Ireland seems the perfect destination for a whirlwind road trip. However, our advice would be to take it slow if that’s your destination of choice. While you can rush from place to place around Ireland and you’ll have some nice photos, you’ll miss the essential element of the country.
The joy of Ireland is finding a pub (that’s not a hard ask) and visiting it each evening over a few days. The first time you’ll be treated cordially as a tourist. The second time you’ll find yourself in genuine conversations. The third time you’ll be a friend and part of a tight social circle. It’ll be hard to leave.
Fortunately, Ireland isn’t very large so you can find a town and do a lot of exploration each day before returning for the evening. It would be tempting to pick somewhere on the Ring of Kerry, the almost mandatory designated tourist route in the west of the country. However, you’ll get as tired of the endless procession of the tourist coaches as the locals must.
A scenic alternative is the town of Dingle out on the Dingle Peninsula. Yes it’s a tourist destination but it’s beautiful and there’s a lot to see, the music scene is great and anyone who stays for a few days will be well appreciated.
The small town of Dingle provides a unique insight into the Irish lifestyle
Up at the top of the island, and spanning both Northern Ireland and the Republic is the scenic route from Derry to Donegal. Part of this (the Donegal section) is known as the Wild Atlantic Way and it’s becoming increasingly popular. It covers a world of cultural and natural attractions.
Of course, if you start in Derry, as many do, the route takes you from one country to another and only a few decades ago this border was heavily fortified. Today the border is so vague that you’ll probably only notice you’ve crossed it when you see the phone booths and post boxes have changed from red to green – and you need Euros not Pounds in the shops.
For a touch of luxury, consider a stay at Rathmullan House, a Georgian house built on Lough Swilly, north of Letterkenny in County Donegal. It feels very “Lords of the Manor” yet there’s a wild beauty along the shore outside.
The tiny town of Crolly was where Enya grew up. Leo’s Tavern may have given her her love of music and her platinum disks are displayed on the walls.
One of the quaintest towns in the north of the Republic is Donegal Town on the River Eske in County Donegal. The major industry of the town is tweed, and that’s on display – and sale – everywhere. Donegal suffered so much in the 1850s that a Donegal Relief Fund was set up in NSW and many residents emigrated to Australia. Whether seeking your ancestors or just sightseeing, a short walk from the castle to the abbey reveals much of the prettiness of the town.
The town is on Donegal Bay and if you take a boat tour on the bay you’ll be following in the footsteps of Vikings. Donegal takes it’s name from the Irish Dun nan Gall meaning the “Fort of Foreigners” from the time when Vikings established a stronghold here.
The Slieve League has some of the highest cliffs in Ireland
While there’s grand scenery everywhere, there’s one that dominates: The Giant’s Causeway to the east of Derry in Northern Ireland. This World Heritage-listed site is more than 40,000 perfectly formed hexagonal basalt columns spilling down into the sea in County Antrim. Legend has it that it was built by the giant Finn MacCool as a shortcut to Scotland but spoilsport geologists say it’s the remarkably uniform remnants of contracted molten lava from 80 million years ago creating 40,000 hexagonal columns.
To get to the Giant’s Causeway you turn off the A2 at the town of Bushmills. Now that may be a name familiar to drinkers of Irish whiskey (note the “e”). Bushmill’s Distillery was first granted a licence in 1608 and still exclusively uses the water from the nearby Saint Columb’s Rill, a stream that’s a tributary of the River Bush. There are daily tours, unless maintenance is under way, and drinkers will be heartened to know that there’s a gift shop.
Hexagonal basalt columns of the Giant's Causeway
Wild Atlantic Way
The Wild Atlantic Way consists of six regions. Up around Donegal is the Northern Headlands, the Surf Coast, the Bay Coast, the Cliff Coast, the Southern Peninsulas (including Dingal) and finally, on the southern side, the Haven Coast. There’s a lifetime of exploration there.
Killybegs, to the west of Donegal Town, is Ireland’s principle fishing port and fishing is an industry that has also featured much in Irish plays. The Maritime and Heritage Centre explains the close relationship. The Slieve League sea cliffs further west are the highest in Europe, soaring 600 metres above the North Atlantic. It’s a grand place to take a walk for some wonderful views and, quite often, a lot of weather.
Of course, back in Northern Ireland, Derry has a wealth of history, too, and some of it is awful. Indeed, even its name is controversial: to Ireland it’s Derry, to England it’s Londonderry.
Experience Ireland's rich culture through the many cathedrals
In 2011 a new bridge was completed across the city’s River Foyle named the Peace Bridge and that's symbolic of the new mood in the city as it links Nationalist Cityside with the Unionist Dockside. It’s worth taking a tour to lean the convoluted history.
Overall, Derry is one of Europe’s most impressive walled cities – and the only one in Ireland that is fully intact. You can walk most of the circumference of the city along the top of the 400-year-old wall that’s 10 metres wide in parts. No wonder it’s never been breached. There are just seven gates but still 24 canons in place.
But it’s more the “craic” – the spirit of the city that impresses. In 2013 it was the first UK City of Culture. Walk around town of an evening until you hear music and when you venture inside you’ll find a joyous culture. Peadar O’Donnell’s at 59 Waterloo St has the reputation as the best music pub in town.
Indeed, craic is probably going to be the most lasting memory you’ll bring home. The castles and cathedrals may merge but the strangely unique Irish hospitality and joy of life will endure.
Have you been on a road trip around Ireland? Share your stories below.