By Amanda Little
Whether you have a day or a month to visit the west coast of Ireland, seeing the breathtaking points of the Wild Atlantic Way is a must. From the famous Cliffs of Moher to the hidden islands and skelligs, the Wild Atlantic Way is a 1,500-mile route composed of history, culture, beauty, and heritage.
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Seek out the watchtower looking out over Ireland's northernmost point, named Banba's Crown after the ancient mythical Irish queen, and look out over the Atlantic with the shores of Scotland visible on a good day. If you're there during low tide, the shipwreck of Twilight might be visible. From fishing, swimming, and hiking paths to photography, rare flora, and unique rock formations, there is plenty to entertain for an adventurer. Those truly seeking excitement should look for Hell's Hole, located nearby.
Stop in at the lighthouse on Fanad Head, which was only added to the port after a tragic shipwreck killed the entire crew of HMS Saldanha, except for a parrot wearing a silver collar with the ship's name on it. Walk miles of golden beach and keep an eye on the horizon where whales, dolphins, and porpoises can be seen. You might even see treasure seekers diving for the 22 gold bars still missing from the SS Laurentic wreck.
Make the trek to the highest accessible cliffs in Europe for spectacular ocean views. The 1,971-foot high cliffs are not a trip for the faint-hearted, but with a road leading up to most of it and a parking lot only a mile or so away from the very top, it's still very accessible. Enjoy views of Donegal Bar and Sligo Mountains in the distance, and don't miss the visitor center where you can learn about the 1,000-year-old Christian pilgrimage that used to lead to Sliabh Liag. Be sure to taste the local food and stop in at a local pub as well!
This small fishing village perfect for the outdoorsman is a wonderful stop along the Wild Atlantic Way. Swimming, windsurfing, sea angling, boat trips to Inishmurray Island, strolls along the beautiful sandy beach with panoramic views of Sliabh Liag, visits to Classiebawn Castle, and surfing competitions can all be found here. Watch top international surfers ride some of Europe's best waves in the winter, warm up in a pub by the fire with a pint, and enjoy the raw beauty of the 100-foot swells crashing into the shore.
Visit St. Patrick's 5th-century church ruins positioned 126 feet above the waves of the Atlantic crashing below. Just a little over three miles from Ballycastle village, the jutting edge of the cliff provides beautiful views of the Atlantic and unique sea stacks. Nearby is Dun Briste sea stack, which shows off different colors of rock in its layers and provides a home for nesting seabirds. Find the ruins of the church among all of the natural beauty. The holy well and stone cross mark the site, which is a popular destination for pilgrims.
Here adventurers will be able to find Achilll, Ireland's largest island made up of golden sand and the perfect getaway for sunbathers and swimmers. Follow the island's blueway snorkel trail, keep your wits about you as you wander through the deserted village at the foot of Slievemore mountain, and search through ruins that date from the 19th century all the way back to medieval times.
One of three glacial fjords, Killary Harbor sits in the heart of Connemara and forms a natural border between Galway and Mayo counties. In the north, Mt. Mweelrea rises over 2,670 feet, to the south is the little community of Rosroe, Mamturk Mountains and the Twelve Bens mountain range, and to the east is Leenane. Rosroe is known for being the home of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the Green Road is nearby, leading along the fjord to Leenane. Known for salming farming, aquaculture, and mussel rafts, the area is a treasure trove of amazing natural beauty and thriving local life.
Look for the large, white, airplane wing-shaped memorial marking the first "safely" completed transatlantic flight. Alcock and Brown crash-landed there in the middle of the bogland in 1919, and today it's marked about a mile away from a cow road. The isolated spot provides stunning natural scenery, dotted by black-faced sheep, and is only a bike ride away from Connemara's largest town, Clifden. A patchwork pattern of tiny lakes and peat stretch out over the countryside with quiet roads winding through it all, offering access to the ruins of the transatlantic radio station and memorial.
Cliffs of Moher
Let the briny air whip through your hair and steal your breath away as you stand on top of the 700-foot high Cliffs of Moher. Stretching for nearly 30 feet along the Atlantic coast of Clare, look for O'Brien's Tower, a 19th-century viewing tower, the Hag's Head, a natural rock formation that looks like a woman, and the An Branan Mor sea stack. On a clear day, you can also see the Aran Islands. The village of Doolin is a little over three miles away, where visitors can begin the Coastal Walk to the cliffs.
Have your camera ready to capture the panoramic views of charming seaside villages, a stoic lighthouse and the frothing waves of the Atlantic. The western tip of County Clare boasts a lighthouse in operation since 1670, fields of colorful wildflowers, and splendid views that reach all the way to County Kerry and the Cliffs of Moher. Enjoy a spin around Loop Head, taking in sights of seabirds among the wildflowers, bottlenose dolphins playing in the waves, and a WWII relic marking neutral airspace.
Visit the mystical and abandoned Blasket Islands. The last resident left in 1953, and now their story can be found in the Blasket Center. Six main islands and many other small islands make up the archipelago. Visitors can still see the main six, starting with The Great Blasket (An Blascaod Mor) which is home to the abandoned village where the first written works from oral Irish culture were published. Then there's Beiginis, the Little Island, where cattle was herded and fattened before being sent off for milk or food. Westerly, or Tiaracht is next and best known for its lighthouse dating back to 1870 and its puffin colony! North Island (Inis Tuaisceart) is called the sleeping giant because of its shape, and Inishnabro was the last island to be inhabited, differentiated by its spectacular rock formations. The last is Inishvickillane, or Mac Uibhleain's Island, where red deer, puffins, and an early settlement can be seen.
The Skellig Islands jut from Atlantic waters just off the coast of Ireland, and remain a protected UNESCO Heritage site. Skellig Michael is sought after by archaeologists for its well-preserved monastic ruins, which are part of a 13,000-year-old pilgrimage, while Small Skellig is home to about 27,000 pairs of gannets, making it the second largest colony of the seabirds and very popular among ornithologists. Reaching Skellig Michael isn't an easy task, involving a choppy boat ride and a climb up 600 steps that are over 1,000 years old. Beehive-like huts, a cemetery, stone crosses, holy wells, and the Church of St. Michael all remain from the 13th century.
Set off the coast of Cork, Dursey Island is inhabited by only three families, sheep, cattle, and a striking blue and white cable car. Because the tides between the island and mainland are too treacherous to navigate, the cable car is the only way on or off the island, hovering a daunting 820 feet in the air. The island is a 15-minute trip from all pubs, restaurants, and shops, making it a very peaceful little place away from the bustle of modern day life. Dolphins, whales, a variety of rare bird species from Siberia and America, and more can be seen on the island, as well as a 200-year-old Signal Tower, and ruins of the ancient Church of Kilmichael, thought to have been founded by the monks from Skellig Michael.
Mizen Head would have been the last sight as many Irish left their homes during the great famine. This beautiful place is home to a signal station that has saved countless seafaring souls, and boasts the Keeper's House. Here, you can find a visitor center with a cafe and gift shop, as well as a navigation aids simulator, geology displays of the region, and tells the story of Marconi in Crookhaven. Follow the 99-step-path to the arched bridge that looks down over the gorge to the signal station, which is open to the public. Have your camera ready along the walk, as it's very likely you'll see wildlife among the natural scenery like kittiwakes, seals, gannets and choughs, minke whales, fin whales, and humpback whales.
Old Head of Kinsale
Jutting almost two miles into the Atlantic, this little slice of heaven on the southwest coast in County Cork boasts a world-renowned 18-hole golf course with stunning ocean and cliff top views, a 17th century lighthouse where the RMS Lustiania sank after being hit by a German torpedo, and a gourmet food scene worthy of the trip on its own. This port town however is best seen from the sea. Embark on The Spirit of Kinsale as it takes passengers across the harbor where Charles Fort, the Old Head of Kinsale, and James Fort can be properly admired.