Exploring Ireland’s Atlantic Coast

John drops the fishing line over the side of Nancy Lee II, our boat for the morning, as we all adopt a cowboy stance to steady ourselves against the smooth rocking of the boat. Almost instantly he reels in three mackerel to the surprise and delight of both my travelling partner and me. As we gain balance, we both cast out our own fishing lines.

It’s from Ireland’s remote county Connemara on the island’s west coast that we met John Sullivan, a skipper and lobster fisherman from Roundstone Bay’s island of Inishnee, where there are as few as around 15 local homes alongside a few holiday lodges.

County Connemara is known for its coastal road, a section of the scenic route named the Wild Atlantic Way that hugs the entire length of Ireland’s Atlantic Coast. The Connemara stretch really does live up to route’s name as it winds through rugged countryside and along rocky windswept shores, occasionally veering off through idyllic seaside villages, port towns and between hedgerows and pasture before leading back to the coast. Here, the waves come rolling in and the ocean stretches as far as the eye can see, with light glistening from every ripple and wave.

Connemara’s most spectacular coastal views are from the Sky Loop near the town of Clifden, a road that leads upwards through lush hillside until bursting out at the top where the land juts out into the ocean. The entire Atlantic route encompasses point of interest and experiences such as John’s sea trip, which is a chance to get off of the coast and out to sea. “There’s a seal colony up the back,” John tells us as we stand alongside him in the boat’s cabin, sheltering from the ocean spray coming overboard on the open sea, “I’ll take you to that and we’ll haul a lobster pot or two.”

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While I might not naturally have sea legs, Ballynahinch estuary is sheltered from the swell of the Atlantic Ocean by around 10 small islands, so as we stop to haul in lobster pots and seek out the resident grey seals as they swim by, seabirds bob on the calm water’s surface, occasionally ducking under in search of food.

A highlight of John’s sea trip is venturing onto the uninhabited island of Inishlacken, which the last family left around 20 years ago, favouring a modern lifestyle over the island’s lack of power and running water, and leaving just the rabbits, sheep and donkeys behind.

Seabirds soar and cry out overhead as we brace ourselves against the wind, stepping across the sandy shore, over rocks with seaweed clinging to them and across the spongy grassland. We wander between the ruins of stone houses that were once family homes and peer through the window of the old school house, which has now been renovated into a cosy holiday home for anyone in search of absolute seclusion.

For visitors to Connemara, John’s sea and island trip is a truly unique insight into local life, as well as the region’s past, and it’s one that could easily be missed by just passing through.

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THE COASTAL ROAD

Continuing along the Atlantic road from Connemara, you soon reach the atmospheric harbour city of Galway, so en route from Connemara to the cliffs and castles of County Clare, it’s worth taking some time to explore this small city. The streets really come to life after dark with Irish folk musicians playing in the public houses and a burgeoning food scene in which restaurants, like Michelin-starred dining spot Aniar, proudly champion the local artisanal produce.

Travelling south from Galway, the Atlantic route winds its way to County Clare, home to some of Ireland’s most iconic areas of natural beauty. With the ocean on one side and green pasture on the other, the Burren is a huge expanse of limestone-covered land with boulders set into the earth. This surreal sight can be driven through on the Atlantic Way or explored in more depth along mapped-out hiking trails, plus gastronomes can stop by the Burren Smokehouse where local salmon is both hot and cold smoked, tasting so good it’s impossible not to take some home.

On the edge of the Burren is Ireland’s famous Cliffs of Moher, which rise dramatically up to 702 feet, with waves crashing against the rocks below. It’s said that long ago people would stand on these very cliffs and on a clear day they would say could see America across the Atlantic Ocean. As you stand at the top of these cliffs, it’s hard not to let your imagination run wild.

Visitors come here to hike through the purple heather of the eight-kilometre cliff-top path and spot seabirds, such as puffins, nesting in the cliffside. Seals and dolphins can be seen by taking a boat trip around the base of the cliffs, and if luck really is on your side, you might spot one of the basking sharks or humpback whales that are occasionally seen amongst the waves.

Hidden amongst the west coast’s verdant hills and forest, a select few of Ireland’s ancient stone castles have been transformed into luxury hotels, fusing old world opulence with modern comfort, and excelling in the creation of gourmet cuisine and a whole host of activities, from spa indulgence to horseback exploration of the vast castle grounds. Set amidst immense natural beauty, these castles emanate the warmth and charm that is so characteristic of Ireland and so easy to come by while travelling along the Wild Atlantic Way.

WHERE TO STAY

Dromoland Castle Hotel & Estate

In County Clare, Dromoland Castle Hotel & Estate exudes grandeur – think winding staircases, suits of armour and cosy open log fires – and surpasses all expectations with its glorious 450-acre grounds and warm Irish hospitality. A cookbook of the kitchen’s recipes has been created, showcasing the castle’s signature dishes that focus on the use of traditional Irish recipes and fresh local ingredients like Atlantic lobster.

An unexpected highlight of many people’s stay is the chance to try out falconry at Dromoland School of Falconry on the castle grounds. Here visitors can learn to handle a bird of prey on a walk through the surrounding woodland, while one of the passionate guides tells them about these incredible birds, as well as anecdotes of the sport’s intriguing history. Then, as day becomes night, it’s time to head to the intimate cocktail bar where Irish folk musicians perform.

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel & Estate

Aching with character, this manor house hotel couldn’t be a better reflection of the curious yet exceptionally beautiful region of Ireland, County Connemara. The manor is set on a huge estate of woodland, lakes and rivers, with winding hiking routes and the world-class salmon and trout fishing that it has become famous for. John’s sea and island boat trips from Roundstone village can be organised through the hotel, and evenings can be spent by crackling log fires, and dining in the restaurant that overlooks the castle grounds or the more casual Fisherman’s Pub. Local and seasonal produce is the focus here, with top quality seafood and game.

All images © Lauren Jade Hill