Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way will leave you rugged, rejuvenated and with more friends than when you arrived.
Some places in the world are blessed with lovely scenery. Or adventure sports. Or a nice restaraunt or two. Or a quietness that can't be found in the city. And then some places, like County Mayo, are blessed with all of that, and a bit more.
“We have the best fishing, the best golf, best water sports, the finest food, and absolutely no crowds," says Alan, the owner of the grand Mount Falcon Estate, on the banks of the River Moy in Mayo.
The Wild Atlantic Way – which stretches from the tip of Malin Head in County Donegal to the quaint seaside town of Kinsale in County Cork - is extremely easy to access when driving from Dublin.
While the infinite beauty of the west of Ireland could take a lifetime to explore, my expedition has brought me and my travelling party to the southern seaside counties of Sligo and Mayo, where we're due to get the best sampling of what this ancient corner of Europe has on offer.
I’m starting off in Strandhill; a tiny town so darling and delightful it makes you want to stay here and start a life. With a picturesque main street that empties out onto the vast sandy coast, the town is lined with artisanal restaurants, classic pubs, seaside spas, and even friendly surf shops.
“There isn’t just surfing in Ireland, there’s some of the best surfing in the world here,” says Tom Hickey, my surf instructor from Perfect Day Surfing School. “Strandhill, Mullaghmore Head, and Easky are really world class [surfing] spots, where swells can reach up to 3 metres,” he tells me.
Luckily as he says this I’m already wearing the full steamer wetsuit he has rented me so he didn’t see me shame myself.
After surviving what can only be termed a torrid surf lesson on the angry Sligo coast, I quickly duck into Voya Spa to continue my sea therapy with something a little calmer - their signature seaweed bath. It's a centuries-old coastal Irish tradition brought to life in a beautiful modern setting.
“You’re going to really like this. It’s much easier than surfing,” the receptionist at Voya says to me with a smile.
She was right, the tension and stress disappeared from my body almost immediately. And after 30 more minutes of soaking I’m brand new. The warm bath water extracts the natural, silky, gelatinous qualities from the freshly harvested seaweed from just out the front door.
What’s more, Voya Spa sells all sorts of seaweed-based health and beauty products, including a seaweed kit so you can have the same experience at home.
THE WARM BATH WATER EXTRACTS THE NATURAL, SILKY, GELATINOUS QUALITIES FROM THE FRESHLY HARVESTED SEAWEED FROM JUST OUT THE FRONT DOOR AND IT REALLY IS ONE OF THE MOST LUXURIOUS EXPERIENCES YOU CAN HAVE.
If you aren't yet sold on Strandhill, the little gelato shop called Mammy Johnstons might be the real clincher. Here they lay claim to the prestigious title of the world’s best gelato.
“It's not us saying it either,” the owner, who studied his craft in Bologna, tells me. “We've won best gelato in Italy for three years running.”
Saying farewell to Strandhill is not easy, but with a coastline that stretches more than 2,500 kilometres there’s still so much more to see. Is there anything more idyllic than traversing this landscape on horseback? If so, I’d love to hear it.
“What level of rider are you?” asks Ursula from Island View Riding Stables in Monygold.
“Well, I ride the train, almost daily,” I joke to hide my trepidation. Soon after, I’m handed a furry four-legged tank named Delores. Ursula and her team are professionals, as are their animals, comfortable with city slickers like myself. Under their guidance, I find it easy bouncing down the beautiful Sligo coastline with the majestic Benbulbin Mountain flanking me in the distance.
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And as our horses and feet wade through the blue-green tidal water, I crane my neck to marvel at Slieve League just up ahead, the tallest sea cliffs in all of Europe are hard to miss. The beauty here on this beach is so raw, so natural, and frankly gigantic, that it leaves you feeling incredibly small and insignificant - even on the back of a trusty steed like Delores.
Saying goodbye to my all-terrain, four-legged transportation, our group travels to a local farm to rendezvous with another four-legged companion.
“You’re really going to like this. The dog you’re about to meet can do amazing things,” says Martin Feeny from Atlantic Sheepdogs.
Oh. Wonderful. A dog show. How … riveting? I have to stop myself from cringing.
Martin is a tall and bespectacled man we meet at the entrance to a modest sheep farm.
“We have some tea and biscuits here for you, we’re sure you’re hungry from your journey. Have a bite and then I'll bring out Bob.” “Sorry, who is Bob?” I ask Martin.
“Oh Bob is one of our dogs. We’ll get him moving around for ya,” Martin replies with a confident smile.
I think to myself that these biscuits better be really good. Real good.
A minute later, most of the biscuit falls out of my fully agape mouth.
“Bob. Comebye. Comebye. Stop. Combye. Stop. Away’is. Stop. Combye. Stop.” Martin says calmly to Bob the Sheepdog, his beautiful black and white best friend, controlling him with ease as if the dog was mechanical and voice controlled.
“I can’t even get Siri to tell me what the weather is. How are you doing this?” I ask Martin while wiping the biscuit crumbs from my mouth.
“Well,” says Martin, “Bob wants to do this. Sheepdogs love chasing sheep. They would be doing it if I weren’t here. So if you get them young enough, you can teach them pretty easily.”
Saying goodbye to Bob, biscuits and black sheep, we move onto Mount Falcon Estate in Ballina. Once inside, the opulence of the 19th century manor is breathtaking, with rich mahogany timber balustrades and stone floors, fresh flowers and a warmth greeting you in every room like a hug.
“Well, well! Looks like our travellers have arrived!” says Alan the owner with a thunderous bellow. He greets us like ambassadors or dignitaries having just arrived from a long sea journey. “I think food and drink is in order! This way!”
Alan leads us to the dining hall, which used to be the old granary. It's here he tells us the rich history of the Estate where we’re spending the night, he bends our ears over a delicious meal of local roasted meats, vegetables grown on the grounds, and some very fine single malt whisky.
“My father worked for the United Nations, so my siblings and I grew up all over the Middle East. Even so, I have always been Irish, so when I came home I wanted to do something that really spoke to me. I found this place. I bought it. Spent years restoring it to its original beauty, and now, I get to share it with everyone. Couldn’t be happier.”
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The next day – well rested – we’re bounding into the town of Belmullet which is dotted with lively pubs, small shops, and a single roundabout in the town’s center. What you may not expect from Belmullet, however, is the affinity they have here for water sports.
“What would you like to do today?!” says our guide, Paddy. “You want to kayak or maybe do a bit of snorkeling? Let's do both!”
Paddy is more excited than all our travelling group put together, mainly because he’s accustomed to putting on a full winter wetsuit everyday. “Trust me, you’ll want the booties,” he says.
Carrying our kayaks down to the cove, we launch into the icy northern Atlantic. To my surprise, my first reaction was not to scream like a small child. Instead, I was able to quite comfortably paddle out around the cape and down the coast, marvelling at the towering rock formation that plunged into the sea.
“You know they just found three, three, Spanish galleons. Right here on this coast. All from the 16th century. It’s unbelievable the secrets the sea has here,” says Paddy.
Towelling off while simultaneously warming with a dram of whisky in my hand, we’re again back on the road toward my final stop; Clare Island.
“Just to give you an idea, in 1841 there were over 1500 people living on this tiny island,” mentions the captain of the ferry over the radio, “Today there are just 152. Not one soul more nor less. That Sir, is what a famine can do to a place.”
What makes this island really magical isn't so much it’s complex past, but the remaining inhabitants who have stayed behind. Take the kind eyed, sublimely centred Christophe who helps run Macalla Farm, which is a unique yoga retreat nestled in a lush valley overlooking the sea.
Travellers come to the farm from all over Ireland to work the land, meditate and further their yoga skills with the green mountains and deep blue Atlantic as their classroom. On Clare Island, you might also wander to the Ballytoughey Loom where master weaver Beth Moran still uses traditional methods to create some of the most beautiful and sublimely soft local clothing.
But most impressive was our visit to the Lighthouse Hotel overlooking the northern rocky tip of the island. Perched out on the black seawall over the Atlantic, this specialty hotel features six unique rooms in what was once a functioning Lighthouse from as early as 1806. Each room is beautifully appointed, modern, and one even has a private sauna.
As we leave the coast, the green hills and sodden bogs behind us – heading back to bustling Dublin – I keep thinking of something Alan from Mount Franklin Estate said to me before we left.
“The Irish people will make tourism a success, you won't find any people in the world who are warmer, more welcoming, or prouder of their land. That is for sure.”
The wild west coast of Ireland as a destination is wonderful, full of nature, rich history, and outdoor experiences, but it really is the people that take it from extraordinary to spectacular.
“This is a very old land, they have found neolithic settlements here that date back to 3,000 b.c, some of the oldest in all of Europe … so I guess you could say that 5,000 years ago we invented the concept of neighbours.”
It’s no wonder they are so good with people; they’ve been practicing being neighbourly for millennia.
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Mount Falcon Estate is located in County Mayo, just 1.5 hours north of Galway.
Mount Falcon Foxford Road, Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland, F26 H744
From AU$268pn mountfalcon.com