To kick off our new Great Drives series, Nick Rufford dips into the Wild Atlantic Way, a 1,500-mile route along Ireland’s rugged coast
YOU PROBABLY haven’t heard of the Wild Atlantic Way but this winding, windswept piece of coastline is the closest thing the British Isles has to Australia’s Great Ocean Road. You could drive all 150 miles of the latter in a day. By contrast the 1,500 miles of the Wild Atlantic Way, down Ireland’s west coast, would take a week at least, or a month going at the pace of the locals.
That distance might sound unlikely for a smallish island, but because the road winds along the coast, taking in all the nooks and coves along the way, the miles soon build up. Starting in the north at Malin Head, Co Donegal — made famous by its gale warnings in the shipping forecast — you meander past Europe’s best surf beaches, snug villages where Irish is the native tongue and the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare — towering monuments that dwarf Australia’s famous 12 Apostles. If you do the whole route you’ll arrive in Kinsale, Co Cork, weather-beaten, tousle-haired and with sandy feet, ready to give up the rat race for a crofter’s cottage.
There are plenty of arrival and departure points along the way so you can dip in and out according to the amount of time you can spare, and there’s no better place to start than in Knock, Co Mayo. The airfield is so small you expect Sopwith Camels to taxi onto a grass runway but there are car hire booths where you can pick up something decently driveable — such as a Land Rover Freelander or an Audi Q3. It doesn’t have to be fancy — remember that the US satirist PJ O’Rourke said the fastest car in the world is a rental — just something that’ll handle the twists and turns and occasionally rutted roads.
From Knock, head to Charlestown, a couple of houses and a petrol station that the locals claim gave its name to the notorious Boston suburb that has reportedly bred more armed robbers than any other place in America. If that makes you uneasy, then get acquainted with the disarmingly friendly locals in Gallagher’s service station cafe. You can fill up for your journey on a pie that resembles a deflated Gaelic football and is just as heavy.
The stretch of road to Westport is straight-ish, which will give you time for your digestion to work before plunging into a series of loops beyond Louisburgh that takes you to Leenane in Co Galway across the Doolough Pass.
You’ll have the road largely to yourself, though if you misjudge one of the steeply cambered bends you’ll end up in a peat bog. Tyre tracks testify to the unwary drivers who have had to be towed out. Other perils include sudden dips that conceal oncoming farm traffic, and stone walls on either side of the narrow road. They are the same colour as the low cloud that often hangs around but not as soft if you hit them. You want this to be a trip that changes your life, not ends it.
The R335 ends near Killary Harbour in Connemara, a 10-mile-long fjord and the boundary between Co Mayo and Co Galway. You can park and see pods of dolphins playing among the mussel rafts. The Sky Road along Clifden Bay and Streamstown Bay offers spectacular views of the Atlantic and the islands of Inishturk and Turbot.
A traffic jam here is defined as any more than two sheep on the road. So while you have the chance, stop the car, turn off the engine and get out. Take a minute for your heart to return to resting rate, breathe the air blown 2,000 miles from Newfoundland in Canada, then sigh as you remember only the day before being stuck in that jam on the A2, or the Newbury bypass.
This is how the transformation starts. By the time you’ve dipped down into Clifden, stopped at the Abbeyglen Castle hotel to dine royally on Slyne Head seafood chowder and staggered back to your car under the huge Galway skies, you’ll have started the slow process of going native.
Just south of Clifden is the Alcock and Brown monument, a bleak memorial to the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919. John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown landed their First World War-era Vickers Vimy bomber here at the end of their record-breaking trip. Somehow this remote spot doesn’t seem important enough to carry a dramatic fact like that but there are great views, especially near sunset.
Avoid the N59 to Galway — part of a driving loop publicised in the tourist guides — and instead hug the coast, via Roundstone and take a detour towards Doonloughan to watch the Atlantic breakers and the Connemara ponies.
If Jack Kerouac’s protagonists in On the Road had been Irish, this is the route they would have taken, stopping at pubs instead of diners and downing a jar of mussels and a Jameson instead of a burger and bourbon, before careening off round the coast in a jalopy.
The road leads eventually to Galway. It’ll seem like a metropolis compared with the landscape you’ve got used to but in reality it’s a market town with good traditional fish and chips at McDonagh’s on Quay Street, or Galway Bay rock oysters at the Seafood Bar on Kirwan’s Lane.
On the approach to the Cliffs of Moher the road has been widened to make room for the tourist coaches that thunder round the bends. There’s no getting away from the fact that commercialisation is changing this area, and bringing traffic with it. Tourism Ireland will next month kick off a campaign to promote the Wild Atlantic Way as the world’s longest — and best — coastal driving route.
Already, Shannon airport in Co Clare is the gateway to Ireland for thousands of Irish-American visitors who come to discover the land of their ancestors. At Gus O’Connor’s pub in Doolin you’ll meet what appears to be most of Boston’s police department. They claim, amid hearty laughter, that it’s their local and the wall is covered in police cap badges to prove it. You may suspect as the evening wears on that the reason the armed robbers of Boston’s Charlestown get away with it is because the city’s finest are all in O’Connor’s.
Join them for a pint of “plain” (before you commit the sin of asking, it’s from Flann O’Brien’s poem The Workman’s Friend, as in: “A pint of plain is your only man”) and listen to their tall tales from back home while they drink to life in the old country.
Unwinding on the Wild Atlantic Way
Drive it in
A Range Rover Sport, or Mini convertible with the roof down and the heater on full
Tennessee from Hans Zimmer’s Pearl Harbor soundtrack does justice to the coast’s grandeur
Irish surfer Easkey Britton, the first female surfer to ride the “big wave”, Aill na Searrach, off the Cliffs of Moher
Rhubarb, apple and ginger pie at O’Donohue’s in Fanore, or Irish chocolate in Doolin (wildeirishchocolates.com)