The Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) route, running from Kinsale to Derry, was launched in 2014 by the Irish Tourist authorities. Its popularity has soared, bringing valuable income to the west coast. But what if we extended that to encircle the whole coast of Ireland?
I cycled the WAW in 2018 as part of an expedition from Land’s End to John o’Groats and in 2019 I returned with my wife in our campervan. The coastal route is spectacular and I would argue the best driving coastal route in the world. In many respects, it remains unspoilt and undeveloped retaining beauty and charm unmatched by more popular coast areas, unfortunately increasingly blighted by second homes.
Assuming you are travelling from the UK, ferries run from Fishguard, Liverpool, Holyhead and Cairnryan, but also from Roscoff and Cherbourg in France to a number of Irish ports using a number of different ferry companies. The variety and options are worth further research, depending on your home starting location. I have been pleased with the services from Holyhead to Dublin and Fishguard to Rosslare. Expect to pay £300-£400 for a small campervan with 2-adults travelling.
The campsites were a delight, with many pitches having superb coastal views. Unfortunately many open at Easter, which if it falls late in April, means some sites will be closed until then. For the first few weeks, we were often the only campervan on site, but as Easter arrived, the sites became fully booked. On arrival in Ireland, search out the tourism office for a copy of the Blue and Green guides and plan from there, perhaps booking sites if the holiday season is active. Wild camping is definitely possible if you are discreet.
On a midday arrival in Dublin, we made our way south to Wexford for the first night before heading west to Cork. Using the excellent Michelin map of Ireland, we opted to take any ‘green’ scenic route and explore areas I had not already covered by bicycle. Hook Head lighthouse (the oldest in Europe) made for a good lunch stop until we reach Timoleague after Cork for a very pleasant campsite. We are now on the WAW, following the wiggly signs into long finger peninsulas, first to Mizen Head (Ireland’s Land’s End) and then, Sheep’s Head, each with extensive views of the Atlantic and an unbroken ocean swell, breaking on the cliffs.
There is friendly banter as to which peninsula is the best, but my conclusion is 1) Dingle 2) Beara and 3) Kerry (Iveragh), but it depends on the weather. Views out to the Blasket Islands and the Skelligs are memorable, perhaps deserving a boat trip if the seas are calm, or just enjoy them from the comfort of your van, with a cup of tea. Due to the number of stops to explore beaches, we were travelling at the same pace as I had cycled, using many of the same campsites.
We stayed for 2-days in Tralee and a comfortable campsite as a base to explore Dingle, Slea Head and venture over Conor Pass before crossing the River Shannon at Tarbert to enter County Clare. Dolphins chased the ferry to the terminal, a frequent sighting, no doubt enjoying the same seafood that became a distraction in every town and village we drove through. Loop Head was tipped by yet another lighthouse, worth a drive to see, before we reached a VW campervan themed campsite in Doonbeg.
We avoided the coach loads of tourists at the Cliffs of Moher to drive around Galway Bay and into Connemara. The Aran Islands beckoned, but we left them for another day before driving around endless bends to a superb campsite situated near a natural Tombola beach, with a pitch directly on the shoreline. Sky Drive, near Clifden, is aptly named, giving an impression that you are ascending into the sky. Nearby, Alcock & Brown landed their aircraft after completing the first transatlantic flight in 1919.
Doo Lough reminded me of the Lake District after first driving around Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only Fjord. The journey into Westport was pleasant, now we can get used to the never-ending bends and quiet traffic conditions. We counted 20-minutes between seeing another car at one point, try that in SE England. Even though the weather was awful, pilgrims were setting out to climb Croagh Patrick. The strong winds whipped up the sea into a frenzy, justifying the label Wild as we toured around Achill Island. Fortunately, a number of indoor nature and archaeological sites warranted a visit at Ceide Fields and Ballycroy which gave a deeper insight into the history and ecology of the area, known for its extensive boglands.
Entering Sligo, we continued along the WAW past surf beaches into the town for provisions and gas, before heading north into Donegal along the fast N15, staying at the pelagic fishing port of Killybegs, with view south overlooking Benbulben mountain. Ocean-going supply vessels and the entire fishing fleet were safely moored up, avoiding a Force 10 gale, that would dissipate that evening. We could then spend a pleasant day exploring Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe, and many small beaches, often devoid of people.
Driving is one of the pleasures of the route, but can be tiring and requires greater levels of concentration than normal, so don’t expect to cover great distances each day. Better to plan shorter days and visit beaches and towns and villages to enjoy the music, craic and local vibe. You could easily spend 6-8 weeks exploring the west coast of Ireland and still feel you had missed much. You should not miss Inishowen Peninsula though, which has its own mini tourism route – the Inish 100. Culminating in Malin Head, the seascapes and mountain passes are wonderful. The VW van is revelling in the challenge and the ideal vehicle (apart from a motorcycle) to enjoy these roads. A large campervan would be a handful.
Using the ferry at Greencastle, we crossed into Northern Ireland and pottered along the coast to Bushmills to stay at one of the best campsites we have used in many years. Tempted by a distillery visit, we moved on to the mandatory Giants Causeway spectacle, avoiding the exorbitant National Trust charges by parking at the heritage train station. Northern Ireland was in the grip of Game of Thrones fever (Season 8 had just started) and many of the film locations were packed with tourists, notably The Dark Hedges near Ballycastle. We continued along the coast road following the ‘green’ Michelin map route into Belfast, where an urban campsite positioned us well for the visit to the Titanic Exhibition the following day.
Leaving Belfast, via Bangor, we continued along the coast, looking for campsites on an Easter weekend. Crossing Strangford and then Carlingford Lough (entering Eire again) we eventually found a site at Giles Quay, with an onsite pub and entertainment. Most of the sites further north were Caravan Parks and fully booked if they had any touring pitches. We were recommended Tollymore Forest site inland, which we read a few days later was evacuated due to a forest fire. It proved difficult to find another site in Dublin, to enjoy a few days in the city, so we caught an earlier ferry home. So book ahead at busy times.
After 18-days, which could easily have been 4-5 weeks, we were happy to be avoiding the Easter traffic home on a late Saturday evening. Total distance was perhaps 3,800km of which 3,000km (2,000 miles) were in Ireland. An epic campervan tour and highly recommended.
1:400,000 Michelin Map 712 – Ireland and the OS Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way www.osi.ie
Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – David Flannagan and Richard Creagh – an excellent guide, with several months of adventures contained within, illustrated by beautiful photographs.