Story and photography by Nicholas Grundy
Travelling is all about the journey. Sure, it’s nice to focus on one place for a good period of time, but you’re not exactly embarking on a great expedition when you’re camped out in the same spot. To travel inherently means to cover a distance, and nothing beats the classic road trip when your goal is to conduct a sizeable journey. Hitting the tarmac with four wheels—or two—allows you to visit a huge section of a new region while seeing it all along the way. Among such trips, coastal routes have long been favourites. We’ve all heard of the famous tours mirroring the sea in places like America, Italy, and Australia, but now there’s a new player in town. This rookie route has deserved its own waterfront trail for years, and its turn has finally come.
Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way is a newly designated seaside roadway stretching out to a staggering 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles). Commencing up in County Donegal, the Atlantic Way hugs the jagged coastline as it passes through eight other counties before finishing just short of Cork. Halfway along, however, is where the journey truly becomes majestic as it passes through the Connemara region, arguably the most brilliantly shining facet of the Emerald Isle. My wife and I recently set out to drive along this three-hundred-kilometre section to see precisely what all the fuss is about.
Venturing across Joyce Country in north-western County Galway, one is quickly met with fantastic views as the mountains of northern Connemara unfold over the horizon. Our journey began in the tiny village of Leenane at the head of Killary Harbour. The region is, in fact, a glacial fjard (not to be mistaken with fjord), at which mountains, rivers, and the ocean converge, piling atop one another. One of only three glacial depressions in Ireland, Killary is by far the most impressive, with mountains dropping like cliffs into the deep sea. During winter, snow-capped mountains such as Mweelrea emerge from the mist to tower above the ocean. Meanwhile, at the mouth of the inlet, local fishermen depart Rosroe Pier during all seasons to bring back the region’s famed fare.
Only a short distance west of Rosroe, the landscape changes drastically. The area’s first hidden gemstone soon appears: Glassilaun Beach. The beautiful bay represents the start of a series of exquisite white-sand beaches stretching along the Connemara coast. Leaving the secluded turquoise waters, visitors are almost immediately treated to further belts of sand at Renvyle Beach before wheeling southward through Tullycross. Descending around the slopes of Letter Hill (also called Tully Mountain), the craggy Twelve Bens range (also called the Twelve Pins) rises before you, heralding your arrival into the Letterfrack area.
The village of Letterfrack is a perfect spot to take a break from your journey, offering ample options for delicious dinners and overnight accommodations. I managed to catch a glorious sunrise by running halfway up the side of Diamond Hill in nearby Connemara National Park. From on high, hikers—or runners—are gifted with astounding vistas over the mirror-like waters of Ballinakill Harbour as white Connemara ponies munch away at the hillside. Whether you plod or sprint up for the view, it’s the perfect place for stretching the legs before another day behind the wheel.
The next port of call on our whistle-stop tour was Cleggan. From here, you can opt to catch the local ferry out to the island of Inishbofin, another jewel studding the Connemara coast. Further west, drivers hit a peninsula and loop around remote Aughrus Lough before heading south to Omey Island. Connected by a sandbar only at low tide, Omey is completely cut off from the mainland much of the time. During winter storms, the island’s few residents can become separated for days on end. The tiny landmass is definitely worth a quick visit, but please check local tide charts and weather warnings first, and remember to be cognizant of the time you must return or risk missing the last ferry. Of particular note here is the annual horse race held on the sandy isthmus each summer.
The largest town in Connemara, Clifden is the perfect spot to sit in the sun and refuel before continuing on your road trip. Jutting out to the west of the town is Sky Road, which loops around the top of a peninsula to offer breathtaking views over the open sea and the area’s many bays. The eleven-kilometre route is one of the many sign-posted attractions along the Wild Atlantic Way. One cannot miss the trademark zigzag of the tall iron markers. The circuit seems rather aptly named when staring up at the words ‘Sky Road’ silhouetted against the gleaming heavens above.
Jaunting southwest from Clifden brings you past the extensive Derrygimlagh bog, a flat expanse of typical Irish Atlantic peatland. Seemingly innocuous, the region is actually full of history, including being the landing site of Alcock and Brown’s first transatlantic flight and the location of Marconi’s famed intercontinental wireless station. Continuing through the village of Ballyconneely brings you to Bunowen Bay, a quiet cluster of houses and piers perched atop ferocious seas. At the head of the bay, Doon Hill sits above stunning beaches and, nearby, visitors can take in the eerie sight of the ruins of Bunowen Castle.
The remainder of the Wild Atlantic Way generally winds eastward toward the conclusion of Connemara. The next point of note is the region surrounding the village of Roundstone. The closely knit community sits wedged directly between the ocean and the mammoth Errisbeg Mountain. Roundstone is another perfect overnight rest stop, providing plenty of bed-and-breakfasts and offering picturesque sea views. After enjoying a menu brimming with local seafood, we took a short stroll around the town as tricolour buntings fluttered overhead in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day. The towns and villages dotting the coast boast a number of events and festivals each year; we were particularly fortunate enough to pass through during Ireland’s national holiday.
On our final day tracing the twisting seashore of Ireland’s adventurous west, we spun back to the nearby beaches of Dog’s Bay and Gurteen Bay. The two stretches of white sand run parallel to each other, sitting back-to-back to form a tombolo. Avid hikers can ascend the slopes of Errisbeg to gain a glimpse of the unique formation, which almost resembles a palm tree jutting into the ocean. Just above the beach at Dog’s Bay sits the local cemetery, resting peacefully between mountain and sea and offering meditative panoramic views. The region was hit hard by the Irish famine, with many natives departing for America during that time. As such, many in the States can trace their family names back to the multitude of weathered headstones in similar seaside clusters all along the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Even my wife was fascinated to stumble upon proof that her own family originally hailed from precisely this region of Connemara.
With the coast to our right, we rolled on toward Galway City, passing through some final highlights to cap off the trip. Wrapping around Cashel Bay, the mountain ranges of the Maumturks and the Twelve Bens loomed over the choppy waters below. Stone bridges passed below while we travelled through Carna, Lettermore peninsula, and Coral Strand near Carraroe. Soon after, Galway Bay emerged as our eyes scanned southward across the waves. We concluded our voyage atop the hill at Silverstrand, just short of Galway City. Burning red as it dropped from sight, the setting sun announced the end of one of the world’s greatest stretches of coastal driving. Meanwhile, jet trails swept across the deep blue skies above, full of passengers on their own journeys high above the Wild Atlantic Way.