virtuoso global September 2020 Road Trip: Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

Road Trip: Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, an essential stop on a Wild Atlantic Way road trip. 
Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, an essential stop on a Wild Atlantic Way road trip. 
Photo by Getty Images
Gorgeous castles, untamed landscapes, and the freshest, tide-to-table seafood you can eat.

We’re calling it: Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way is one of Europe’s most dramatic and jaw-droppingly beautiful coastal roads. Spanning almost 1,600 miles of the island’s stunning west coast, from Ireland’s southernmost point at Mizen Head to its northern tip at Malin Head, the highway cuts through sweeping verdant landscapes and provides way more than one vacation’s worth of curvy, coast-hugging, OMG views. For those looking ahead to exploring new destinations in 2021 with social distancing still top of mind, a self-guided drive to ancient castles and lighthouses, natural wonders, and family-owned shops (save room in your suitcase for some Irish crafts – the perfect way to remember your trip) feels like an ideal escape.

The Wild Atlantic Way is divided into six sections – from south to north, the Haven Coast, the Southern Peninsulas, the Cliff Coast, the Bay Coast, the Surf Coast, and the Northern Headlands. While the ambitious could drive the whole route in one trip, we recommend slowing down and savoring each area. (Plus, more reason to return to the Emerald Isle again, right?) Here, are our must-stop recommendations for exploring the Cliff Coast in all of its natural glory. 

County Limerick

Start in County Limerick, about 16 miles southeast of Shannon Airport, and meander north along the coast, stopping for a night or two to experience the history and prestige of the 104-room Adare Manor. The nineteenth-century castle estate offers plenty of stay-put diversions: whiskey tastings (the cellar holds more than 160 rare bottles), falconry exhibits, afternoon tea – including the estate’s own signature blend – in the Gallery, a La Mer Spa, and a golf course. Don’t miss dinner in the Michelin-starred Oak Room for haute renditions of traditional Irish fare.

At Adare Manor, professional falconers can introduce guests to the estate’s birds of prey, which include falcons, golden eagles, and several owl species. 
At Adare Manor, professional falconers can introduce guests to the estate’s birds of prey, which include falcons, golden eagles, and several owl species. 
Photo by Adare Manor

Foynes

As you cruise around the wide mouth of the River Shannon and the Shannon Estuary, take some time to explore the village of Foynes. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the town’s airport were major landing and refueling sites for commercial planes making journeys over the Atlantic Ocean. Aviation buffs should check out the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum. For lunch, join locals at the pub: Taste the fresh Atlantic catch of the day at The Old Stand and indulge in an Irish coffee – Foynes town claims the coffee-and-Irish-whiskey drink was invented here.

Limerick

The city of Limerick, founded in the ninth century by Vikings, still maintains its atmospheric medieval core intact. At the Milk Market, a 170-year-old shopping and trading square, you’ll find butchers, cheesemongers, bakers, and artisans selling soaps, preserves, pies, jewelry, and vintage clothing. Pop-up restaurants keep the inventory interesting and are great places to pick up good road-trip snacks.

Limerick’s limestone Sarsfield Swivel Bridge, which spans the Shannon River. 
Limerick’s limestone Sarsfield Swivel Bridge, which spans the Shannon River. 
Photo by Getty Images 

Dromoland Castle

Follow the coast north to bed down for a few nights in the 97-room Dromoland Castle, a fortress originally owned by local royal families that today operates as a five-star hotel. Bono, Nelson Mandela, and former Spanish king Juan Carlos I have all slept beneath its turrets, and in a bid for local sustainability, the 450-acre estate maintains woodland trails, a tree-planting program, an on-site apiary, and even a fleet of electric buggies for zipping around the golf course.

Kildysart

A short drive from Dromoland brings you to Kildysart in County Clare, a village on the banks of the Shannon Estuary. (The name “Kildysart” comes from the Irish cill an dísirt, which means “church of the wilderness.”) From there, ditch the car for a couple of hours and take a short ferry ride to the uninhabited Scattery Island, where you can explore old churches, a medieval tower, a holy well, and a still-functioning lighthouse (now using electricity).

Loop Head Peninsula

Located on the very western tip of County Clare, the finger-shaped Loop Head Peninsula offers stunning cliffside views and seaside air. The Loop Head Peninsula’s cliffs tower more than 260 feet over the Atlantic. Visitors can hike along coastal trails and visit the iconic lighthouse, built in 1802, of Kilcredaun village, and the natural Bridges of Ross near the town of Kilbaha. In Carrigaholt, stop by The Long Dock for lunch (reservations are required). Sample homemade brown soda bread and seafood dishes such as chowder, crab tarts, and whitefish pie.

Spanish Point

An hour up the coast, you’ll find Spanish Point, a beach named for the Spanish warships that sank here in 1588. Blown in from the blustery shore, travelers to the nearby Lahinch village will find warm comfort – summer temperatures hover around the mid 60s Fahrenheit – the resort town has several shops selling clothing made with premium Irish wool. (We recommend Kenny Woollen Mills shop for the most comfortable, hand-made Irish wool sweaters you’ll ever wear.) Fifteen miles west is The Burren, a national park with low-rolling, limestone-crowned hills and accessible stalactite-spiked caves.

The Wild Atlantic Way in County Clare.
The Wild Atlantic Way in County Clare.
Photo by Getty Images 

Cliffs of Moher

No matter what time of day you arrive, the Cliffs of Moher appear like fairy-tale phantoms. Soaring as high as 700 feet above the swells of the Atlantic Ocean, the five-mile stretch offers spectacular views of the Aran Islands and Galway Bay. “This is a must-see along the Wild Atlantic Way,” Virtuoso advisor Linda Dinsmore says. “Make sure to allow time for a stop at the visitors center.”

After a week on the road, spend an entire day at these unforgettable natural monuments before heading back to Shannon. (We recommend bringing some soda bread and Guinness to cheers a craic-ing Irish road trip.) Or, if you’re not ready to leave Ireland, the grand 83-room Ashford Castle, a two-hour drive north, welcomes travelers with extravagant comforts. This former home of the Guinness family (it’s more than 800 years old) can keep guests occupied for days with activities such as day trips into the homes of local artisans – think blacksmiths, stone carvers, and textile designers. There’s also horseback riding, fishing and kayaking, falconry sessions, and much more.

A common sight on the Ashford Castle grounds: Resident Irish wolfhounds Cronan (left) and Garvan.
A common sight on the Ashford Castle grounds: Resident Irish wolfhounds Cronan (left) and Garvan.
Photo by Ashford Castle

Planning Your Future Trip

When it’s time to travel to Ireland again, let local experts handle the details.

Virtuoso travel advisors work with trusted on-site tour operators in Ireland to tap into insider knowledge, access private sightseeing, and plan custom trips.

  • Your Virtuoso travel advisor can arrange for a local guide to meet you at Shannon Airport, where the road trip begins.

  • Dream Escape - Ireland can organize guided, chauffeur-driven tours in Galway to visit its breathtaking landscapes and world-class golf courses, and sample its thriving dining scene.

  • Experience Ireland with friendly locals in the comfort of cozy, authentic pubs on an island-wide pub crawl, or take a whiskey-flavored tour of the country when you travel with Adams & Butler Ireland. Adams & Butler also specializes in private rental properties for those looking to enjoy the seclusion and luxury of staying in their own historic estate.

  • In addition to offering sumptuous Dublin food tours and immersive deep dives in various Irish regions, Moloney & Kelly - Ireland can also grant you access to private attractions and stately homes around the country.

  • NoteWorthy - Ireland provides access to behind-the-scenes tours of the Guinness brewery, arranges exclusive lessons with the Riverdance performers, and can take you to Ireland’s lesser-known Game of Thrones filming locations.