No better place than Ireland when the sun is shining - an Emerald Isle road trip
Ireland is an incredible country, with its starkly beautiful landscape and coastline, lovely people and amazing food. We spent two weeks in the North West, doing a coast-centric road trip in a camper van - such a gorgeous break.
We sailed from Liverpool to Dublin, taking a 3am ferry, eating some grim included food and sleeping on plastic sofas. We then drove across the middle of the country to Rossnowlagh, a beachside holiday village with static homes and a few beach houses where we were staying with friends. The wide bay is sandy with reasonably gentle if messy surf while we were there (maybe 3 feet?). Looking at routes after a night there with a swim and a surf, we decided to explore the wild Atlantic way, a journey along the coast from the north, starting in Muff. However, with good surf approaching, we headed South to Easkey, a little village on the West coast with a couple of surf spots for more advanced surfers.
I would highly recommend the campsite we stayed in that night, The Beach Bar, right on the seafront with some smaller more sheltered waves for beginners. We enjoyed our sunny evening smoking a chicken on our BBQ (a Cobb), drinking Guinness from the cute thatched roof pub attached to the site, and walking along the quiet mostly sandy beach.
Though we would have loved to do the Wild Atlantic Way, as a 2,500km drive we concluded it would be better to pick and choose some highlights than to do the entire route just for the sake of it. We headed North, and ended up staying at Binnion Bay campsite, a simple area with static caravans and space for campers in a row facing a sandy bay. The area (Inishowen) is covered in ferns and fox gloves at this time of year (mid-June – prime time for reasonable weather and fewer midges and other tourists to compete with). The owner is super friendly and gave us his top tips for the area, so we took his advice and went to Glenevin waterfall, a walk through silver birch trees, ferns and pink foxgloves, leading to a 40 foot chunky waterfall spraying fine mist into your face. Onwards to Nancy’s Barn, a sweet stone cottage-like building owned by the winner of the Chowder world championships (yes that does happen in the US) to try out this famous meal. It is really worth a visit with the most adorable waiters and good drink recommendations accompanying your meal (a Limeburner in the case of the chowder). We headed on to Malin Head, the northernmost point of the island with beautiful views and some great cliffs and wild flowers.
We stayed in a simple campsite with a distinctly “hippy” smell to its facilities and chickens running around outside. While not the nicest inside the shared areas, the site itself was on a hill overlooking the inlet of water that runs up to Carrick, with a few sandy beaches lying below. We used this base to attempt our hike around Slieve League, some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe at 600m. Our guide book was fairly useless in directing us, so we took a gamble in following a yellow hiking man sign which took us on a completely random amble across a heathery bog land with little frogs hopping away from us and sky larks singing us away from their nests. It turned out that the yellow man was not taking us to Slieve League, but to the folk village… so we set off in a general cliff-ward direction through some farmland, waving at a hardworking man harvesting peat, through a large patch of pine trees and up the steepest hill I may ever have walked up (and I have climbed volcanoes). The view from the top is stunning – the green slope of the cliff with grey slabs of rock pointing outwards intermittently against the hazy blue of the sky, interrupted by a deeper shade of the sea and shadows of hills from the land opposite. You then walk along the ridge via “One Man’s Pass” – aptly named. It’s worth watching out for rabbits holes with pools of rich mud, rather than only looking at the view. The rest of the ridge path was closed, so we took Pilgrim’s Path back down and walked along the river to Carrick for a pub lunch. Then back to our campsite and the little bay for a fish (accidental sea trout captured and released as it was too small and cute to risk catching any more) and a refreshing swim that was hold enough to hurt your collarbones but beautifully crystal enough to bear it.
We woke up slightly hungover the next day and headed back to the break at Easkey. It was another beautiful day with about four foot glassy waves on the right hand side of the pier. It’s a really chilled and friendly spot where everyone chats to each other. We met a guy who introduced himself as Rhys and turned out to play rugby for Ireland. When we were tired we got out for brunch, and then drove on to see more of County Galway, seeing some nice headlands and beaches where there might be the opportunity to wild camp from the looks of google maps satellite. We picked a point on Black Sod bay and parked just behind the sand dunes on a fine white sand beach with crystal clear waters. We paddled round the headlands to some other bays before bringing our barbeque onto the sand to cook.
The beach was glorious the next morning and we sat on the sand carving up a pineapple and drinking coffee before getting into the glassy waters for a fresh swim. We spotted a tiny octopus jetting along just above the sands in the shallow waters. It buried itself in the sand leaving only its eyes visible, before flamboyantly sweeping itself entirely covered with two little tentacles. We headed on to Westport and got the kayak back out on a pier by the sailing club there to explore the little archipelago, heading out to a lighthouse with some beers (interrupted when we realised we’d left the key on the side – someone hid it under the van for us). We stayed at Westport House campsite in the grounds of a manor house – a nice idea but in reality very busy with concrete spaces for parking campers on, which isn't our preference.
We drove to Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holiest mountain which is climbed by pilgrims visiting the little white chapel on top. It was a fairly steep and crumbly path up the side, initially along a little stream lined by jewel-green marble slabs (which are slippery by the way), followed by grass and heather before reaching the cone of the peak when things got very steep and eroded. The view is honestly worth the walk as the peak overlooks the archipelago off the west coast there, with sandy patches lightening the navy of the sea to a clear aquamarine against the deep green of the landscape. The journey down is almost more challenging, with the eroded path covered with very chunky gravel and rocks that are capable of little landslides if trodden on hard, as I discovered as I slid down past two sympathetic Irish ladies and scraped all of my limbs. The downward journey took an extra half an hour surprisingly. We were looking for a seaweed bath but had missed the opening times of the Leenane Hotel, where we tried to stay that night but there were no available rooms. It looks lovely though. We went on to a little campsite – Connemara Camping and Caravan Site – which was much better suited to us – just a grassy headland overlooking a stunning sandy bay. We arrived as the sun was starting to set, so the water reflected silver at first with the fish scale-like pattern of tiny puddles resting in the wind and wave formed sand, before turning more golden, then into blues pinks and oranges. Robin attempted to fish off one of the headlands and some gulls must have been nesting nearby as they screamed and dove at my head to chase us off, while the also disturbed but less aggressive oyster catchers yelled at us.
The next day we had planned to head on towards Galway, but it was too nice to leave so we paddled out into the water and trawled for some fish, catching a couple of little pollock that were put back, followed by four chunky mackerel. The rest of the day was chilled, paddling, swimming, reading, and eventually snorkelling around one of the rocks where we stumbled across a tonne of huge spider crabs strolling along the wall and eating kelp. Robin decided we needed one for dinner, so we went back for a bucket and he dove down to grab one, surfacing a few metres from the boat triumphantly lifting a spiky crustacean which spread its legs into a perfect star in surprise.
The next day we headed for Galway, stopping to buy oysters at the farm close to the Connemara campsite, and later for a salmon lunch in Clifden. We arrived in Galway in the early evening and had a couple of pints at the King’s Head pub in the beer garden. It’s a very cute little town with busy colourful streets with buskers playing traditional Irish music and people spilling out of the pubs beneath flower baskets. We took some oysters and a lemon down to the quayside and bought gin and tonics. A few more bars and a bit of wandering, and suddenly it was 10 o clock and we hadn’t eaten. We popped into the Quay Side Kitchen who squeezed us in before the kitchen closed. We really enjoyed eating there – good food, large portions, very reasonably priced and super friendly service. We had chowder, fish stew and mussels with a bottle of prosecco.
Another boiling day followed so we drove to a nearby beach (Silver Strand) which just wasn’t of the beautiful standard that we had gotten used to, so we ended up driving back out to Connemara to Clifden Eco Campsite on a little headland where a channel meets the sea in glass-clear waters and a sandy cove. It’s a lovely site – no concrete just wild grasses, sand and rocks. The owners are a bit nuts though – an Irish guy with a grey afro who blows his plastic whistle at guests if he’s not sure what you’re doing…
For our last day in Ireland we started the day with an icy swim from the channel round to the beach to chill us down after breakfast before the three and a half hour drive to Dublin. We arrived at about 3.30 and checked into Number 31, a lovely Georgian town house hotel which is a bit further out of the city but worth a bit of a walk. We did a bit of an improvised walking tour through St Stephen’s Green to Trinity College, over Ha’penny bridge for a quick look in the Winding Stair book shop, before ending up in Temple Bar, an iconic Dublin pub with live music and extortionately priced beers. We had quite an early dinner at Klaw, a very low-key but subtly stylish little restaurant serving delicious seafood like Grilled Gamba and chunky king prawns, and decent wine out of tumblers. It was really delicious quite light food.
We couldn't have loved Ireland more, and we were so lucky to have such beautiful weather. Everything about the scenery and culture is just amazing, and when the weather is on your side I can't think of a better place to be.