From the romantic Blue Stack Mountains to the spectacular Cliffs of Moher, and from the lively craic of Galway to the beautiful, empty beaches of Sligo, exploring Ireland’s west coast makes for a wonderful fly-drive break.
However, the Wild Atlantic Way is one of the longest coastal road trips in the world: the entire route spans more than 1,500 miles.
That’s why we’ve broken it down into easy-to-enjoy sections. So whether you have a weekend, a week or a full fortnight to spend on the road, a glorious adventure lies ahead.
1. Derry to Donegal
Towering: The Slieve League cliffs in County Donegal, where you can look down on the crashing Atlantic waves from almost 2,000 feet up. This north-western tip is the remotest part of Ireland
A map showing the entire route of the Wild Atlantic Way and how it can be broken down into four sections
Distance: 230 miles – set aside seven hours.
Wow factor: This north-western tip is the remotest part of Ireland with towering cliffs, hidden bays and secluded beaches. From the clifftop at Slieve League, look down on crashing Atlantic waves from almost 2,000ft.
Pitstop: Take the coast road from Malin Head to see the sand dunes – some of the biggest in Europe – around Five Fingers Strand. Then find the white-washed St Mary’s chapel among the dunes.
Overnight: Try a full Irish breakfast at the smart Castle Murray Hotel (castlemurray.com), watching waves batter the ruins of McSwyne’s Castle. Double B&B from £123. McGrory’s of Culdaff (mcgrorys.ie) – Ulster Gastropub of the Year – has two live Irish music bars, and the food’s not bad either.
Enjoy its open fires, exposed stone walls and luxurious Irish bed linen. It’s a short walk to the local Blue Flag beach and a ten-minute drive to Ireland’s most northerly point at Malin Head. A double B&B is from £73. Or stay in one of seven elegant bedrooms above the acclaimed The Mill restaurant (themillrestaurant.com) in Dunfanaghy, a cosy former artist’s house with open fires. Double B&B costs from £52.
Cosy eats: Kitty Kelly’s is an old farmhouse near Slieve League converted into a seafood restaurant. Locals recommend the scallops.
Fly: Direct to Carrickfinn from Glasgow with Loganair, or to Derry from five other UK airports.
2. Ballyshannon to Castlebar
Natural drama: Benbulben mountain in Co Sligo, a flat-topped rock formation shaped during the Ice Age. It is one of the sights on the section between Ballyshannon and Castlebar
Distance: 350 miles – set aside ten hours.
Wow factor: The Irish call the wave-crashed shores of Sligo and Mayo ‘The Surf Coast’. There are gentle beaches and fascinating towns too. Must-sees include Mullaghmore Head, where you can watch waves up to 50ft high crashing on to the sand. Glance inland and you’ll see the distinctive peak of Benbulben mountain. The less energetic can relax along the salmon-teeming River Moy and stroll round Ballina’s historic friary, abbey and cathedral.
Pitstop: Have yourself a ‘meejum’ – a measure halfway between a half and a pint – of Guinness in Johnny’s, Johnny McHale’s traditional pub in Mayo’s county town, Castlebar.
Overnight: Look out over the babbling River Moy from the stylish icehouse hotel (icehousehotel.ie) on Ballina’s quayside. Its spa has been voted Ireland’s best. Double B&B is from £120. Or look out into Donegal Bay from a bay window at Fitzgerald’s Hotel, Bundoran (fitzgeraldshotel.com). It’s a quirky place with big, squashy sofas run by a local family for more than 50 years. Double B&B from £82.
Rugged: Mullaghmore Head, on the Wild Atlantic Way in County Sligo, where you can watch waves up to 50ft high crashing on to the sand
Ostan Oilean Acla – or Achill Island Hotel – (achillislandhotel.com) is right on the shore of the Achill Island peninsula along Clew Bay. Alice’s Harbour Bar there serves Guinness, of course, plus local seafood. There’s live Irish music most nights and the hotel has bikes for hire. You’ll spot fresh flowers from the garden standing in an old teapot on the mantelpiece and a pile of interesting books on the lounge table. Double B&B is from £91.
Cosy eats: Tuck into the delicious fish soup or local mussels in front of an open fire amid model ships and nautical nicknacks – or rowdy Irish music sessions at the weekend – on offer at Austies Pub and Kitchen at Rosses Point on the Wild Atlantic Way (austies.ie).
Fly: Via frequent flights to Knock from all over the UK.
3. Westport to Galway City
Serene: Inagh, one of the many loughs in Connemara, which means ‘sea inlets’. The route between Westport and Galway City follows a wiggly coast of bays, loughs and beaches
Drive: From Westport to Galway on the Bay Coast.
Distance: 130 miles – a leisurely four-hour drive.
Wow factor: Connemara means ‘sea inlets’ and the route follows a wiggly coast of bays, loughs and beaches, including Clew Bay, which has 365 islands. Highlights include Eire’s biggest lake, serene Lough Corrib; Grace O’Malley’s castle on Clare Island; and the chance to ride a horse along the water’s edge with thepointponytrekkingcentre.com.
Pitstop: Hike the ancient pilgrim route up Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s ‘holy mountain’, for huge views of islands, headlands and beaches (croagh-patrick.com).
Historic: Grace O’Malley’s castle on Clare Island. It is located on the drive between Westport to Galway City, which takes a leisurely four hours
Overnight: Wake to Atlantic views at Cashel House country house hotel (cashelhouse.ie) with a beach in the front garden. It claims to be 22 miles from the nearest traffic light. Double B&B from £128.
Cosy eats: Explore Galway’s cobbled streets to find John Keogh’s The Lock Keeper gastropub (johnkeoghs.ie). Amid peat fires, this establishment serves up whiskey-cured salmon and oysters in Guinness.
Fly: Via Knock, Co Mayo from six UK airports daily.
4. Galway to Cork
Rugged beauty: The stunning coastline of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. There are plenty of islands to spot, such as the Skelligs and Blaskets
Impressive: The dramatic Mizen Bridge at Mizen Head in County Cork
Distance: 750 miles – set aside 20 hours.
Wow factor: The inspiring seascapes of the south west include the famous Ring of Kerry. You’re in for a treat with the spectacular Cliffs of Moher and Loop Head, where you can watch dolphins at the mouth of the Shannon. There are plenty of islands to spot, such as the Skelligs and Blaskets, headlands such as Mizen Head, with its dramatic bridge, and the pretty harbours at Bantry Bay and Dingle Bay.
Pitstop: As one of the capitals of Irish music, the town of Doolin is a must. Recover from rousing singalongs in bars by visiting Doolin Cave, home to one of the world’s largest free-hanging stalactites.
Overnight: Double rooms at the Maritime Hotel, Bantry (themaritime.ie) are from just £56 a night (although breakfast is extra), and the large indoor pool is a lot warmer than braving the Atlantic waves of Bantry Bay. The historic Falls Hotel (fallshotel.ie) combines legends of clans and poets, but today it offers a luxurious break from the road, with its own spa and Thai restaurant. Double B&B is from £69.
‘The smallest hotel in Tralee’ is the unusual boast of the Imperial (imperialhoteltralee.com). Behind its pretty Georgian facade is a smart stop-over that stands on the former site of the Great Castle of Tralee and is a popular meeting place for locals. Double B&B is from £86.
The Sea Lodge (sealodgewaterville.ie) at Waterville offers cool boutique style – and the chance to enjoy Irish coffee watching the sunset over Ballinskelligs Bay from your balcony. Double B&B from £104.
Cosy eats: Global Village restaurant (globalvillagedingle.com) in the seaside town of Dingle grows veg in its own garden and serves fresh daily catches from the town’s fishermen.
Fly: Via a flight to Cork from 12 different UK airports – or try Aer Lingus from Luton or Stansted to Kerry.