Why the Wild Atlantic Way is the best road trip in Ireland

Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way is an epic story-filled route that welcomes travellers with open arms and a twinkle in its eye.

The 2,600-kilometre Wild Atlantic Way runs from Donegal in the northwest to Cork in the south. It doesn’t just stick to the highways; rather, it dips into side roads and tiny laneways to reveal sights that once were discovered only by the most assiduous of travellers. You’ll explore majestic cliffs, lush green peninsulas partitioned by ancient dry stone walls, deep bays, and rugged islands strewn across the moody blue of the Atlantic. And drive on roads that cut through mountain passes into deep valleys, past whitewashed cottages (and as many ruins), great mounds of cut peat, across tiny bridges and into ancient villages.

The island of Ireland may be a place of crumbling castles and curious folklore, but it’s also among the world’s most socially and sustainably progressive countries. It is a recurring theme along the west coast’s Wild Atlantic Way. 

Fishing boat wreck Star of the Sea beached on Cruit Island, Wild Atlantic Way, County Donegal, Ireland
Fishing boat wreck on Cruit Island

Slieve League

At Slieve League (Sliabh Liag in Irish), sea cliffs tumble up to 600 metres down into the Atlantic. Drive in on a narrow road that swoops and soars with the landscape past tarns and bogs and grassy hills, and you might have to pull to the side to avoid a posse of sheep who otherwise are dotted in a picturesque manner about the countryside. At its end you stand braced against the ferocious winds that sweep in from Newfoundland or pick your way along steep paths through the folds of the hills, the foaming sea smashing into the cliffs far beneath you. It is an elemental place that sits perfectly in wild Donegal.

Slieve League Cliffs, County Donegal, Ireland
Slieve League Cliffs, County Donegal © Shutterstock

In the Gaeltacht, music and pubs go together perfectly in places such as the Reel Inn, opposite Donegal Castle in the heart of Donegal Town. Traditional music sessions have a kind of stateliness interspersed with abandon. The musicians sit around a table, drinking pints and chatting quietly, perhaps for five or 10 minutes, before a fiddler, an accordionist, a flute or whistle player begins a tune that all eventually join in playing.

A lively pub culture is inseparable from all things Ireland
A lively pub culture is inseparable from all things Ireland © Dan & Zora Avila

Stay: Finn Lough Forest Hideaway

Our journey commences in Northern Ireland, a stone’s throw from the Donegal border, at Finn Lough – a sustainable sanctuary nestled within the pristine Fermanagh Lakelands. Here, transparent, energy-efficient bubble domes beautifully blur the boundary between indoor comfort and outdoor wonder. Furnished with bespoke four-poster beds and fluffy robes, they invite quiet contemplation. But outdoor hot tubs and a lakeside sauna, as well as the Elements Trail – a self-guided transformative spa journey surrounded by woodland – also beckon. The Finn Lough experience continues at The Barn, a restaurant showcasing sublime local delights, many foraged or plucked from the kitchen garden. Then all that’s left is to succumb to slumber under the twinkling sky.

Strandhill, Sligo

Venturing south to Sligo, we reach Strandhill, home to the new National Surf Centre. But we’re not here for waves. Instead, we’re scrabbling along the rocky beach with Nourished in Nature, foraging for seaweed, a sustainable local tradition that connects centuries of coastal living. We pluck dulse, Irish moss and sea spaghetti from the shoreline before heading indoors to enjoy its umami flavour baked into moreish chocolate cookies.

Across the road, VOYA offers seaweed baths. A centuries-old tradition validated by modern science, said to lower stress, relieve skin conditions, and address muscular, joint and circulatory issues. Just 20 minutes of soaking in the hand-harvested Atlantic seaweed allows the skin to absorb its minerals and micronutrients. Later that evening, I enjoy a disorienting dance of tangled seaweed tentacles and sunken limbs at Ballina’s Ice House Hotel & Spa in Mayo – a 19th-century ice storage facility transformed into a contemporary hotel. Emerging from my tub, propped prettily on an open deck overlooking the River Moy, I’m all silken skin and languid limbs, as promised.

Read: 34 of the best things to do in Ireland

Achill Island

Moving on to Achill Island, which starred in The Banshees of Inisherin, I discover that even Irish livestock are fond of seaweed. Wandering the island without barriers or worries, Achill’s wind-whipped sheep graze on the sweet heather that carpets the uncultivated and unfertilised lands, as well as nutrient-rich seaweed washed ashore by the wild Atlantic waves. The result, we discover at Achill Mountain Lamb, is succulent, zero-carbon footprint produce fabulously flavoured by island and sea.

Keem Bay, Achill Island, ireland
Keem Bay, Achill Island

Westport

Further south, in Westport, a gracious town of splendid Georgian architecture on the banks of the Carrowbeg, is Matt Molloy’s pub with music every nigh. It’s a tiny place, and the trad sessions are held in a compact room off the main bar, packed with patrons.

Westport is the gateway to Connemara, the region that best encapsulates the sometimes-savage beauty of Ireland’s west coast and the Wild Atlantic Way. It is a region of remarkable contrasts. One minute you are driving in bright sunlight through a lush valley fed by roaring streams, the next you are cresting a bald, wind-scarred hill and gazing on a bleakly beautiful land of limestone shards and drystone walls. The town has well-tended buildings painted in primary colours. There are fine pubs and restaurants, and it is a pleasant place in which to wander, with the Great Western Greenway walking and cycling path, which runs for 42km to Achill Island, offering a serious chance to stretch your legs.

Also beckoning is Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holiest mountain, which rises behind Westport. The mountain – just 764 metres high – is believed to have been a pagan pilgrimage site as early as 3000 BC. Ireland’s patron saint, St Patrick, is said to have fasted on its summit for 40 days in the fifth century, and it is now a place of pilgrimage for Catholics, especially on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July.

Leenane

The small town of Leenane is dramatically sited on Killary Harbour (Ireland’s only fjord). You might arrive, if you’re lucky, when the sheep market is on, and shepherds come down from the hills to barter over their flocks. Any route from Leenane is marked on every map as a scenic drive, and you really can’t go wrong. You might head through Joyce’s Country – named not, as you might expect, for James Joyce, but because generations of Joyces have farmed here – to Maam Cross, or west past the Twelve Pins mountain range to Clifden, one of the region’s most prosperous towns and its biggest.

Killary Harbour, Ireland
Killary Harbour © Adobe Stock

Castles in Galway

Moving on to Galway, we travel back in time at Ballynahinch Castle. The ivy-strangled 18th-century country hotel is set in private woodland along the babbling Owenmore River, the Beanna Beola mountain range its broody backdrop. Intertwined in the history of Connemara since clan days, the castle has played host to many stewards, including an Indian maharaja. 

Now under the stewardship of entrepreneur Denis O’Brien, who believes a “sustainable world means working together to create prosperity for all”, the breathtaking estate boasts a number of environmental initiatives, including a newly installed solar farm. The sophisticated interiors tell the tale of a bygone time, its rooms adorned with antique furnishings, rich fabrics and thoughtful details that pay homage to the castle’s storied past. The dining room, with its panoramic views of the river and woodlands, serves up gastronomic delights celebrating local produce and flavours, from sustainable seafood to the finest Irish meats. Beyond its walls, the extraordinary estate’s manicured gardens, salmon-stuffed river and walking trails invite exploration.

As does nearby Kylemore Abbey. Built in the 19th century as a romantic folly and now a beatific Benedictine monastery, its setting is as enchanting as its meticulously manicured Victorian walled garden. A sweet side note is the presence of a chocolaterie run by an enterprising Benedictine nun hailing from Australia. Sister Genevieve oversees the handcrafted chocolate’s production, a venture that not only helps support the Abbey, but adds a tasty twist for visitors.

Kylemore Abbey, Connemara National Park, Ireland
Kylemore Abbey © Adobe Stock

Lahinch Beach

The first timid light of day stirs, the horizon blushing the softest shades of pink. The vastness of Lahinch Beach stretches before me, its sand – kissed by the wild waves of the Atlantic – mirrors the pastel sky, a sole surfer the only smudge on the rosy palette. I receive a cheery “good morning””. I ” and sense in the greeting an unspoken invitation for stories to unfold. It usually does. The Irish love a chat and are blessed with an innate understanding that conversations shared, and tales spun over a pint of stout, are the threads that weave the fabric of community.

Lahinch beach scenery in Co. Clare, Ireland
Lahinch Beach © Adobe Stock

Cliffs of Moher

Then I soak up the jaw-dropping view at the edge of the towering Cliffs of Moher, 10 kilometres down the road. My soul is nourished by the rugged grandeur of the cliffs, a curious karst pavement of fractured glacial-era limestone through which wildflowers peek.

The sheer cliffs, fossil-infused limestone hills and subterranean caves that form the UNESCO Global Geopark, tell a 320-million-year-old story of rivers, mud, mountains and continents colliding. This breathtaking site not only showcases nature’s wonders, but embodies Ireland’s commitment to preserving its natural treasures, an approach that ensures the cliffs, along with their native flora and fauna (including Ireland’s largest mainland colony of puffins), are protected for future generations.

The savagely scenic coastline, quietude of the rolling green hills and the people you’ll meet along the way give the Wild Atlantic Way its unique allure. The route is a living storybook, each stop a chapter written with the ink of laughter and whispering winds that carry the echoes of its history. 

Drone shot of the Cliffs of Moher
Cliffs of Moher © Adobe Stock

When to drive the Wild Atlantic Way

Weather is best in summer, and the days are long, but there is much to be said for off-season travel, when you may find yourself virtually alone in some of Europe’s most blessed places.

Tags: ,