Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way counts itself among the world’s longest defined coastal routes.
Beginning at Mizen Head, the southernmost point of the island, the WAW stretches north for 1500 miles (2500km), hugging the rough and jagged coastline of western Ireland. Its endpoint is Malin Head, the northernmost tip on the Inishowen Peninsula.
This past August I set out to bicycle from point to point.
Most people who ride the WAW do so in small sections for a week at a time. It’s rare for someone to cover the whole thing in one swoop; in fact I couldn’t find a single tour company that did so. That didn’t stop me, of course, it just meant doing it on my own.
I gave myself a month to complete it and planned at least one rest day between each 70-100 mile ride.
I like to joke that planning is the death of adventure. Luckily for folks like me, the official WAW tourist website is incredibly detailed.
For this trip I built a framework of basics (daily destination itinerary, sleeping arrangements found on Booking.com, and bicycle rental) and created bike route maps on Ride With GPS, a popular cycling app.
Then I let the rest unfold in real time.
Solo travel broadens us. It makes us braver. And my affinity for under planning, I tell myself, just adds to that.
TIP! Get an unlimited international data plan for you cell phone if you plan to use apps like Ride With GPS, Strava and/or GoogleMaps. They use a lot of memory. A portable battery charger will also come in handy while you’re out on the road for long stretches.
The squiggly pink line on the map above shows the entirety of the Wild Atlantic Way including every nook, cranny, peninsula, and offshoot. One tip I took to heart from the WAW website was that it is unnecessary or perhaps overindulgent to think you’ll actually follow every one.
Along the way, I picked what looked most interesting and admittedly took some inland shortcuts when the never-ending peninsulas became redundant. So while I did start in Kinsale, County Cork at the red star on the bottom and end in Londonderry, County Donegal at the top, this was ultimately a rough trajectory of my actual route.
TIP! A common decision for cyclists is to journey from south to north. This is due to wind resistance.
With the help of Paul Kennedy, owner of Wild Atlantic Cycling based in Belfast, I arranged to rent a bicycle from Northern Ireland and have it shuttled to my starting point down south in Cork. This service incurred an additional fee but it solved my need for a one-way rental.
I rode a sturdy frame Ridgeback touring bicycle with a back wheel pannier rack and saddlebags on each side packed with clothes, toiletries and my Macbook Air laptop.
The rental (known as ‘bike hire’ in Ireland) came with a puncture repair kit for under the seat, and I brought my own small handlebar pack to hold my phone and snacks. Other than the cycling kit, shoes and helmet I wore, that was everything I had on me for the month.
TIP! Brakes on European bikes may be opposite to what you’re used to. In the US, the right hand controls the rear brake but in Ireland it’s the left one that does so.
You’ll cross through nine counties along the Wild Atlantic Way and no matter what time of year you go, you’re guaranteed to be in for some high winds and rain—they just come with the territory.
On Day 3 in Baltimore, County Cork after a particularly blustery ride, I looked out the window at violently flapping flags and saw a canopy almost ripped off its frame.
I said to my innkeeper, “At home we would call this a hurricane but to you guys it’s just Thursday.”
Her response was polite but to the point. In her thick Irish accent she replied, “Well we don’t call it the Wild Atlantic Way fer’ nuthin’.” Touché.
Most days the sun will peek through for a bit, but be sure to pack lightweight, brightly colored rain gear.
My bike rental also came with yellow waterproof pannier covers, which were great for visibility. July and August are the warmest months, which translates to mid-sixties Farenheit (around 20℃), and this does make a big difference when you’re wet on a regular basis. Soaked through, sure, but at no point did I feel cold. The near-constant climbing will also help keep you warm. Overall elevation gain averaged 3,000-6,000ft (900-1800m) per ride.
TIP! Don’t forget you’ll be riding on the left side of the street! Take caution at every intersection by looking all directions before crossing, especially until you get comfortable with the opposite traffic flow. After about a week I felt confident, but I still remained cautious in busier downtown sections and would occasionally find myself drifting towards the right shoulder on the longer, emptier country roads. Stay alert!
On Day 6 I arrived in Killarney for a rest day and got my first real taste of traditional Irish music at the Killarney Grand Hotel. From the outside you’d never think to give it a chance, but the locals know this is the place to be for the best music in town and it’s regularly filled beyond capacity.
“Trad” is common shorthand for “traditional” which you’ll see on pub signs and posters. Irish Trad is often a quartet consisting of fiddle, guitar, accordion or concertina, and bodhrán, a handheld drum played with a wood or nylon brush beater.
The Irish are very cordial, particularly on the West Coast where one feels catapulted back in time. Taking in the community vibe as everyone dances around the musicians is an experience not to be missed. Kick back a pint of Guinness or Murphy’s and you’ll likely be welcomed to join in.
Solo female travelers with a level head and a saddlebag full of common sense are unlikely to encounter danger here. It’s more of a piqued interest and confusion you might find from the many friendly strangers who will want to say hello.
“Why in the world would you want to come here alone?” was a common question I received, though I never figured out if they were stressing here or alone.
It can make for a great conversation starter.
Innkeepers, bartenders, farmers—everyone you meet will show an interest in your story and tell you fun ones of their own. Irish people are an incredibly self-deprecating lot with a charming touch of hopelessness mixed in with their otherwise cheery disposition. Every day of my journey was met with at least one overly courteous and obliging B&B owner or a flock of clueless sheep. On the West Coast, rush hour is accepted to be the time at which a farmer herds a flock of sheep across a narrow country road in front of your car (or bicycle).
By Day 9, I was cruising out to Dingle Bay, where the sheep count did not disappoint. Dingle itself is a bustling tourist-friendly village, but the rest of peninsula is an emerald patchwork of farms with bright white sheep dotting miles of hills that roll dramatically into the sea.
The country’s largest Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) region—don’t worry, everyone also speaks English—this area is full of history and the ruins of ancient clocháns, also known as beehive huts. They’re thought to date back to the 12th century and seem to have been used for shelter from the biting wind and rain that blasts the coast from the Atlantic Ocean.
Slea Head Drive out to the Blasket Islands makes for an absolutely stunning ride, just be mindful of the many tour buses you’ll encounter along the way. Take a tour of the Blasket Centre while you’re out there to learn more about the history of the Irish language.
Downtown Dingle has built itself up in recent years to become home to a thriving arts community. Penny’s Pottery is a great place to find handmade ceramics. Strand Street, the town’s main harbor thoroughfare, is lined with gift shops to fit every tourist’s needs from Aran wool sweaters to handmade music instruments and everything shamrock.
Even Fungie, the local bottlenose dolphin who lives in the bay, is so popular he warrants his own booking office.
Incredible Irish fiddle playing can be found just off the main drag at O’Sullivan’s Courthouse Pub, a bright teal blue building located on The Mall. You’ll have to take a few turns off the main drag to find this gem and it’s worth it! O’Sullivan’s rivals the Killarney Grand for best Irish Trad any day of the week.
Counties Clare and Galway
There is no denying the tea and scones in Ireland. A word to the wise here: eat the scones. Every. Chance. You. Get. Especially when you’re burning so many calories on the bike!
For the best of the best, be sure to ride through the village of Liscannor as you make your way to the Cliffs of Moher and search for the Copper Pot Artisan Bakery.
A little further up the road you’ll find the seaside village of Doolin where you can take a perfect day trip by boat to the Aran Islands. Stepping off the gangplank into the harbor of Inisheer, the closest and smallest of these islands, will feel as though you’ve stepped into an old world. O’Brien’s Castle, believed to have been built in the 14th century, is can be reached on foot from the harbor or you can hire a traditional pony and trap driver to show you around.
On the far side of the island visit the Plassy Shipwreck. A trawler run aground at Finnis Rock in the 1960’s, the boat is wedged into rocks and rusted through.
On the way back from the Aran Islands your boat will cruise past the infamous giant Cliffs of Moher. Taking them in from the sea is a fantastic way to avoid the crowds and buses up top at the visitor’s center. As one of Ireland’s top tourist destinations, the cliffs receive around a million visitors per year.
From there your next stop is Galway. Home of the National University of Ireland, Galway boasts a lively downtown with shopping, art exhibits and festivals, and a gorgeous bay. After weeks in the quiet countryside convening with cows and sheep, it will be a breath a fresh air to experience the urban environment of Ireland’s fourth largest city. An easy walk around town will bring you to 300 year-old Eyre Square, Spanish Arch, the Galway City Museum and more.
The Latin Quarter comes alive at night with street performers on every corner.
On Shop Street you’ll find an array of inviting pubs featuring a never-ending lineup of traditional Irish musicians. Don’t miss a chance to catch a performance at Quay’s Bar. Galway’s quintessential pub has been entertaining locals and tourists for almost 400 years!
After Galway get ready for County Mayo, Ireland’s jewel of the north.
Long, almost empty stretches of road will lead you through dramatic verdant landscapes that meet the ocean with Ireland’s highest cliffs.
TIP! Grocery stores and food options are sparse in this area. Plan ahead with ample sustenance for the ride.
Achill Island is a holiday destination for many Irish families. The winds are strong out here, which makes it a top pick for world-class kiteboarders. While on the island you can visit the stunning turquoise water at Keem Bay. Relatively quiet overall, the small village of Keel has a few cafes and art galleries. Cyclists are made to feel very welcome at Pure Magic Lodge.
On your way out of Achill Island you’ll be back in sheep country.
As you continue to ride north, you can hook up with the Great Western Greenway. Even though trucks and buses are uncommon in the northwest corner, this 26-mile (42km) hard pack gravel bike path is a welcome respite from the open road. It cuts through existing farmland winding its way through sheep pastures really bringing you up close and personal with the roaming herds!
TIP! Sheep are neither bright nor inquisitive. They stand still and glassy-eyed until you get close, at which point they startle and run in whatever direction you’re going. Better to dismount and walk through an unattended flock.
The ancient Céide Fields are on the north side of County Mayo in Ballycastle.
Buried under the bog lies the world’s oldest known system of walls dating back to the Stone Age. This historical site has a café and an award-winning museum offering in-depth walking tours. A little further east, take a left at Downpatrick Head. A narrow twisting road leads you through cow pastures to a parking lot. From there walk up the hill and cross the open field until signposts warn about the cliff edge. Almost as if it rises up to greet you, you’ll see the 350 million-year-old Dun Briste Sea Stack topping out high above the sea.
Overall, the Wild Atlantic Way is well marked and easy to follow and directional signs show the WAW logo.
In the end, I made it from point to point and completed just over one thousand rugged miles on the bike.
This is a great time to visit the Wild Atlantic Way because it is still finding its feet as a major tourist destination. Pubs, coffee shops, museums and galleries are popping up everywhere, yet it’s still not crowded. Marketing campaigns have brought an uptick in visitors in recent years and this is bound to continue due to increased advertising by the Irish board of tourism.
Should you choose to take on this journey you will be challenged to your limit with elevation gain and unforgiving weather. Rising up to the challenges will be well worth it considering so much of your journey will look like this.
Jennifer Lynch is a travel writer and memoirist living in Boulder, CO. This past fall she published her first book, FUCK CANCER: A Tale of Love Pouring in from Every Angle. Her work has been featured in elephant journal, Boulder Daily Camera, and Colorado’s 5280 Magazine. Follow Jennifer’s next cycling adventure through the Spanish Pyrenees from Girona to Bilbao at Travel Cycle Write or on Facebook.