairpin bends through wind-flattened bogs, then scales the dizzy heights of sea-bashed cliffs
The following day, the sun is finally shining on Sliabh Liag, Donegal’s craggy 600m-high cliffs. For the first time I catch sight of the inky blue Atlantic swirling across the horizon. I’m on my way to Sligo Town, where I’ve signed up for a WB Yeats-themed walking tour with guide David Lawless. Yeats romped around County Sligo as a boy, and its moody mountains, prehistoric burial grounds and lush patchwork of fields provided the backdrop for his writing. David reels off Yeats’s poetry as melodiously as the gently flowing Garavogue river whose banks we amble along, while he points out Sligo’s quirky attractions, such as the 5,000-year-old megalithic tomb that’s now a roundabout.
Back in the car, it’s on to Strandhill, one of Ireland’s top surf spots. I’ve yet to dip a toe into the Atlantic, but the breakers slamming the shore here convince me I’m best off leaving it to the wet-suited pros. Thankfully, there’s a way I can get a feel for the ocean without being tossed around like socks in a washing machine: seaweed. Locals have known about its detoxifying properties for aeons and have harnessed its powers for the modern spa-goer (and softies like me). At Voya Baths I slip into a bathtub filled with seawater and a thick tangle of seaweed.
Any health benefits gained, though, are duly undone in the beachfront Strand Bar. Back home, I’d be scared to go for a drink on my own. But as soon I order, I’m enveloped in conversations with punters propping up the bar, who lecture me on the correct way to pour-then-rest a Guinness. Next thing, I’m being led into the packed-to-the-rafters back room to hear rip-roaring live music.
Groggy-headed the next morning, I head south into County Mayo. The scenery is a tapestry of golden grassland and heather-coated moors bordered by tumbling stone walls. Every village is proudly festooned in flags bearing the county’s colours of green and red, primed for a hurling grudge match.
I’m here to start a battle of my own: me versus mountain. All 764m of it. Croagh Patrick is Ireland’s holiest peak: the eponymous saint was said to have spent 40 days fasting on the hillside. Those brave or devout enough to make the trek are rewarded with divine views of the sapphire Clew Bay bejewelled with hundreds of mini emerald islands – 365, according to tradition.
The dark outline of a giant appears behind a curtain of clouds: a dense halo of grey fog is crowning the summit. On a good day, the climb should take a thigh-burning two-to-three hours. Today does not class as a good day. The previous night, my new drinking buddies warned me that Croagh Patrick was ‘one hell o’a tough hike’. Now, in the car park, thoughts of doing a U-turn creep into my mind.
A chorus of raindrops starts up as I crunch over shards of quartz and rocks the size of kettlebells. Through the drizzle I catch glimpses of the panorama of Clew Bay. But by three quarters of the way up, I feel as if I’m navigating through cotton wool. With God as my only witness, I turn back and pray my weakness will be forgiven.
Across the bay is the next and most exhilarating section of the Wild Atlantic Way: Achill Island. Achill was ravaged by the devastating famine of the 19th century – deserted villages and overgrown furrows still scar the land — and has seen waves of rebels come and go, from pirates to the IRA. But the island’s dramatic history is matched by its scene-stealing beauty. The road – which is linked to the mainland by a short causeway and loops around boomerang-shaped Achill – is a driver’s dream.
Sunshine darts across the dewy hills making them sparkle like diamonds
I realise I’m smiling rather than grimacing as the rental car handles hairpin bends through wind-flattened bogs, then scales the dizzy heights of sea-bashed cliffs. Every 200m I stop to take pictures, because each inch I travel is more beautiful than the one before.
Achill is also home to Ireland’s most secluded beaches, many with names befitting the Shipping Forecast: Dooega, Dugort, Golden Strand and Keem. I settle on Trawmore Strand and lounge on sugary heaps of golden sand and splash in Hockney-blue shallows. This is Mayo’s take on the Maldives and, though the temperature is far from tropical, I don’t care one jot.
On day four I’m travelling to the edge of the world. Or as close as I can get. Clare Island is a tiny offshore outcrop guarding the mouth of Clew Bay. It has no police, no doctor, no secondary school, only two pubs and one shop. But what Clare Island does have is plenty of walks and undisturbed peace. It’s exactly the ‘wild’ I’m after.
Clearly Clare has no proper roads, so I leave the car at Roonagh Pier and head straight to the top deck of the ferry for the crossing, despite the ferryman’s attempts to beckon me inside under cover. I should have listened. The boat crashes through monstrous waves, drenching me at once. The sight of dolphins gracefully darting through the water happily takes my mind off the compelling urge to throw up.
Safely on dry land and in dry clothes I set about exploring. I start in the Cistercian abbey (picking up the keys at the shop next door), covered in a menagerie of ceiling frescoes (spot wolves, stags, hares and a dragon) and the rumoured final resting place of Clare Island’s fearsome pirate queen and folklore hero, Grace O’Malley.
Clare Island’s modern population (nudging 160) are a more welcoming bunch than their marauding ancestors. I learn about looms from Beth, the island’s resident weaver; and Cora, who runs the film festival, points me in the direction of the best walking trails, past a Napoleonic signal tower and megalithic sites.
That night I watch a show no modern distraction could compete with. I’m staying in the island’s former lighthouse, now converted into boutique digs. While other guests enjoy the comfort of the lounge (and the honesty bar), I climb the spiral staircase up to a glass lantern tower to watch a storm sweep in.
The unchecked force of the Atlantic batters incisor-sharp cliffs, sending up a tornado of mist. The wind roars like a squadron of Spitfires flying just above my head.
The scenery is a tapestry of golden grassland and heather-coated moors bordered by tumbling stone walls
I think of the words on O’Malley’s gravestone: ‘Invincible on land and sea’. You’d have to be, to survive here.
After a drier return to the mainland (I stayed below-deck this time), I wind down to County Galway, where being on the road becomes meditative. I roll through majestic Connemara, a jigsaw of glassy lakes, russet hills covered in a spider’s web of waterfalls, and forests blanketed with pine trees. If only driving back home in London was this calming.
Dipping south into County Kerry, I make a detour purely so I can drive along the Dingle Peninsula – Ireland’s westernmost point and a less chocka, but just as pretty, version of the Ring of Kerry.
I coast along serene, shoreline-hugging roads, stretch my legs on pristine Inch Strand beach, creep up narrow mountain passes and nosey around the colourful harbour of Dingle Town. As with the rest of the Wild Atlantic Way, a car is the only way to experience these thrills.
My final stop is Killarney National Park, where I finally witness the busloads of tourists for which this road is infamous. Killarney is a theme park of natural wonders: tumbling cascades of water set in oak forests filled with red deer and white-tailed eagles. Its attractions truly merit themepark crowds. Put in the work, though, and it’s possible to have a slice to yourself.
As the selfie-stick hordes swarm the viewing platform at Torc Waterfall, I take the path up the hill and come to a clearing peeping out across lakes and mountains. A few steps more earn me an even better view of the waterfall plunging into pools below. No-one else makes it up here and I relish one last bit of time alone before I return to the city chaos of home. While I may have reached my final destination, I’m already revving up for my next road trip.
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Credit: Alicia Burrell / The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing