Time: 5 hours | Distance: 178 miles
There are around 1,500 miles of Atlantic Way. It’s Ireland’s best road trip, hugging the eastern coastline, undulating and darting between dramatic cliffs and fierce waves. But it’s also long, so to really appreciate what’s on offer, let’s focus on the Cliff Coast, following the ocean cliffs as they jut out between Galway and Limerick.
Start in bohemia – Galway City is a quirky, culturally-charged outpost on the wild Atlantic coast. Buskers and artists line the streets, where al fresco drinking and dining adds to the social buzz of the city. Pubs are brightly painted, calling cards for community revelry, where a warm welcome and live music are a given. Thick medieval walls interrupt buildings on the high street and foodie treats from the sea and river fill restaurants and chippies. Tear yourself away – the coastal road is calling.
Leaving Galway on the N67, small farmsteads and clusters of village life spill out across stone-ringed fields. As you approach the coast, the road becomes wilder, narrowing and twisting through the region. Dunguaire Castle sits by the water’s edge, rising stoically and painting a ruinous, romantic blot on the landscape. Aside from being an iconic photo stop, this 16th-century tower (built on a much older fortification) was once a meeting point for Ireland’s literary giants – WB Yeats, Bernard Shaw and JM Synge. Still steeped in folklore and mythicism, it’s a rather magical place. The local village caters well to travellers too, with cafes, pubs and a seasonal Friday farmers market perfect for stocking up for the drive ahead.
Approach the village of Ballyvaughan, after snaking around the headlands on the N67. It’s a traditional, charming and remote Irish village, a great basecamp for exploring The Burren that lies to the south. The Burren is a remarkable oddity, a rocky landscape at times lunar and otherworldly. It’s also vast; trails lead from the village to some of the highlights, offering bracing walks that promise to beguile. Head south on the R480, a snaking road that maneuvers around the rocky outcrops and craggy stone fields of the Burren. You’ll pass ancient stone forts and circles, before reaching Poulnabrone Dolmen. This Neolithic grave marker is a fascinating sight, mysterious and impressive in scale. Follow the road back and make for Aillwee Cave, where guided tours dig beneath the ground and explore an ancient network of tunnels.
Head back to the village and follow the coastal road, the R477, where the steep, mountainous slope rises on one side of the road and the sheer drop to the ocean roars to the other. This road offers breathtaking views; but be sure to concentrate, as one wrong move could see you crashing into the sea. Doolin lies ahead; your next stop.
The affable village of Doolin is known as the home of Irish trad music; a trio of pubs sing with the sound of Irish folk. Stay for the night, because nothing beats propping up the bar with a stout and throwing yourself into this uniquely Irish atmosphere. Around the village, clifftop trails wind along the coast. In the distance, the Aran Islands sit on the horizon. A boat leaves Doolin for these remote crags and a visit promises beguiling walks and views, pocked with thousands of years of history. Ancient Christian and Neolithic sites await, with homely fishing villages offering respite from the wild outdoors.
Back on the mainland, the Cliffs of Moher lie to the south of Doolin. They’re the most popular outdoor site in Ireland and for good reason. The drama of the landscape makes any hike along the trails truly breathtaking.
Following the R478 you’ll reach the pretty beach town of Lahinch. It’s a surfer’s paradise. The waves here are huge, brutal, and irresistible – though maybe not ideal for first-timers. After your pit-stop, rejoin the N67 and head for Kilkee.
Once the holiday destination of choice for Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charlotte Brontë, Richard Harris, Russell Crowe and Che Guevara no less, Kilkee is a beautiful seaside town and the gateway to the Loops Head peninsula. Packed with trad pubs and seafood spots, the sweeping bay promises excellent views and long beach days. From here, head into the peninsula, where country lanes criss-cross the main road that reaches the tip. At the road’s end the views are incredible. Whale spotting isn’t unheard of and all manner of wildlife dart across the scene. Where the Shannon meets the sea, bottlenose dolphins thrive, accompanied by seals and schools of fish. Tours regularly head out to sea from Carrigaholt.
Make for Limerick City. It marks the end of the Cliff Coast, but it certainly doesn’t mean the end of the Atlantic Way; that stretches much further south. The city itself is awash with Georgian architecture, hosting fine pubs and restaurants and a burgeoning foodie scene. Galleries and museums are numerous, with antique shops a-plenty and a grand old castle completing the picture. A fitting end to a wild adventure along Ireland’s western shores.