There’s something about Ireland that sets the pulse racing. Is it the madly rugged landscape? The ethereal music? Leprechauns and limericks? The whole Celtic thing? Maybe it’s just that pint of Guinness or dram of triple-distilled whiskey? Perhaps, all of the above?
Without a doubt, there’s an otherworldly quality to this island nation. But while Dublin and the east coast are well-trodden grounds for the traveller, the west is, well, wild. A coastal route laid along the Atlantic—but only recently developed for tourism—offers rich pickings and the adventure of a lifetime. It’s called the Wild Atlantic Way, and with reason. The entire trail is a whopping 2,500-kilometre long. But since I still have a job, I couldn’t possibly do the full thing. I picked the bit that runs through County Mayo, a fairly representative sample. But even then I had a sense that I had but felt the tip of the iceberg.
The first night we stayed at the postcard-pretty town of Westport, oncevoted the best place to live in Ireland. After that the towns got smaller and smaller. In the end, they disappeared entirely. Anyone keen on experiencing Irish traditional music will definitely want to drop in at Matt Molloy’s here. The owner Matt is a member of The Chieftains band. They’re world famous. In Westport, we had dinner in a restaurant featured in the Michelin guide to Irish restaurants. Cian’s on Bridge Street, as it is called, is named after its owner, local chef Cian Hayes.
While his passion for food was ignited at the tender age of 16, it was only in 2016 that he realised his dream of opening his own place. The restaurant relies on the use of fresh, local, seasonal produce to create dishes bursting with flavour and textures. It was the first of many great meals, too many, indeed, to recount here. But the Irish food renaissance is worth a look and tuck for sure.
Next day, we hit the road and promptly lost our way. Literally. We were at the Lost Valley in Uggool, a guided cultural adventure run by the Bourke family, which has had ties with this land for centuries.
You cannot come to Ireland and avoid potatoes, and you simply cannot ignore the potato famine and its mindnumbingly sad tale. The way the Bourkes tell it—over a three-hour walk against a spectacular backdrop—can only be described as riveting. The valley has been designated as an ‘Area of Special Scenic Importance’ by no less than the EU. The walk goes, obviously, over a valley and some native woodland, all along the coast, with panoramic views of Mweelrea Mountain and far-flung islands. The high point was definitely a peek over Ireland’s only fjord at Killary Harbour. There was a ruined famine village and potato ridges undisturbed for nearly two centuries. The Lost Valley is an active working farm, so we wound up with a working sheep dog demonstration. It was rather fun.
The thing about famine tourism is, it does give you an appetite. Lunch was a sumptuous affair at charming Glenkeen Farm, where we were treated to more sheep herding. There was also a demonstration of the Irish practice of turf cutting. What some consider a tradition is feeling the heat of climate change now, but about that in a sec.
A single-family owned sheep farm, Glenkeen (‘gentle glen’) is unique in Ireland for its large size (commonage footprint extending over 5,500 acres, larger than some). Some of it is turf. And, so, turf cutting. But first some background. Ireland enjoys a special topography, and one of its most unique features is the bog. Almost a third of the land is covered in it (you know, where they find those spectacularly preserved bog bodies). Of course, there are many kinds but essentially it’s trees and vegetation that got buried in wet, marshy soil and turned into peat over a very long time. Once the ‘turf’ is cut and dried in the sun, it serves as a cheap fuel. The Irish have been cutting bogs what a great way to reuse a railway line. Someone in India should take note.
Lunch was at Ginger & Wild, the well-appointed tea room of the Ballycroy National Park’s visitor centre. There was some funky contemporary artwork on display and sale too. Afterwards, to work off that sinful repast, we took a walk along the Claggan Mountain boardwalk and coastal trail. Ballycroy is one of Ireland’s six national parks, and consists primarily of Atlantic blanket bog surrounded by mountainous terrains, a truly unspoilt wilderness. We inspected the flora of this unique seaside ecosystem, including some carnivorous plants. It was wild, beautiful. But the best was yet to come.
The next day started with fresh air and a bracing walk up to Erris Head, a five-kilometre looped trudge led by someone brimming with trivia and Irish humour of the slightly risqué variety. Of course, it had to rain. My left side got wet on the way up. I got dry. On the way back I got wet on the other side. That’s Ireland for you.
We looked in on Céide Fields, an extensive Stone Age monument dating back over 5,000 years, the oldest of its kind in Europe. Nothing much to see—it’s more an exercise in imagination—but the view of the coastline from here is stunning. It will stay with me for a long time.
We saved the best—Downpatrick Head—for last. This windswept outcrop is just a few kilometres north of the village of Ballycastle. St Patrick, it is believed, founded a church here, the ruins of which can still be seen today. A lone sea-stack stands close to the cliffs. It’s called Dún Briste (‘broken fort’). As is the case with every rock in Ireland, this one too is wrapped in mystery and lore. Local legend has it that when a pagan chieftain refused to convert to Christianity, St Patrick struck the ground with his crozier, splitting a chunk of the headland off into the ocean, with the chieftain on top! Because of its multicoloured rock strata it looks stunning. This is nature in all its primal ruggedness. During World War II, Downpatrick Head was a lookout post. Nearby is a spectacular blowhole called Poll Na Seantainne.
On my last evening, at the Ice House Hotel in Ballina, which sits pat on the estuary of the river Moy, I, never having seen one, mistook an otter for the Loch Ness monster (mini version). ‘Nessie’ bobbed up and down, a slick, black ball, then went back to her wet and happy life. I returned to my sorry non-Irish existence.
WHERE TO STAY
Broadhaven Bay Hotel, Belmullet: This family-run hotel is a 13-minute walk from the town of Belmullet. Rooms are simple and modern while the on-site leisure centre has an indoor heated pool. From €59 for doubles; broadhavenbay.com
Ice House Hotel, Ballina: One of the most spectacular hotels in these parts, it’s Boutique with a capital B. The luxurious bedrooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with stunning views of the River Moy Estuary. The Chill Spa is the stuff of legend. From €105 for doubles; icehousehotel.ie
Wyatt Hotel, Westport: This boutique hotel is a County Mayo gem, centrally located in the postcard-pretty town of Westport. There are 69 tastefully-decorated rooms, an upmarket Brasserie and a lively traditional Irish Bar. From €55 for doubles; wyatthotel.com
Mulranny Park Hotel: From its unique perch, the hotel offers great views of Clew Bay and Croagh Patrick Mountain beyond. It’s on the most scenic section of the Great Western Greenway and a perfect base for a cycling and walking holiday. From €92 for doubles, including breakfast and dinner; mulrannyparkhotel.ie
Mullingar Park Hotel: This place in the Midlands in County Westmeath is a great spot to stop for a quick meal on your way west. Conveniently near the motorway, it’s contemporary and elegant, and the Horseshoe Bar has an excellent selection of gins, whiskies and light bites. From €99 for single rooms; mullingarparkhotel.com
This article was originally published in the February 2020 issue of the magazine.