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Drive Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

MAP + ROUTE GUIDE: SECRET BEACHES + TOWERING CLIFFS ALONG THE COASTAL ROAD

Article by Sherry Ott

Photography by Sherry Ott

Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way takes on the status of one of the longest coastal drives in the world at 1,600 miles. It joins the ranks of other great coastal roads like Nova Scotia’s Cabot TrailBig SurMaui’s Kaekili Highway, and South Africa’s Garden Route.

Drive down narrow one-lane roads to see secret beaches, towering cliffs, ancient stone architecture and more. This drive really does have it all; views, culture, and of course beer. 

The whole time I was driving along the Wild Atlantic Way, I thought about the admiration I had for the Ireland Tourism Organization. Not many tourism offices would decide to take the smallest, single-lane, dangerous roads in the country and market them out to the world to come and drive on them! But thank goodness they did, as that’s what really sets it apart from other coastal drives I’ve done. It offers true driving thrills.

You hear all kinds of stories about driving in Ireland. Yes, the roads are narrow, winding, and often filled with sheep, but don’t let that stop you from renting a car and going out on your own. If I can do it – anyone can! I traveled through Ireland on my own for 3 weeks with a rental car and I also did coach tours – and by far I’ll take my own car any day over a coach tour. You get to see so much more (coach buses aren’t allowed on many of the best little coastal roads!), stop where you want to stop, get lost, take lots of photos, and most importantly – you will get much closer to the local Irish culture. Taking local transportation is a great way to get that true local experience everyone is after. You’ll definitely walk away with a great understanding of the Irish culture, great photos, new friends, and some new driving skills!

What is the Wild Atlantic Way Drive?

The Wild Atlantic Way is one of the longest coastal driving routes in the world. It’s 1,550 miles of coastal driving through the back roads, fields, and villages of rural Ireland. 

What better place to take a road trip than Ireland? You can finish every day’s drive with a Guinness! 

I love wide open spaces, adore small towns, and am elated when I get to photograph beautiful landscapes – I can’t imagine a better setting and way to see a country. 

As I was planning my trip, I knew I wouldn’t have time to do every inch of the WAW. My plan was to stay on it as much as possible and then use the bigger highways to get from place to place quicker when I was running behind or needed to make up mileage. 

Wild Atlantic Way Map

One of the descriptions for the Wild Atlantic Way is “where land and sea collide” – yes – that point where the rocky westerly European continent collides with the Atlantic Ocean is where your road is.

Here’s an overview map so you can plan at a high level:

The complete 1,600 miles of the Wild Atlantic Way is a lot to tackle in a car!

I’ll go into more detail about navigation below, but for now I’ll say this: my best advice for a Wild Atlantic Way map and navigation is to use Google Maps for day-to-day driving directions. Or simply throw the map out and simply follow the Wild Atlantic Way Signs either North or South. There’s an abundance of signage to follow and if you get lost for a bit – who cares, it’s fun to get lost!

How Long Does it Take to Complete The Wild Atlantic Way?

To do the entire Wild Atlantic Way would take a solid 2 ½ to 3 weeks hustling and not really stopping much. 

The distance of 1,600 miles is deceiving, because you have to take into account the state of the roads. They are small, narrow, and don’t allow you to get up any speed really (unless you are a local!). These are not roads you can set your cruise control on and speed through. 

If you have 4 weeks do the whole thing and take your time – that’s the ideal situation. 

However, the reality for most people is that you only have 1 or 2 weeks. If that’s the case for you, I suggest you pick one area and focus on it in depth. 

I personally loved the Sheepshead and the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. I also really loved the Burren and County Donegal where it seemed even more rugged and the hiking was superb.

When is the Best Time of Year to Go?

Most people would tell you to go during the summer months – and if you ask the Irish, they would say that September is ideal

Travel in October and you’ll be treated to Autumn colors.

I went during October – a traditionally volatile weather month in Ireland (aren’t they all?) – and I really loved how quiet it was. I also loved the moodiness of the weather from a photography standpoint. Generally speaking, I much prefer the shoulder seasons to travel in – spring and fall would be ideal on the Wild Atlantic Way. 

However if you want to take advantage of all of the beautiful beaches along the way, then go in the summer.

Driving Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way

What Should You Pack for the Wild Atlantic Way?

Weather on the Wild Atlantic Way is completely unpredictable. Sun, rain, wind, sideways rain, and hail are all possibilities – all in the same day! 

My most used piece of clothing was by far my rain/wind jacket.

I’ll cover other packing essentials below, but by far the most important will be your rain gear.

This Marmot jacket is by far my favorite rain jacket; it’s also great to take on the wind. On really cold days, I also layered a lightweight winter jacket over the top on really cold days. 

Definitely bring rain pants. I had water resistant pants with me and was forced to borrow true rain pants multiple times from kind locals. Nowadays, these are my tried and true rain pants.

Hiking boots that are waterproof are also great in the colder months. I used my trail shoes a lot, however in the summer months you could use sturdy water sandals potentially. 

Also bring clothes to layer for warmth, and wool socks that dry fast (and are also warm!). 

Don’t forget to protect your photography gear from the rain too – I used a LensCoat RainCoat to keep my camera dry and safe.

You’ll obviously be driving a lot on the Wild Atlantic Way route, but you’re likely also going to want to take photographs and go hiking and other outdoor adventures! So you’ll need a little of everything. 

You can check out my lists of suggested hiking gear and travel photography gear, but here are some key items you definitely won’t want to forget!

Driving Requirements in Ireland

Before you can hit the road, you need to make sure you meet all the requirements for driving as a tourist in Ireland. 

If you’re from the US, Canada, or the EU, a valid driver’s license from your home country is valid in Ireland. If you’re from elsewhere, you’ll need an International Driver’s License. 

You’ll also need third-party insurance, your car rental contract (or a letter from the car’s owner, if you’re borrowing from a friend), the vehicle’s registration document (V5), and if your driver’s license doesn’t have your picture, you’ll also need your passport. 

Here’s a quick checklist for you to reference:

  • A valid US, Canada, or EU driver’s license OR a valid International Driver’s License
  • Your passport (if your driver’s license doesn’t have your photo)
  • Proof of third-party insurance
  • Your car rental contract OR a letter from the registered car owner giving you permission to drive it
  • The vehicle registration document (V5)

What Kind of Car to Rent for Driving in Ireland

What car you rent depends on how daring and comfortable you are driving on small roads in foreign environments. 

Even though my rental company wanted to ‘do me a favor’ and upgrade me to a bigger car, I had no desire to be driving a big car on the WAW. I requested the smallest car they had since it was only me on the trip.

I preferred small and zippy for the little roads.

You should also be aware that most cars for hire in Ireland are manual transmission, so if you want an automatic, you’ll need to specifically request it when you rent the car. Otherwise you may be grinding gears and struggling with a clutch for 1,600 miles! 

TIP: I recommend confirming the reservation for an automatic, just to be sure. I had reserved one, but when I got there there were none available. Luckily I knew how to drive a manual transmission.

Renting a Car

I have consistently found the best rental car prices on RentalCars.com (international and at home) and use them when I have to rent a car. They work with all of the major car companies; check out their prices and see what you think. They also offer free reservations and cancellations which I love as my plans often change!

I used two different rental cars on my road trip through Ireland (long story), both compact and strangely – both red. 

One thing to take into account is the extra fee to drop the car at a different location than where you started. And, since many of the towns are small along the WAW, you have to be sure that there even is an office in the village you want to drop it off at. 

Most airports along the WAW (even though they are small) have rental car drop-off facilities, but you’ll want to make sure of their opening hours as it’s a small operation and they aren’t 24 hrs.

Driving In Ireland: Tips

I asked Jim, a local friend, what it meant when another car blinks their lights at me on a single lane impasse. “It means you can go first “ he says confidently, but then pauses a second and continues, “or it means for you to stop.”

Never underestimate how challenging it can be to drive in other countries. That doesn’t mean that it’s not fun, it just means that it can be challenging. 

For the first 3 days, my grip on the steering wheel was powerful – white knuckled driving at its best. 

I have no idea why a simple thing like sitting & driving in the opposite seat in the car completely threw off my entire 28 years of driving knowledge and perspective. It was as if I had regressed to 16 again as I tried to figure out the dimensions of my car and consequently making my right turns super wide. 

Plus, as I entered parking lots or turned onto roads with no other traffic, my brain would immediately go into panic mode – “whooaaa, where am I supposed to be here? What side of the road should I be on” conversation swirled through my brain as I tried to sort out the confusion swiftly before causing an accident.

Different Types of Roads You’ll Drive on in Ireland

I have to hand it to the tourism department – because any destination that decides to take it’s smallest, winding, untraveled, narrow roads and market the hell out of it for tourists to come and drive on them has balls. Big f’ing balls. 

The US would never do this. We live in a land of shoulders, passing zones, and wide spacious lanes. And we certainly wouldn’t want to run the liability of promoting our hard-to-drive roads as a tourism activity. For example, Maui tourism wasn’t thrilled that I wrote about driving the Kahekili Highway, but I did it anyway, because I thought it was a highlight of my trip!

I found there was a hierarchy of roads that made up the Wild Atlantic Way. All of these make up the roads you’ll be driving on the heavily-marketed Ireland road trip.

First, there were the ‘highways’. These actually sometimes had shoulders where cars and trucks zipped along them as if they were a 4 lane Audubon; yet they were simply a 2-way road. 

Example of main highway – look – it even has lines!

There were the back roads jutting off the main roads that varied in size from double lane (which honestly would be single lane in US standards) to single lane. 

Example of a 2 way road – hardly 2 roads! This is the most common on the WAW.

There were sheep roads – very rural single lane winding roads where you would often have to back up if you met another car, and be sure to stay alert to dodge sheep on the road. No coach buses were allowed on these thank God.

And then there were the roads where grass grew in the middle – I called these the ‘oh shit’ roads. 

Example of a grass lined road- still part of the WAW – oh shit…what if I meet another car…

Navigating Your Route on the Wild Atlantic Way

People told me I would see the blue WAW signs and all I had to do was follow them. 

I was skeptical. 

Mainly because I knew that my mind would be on driving-in-a-new-country synapse overload and my ability to see a sign, comprehend it, and act upon it by myself would be challenging. 

However, I couldn’t simply tell Google Maps to ‘follow the Wild Atlantic Way North’ and have it miraculously understand (now THAT would have been nice). 

Needless to say, I became really, really good at turning around. I missed signs, I was confused by the North/South sign indications as I drove West and East (even though you spend a lot of time going West and East, the WAW signs only run North/South). 

But I came up with a strategy, and then eventually, after about 3 days of ‘crazy person’ driving, my brain started to hone in on those blue signs and understand them before I went blowing by a turn off. Reminding me that once again – you will adapt.

For the day-to-day navigation, I relied heavily on Google Maps. 

Here was my strategy: I’d choose a point on the Wild Atlantic Way near where I wanted to go and just have the app lead me there, and then I’d choose another point, etc. 

Else – if I had left my Google Nav to its own devices, it never would have sent me along the WAW and would have chosen the bigger highways most of the time as my route between point A & B. The other key piece of advice I can give you about navigation (especially if you are driving solo) – get a phone holder to put up on your window – it saved my life many, many times. Nuff said.

Deciphering Road Signs in Ireland on the Wild Atlantic Way

One of my most entertaining things about driving in a foreign country is trying to decipher the road signs. On this trip, it was like solving a 1,500 mile long puzzle. 

Many of the ‘cation curves ahead’ signs were just jagged arrows that I wasn’t sure if I should take them literally, or if the Irish had something against a curved line. Most of the time the curves were timid, but the alarming signs worked since it did make me slow down in confusion!

After I had passed the same confusing sign multiple times over the week I’d normally have an ‘a-ha’ moment where it would suddenly make sense. But there were a few signs I never quite managed to grasp.

Traffic Calming Signs

I never really did understand the Traffic Calming signs in Ireland. All of a sudden you’d see a big sign that read “Traffic Calming Ahead”. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I envisioned everyone slowing down and drinking green tea, and maybe getting a little shoulder massage in these traffic calming areas. It did always bring a smile to my face instead my normal stressed out look – so maybe the sign was indeed doing its job.

Parking Signs (and the better way to figure out how to park in Ireland)

I gave up trying to understand the parking signs and pretty quickly started following the leads of locals. The local way? Park anywhere. It didn’t matter which side of a street or if you were double parked, you simply parked wherever you felt like it. I liked this Irish system and decided we should do more of this in the US…oh – and we should also all drink more Guinness in the US.

Speed Limit Signs

I was positive Ireland only manufactured one speed limit sign – every one of them read 100 km/hr (62 mph) – EVERY one. They had them everywhere on these tiny little single lane roads. In fact they’d even have the 100 kph signs 30 feet in front of a 90 degree curve!

It may feel like you are learning to drive all over again when you drive in Ireland, but that’s part of the fun. 

The biggest thing to remember is that you WILL adapt to the conditions and the changes in a couple of days and everything will feel pretty normal in no time. 

And for goodness sakes, skip those coach buses! Instead of feeling like you are just getting from point A to point B, when you drive yourself driving becomes part of the adventure.

Places to See Along the Wild Atlantic Way

Now – to the fun stuff! Like any road trip, the Wild Atlantic Way is as much about the time you spend outside the car as in it. So it’s important to make sure you stop to see the incredible sites, go on some adventures, and get into the local culture. 

Some of my favorite stops were the ones I didn’t really plan, such as Bantry House and the Dunbeacon pottery shop. I also loved to photographing abandoned areas like the Muckross Abbey and the Ryan’s Daughter movie set.

I’ve made some lists on Trover that go in-depth on many sights and outdoor adventures I did on the Wild Atlantic Way, and I’ve embedded them below, but first, I want to highlight some especially good stops along the WAW route. 

Mizen Head’s Secret Beach

Mizen Head is Ireland’s most southwesterly point, and as such, it’s very popular. But this area of the Wild Atlantic Way is much more than that. Between tiny farming communities and grazing areas, you’ll find some of the nicest beaches in Ireland without a single person present.

Dunbeg Promontory Fort

The views at the Promontory Fort were stunning, however they were also challenging to appreciate as my guide Linda and I were being pelted by wind and rain while standing on the edge of the cliff overlooking the old DunBeg fort built in 500BC.

Between gale force winds, she pointed out all of the old construction techniques of such forts as the well-known beehive huts. The fort served as the last defense against intruders – as the only place left to go was over the cliff and into the Wild Atlantic.

Hiking in the Dingle Peninsula

There are lots of incredible stops to make on the Dingle Peninsula, but I highly recommend stopping to hike along Sleahead Drive. I started near the Blaskett Visitor Center in Dunquin and followed the well marked signs hiking along the coast. The views were stunning of the Blaskett Islands and the pounding surf.

Muckross Abbey

If you like abandoned places, then don’t miss the Muckross Abbey. I adore photographing and exploring abandoned sites and this abbey didn’t disappoint. 

Most everyone comes to the Muckross House to see the house and gardens, but few people take the short hike out to the abbey.

The abbey was founded in 1448 by Donal McCarthy Mor. The ruins of the church, cloister, and courtyard tell the story of the 15th century home to the Observatine Franciscan Monks and their century long struggle. 

Wander around the cemetery outside the abbey (which is still in use today) and then go inside to see the various tombs and climb up to the upper levels to explore this beautiful old structure from above. The centerpiece of the ruins is the yew tree which stands in the center of the cloisters; weathered, twisted, and majestic.

Cliffs of Moher Coastal Walk

Instead of just going to the Cliffs of Moher visitor Center area to take the same photos everyone takes and fight the crowd, I suggest you walk along the Cliffs of Moher and see much more than just the visitor center section and escape the crowds.

The walk actually is a portion of Ireland’s Burren Way Trail and links the villages of Liscannor and Doolin. And right in the middle of the two villages along the Burren Way is the Cliffs of Moher visitor center. The total distance is about 8 miles.

Tip: Be sure to bring some rain gear, as the weather can change rapidly during the walk!

Black Head Hike on the Burren

I began this 13 km hike perched high up on Black Head, a local name given to this Northwest section of the Burren in County Clare. 

The Burren (meaning Great Rock) is one of the most alien-like places I’ve been in the world. The landscape is made up of limestone pavements with criss-crossing cracks known as “grikes”, leaving isolated rocks called “clints”. This is a fascinating part of the world with more than 90 megalithic tombs in the area, portal dolmens, a Celtic high cross, and a number of ring forts.

This Burren hike is a combination of green trails through farms and livestock, and sections of paved country roads. This gives it great variety and challenge for a day hike.

Clifden Castle

A casualty of Ireland’s historical land and tenant issues, Clifden Castle is crumbled but still stands on the cliffs of the Wild Atlantic Way. John D’Arcy, the founder of the town of Clifden built the castle for his family of 14 children. A British landlord bought the castle and managed the land and tenants until the 1920’s when the government divided up the lands and sold them leaving the castle to fall into disrepair.

Park the car and take the 20 minute walk down a muddy path through fields of livestock to find a little piece of Connemara History.

Surfing in County Sligo

It may be chilly and wild water, but there are plenty of options all up and down the County Sligo coast along the Wild Atlantic Way to surf. 

If you are looking for a good beginning spot, then go to Enniscrone Beach and you’ll find a number of surf schools and a great learning environment. If you’re looking for something more advanced, then just drive north of Enniscrone until you find a good break, pull over and enjoy! That’s where I found this guy from France riding waves.

For even more places to stop on the WAW, check out this in-depth list I made on Trover. It’s got all my favorite stops, and a map is even provided to get you to each of these places!

It’s great to drive on the Wild Atlantic Way, but it’s even more fun to stop and really experience it from the cliffs and from the water.

I kayaked, jumped off cliffs, and did a lot of hiking in all kinds of weather. Here’s a Trover list of my favorite outdoor adventures along the WAW that you can do.

Best Places to Stay On the Wild Atlantic Way

By far my favorite places to stay were the little family owned B&B’s along the way. It was at those little homes where I had the most fun and got the best local advice and tips. 

Plus, as a solo traveler it was a super way to socialize. The Irish are so kind and welcoming, and they love to show off their home. 

I never made reservations more than a day in advance, however I was traveling in October, an off season. If you are traveling during the summer, I suggest that you book ahead more than a few days in advance as the B&B’s are small and fill up fast.

Some of the owners even did my laundry, let me borrow rain pants, went to dinner with me, took me to visit their family, and more. 

The hotels I stayed at were nice, but they just couldn’t compete with the hospitality of the B&B’s along the way.

Here’s a few of my favorite places I stayed along the Wild Atlantic Way:

Kells Bay House – Ring of Kerry

Enjoy the Ring of Kerry views as you sip on Thai iced tea for a nice change of pace from Irish fish and chips. Stop at the Sala Thai restaurant at Kells Bay House and Gardens along the Ring of Kerry. Not only will you get delicious papaya salad, you will also feel a bit Southeast Asia tropical as you wander through the extensive subtropical gardens filled with ferns, palm trees, and other surprising plants. And if you really love it, then plan to stay the night in the lovely Kells Bay House.

Read reviews of Kells Bay House

Dolphin Guest House – Connemara

Dolphin Beach House is perched out on the Sky Drive along the Wild Atlantic Way. Let me just warn you, the road to Dolphin Beach house was one of the most exhilarating, fun drives I did on the Wild Atlantic Way. Grass grew between the tire tracks –indicating this road was the smallest of small – the kind that requires you to back up if you meet a car. You know your going someplace great when it’s hard to get there! The guesthouse was cozy and comfortable – It felt like a home. You could tell it was a family run business through and through. My room was large, beautifully designed and had a lovely patio that had a path leading to the gardens and water. They even set a little table for my morning breakfast that looked out over the sea cliffs.

Read Reviews of Dolphin Guest House

Bantry House B&B – Sheepshead /Beara Peninsula

Take a step back in time and transport yourself to Ireland in the 1800’s. Stay in the east wing of the historic Bantry House. Live the life of a wealthy land baron, walk through the extensive gardens, sit by crackling fires, and get special access/use of the library and billiard rooms in the museum. This is a unique way to experience a bit of Irish history and is a super location for exploring Sheeps Head and Beara Peninsulas

Read Reviews of Bantry House B&B

Ceol Na Mara B&B – Sligo

There was a knock at my door of the Ceol Na Mara Guesthouse, when I opened the door Jim, the owner, was there to welcome me to the house. I loved this personal touch that you don’t seem to get at the big hotels. Once Jim found out that I was a photographer, he insisted that I go and take photos of Enniscrone’s lovely beach just behind the B&B. He was very passionate about his town and it’s landscape. After a leisurely breakfast looking out on the dunes (which hid the beach from my view), I went out walking with my camera. I walked up to the top of the dunes and was stunned by the sheer size of the beach! It seemed to go on forever as lazy waves rolled in and out. Even though it was chilly in October, there were an abundance of surfers out taking lessons from one of the many surf schools in town. I found myself wanting to stay longer thanks to the great location of the B&B and Jim’s hospitality.

Read Reviews of Ceol Na Mara

Glenview Guesthouse – Donegal

Marie and Mickey welcome you into their farm home in the rolling hills of Burnfoot with a warm pot of tea, biscuits, and fresh fruit. After traveling around Ireland for 2 weeks, I took the opportunity to stay in the countryside at Glenview House. It was a great change of pace. My room was cozy and beautifully designed. Marie and Mickey gave me local travel tips and restaurant advice, however my highlight was the morning breakfast with smoked salmon and wild mushrooms from the region.

Read Reviews of Glenview Guesthouse

Meadowfield B&B – County Clare

Breda from Meadowfield B&B will provide a warm welcome to Ballyvaughan. I felt like I immediately had a mother taking care of me as she helped me figure out things to do, places to eat and even did my laundry! It’s a great spot to use as a base for all of the hikes and sightseeing around the Burren. After my day long hike on the Burren, Breda welcomed me back ‘home’ with a hot fire, hot toddy, and homemade scones. I loved getting spoiled at Meadowfield!

Read Reviews of Meadowfield B&B

For more details of my experiences, here’s a list of my favorites accommodations on Trover with info on their location and owners.

What to Eat and Drink Along the Route

I spent a lot of time going to local pubs and eating a lot of fish and chips, burgers, and seafood soup.

However, there were a few new things I tried too, such as learning how to adore vinegar on fries. The more the better! 

I also of course had my share of Guinness and Murphy’s Irish Stout (the other Guinness). 

There were a few culinary gems that really stood out to me that I suggest you try. Here were my favorites that were a bit more unique than the average pub food in a list on Trover.

Driving in Ireland: The Wild Atlantic Way (Map + Route Guide) was originally published in Otts World

Follow Sherry Ott @ottsworld

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