West Coast of Ireland is one of the most beautiful and still un-touched places on the planet, where is very little tourism, probably because of its rough and tough weather conditions affected by Atlantic Ocean. The weather is so unstable and rapidly changing, that in one minute there could be beautiful sunny day and 2 minutes later cold, wind with rain or hailstones. You can find almost empty stunning beaches, walk over the top of the hills or be amazed by the beauty of Irish lakes.
Lively Galway may seem glaringly modern at times – a quarter of its population are students – but it is the only large city where one can routinely hear Irish spoken on the streets. The Latin Quarter, situated on the left bank of the River Corrib, is arguably Galway’s most colourful and culturally vibrant area. The city’s best-known and eclectic independently owned shops, pubs, restaurants and hotels are clustered here, as well as Galway’s Saturday Market, Galway City Museum and the internationally acclaimed Druid Theatre Company.
The remainder of Galway is (unsurprisingly, considering its age) a history and heritage treasure trove. To appreciate the city’s storied, bloody history, a guided tour with Gore of Galway is a good idea, recounting tales of hangings, plague, famine and indiscriminate slaughter.
Westport, defined by its pleasing Georgian streetscapes, also offers wide-angle photography bait like Clew Bay and the Croagh Patrick mountain range. It’s a designated Irish Heritage Town and, like Killarney, a frequent winner of the National Tidy Towns Competition and other civic awards.
When you can extract yourself from Westport’s tidiness, a good way to get the heart pumping is with Walking West, an association of qualified marine and countryside guides located in South Connemara, who lead mountain hikes, coastal walks, bog walks and island trips in the Connemara region, incorporating elements of culture, language and heritage.
More serene diversions in Sligo include pubs, live music and restaurants and businesses that have embraced a locally sourced ingredient – seaweed. You’ll find seaweed in breads, salads and side dishes while dining in the area, but if that’s not enough, you can immerse yourself in the stuff at Voya Seaweed Baths in Strandhill. A 50-minute soak in a tub filled with hot, oily, greenish-brown Atlantic seawater and a bucket of hand-harvested, fresh seaweed is popular with athletes. The high concentrations of iodine in the seaweed fronds is said to be a cure for stresses and strains.
In nearby Grange, the Streedagh Spanish Armada Walk combines culture, maritime archaeology and the story of the ill-fated Spanish fleet that wrecked some 25 ships in the area in the 16th century while fleeing a failed invasion attempt on England – it’s unsigned, but a guiding company like Seatrails (seatrails.ie) can help bring the breezy trail to life. The spectacular scenery is an added perk.
Windswept and rugged Donegal County may be an unconventional summer retreat, becoming positively grim in winter, but people that persevere to reach this northerly outcropping of Ireland are rewarded with elbow room and singularly beautiful scenery, like 600m-high Sliabh Liag (aka Slieve League), one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe.
Boat trips take people below the looming cliffs for the imposing view and a chance to spot dolphins, seals and even whales. Hardier souls are invited to take a swim in one of the coves. (Wetsuits provided.) Alternatively, the winding and spectacular drive to the top of the cliffs is rewarded with a breathtaking view of the sea and vast landscape. Steep hiking trails lead even higher up the cliffs.
Barely 15 minutes drive from Sliabh Liag is the Glencolmcille Folk Village, one of Ireland’s best living-history museums. The cottages, furnishings and artefacts are exact replicas of the dwellings and belongings of local people in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
The wind gusts around the Grianan of Aileach Ancient Stone Fort (1700 BC), situated on a hilltop 250m above sea level are, frankly, disquieting. People wearing loose or billowing clothing will experience a sensation similar to a kite just before takeoff. The fort has been identified as the seat of the Kingdom of Aileach and one of the royal sites of Gaelic Ireland. Though the base is original, much of the fort has been reconstructed.
One of Donegal’s top cultural sites is the Doagh Famine Village, an outdoor museum dedicated to the period from the Famine of the 1840s through the 1900s and the present. The singular challenges of living in this harsh, remote region during a time of such hardship are sobering. Highly recommended are the guided tours, which are informative, thought-provoking, tragic, and yet funny.
For sheer bragging rights, Banba’s Crown on Malin Head, the most northerly point of the Irish mainland, is a good final stop on the Atlantic coast tour. Unexpectedly, this happens to be statistically the sunniest place in Ireland. And among the windiest. An appropriate end to this tour is a pint in Ireland’s most northerly pub, Farren’s Bar Slievebawn in Malin Head.