The spectre of a renewed “hard Irish border” being raised daily in the run-up to Brexit is reason enough to take a road trip around Britain’s closest neighbour.
It’s time to celebrate the abolition of the last customs post in 2005 and the joyous result of the original border being dismantled after 80 years – a seamless, formality-free drive around this entire green and gorgeous island, which offers coastal delights on both sides of the political divide.
The Republic, being much larger, has the best of the scenery, but now manmade wonders like the new wharfside Titanic Museum, as well as the legendary Giants’ Causeway and the ruined castles and rocky promontories of County Antrim make a convincing argument for picking a car up in Belfast and driving across the top of Northern Ireland before combing every cranny of the scenic west coast and dropping the car off in Cork or Dublin.
Of course, it helps to have a robust but comfortable 4×4 like the Kia Sportage, celebrating its 25th birthday, available from the hire fleets of Hertz and Enterprise. For the star of any road trip encompassing Ireland’s north coast is rugged, magnificent and challenging Donegal, not for nothing named “Coolest Place on the Planet” by National Geographic Traveller.
Although you can feel almost completely cut off from civilisation in this remote county, following the wonderfully-named and well-signposted Wild Atlantic Way ensures you won’t get lost. It takes you inland into Glenveagh National Park, with a castle where unlikely though it sounds, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Clark Gable all enjoyed romantic holidays. As well as the wild mountains and loughs which make it worth getting away from the coast, Donegal enjoys golden beaches and stunning views from the cliffs at Slieve League on the county’s northern headlands; don’t walk too close to the edge peering down into the dramatic swell of the Atlantic! And make time for a leisurely lunch at Kitty Kelly’s cosy seafood restaurant on the southern coast of Donegal before you round the bend for a stunning view of the sea.
These are the most challenging roads in the country, but the new Sportage felt safe, with a sophisticated suspension system offering as much comfort you could expect on such up and down roads. The huge satnav screen was a comfort, and a great streaming music system connectable with your own Apple playlist meant being able to access scenery-appropriate music by everyone from Enya to Afro-Celt.
The Wild Atlantic Way continues into the northwesternmost counties of the Republic, Sligo and Mayo. Although you’d have to take a detour to explore modern but charming Sligo town, it’s worth it to take a river cruise on which the boatman reads the evocative poetry of Yeats, he who dreamed up “the golden apples of the sun and the silver apples of the moon”. Elsewhere in the region, Strandhill offers sand dunes and bath-houses dispensing therapeutic soaks in the local seaweed and Ballina, Ireland’s salmon capital, has a starkly modern but dramatic boutique hotel, The Ice House, with a fine spa and a gorgeous location right on the banks of the River Moy. From here it’s absolutely worth winging your way all the way west to Achill Island along a causeway; don’t miss the delightful cafes along the Sound, some of which sell the beautiful local pottery.
Returning to Mayo, you’ll enter the fabulous scenic region of Connemara as you descend; Westport is a lovely town at the northern end of a region defined by romantic coastal views and boggy inlets, and Clifden in the heart of Connemara should not be missed. Heading further south along the scenic Galway coast, it’s tempting to head straight for County Kerry, but the city of Limerick, with its rich, if troubled history and the splendid, 13th century King John’s Castle, absolutely demands a visit.
Dingle, like Connemara a distinct detour from the main road south along Ireland’s west coast, also can’t be missed; this tiny town boasts two of Ireland’s most popular attractions – Fungie the Dolphin, who has hung around the waterside for more than 30 years and attracts swimmers who hire wetsuits for an early morning dip in the hope he will frolic in the waters with them. The other is Dick Mack’s, one of those unique Irish institutions which is a pub on one side, a general store selling wellie boots and other essentials for a cold, wet climate on the other. A great thing to do on a rainy afternoon is creep in and enjoy the jam sessions staged spontaneously by musicians playing all the town’s pubs in the evening.
As for the Ring of Kerry, do yourself a favour and avoid the nose to tail coach traffic jams and seek out the smaller, more charming and more magical Ring of Beara further south. This sits on the boundaries of Kerry and Cork, gateway to the beautiful southwesternmost corner of Ireland known as West Cork, each of whose finger-like peninsulas is worth the drive; the town of Skibbereen makes a lively base.
While not exactly downhill from here, the south and east coasts of Ireland are less dramatic, and despite its handsome English Market and nearby Ballymaloe, one of the foodiest places to stay and eat in Ireland, the city of Cork has a melancholy feel, perhaps because it was the site of so much emigration following the famine. By contrast, Kilkenny is a delightful inland town with a huge craft centre and good places to stay and eat, a perfect stopover point for those who pick up their car in Belfast and are bent on continuing back there to drop it off after spending a night or two in Dublin – a story all of its own.
Tell me more about driving Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way
*Kia Sportage is available on request in Enterprise and Hertz fleets throughout Ireland. For more information on highlights of the north and west coasts, visit wildatlanticway.com