A mini guide to the Wild Atlantic Way

Travel writer Aoife O’Riordain reveals best places to visit on Ireland’s Atlantic coast

Keem Beach, Achill Island, Image: Christian McLeod

Forget Route 66 – the road trip we’re dreaming about this Easter is the Wild Atlantic Way. Hugging Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard for over 1,550 miles, this is the world’s longest signposted route and Ireland’s headlining epic drive, which rivals any of the world’s other bucket list road trips.

Taking in some of the country’s most rugged and remote coastal scenery and sites, it can take over three weeks to do the Wild Atlantic Way proper justice. But if you’re short on time, there are 15 iconic must-sees in total, from the elemental drama of Donegal’s Malin Head to the historic Kinsale in County Cork.

Our advice? Cherry-pick some of its most scenic, Atlantic-bashed swathes to explore for a few days. Spring is the ideal time to do this, when the landscape is ablaze with gorse, heather and wildflowers and to get ahead of the summer crowds. With that in mind, here are five of the best parts to explore…

Malin Head, Image: Shuttershock
Malin Head to Sligo Town

Malin Head on Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula to Sligo is the first section of the route travelling south. This is Ireland’s most northerly point and the views from Banba’s Crown over the ocean are epic and endless, giving the sense that you are on the edge of Europe with the shimmering Atlantic surf stretching out before you. Expect unspoilt, empty beaches such as Marble Hill, while in neighbouring Co. Sligo, Mullaghmore Beach is one of those Holy Grail surfing spots with some of the biggest offshore swells.

STAY AT: Breac House, a modern design-led retreat on the Horn Head Peninsula, with panoramic views and a private sauna and seaweed bath for guests. 

Connemara National Park Image: Chris Hill Photographic
Westport to Galway City

This magical stretch combines the isolated, windswept beauty of both coast and countryside. Start at Clew Bay, where hundreds of islands are strewn across the horizon, then pass the dramatic scenery of Killary Fjord and the untamed beauty of the heather blanketed Connemara National Park and its brooding Twelve Pins Mountain Range. From here, skirt the ragged coastline along the aptly named “Sky Road” south of Clifden and stop off at the silvery, twin strands of Gurteen and Dog’s Bay near Roundstone in Connemara, before arriving in Galway – the Wild Atlantic Way’s halfway point.

STAY AT: Ballynahinch Castle, an unpretentious country house hotel sat in a gorgeous 700 acre estate that overlooks the 12 Bens Mountain range.

The Burren limestone pavement (left) Image: Dave Walsh, Loophead Lighthouse (right) Image: Air Swing Media
Galway to Loop Head

This drive will take you through the otherworldly landscape of The Burren – one of Ireland’s most precious ecosystems. A geological rarity, this exposed limestone pavement is rich in native flora and fauna, archaeological landmarks and underground caves. Then it’s on to the show-stopping Cliffs of Moher, a majestic five-mile wall of 700ft-high cliffs, where the views stretch out across Galway Bay to the Aran Islands and the Atlantic frothing below. Stop off at Lahinch, a laid-back beach town with a golden crescent of sand and a big surfing population, before finally driving to Loop Head to take in the views from its iconic isolated lighthouse.

STAY AT: Gregans Castle Hotel, a small, family-run hotel with a focus on exceptional, locally-sourced food and views out over The Burren. 

The Cliffs of Moher, Image: Chris Hill Photographic
Tralee to Kenmare

From Tralee, the Wild Atlantic Way skirts the coast of County Kerry’s Dingle and Iveragh Peninsulas, where land and water collide to spectacular effect. Used as the backdrop for films like Star Wars and Ryan’s Daughter, the photo opportunities keep on coming as secluded beaches and vistas of the Blasket Islands swing into view.

Next stop off in Dingle, one of the region’s most alluring seaside towns where traditional Irish music rings out from the pubs each night. From Killorglin, the road traces part of the celebrated ‘Ring of Kerry’ route, taking in scenic highlights like Rossbeigh Strand beach, ​​Macgillycuddy's Reeks mountain range and the Skellig Islands, before ending at the pretty heritage town of Kenmare.

STAY AT: Lagom Townhouse & Restaurant, a pared-back Scandi-inspired boutique hotel in Kenmare with an amazing, seasonally-inspired restaurant.

Kenmare, Image: Chris Hill Photographic
Kenmare to Kinsale

From Kenmare, the route traces the edges of the Beara, Sheep’s Head and Mizen peninsulas, where land and sea merge and mingle in a series of cliffs, bays, and islands. Along the way is a string of postcard-pretty towns and villages with brightly painted shop fronts, such as Schull, Skibbereen and Bantry. This is also the best leg for boat trips – from Glengarriff,  you can sail to Ilnacullin to explore its atmospheric subtropical gardens, while Baltimore has ferries to the peaceful surrounding islands of Sherkin and Cape Clear.

STAY AT: Dunmore House Hotel, an award-winning seaside family home-turned-hotel on the shores of beautiful Clonakilty Bay.