Road trip up the Wild Atlantic Way: Killarney, Galway, the Aran Islands, and Connemara

Ever since I watched Gerard Butler serenade Hilary Swank in  P.S. I love you, Ireland has captured my imagination, conjuring romantic fantasies of rolling green hills and cozy wooden pubs where charming Irishmen strum the banjo all day. Ten years later, my best friend Katie and I finally found ourselves on a much anticipated road trip up Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way from Killarney to Galway.

We hit the runway in Cork at 10am on Monday morning, and by lunchtime we had checked in to the Abbey Lodge in Killarney. The lodge was a quaint guesthouse with red carpets, spacious rooms, and a good hearty Irish breakfast on the Ring of Kerry, just a three-minute walk from downtown Killarney. Although we were famished, the allure of the nearby Dingle Peninsula’s fantastic landscapes was too much to resist and we were soon back in the car heading towards the fishing village of Dingle for lunch.

Ireland has yet to reach it’s pre-famine population of 8 million people (the current population is a mere 4.8 Million), and the vast emptiness of the country soon became apparent as we drove along the tiny roads. Despite Ireland’s fame as a land of green rolling hills, I anticipated some effort in finding them, but upon exiting Killarney we were immediately thrust into the heart of the countryside and surrounded by endless undulating fields in brilliant shades of green, separated not by fences but by dark green hedges and flecked with white sheep. It was enough to make us gasp. This soon gave way to the coastline, the green hills now plunging straight into the sea, cows and sheep grazing along the edge with the ocean shimmering grey behind them.

Dingle lived up to its adorable reputation, a rainbow of charming shops and restaurants greeting us as we parked along the main street. We began a slow march up the street but had only gone a block when a tiny purple café advertising a garden and vegetarian food beckoned us in. Minutes later we were seated at one of the four small tables, sipping hot coffee and chai and digging into a delicious plate of thick wheat crepes spread with goat cheese, super sweet roasted cherry tomatoes, local smoked salmon and hashbrowns. What a welcome to Ireland! After lunch we peeked our heads into a row of boutiques full of beautiful hand-knitted blankets, sweaters, and scarves, then continued on our journey to the tip of the peninsula before daylight slipped away.

The scenery became increasingly dramatic the further we went, ancient stone fences lining the road as it curved around hills on the edge of the sea, taking us past tiny villages and breathtaking views that demanded frequent stops to take it all in. As the sky darkened we came full circle, ready to head back to Killarney for our first authentic Irish pub experience.

fullsizeoutput_8939fullsizeoutput_893efullsizeoutput_8946fullsizeoutput_8949fullsizeoutput_894afullsizeoutput_894cfullsizeoutput_8952fullsizeoutput_8954fullsizeoutput_8958Killarney is a small, low-key town lined with shops and restaurants. It’s very touristy due to its proximity to Killarney National Park and the Ring of Kerry, but still friendly, and home to a lively traditional Irish music scene.  Near the end of the main drag we ducked into one of the dark, windowless pubs, and after a hearty meal in the upstairs restaurant were rewarded by exactly the vision we had come for – a traditional music session with a duo singing Irish folk songs in beautiful harmony, accompanied by a guitar and a banjo, to an appreciative crowd. We listened joyfully, toes tapping, in rapt attention for the full two-hour performance, then hummed the notes all the way home to bed.

Irish breakfasts are a treat, and the stack of pancakes and waffles that appeared in front of us the next morning was a glorious start to the day. We had a full itinerary planned, driving around the famed Ring of Kerry circling the Iveragh Peninsula, legendary for its wild beauty. We had been advised to drive in two different directions: clockwise, by the guidebook (against the tour buses), and counter-clockwise, by the rental car agency (with the tour buses). We chose counter-clockwise, but in the end the road turned out to be nearly empty. This direction eased us into the dramatic landscapes, beginning with a pretty but familiar view of yesterday’s distant Dingle Peninsula. We soon turned off on the Skellig Ring detour and crossed over a bridge to Valentia Island, the launching point for the Skellig islands, now famous for the filming of the latest Star Wars in their ancient monastery and home to many colonies of sea birds throughout the year, including puffins.

Our first stop on the island overlooked a brilliant green cliff facing the dark and mysterious Skellig islands in the distance. From there, we turned onto a tiny road climbing steeply up, big enough only for one car hugging the edge of the hill. This led us to a shale mine, once famous for its use in buildings such as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. However, other than a large hole there was not much to see, so we wound our way around the island to the sleepy but beautiful Knight’s Town, the island’s car ferry port. In another happy accident, we stopped for lunch at the first cafe we saw, the bright red Knight’s Town Cafe in the center of town, where again we were surprised with a delicious menu of high quality food. On the terrace, faces turned towards the rare sun that had suddenly appeared from behind the clouds, we had yet another outstanding meal of fresh seafood and produce with home-baked brown bread.

We crossed back over to Portmagee, the 2016 winner of the Irish tourism award, but passed through without stopping until we reached the Kerry cliffs just 3km down the road. The cliffs were formed over 400 million years ago, and at over 1,000 feet tall (305 meters) they offer spectacular views of the Skellig Islands and Puffin Island. After taking in the view we hopped back in the car and began the most spectacular stretch of the drive to Waterville, the road twisting and turning through craggy landscapes with glimpses of the ocean adding blue to the vast stretches of green. It had only taken us an hour to complete the first half of the ring, but the second half took us the entire rest of the day. We stopped near Waterville at a particularly majestic lookout point, also famous for its night skies – this part of the island is an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of the clearest areas in the world for stargazing, and one of only three Gold Tier Dark Sky Reserves on the planet.

Passing next through the town of Killorglin, we noticed a man and his handsome goat perched on a park bench, and pulled over. The goat’s name was King Puck, after the nearby goat statue of the same name. Every year in Killorglin, a wild mountain goat is crowned king and a festival erupts in the town with several days of music and dancing. Thought to have its origins in pagan times, Puck Fair is Ireland’s oldest festival with official records dating back to the early 17th century.

The next stretch of road brought us through a beautiful mountain pass towards the incredible Moll’s Gap. Named after Moll Kissane who set up an síbín (illicit bar) here in the 19th century, the “gap” is an incredible stretch of curving road adorned by a scattering of lakes and the hulking presence of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks mountain range. The sun had disappeared as we came into the gap, but as we passed, a few ambitious rays of light poked holes in the clouds and lit up the valley in an ethereal golden haze.

Finally, we coasted through the remaining serene pastoral landscapes and narrow hedge-lined roads back to Killarney for another musical evening. On our way to dinner we decided to try to catch a sunset over the water at the Ross Castle, just a 30 minute walk from downtown. The castle dates back to the 14th century and is an impressive structure that stands grandly at the edge of the lakes leading to the Gap of Dunloe. Unfortunately, the low clouds made a colorful sky impossible so we walked to town for a quick bite before settling in The Grand pub, recommended by our hotel, where a fantastic band was seated around a table drinking beer and jamming away on their fiddles, banjos, and guitars while the crowd sang and bobbed along.

fullsizeoutput_895efullsizeoutput_8969fullsizeoutput_8970IMG_2700fullsizeoutput_8971fullsizeoutput_8977IMG_2737IMG_2776IMG_2791IMG_2815fullsizeoutput_8986fullsizeoutput_8987fullsizeoutput_898ffullsizeoutput_8990fullsizeoutput_8993fullsizeoutput_8996On our way out of Killarney the next morning we stopped at the beautiful Gap of Dunloe for an early hike. Beginning at Kate Kearney’s cottage, we enjoyed a couple hours of mountains, lakes and curving roads before ending our excursion with a hot lunch at the cottage. Then it was off to Adare for the evening by way of Limerick, passing the time by preparing a series of limericks as we drove, in honor of the occasion.

We had booked a night in the Adare Country House, and were greeted by a fiery Irishwoman and her very gracious husband. The guidebooks touted Adare as one of the most beautiful towns in Ireland, and while the three thatched roof houses were impressive, it did not stand out from many of the other towns we had passed.  Just two blocks long, we saw the entire town in a 30 minute walk and passed the remainder of the afternoon in a café with a slice of dense lemon cake and cream.  After a jaunt to the nearby castle and Riverwalk, we settled on dinner at the The Wild Geese restaurant in the row of thatched roofs.  We were seated in a living room with olives as we waited for our table, our hostess coming to take our drink and food orders as we melted into the big leather couches. Then we were led into the cozy dining room and brought huge portions of risotto and lamb (a particularly notable dish in this area because there are no hills so they don’t build up any muscles), finishing off with a dessert of brownie in its own ice cream.  Back in the hotel, we fell asleep reading guidebooks on Galway, our next destination.

Skies were grey as we wound through an industrial looking area along the Galway Bay before pulling into our BnB, a homey space in the center the city, conveniently located on a quiet back alley. It was lunchtime and we had scouted out a quaint local café called Kai, just a short walk down the street in Western Galway. A modest pale green townhouse from the outside, Kai instantly fulfilled our visions of Galway as we stepped inside, wrapping us up in a cozy wooden interior with shabby chic decor, the wooden tables full of locals enjoying themselves as the rain hit. We were seated at a communal table with three other women and directed to the colorful menu handwritten on a large chalkboard at the back of the restaurant. The seven main dishes showcasing the area’s freshest ingredients all sounded delicious, and thanks to the limited choices we ordered quickly. A basket of thick brown bread and butter and pitcher of sparkling rhubarb lemonade tided us over until our meals were served, and they lived up to their descriptions. After our hearty lunches we approached the back counter, laden with a decadent spread of homemade brownies, cakes, tarts, and pies. Reluctantly realizing that we were quite full, but vowing to stick to the pact we made early on to always order dessert, we settled on sharing a toffee filled brownie. On the way out we made a reservation for dinner the following night.

As a university town, Galway’s diverse student population gives it a young energy, and has made it a hub for culture and events. From humble beginnings as a tiny fishing village, Galway was once the principal Irish port for trade with Spain and France. However, after significant decline at the turn of the 20th century, the city is once again thriving, growing from a population of 13,000 in the early 1900’s to nearly 80,000 nowadays. Its fortified walls, built around 1270, have mostly crumbled, but the downtown is still a charming collection of cobbled streets and brightly colored shop fronts, with a smattering of pubs playing traditional Irish tunes while providing a few pints and plenty of craic (Irish for “a good time”).

We wandered down High street, stopping for an excellent cappuccino at Coffeewerk+Press, a boutique coffee shop with a quirky art gallery on the second floor, before ducking into the charming Tigh Neachtain’s on Cross Street. The cozy wooden pub instantly won us over  with its nooks and snugs tucked around every corner and a good selection of beers on tap. In autumn, winter and early spring, fires crackle while musicians play impromptu sessions of traditional Irish music amid the clink of glasses. Unfortunately, the bartender informed us that there were no performances for the exact duration of our stay, causing a mild panic attack from which we soon recovered.

Determined to find some “trad” (traditional Irish) music, we began a tour of Galway’s other pubs further towards Eyre Square, including Murphy’s Bar and, directly facing it on High Street, Freeney’s. We found a band and settled on some rare stools to enjoy the show. After a couple hours of high energy fiddle and banjo tunes we went for dinner at the wine bar above Tigh Neachtain’s under the same owners. Candlelit and quiet, a decent tapas menu and wine selection satiated our palates, and we were soon back at the pubs, clapping and stomping as the music caused the locals break into spontaneous jigs of joy.

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The next morning, after a standard Irish breakfast of sausage, bacon, eggs, toast, roasted tomato and baked beans, we set out early to catch the day’s first ferry to Inis Mór Island, the largest of the three Aran islands guarding the mouth of Galway Bay. Green fields lined with stone walls guided us along the scenic hour-long jaunt on the Wild Atlantic Way to Rosaveel, where we quickly picked up our pre-booked tickets and joined the queue on the pier. After an hour navigating roller-coaster-like swells, our ferry pulled into harbor at the tiny village of Kilronan as a massive storm blew past, immediately soaking any poor soul who happened to be stepping off the boat. Just as quickly it cleared up, revealing a blue sky and puffy white clouds.

The first building past the pier was a bike rental shop where, for 10 euros, we were allowed to choose a bike from a large pile to keep for the day. Biking is a great way to see the 10 mile long island, as the main form of transportation is still horses and buggies, with just a few cars and tourist minivans on the road. The Aran Islands  are as authentic as Ireland gets. Pastoral settings with grazing horses and sheep, and warm-hearted locals are a respite from the fast-paced modern world. People here live simply, barely changed from centuries ago, the 900 or so inhabitants still inhabiting stone houses and speaking Irish among themselves.

We biked past rugged beaches and green fields separated by a labyrinth of ancient stone walls. Turning down a grass path snaking between walls with no idea where it led, we eventually hit a dead-end where a lone biker sat among a dozen or so bikes stacked against the wall. He directed us to a hole in the wall – the entrance of a path to “the wormhole”- leading through a field with a huge “No Trespassing” sign.  On a scavenger hunt for red arrows painted on the rocky ground, we climbed over boulders and walked across the top of a cliff until we came to a large perfectly square hole in the rock. We watched the angry blue water smash against its sides until a rain cloud drove us back under a ledge, and we retreated to our bikes.

Back at the main road we turned left towards the World Heritage site of Dún Aengus, an ancient fort dating back to 1000 BC, stopping on the way at Teach Nan Phaidi  for lunch.  The stone house was covered wall to wall in beautiful pots full of brilliant flowers, the picnic tables out front full of happy patrons basking in the sun. Despite its remote location on an isolated island with only 900 residents, we had a fantastic meal of fresh, locally caught crab, homemade tomato soup, and two huge pieces of dense Guinness chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting.

Running low on time, we biked to the fort, often referred to as “the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe.”  The rangers seemed surprised at our late attempt to hike to the top, so we hurried up the long, stone trail, culminating in a grand staircase that lead out onto a soft carpet of bright green grass.  At the edge of the 300 foot tall cliff, dropping sharply off into the sea, stood an impressively intact stone fort made of four concentric semicircles opening out to the ocean. We stood as near to the edge as we dared and took in the spectacular scene. Then it was back on our bikes and across the island to the port. As we arrived back at the ferry terminal, a rainbow graced the sky, ending distinctly in the water just off the shore. Then, just as when we arrived, a huge storm drenched the island, sending us off to the mainland.

fullsizeoutput_89a0fullsizeoutput_89a7fullsizeoutput_89a9fullsizeoutput_89b0IMG_3031IMG_3035IMG_3045fullsizeoutput_89b3Following a round of happy hour tunes at the pubs, we returned to Kai for dinner and were surprised to find an entirely different atmosphere, with dim lighting and a printed menu. The food was pricey but delicious. My plate of local fish with caramelized cauliflower, brown butter and hazelnuts was incredible. We shared a velvet cloud (sheep cheese mousse) with white raspberries for dessert. We were lured into a bar on our way home as a patron exited – through the open door we could hear the band shout “all Ed Sheeran fans come on in!!” And of course, who can resist that call?  As a wonderful Irish rendition of “Castle on the Hill” played, we shared a quick dance with a friendly British woman and her husband, then absconded into the night.

Our last day in Ireland began in true Irish fashion – damp and grey. We set out early for Connemara national park and the surrounding seashore in the morning mist.  Aside from the occasional sheep, there were very few others on the road, giving the impression of vast wilderness. As we entered Connemara, the sun peeked through the grey sky, casting shadows across the stark landscape and making the tall green hills glow beautifully.

Just a few miles before reaching Connemara National Park we passed Kylemore Abbey, one of the must-see sights in every guidebook of Ireland. They abbey is a stunningly elegant building set against a forest backdrop on the side of a lake, and is still home to a community of Benedictine nuns. We only stayed for the view, and then continued on to Connemara National Park for a hike. After checking in with the park office we started out on the “blue loop”, an easy 1-2 hour hike that links to the “red loop” up and over the top of a peak called Diamond Hill. The office advised that, besides some potential rain, we would have no issue reaching the summit.  Minutes after turning onto the red trail and beginning our ascent, we were hit by an incredible wind.  By the time we reached the base of the climb up the mountain, the wind was so strong that I could actually lean forward at a 45 degree angle and stay up. It took all my strength not to be blown over sideways. After a brief attempt to continue upwards, a steady stream of hikers began turning around for fear of being blown off, so we opted to follow them all back down and around the rest of the blue trail.  Nonetheless, the hike was gorgeous, passing through a silver sea of grass glinting in the light, tinted with purple shrubs.

We stopped for lunch in Clifden, a market town known for its salmon and oysters,. After sampling the delicious local smoked salmon we followed the Going to the Sky Road, ascending along the edge of the bay until it seemingly ends in the sky, a magnificent view unfolding below. We parked and hiked up into the hills, framing the sea with a carpet of pink and yellow flowers.  At the top we found a lost sheep, calling out and looking at us with head cocked in a manner that seemed to be pleading with us to guide him to his flock. Before we could see him safely home, a storm cloud quickly moved in, forcing us to abandon him to his search and take shelter in the car.

IMG_3120fullsizeoutput_89bcfullsizeoutput_89c0fullsizeoutput_89c3fullsizeoutput_89c4fullsizeoutput_89c9fullsizeoutput_89ccStopping intermittently for different ocean views, we made our way back to Galway for one last night of music. No trip would be complete without a meal at the renound McDonagh’s fish and chips (unless you’re vegetarian), so I ordered a box of cod and onion rings to go, while Katie grabbed a tart from the Gourmet Tart shop. The tart was mediocre, but the fish and onion rings was by far the best I’ve ever had. We culminated the night at Crane’s, in West Galway, where a large group of musicians was jamming in a dimly lit room above the bar. The music pulsed through the room, absorbing us in its energy, the rhythmic Thump Thump of every foot in the room tapping in sync reverberating through our bones. In fact, if I close my eyes, I can still feel it now.

 

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