The Republic of Ireland’s phenomenally popular Wild Atlantic Way takes in a dizzying 2500km coastal route from Cork to Donegal, but not all of us have three weeks to get behind the wheel – and no visitor to Ireland should miss out on the ribboning roads that skirt secluded mountains and the rolling farmland of the lush green hinterland.
Rough Guides author Rachel Mills sets out to find six spectacular routes that can easily be tackled in a day.
1. Dublin to the Wicklow Mountains, Co Wicklow
Head south of Dublin and make for the village of Bray, then take the R117 to the village of Enniskerry, drinking in the views of the Great Sugar Loaf mountain looming large on the skyline.
Don’t miss the formal Italian gardens and Ireland’s highest waterfall at Powerscourt Estate, before continuing your journey to Glencree and the Military Road (R115), which climbs towards the panoramic Sally Gap.
Stark scree slopes are all around, and the remote monastic site of Glendalough, “the valley of the two lakes”, is one of the most memorable stops in the Wicklow Mountains. Return to Dublin via the picturesque village of Roundstone, 220m above sea level.
Best for: city folk who want a rural experience.
Duration: an entire day.
Insider tip: the Wicklow Mountains National Park Information Office, at the eastern end of Glendalough’s Upper Lake, has details of local walks and runs free guided nature tours.
2. Beara Peninsula and Healy Pass, Co Cork
From Glengarriff, your route takes in the service town of Castletownbere, beyond which is the Dzogchen Beara Buddhist Meditation Centre, which has a café and blissful meditation garden that overlook the Atlantic.
At the very tip of this craggy outcrop into the Atlantic, you can ride the ancient cable car across to tiny Dursey Island. Continuing to the north of the peninsula, the start of the wild R575 has spectacular views of crashing waves on one side, and gorse-covered mountains on the other; remote Allihies has an interesting mining history and stunning loop walks.
Those who continue on the winding road to Kenmare miss out on the magnificent Healy Pass, a lonesome road of hairpin bends where the wind whistles through the rocks and unbelievable vistas unfold below.
Best for: coastal landscape junkies.
How long: an entire day.
Insider tip: overnight in Allihies, and spend a couple of days on the peninsula.
Healy Pass © walshphotos/Shutterstock
3. Lough Derg, Co Clare, Co Galway and County Galway
The shoreline of one of Ireland’s biggest lakes is dotted with sleepy countryside villages and towns. Start out at the south of Lough Derg, in historic Killaloe, and visit the Brian Boru Heritage Centre on the stone bridge that leads to twin town Ballina.
Take the R463 and R352, which hug the shoreline, to the scenic village of Mountshannon with its marina and pretty beach. If there’s time, take a boat trip out to the ancient monastic settlement of Holy Island, otherwise push on for laidback market town Portumna, with its castle, friary ruins and forest park.
The winding country road takes in various Tipperary towns and villages. Then, just after Portroe, The Lookout viewpoint offers a stunning panorama of the lake fanning out below. Return to Ballina, where you can take a cruise.
Best for: those who want to visit charming lakeside villages.
Duration: half a day.
Insider tip: of the twin towns of Ballina and Killaloe, it’s Ballina that has the best places to stay and eat.
The Ring of Kerry is famous worldwide, but if you venture off the tourist trail, there are still little-known corners to discover. Veer off south from Cahersiveen to take a clockwise 40km loop to Waterville.
There are superb viewpoints, not least from the rugged Coomanaspic Pass, where you can see the windswept outcrops of the Skellig Islands, Skellig Michael and Small Skellig. Skellig Michael can be visited in the summer months, and was the location of recent filming for Star Wars.
Best for: Star Wars fans.
How long: 2 hours.
Insider tip: the Butler Arms Hotel in Waterville was booked out for the cast and crew of Star Wars Episode VII in 2014, and again in 2015, for Episode VIII.
5. Burren Coastal Road, Co Clare
Starting from the harbour village of Ballyvaughan, the road skirts Galway Bay and climbs to desolate Black Head; pull over at Murroughtoohy to take in dramatic karst limestone pavements and a huge expanse of sea and brooding sky.
Next stop is Fanore Beach and its sand dunes, and then Doolin, famous for traditional music and the ferry to the Aran Islands. South of Doolin are the towering Cliffs of Moher, well worth adding to the itinerary.
Best for: those who see beauty in a bleak landscape.
Duration: 2 hours.
Insider tip: sessions at Gus O’Conners pub in Doolin are legendary.
6. Sky Road, Co Galway
This short and exhilarating loop route clings to the hillside, with the ocean crashing below. The narrow road climbs up from bustling and colourful Clifden, taking in wild and rugged scenery before splitting into the Upper and Lower Sky Roads (take the upper, with views of offshore Inishturk, Turbot and High Island).
The pinnacle is after five or so kilometres, before the road turns back along the north coast of this narrow sliver of land.
Best for: those who want a short white knuckle ride.
Duration: 1 hour.
Insider tip: it’s very narrow in places so take it slow – cars give way to tour buses.
Top image © Lukasz Pajor/Shutterstock
Thanks also to Rough Guide to Ireland co-author Paul Clements for his contributions to the article.