The Wild Atlantic Way conjures up images of crashing surf over jagged rocks, rugged mountains and landscapes with changing hues. But, it’s so much more than that. It’s also about the culture of local music and literary festivals, museums and historical sites. And don’t forget those beautiful white sandy beaches in hidden away coves and the hospitality that comes with a good old fashioned Irish pub. You’ll find all these things anywhere along the Way, but none more so than in the western and north western counties of Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal.
Mayo is often described as being ‘hauntingly beautiful’. Perhaps it’s because you often have the windswept landscape all to yourself. Or maybe it’s that stories of the famine seem to resonate more loudly here. Either way, much like the rest of the west coast, the scenery is breath-taking and dotted with spectacular vistas.
As you travel from Letterfrack in Connemara on your way into Mayo you’ll pass along the southern shore of Ireland’s only true fjord, Killary Harbour. The fjord stretches 16km from the Atlantic to Aasleagh falls where Galway and Mayo meet. Along the way, stop off and take a boat cruise where the spectacular nature of the fjord can be truly appreciated.
After Aasleagh falls your destination is Mayo’s jewel in the crown, Clew Bay and the Georgian town of Westport. Most would take the N59 straight up to Westport. Instead, take the scenic route and while there’s no coast road to follow for quite some distance, the R335 will take you through the absolutely stunning DooLough pass. This valley is home to a famine memorial that is definitely worth the visit.
A worthwhile detour is to divert from the Louisburgh road and head to Silver Strand and the Lost Valley. The Lost Valley is a sheep farm run by 6 generations of the Bourke family. It also serves as a famine memorial where it’s possible to visit deserted communities not inhabited since the famine. The beach at Silver Strand adjacent to the farm is unspoilt, but, beware of bathing as the waters have been described as treacherous. Overlooking the farm and the beach is the magnificent Mweelrea mountain. It’s Connacht’s tallest peak at 814 metres.
Around Clew Bay
The road gets closer to the coast when you get to Clew Bay where there are rumoured to be 365 islands. One for every day of the year. There really aren’t that many, but why let facts get in the way of a traditional story. Why not stop along the way at the foot of Croagh Patrick. There’s no need to climb right up to the top, but a short walk up it’s base will give you spectacular views of the bay.
The most welcome respite on your road trip is the beautiful Georgian town of Westport just a short distance from Croagh Patrick. The pubs and cafes provide excellent food and drink and there’s plenty of accommodation to suit all pockets.
Westport is strategically located so that it’s easy to base oneself there while exploring the south and northern coastlines of Mayo over a few days.
A short drive along the north shore of Clew Bay lies the delightful town of Newport. The town is a renowned angling centre and stands at the entrance to the Bangor Trail, which is now part of the Great Western Greenway, a 43.5km cycling and walking route from Westport to Achill Island.
Achill Island and North Mayo
Achill Island epitomises the Wild Atlantic Way with its rugged landscape, steep cliffs, rolling mountains, sheltered beaches and deserted villages. There are loads of adventure activities like surfing, horse riding and hiking as the well as the famous hospitality of its pubs and restaurants. It’s no wonder that there are plenty of families who make Achill their annual holiday destination. To the North West of Achill sits the 11,000 hectares of the unspoilt and uninhabited Ballycroy National Park. It’s a massive area of bog and peat dominated by the Nephin Beg mountains and is also part of Mayo’s Dark Sky park, where on a clear night you can see over 4,500 stars in the sky.
A short distance from the park is Mayo’s Gaeltacht of the Mullet Peninsula and the Barony of Erris. Belmullet is an ideal town from which to explore the peninsula's cliffs and wild landscape. There is a plethora of water and adventure sports available.
As you drive away from the Belmullet along Mayo’s north coast, you can see the coast and beaches of Donegal miles in the distance. Stop in the picturesque seaside village of Killala famous for it’s role in the 1798 rebellion. Killala is packed full of tourist amenities and its skyline is dominated by a 12th Century Round Tower.
Ballina is Mayo’s largest town and is more or less the last stop before you enter County Sligo. Sitting on the River Moy, Ballina is considered an excellent Salmon fishery and its famous Ridge Pool in the heart of the town is a ‘salmon angers paradise’. In July, the population swells as the town hosts the annual Ballina Salmon festival with a week-long feast of free entertainment.
Next time, we’ll look at County Sligo.
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