3 Days Driving and Hiking Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way
We spent three days on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way between the Cliffs of Moher and Tullycross in County Galway, including the Aran Islands’ Inishmore and Galway. It might have been the prettiest and most awe-inspiring time of our lives, covering the west Irish coast, getting insight into some ancient culture, and exploring Ireland by foot.
Day One: Dublin to Cliffs of Moher to Galway
We left our darling Laytown, just north of Dublin (see everything you’d ever want to do in Laytown here), on a Monday around 9 am. Driving across the Irish highways, our first stop put us in Nenagh for two reasons. I had some genealogy to do the John DeLand family, and we wanted to meetup with Dave Goggin and his lovely wife, Clara. Be sure to follow Dave at www.firedave.com for Irish tips on retiring early and achieving financial independence.
Nenagh’s giant cemetery offered up the hints we needed, a stomp around the Nenagh Castle gave us some insight, and a lovely bite at Quigley Bakery satisfied us for our onward journey.
Dreaming at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland
A sunny day greeted us at the Cliffs of Moher. Since the last time I visited, a large car park with a large entry fee welcomes you into the site. We paid the 42 Euro for the three of us, grabbed our water bottles, and trotted over to the Cliffs. The Visitor’s Center offered up the geology of the place and clued us into the watchtowers at the top of the Cliffs. From the Cliffs, we started our Wild Atlantic Way adventure of hiking a driving the wild Irish coast.
Out across the Atlantic we viewed the dreams of the past above the 200 meter cliffs, watched skimmers fish, and wished for puffins to wobble by. When visiting the Cliffs, you can walk to the south along a path against the edge of the Cliffs, or you can go north up 100+ steps to O’Brien’s Tower, a former watchtower. We did both, and here is where we stumbled upon the first signs for the Wild Atlantic Way.
The Wild Atlantic Way
The Wild Atlantic Way, a 1600 km coastal drive (with some hiking options) along Ireland’s west coast, competes with the Highway 101 Coastal Drive along the Pacific Ocean through the USA’s California, Oregon and Washington. Having done both, Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way is definitely the winner and my preference. Little traffic, charming villages, spectacular views, enchanting inlets, and the unspoilt ambience of Ireland radiant from every twisty, curvy turn along the way cementing this coastal drive as one of the world’s best scenic drive.
With an hour and half left before sunset, we left the Cliffs. I had previously driven the glorious Ring of Kerry to the south, so we headed north to Galway to find some good Craic. A fun, working class city that reminded me of Scotland’s Glasgow in many ways, Galway’s vibrant downtown was starting to buzz alive. Read about when I hiked Scotland and ate in Glasgow.
The First Night on the Wild Atlantic Way: Galway
We found a great triple room with our Chase Ultimate Rewards Points at The Western Hotel. Wondering where to eat in Galway and with bellies rumbling, we searched for a place that would satisfy a beefeater, a pescatarian and a vegan. Neo, an Asian fusion place on the docks, offered up everything we wanted. My Massaman Curry, filled with potato and fresh veg and spiked with cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, curry and peanut hit the right spice notes. I had to steal some extra rice from my husband so I could soak up the last drop of the sauce.
Our walk back to the hotel took us through Galway’s music scene. We stopped for Murphy’s Ice Cream where our daughter indulged in a scoop of Dingle Sea Salt ice cream while we listened to live bands busking in the street not only playing some Irish music but also Pink Floyd. The scene was just starting at 9:30 pm. If you want some after dinner entertainment in Galway, find yourself outside in the streets of Galway after 10 pm.
The Second Day on the Wild Atlantic Way: Galway to Aran Islands to Tullycross
The next morning began early. We grabbed tickets from AranIsland Ferries, and picked up the ferry from the docks across from our dinner the night before. A 90-minute ride across calm seas landed us at Inishmore, one of the three Aran Islands. With 3.5 hours to play on the island, I worried how we’d spend our time. It wasn’t a problem. Spend a day on the Aran Islands and you’ll never forget your time in Ireland. It’s a treat on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Getting the Most Out of Inishmore Aran Island in Four Hours
We had choices. We could take a hop on, hop off-style mini bus for 15 Euro each, we could hire a pony cart for 40 Euro each, we could rent bikes for hire for 15 Euro each, or we could hike and walk the island. With three strong personalities among us, and all three wanting to do something different, we settled for a bike ride. What a fantastic decision that ended up being! Bike riding on Inishmore was easy and one of the most fun days we’ve had in Ireland on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Bike Riding Inish More
A relatively flat, paved road invited us through the ribbons of the island. Biking the entire way, ancient stone pens of baby calves, dairy cows, sheep and donkeys graced our views. Occasionally, we’d stop and hunt the tide pools for creatures and sea glass, stop for a sit along ancient cliffs to watch seals, and dig our toes into brilliant white beaches of aqua water. By the time we arrived at “the destination to get to,” we couldn’t believe our time had passed so quickly. Renting bikes on Inish more was a fantastic and fun decision.
The “must see” destination required us to park our bikes at a little shopping area. Steve had to drag me away form the gorgeous Aran Island wool jumpers and sweaters–what do I need a wool sweater for in 72 degree weather?–and I’m glad he did. We hiked the short, but sturdy, trail to the high point of the island and its historic fort. From there, we experienced our second set of tall cliffs and views into the Atlantic that went for dozens of miles. The Wild Atlantic Way awaited us once we got back to Galway.
With time running short, we hopped back on the bikes. The return ride against the wind certainly wasn’t fun, but knowing that some excellent fish and chips with a pint of Guinness awaited us at Joe Watty’s Pub kept us moving. Fast service and excellent chow wrapped up the day with just enough time to return the bikes and jump back on the ferry.
The Second Night on the Wild Atlantic Way: Tullycross, County Galway, Ireland
Back in Glasgow, we grabbed our car and drove the 90 minutes to Tully, our destination for the night. Again, we cashed in some Chase Ultimate Rewards points for a Bed & Breakfast. Sadly, the inn owner informed us, we had been double-booked. In order to compensate us, he had reserved a room at another Bed & Breakfast in the next village over. This error returned us great rewards, as we ended up in The Olde Castle Bed & Breakfast. If you want to have a castle experience on the Wild Atlantic Way, Tullycross is the place to be.
If you’ve been following me for a while, I once recommended a bed and breakfast in Washington state and mentioned something about unicorn tears. The place topped all of my lists. We found its competitor.
Arriving just as the sun sank into the Atlantic on the most western tip of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. The home-turned-inn abutted the land of the Pirate Queen’s Renvlyne Castle. History tells the tale of Grace O’Malley, a renegade daughter of a wild importer, she fiercely stood her ground and her rights to sail the seas. Her story plays out in the castle, and her tales played in my dreams that night. Castles on the Wild Atlantic Way highlighted our driving trip.
The Third Day on the Wild Atlantic Way: Tullycross to Aasleigh Falls to Dublin
Irish Bed & Breakfast stays aren’t complete without eating a full Irish breakfast. Loaded with ham, bacon, eggs, white blood sausage, black blood sausage, beans, and a baked tomato, I’ll save you the pictures of what my daughter and husband ate. I, on the other hand, had to give up my vegan wishes for the morning and indulge in the local delicacies of handmade cheese. The innkeeper offered up a plate of Irish handmade cheeses and fruit, including a smoked gouda, a pesto and cream, a cheddar with chive, a brie, and a cheddar with apricot. None of it was vegan, and it was all delicious. The food on the Wild Atlantic Way completely surprised us with authentic Irish flavors and savors.
Hiking in Ireland’s Fjord on the Wild Atlantic Way
We loaded up the car to head to the hike I had been wanting to do for over a decade. The first time I visited Connemara National Park, plans didn’t allow for a hike. But for this trip, I insisted. We picked the Killary Harbour Coastal Walk listed in Steve Davey’s 2004 book, Unforgettable Places to See Before You Die, but we didn’t make it there. We might have gotten a little lost, a little sidetracked, or a little amazed. I’m not sure which. But hiking along the Wild Atlantic Way was important for us to do, and we found amazing views and experiences.
Connemara National Park’s viewsheds across bogs, bens, and bays might be the most spectacular beauty anywhere. First we pulled into the Killary Harbour. Spying not only beautiful kayaking trails, but also scuba trails, too, we also investigated the fish farms laid out neatly in the harbour. If you’re driving and hiking the Wild Atlantic Way, you must stop in Connemara.
But we couldn’t find the trail head, which we eventually determined was on the south side of the fjord to the east of Leenaun. So we continued on another few kilometers with jaw-dropping views and pink-dotted sheep to the Aasleigh Falls trailhead. It’s a famous spot on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Looking for Eels on the River Erriff on the Wild Atlantic Way
A slight mist spitted at us, so we layered up with our Columbia windbreakers and headed to the Falls. Bog walking along the edge of the River Erriff, flyfishers cast their lines for salmon and trout. Small purple pinhead flowers vibrated brilliantly while the waterfall fell its 5 meters. Walking along the river’s edge requires a bit of skill. Deep, boggy mud invites a sunken foot, so be sure to tread lightly. Hiking on the Wild Atlantic Way can be muddy, but it’s worth it.
Once we climbed above the Falls via the bridges and steps on the north side of the falls, the stepping got easier. It’s possible to hike for many miles up the river, occasionally crossing fences. Because we had taken so much time getting to the trailhead, we weren’t able to hike more than a couple of miles. Next time…I’ll follow this suggestion for a longer hike at the Falls on the Wild Atlantic Way.
David Attenborough famously visited the Falls and gave a history of the Irish river eel at this location. Me, on the other hand, I tried to come up with the history of the name since I didn’t spy any eels. Sadly, I couldn’t uncover anything about the name’s history, and no one I chatted with in the nearby town of Leenaun knew. But we did reveal that the Killary Fjord is the only one in Ireland, and it’s a fjord, just like the famous Scandinavian fjords, as it’s narrow, is fed by fresh water, and was created by a glacier on the Wild Atlantic Way.
3 Days on the Wild Atlantic Way Ireland’s West Coast
Our time, once again, started to run short. We returned to the car, dropped in Leenaun for a slice of Lemon Drizzle from the Purple Door and a demonstration of weaving at the Sheep and Wool Center, and then pointed the GPS back to Dublin. 60 hours on The Wild Atlantic Way from the Cliffs of Moher to Connemara National Park by way of Galway and the Aran Islands has passed way too quickly. Next time, we’ll plan a month.