The Best Driving Tour of Ireland
Ireland continues to change rapidly from the quiet old country it was, just getting electricity for the first time in some areas as late as the mid twentieth century. The economy continues to grow, as does the population, both natural born and immigrated. Since moving to currency to the Euro, Ireland is actually an expensive trip for Americans. Things like smoking in pubs is casualty of the modern way. But in many ways that count Ireland is a preserved jewel. Maybe youíve heard stories or maybe you know for yourself: western Ireland offers some of the most scenically spectacular vistas in the world. I've written about the many subtle reasons why Ireland is my favorite vacation destination. Many find something mystical about the spiritual ancient beauty of the place. There simply isnít anywhere on earth like it. And to be practical, itís also the closest European destination from the east coast of the US Ė only five hours to Shannon.
This article offers in a nutshell some of the finest scenic travel routes in Ireland. The routes outlined here are based the best of a cross reference of the Michelin Guide, Fodorís, Lonely Planet and Rick Stevesí Ireland guide (plus actually driving the roads). Take a look at your own favorite guide book, match it against these suggestions and you should be confident about your plan. (Here is an essay on using commercial travel guides and the internet to plan your trip.) There is added a few gem hotel stops along the way. I write a lot about Ireland on my site, cloudtravel, so Iíll also provide links to some of my Ireland articles that delve into more history and background than this tour outline allows.
Goals of the Tour
The goal is to pack as much of scenic Ireland into one contiguous automotive tour as is reasonably possible. The tour needs to be easily serviced by a major international airport (Shannon) so you can get in and out without hassle. I offer a formula that gets you into the scenery quickly and keeps you in the thick of it. Only a few mediocre highways are included out of necessity. The dud roads are not exactly ugly, but compared with the great, coast-hugging byways featured in this article (like the "black lake" of the Doolough Valley from County Mayo that is pictured above) there is no comparison.
The dud routes in my tour number exactly three and they all concern fast access to the airport or the ferryboat. They are: (1) the essential N18-N20-N21 route direct from Shannon to the base of the Dingle Peninsula, (2) the N69 that zips you from the Dingle Peninsula to the ferry station at Tarbert, and (3) the spine of motorway including the N 84 and the N18 that you can opt to take from Cong through Galway and back to Shannon Airport if you need to make time at the end of your tour.
Needs of the Tour
This tour plan presumes that you are reasonably active and adventurous, but itís not designed for hikers. Itís more for doughnut eaters who want to step out of the car with binoculars to see something spectacular, maybe get some sea spray on them, and then drive on to a nice hotel dinner. Along this tour you can stop the car in any of hundreds of places and walk around and commune with the beaches and the mountains and the farms, but you donít have to walk very much further than the hotel car park to make this work.
You wonít notice many of the miles you cross because of the scenic distraction, but this is, after all, a driving tour and youíll spend some time in the automobile. It isnít like driving five or ten hours at a stretch through the Dakotas, but you'll still want to bring your CD collection. The segments between the destinations in this tour are generally two or three hours apart in pure road time. The longest stretch in the tour is from Shannon Airport to the Dingle Peninsula, which, if done in an unbroken drive would be 110 miles on Irish roads.
Of course, you have to reserve and rent a car out of Shannon Airport to make this work. Perhaps itís surprising for me to report that renting the car in Shannon is pretty easy and less expensive than continental Europe (for example, it costs about $350 per week for a little, manual transmission car from Hertz, including a basic insurance package with a $500 collision deductible). To be sensible about it you should reserve and lock in your rate before you arrange your flight using any of a dozen major rental agencies represented at Shannon (including the well-known monsters, Hertz and Avis). At dinky little Shannon Airport the Hertz guy fills out the paper and literally points to your car waiting in the lot outside. You can get automatic transmission, but reserve early and expect to pay more. For manual transmission the gear slots are the same as the ones you know back home, you just do it with your left hand. It turns out to be surprisingly easy, so long as you can drive manual to start with.
Youíll be driving on the left hand side of the road, which is an adjustment, but certainly not an impediment that should cause you to call off the trip. When youíre on a divided highway, or on one of the many cow-path roads on this tour, you wonít even be able to tell youíre driving on the left. Keeping your bearing requires a simple mnemonic Ė keep the yellow dividing lines on the side closest to where the steering wheel is mounted in your little Irish car.
Now, Iím not recommending this as your best introduction to Ireland, but I have a solution if the left side car thing completely unnerves you. You can book your first night at the serviceable (but not inspiring) Great Southern Hotel that is walking distance from Shannon Airport (e-mail for reservations at: email@example.com). Most flights arrive first thing in the morning. Take a nap and get a shower to freshen from the jet lag. Pick up the car that afternoon at your leisure and give your self parking lot practice (like your old high school driver's education class). Have a night's sleep and head off the next day with confidence.
Pay some attention to what kind of car you rent. I like to drive a little car in Ireland because you are forever squeaking by a car going the other direction on a tiny, paved cowpath road, known as a "boreen." On this tour it is only about 15% of the time that you are on any kind of big highway where a larger car makes you feel significantly more secure. Part of that insecure driving time is right when you leave Shannon, so it may unerve you at first to be driving a little bucket, but you'll have the last laugh. Youíll be on a cow path and glad to be traveling small. Hedge scrapes on your fender are common and this is a place where you want to be sure your credit card or your insurance covers minor collision damage on your rental car.
In addition to your car you need a quality road map, not just that thing you get for free at the car rental counter. Buy a serious Michelin roadmap with every path, sight and intersection marked. I have a map case I use so you can fold the map to the section of the world that is needed and slip it behind clear plastic for easy reference and to avoid spill hazards (here's a sample camouflage-style map case on the internet). I also bring a compass because the roads twist in all directions and the rural routes can be sparsely marked.
Direction and Divisibility
You can slice this tour any way you like. There is no significant advantage to starting south and working north, or the other way around. It isnít required that you go clockwise, or that you visit Loop Head instead of the Cliffs of Moher. You can chop up the itinerary. You could just visit the Dingle Peninsula and forget the rest if you like, or just visit County Clare, or just Galway and Mayo. However, each segment offers something unique and special so I present them in a package. The maritime, Irish-speaking feel of Dingle is completely different than the 18th century elegance of Westport. The dramatic sea cliffs of Clare are totally different from the winding rock walls of the Galway coasts, and nothing on earth is like the rocky Burren.
Starting out of Shannon
From Shannon with a morning to drive you can easily strike out into the heart of County Clare, or make it to Galway without much trouble. However, after a night sitting bolt upright in your airline seat youíll probably be looking most urgently for a shower and a bed. The quickest and simplest accommodations from Shannon along the main route of this driving tour are in the direction of the Dingle Peninsula, so I start with Dingle and work from there.
A quarter hour from Shannon on the N18 motorway you can spend the night in Limerick, which has ample accommodation for a variety of budgets. A nice, familiar option for Americans far from home is Castletroy Park, just outside of town with a bar, two restaurants, a health club and views of the university green. Castletroy is an Americanized resort and conference center, so if you're clammering for traditional Ireland, read the next paragraph before choosing your first night stay.
To get to Dingle from Limerick you take the N21 motorway. Another quarter hour of driving down the N21 brings you right through the middle of the thatched-roof village of Adare. Adare is a more tranquil and perhaps a more memorable alternative for an overnight than Limerick (and the lodging is costlier). Looking for a hotel in Adare, you canít miss the Dunraven Arms, an accommodating, full service hotel with 72 rooms that is along the main drag. But if youíre arriving early with the whole day to luxuriate on 840 acres and act like a baron for a night, stay at the castle setting of Adare Manor. The Earl of Dunraven once lived in this Victorian mansion. It boasts a great golf course and a hundred-foot-long gallery with 36-foot ceilings. Adare Manor has fancy dining, but otherwise the best restaurant on the main drag of Adare is the Wild Geese.
The Dingle Peninsula
From Limerick (or Adare), follow the N21 to Tralee at the base of the Dingle Peninsula. The quickest route to your base, Dingle Town, is a straight shot on the N86. But unless you're dog tired, or unless thereís bad weather and no visibility, try this: take the turn off for the spectacular Connor Pass. This scenic, winding road takes you to over a 1,500 foot pass that gives you a full view of the peninsula from shore to shore. Youíll descend from the clouds into the ageless fishing town of Dingle where you should find lodging for at least a couple of days. Iíve written a page about Dingle and the Connor Pass, which you can read here. The Dingle Way gives you a spectacular tour of the tip of the peninsula with some of the most striking views in western Ireland.
The Cliffs of Clare
County Clare is justly famous for the Cliffs of Moher (here are some images). Further south along the coasts, just south of the local beach town of Kilkee and along to the tip of Loop Head, are some rocky coastlines that are every bit the equal of the Cliffs of Moher, but without the crowds, supervision and admission fees. To get to this coastline from Dingle should be your next move on this driving tour. The trick is to take the ferry between Tarbert and Killimer in order to avoid two hours of driving around the Shannon estuary via Limerick.
From Tralee at the base of the Dingle Peninsula take the N69 to Tarbert. In summer time the ferries make the round trip every hour for about $15 one way for a car and all its passengers. They load up and move out without waiting long. You want to call to check the schedule and adjust your arrival accordingly, rather than miss a boat and become stuck for an hour (353- 659-653124). But even after being stuck for an hour the ferry will still save you an hour over driving all the way around the Shannon. The twenty-minute ferry is fun and scenic. It takes you in sight of the massive coal-burning power plant that supplies 20% of Irelandís electricity.
From Killimer take the N 67 to Kilkee, which is a little touristy for a stay, but there's another oceanside golf course. From here you can take the N67 all the way up the Clare coast to Lahinch, home of another particularly wooly golf course , and the turn off to the Cliffs of Moher. Alternate to driving north from Kilkee is to work south down the spectacular coastal drive. The five mile stretch to Castle Point is the most exhileratingly beautiful, but if you like getting to the very extremes of things follow R487 all the way out to the lighthouse at the tip of Loop Head where puffins cluster on the high cliffs and dolphins swim below. Keatingís bar in nearby Kilbaha claims to be the ďlast bar to New York City.Ē There is a 15 mile coast walk between Kilkee and Loop Head if youíd rather get close to the action.
Motorway R478 from Lahinch will take you past the Cliffs of Moher and on to Lisdoonvarna, a small, unmolested and agreeable Clare village that is home to the matchmaker festival every September (plan accordingly). Lisdoonvarna makes a good regional headquarters. Just outside of Lisdoonvarna is the Ballinalacken Castle Hotel, a family-operated hotel that is ideal to serva as your base. The hotel is on a commanding, sea-view knoll at the ruin of an old OíBrien castle. They serve a nice dinner and have a pub that granddad operates. The Aran Islands are in sight (probably only worth the boat trip in good weather), and the little music town of Doolin is just two miles down the R479. Doolin these days is mobbed with Irish music lovers from all over Europe, but the musicians this year were as lively as ever. The music mob tendency weighs against staying here, though you will see loads of guesthouses around Doolin.
In view of the Ballinalacken Castle is the lunar landscape of Irelandís Burren. If you are staying at Ballinalackin, and if the weather is good, you should make the 10-minute coast drive (R477) and explore the rocky coasts and slate-grey, rock hills that are accented with rock walls. Even if you arenít hiking the grey crags, be certain to take the spectacular R477 drive around Black Head on your way up to Galway City.
From the R477 youíll loop around Galway Bay via the N67 and the N18 to Galway City. Galway is a pleasing place to stay for a night or two, and the location is strategic for this driving tour. Dee and Mark Keoghís Norman Villa is the lodging of choice. With great Fodor's recommendations for years, Norman Villas has evolved into an American headquarters that retains a distinctive and intractable Irish character. When you arrive you will see that the redoubtable Dee has had the brass door fittings polished until you canít read the manufacturer's lettering. Affable Mark will guide your car in to the courtyard and off the street. Ask them for restaurant and town touring advice Ė they will not let you down. Norman Villa, 86 Lower Salthill Road, Galway, Ireland, 353-91-521131 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Rooms starting at approximately $55 per person per night.
From Galway take the R336 coastal road up to Screeb Cross, where youíll turn off on the R340 to stay on the magnificent coastline. The character of the drive changes here and begins to feel even more remote. The coast is absolutely braided with ancient rock walls put up by farmers generations ago as they dug the soil clear of stones and marked their plots. Youíll loop around the R 340 and if you have any sense youíll take the Cashel turn off (R342) and spend a couple of nights in the luxury of the Cashel House. Cashel has 40 acres of grounds with secluded links of exotic gardens and greenhouses. There is a restaurant, tennis court, beach, bicycles and horseback riding can be arranged. The memory of Charles de Gaulle, Cashel Houseís most famous guest, is found throughout the property.
Continuing on the coast road along R342 and on to R341 youíll pass through the scenic town of Roundstone on your way to Clifden, the county seat. In Clifden you are sandwiched between the deep blue sea and the Twelve Bens, the distinguishing mountain range. In this region get used to the distinctive smell of peat, or "turf," from the fireplaces, and you may see them cutting peat from the earth at roadside. Watch your guidebooks closely because a lot of places have closed for business around the vicinity of Clifden (OíGradyís Seafood on the main drag and Erriseask House guesthouse to name two).
Clifden is a pleasant but workaday outpost town. After miles of remote coastline you'll welcome good restaurants, a post office and an internet cafe, but the real draw is just outside of town on the inspiring and aptly named Sky Road (see photo at right). In good weather the views here will impress you with memories for a lifetime. A local favorite accommodation on Sky Road is the casual Dolphin Beach House. If you are feeling more baronial, try Abbyglen Castle Hotel built in1832, which is also on Sky Road. Abbyglen has surprisingly reasonable rates and itís a good spot for Irish music.
The Murrisk and Westport
From Clifden travel east on the N59 past the car-stopping Kylemore Abbey and along the south side of Killary Harbor, Irelandís only true fiord. At Leenane You can either continue on the N59 for speed, or you can take the painfully beautiful R335 along the ďBlack LakeĒ on the Doolough Valley. I wrote of the bloody history of this scenically stunning valley on this page. If the ghoulish past of the valley doesnít frighten you, stay a night at the gorgeous Delphi House along the early part of the route in a nest of hardwood trees along Killary Harbor.
On your way to Westport, either coming or going, be sure to take in the Doolough Valley, but either way the northerly tip of the tour brings you to Westport. Westport is perhaps the prettiest town in a range of three counties and makes a great place to spend a couple of days. The Olde Railway Hotel offers reliable accommodation right in the middle of town. But donít be put off by the prospect of staying a little out of town at the quay of Westport Bay. The Atlantic Coast Hotel is here, and a cracking good seafood restaurant, Quay Cottage.
A natural northeasterly extension of this scenic driving tour is the route from Westport on the N59 out to Achill Island, described in Fodorís guidebook for more than a decade as ďheaven on earth in good weather.Ē Accommodation in Achill may pose a problem, but you could make it a day trip from Westport if youíre hearty.
Return to Galway via Cong
Returning from Westport via Leenane you should take the R336 through beautiful Joyce Country, which is the location of the 1951 John Ford movie, "The Quiet Man." I wrote all about the local filming locations of the movie on this page. This scenic region is an excellent way to travel back to Galway, and then on to Shannon. If you take the turn off to the village of Cong you have the opportunity to stay in the spectacular Ashford Castle (which offers another great golf opportunity). John Fordís movie crew, including John Wayne and Maureen OíHara, took over Ashford Castle during the filming of "The Quiet Man". The castle was built in the 1870s for the Guinness family and is now a super luxury castle hotel of the once-in-a-lifetime variety (for most of us). Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland, tel. 353-92-46003, fax 353-92-46260 (see www.ashford.ie). Rooms in summer season from approximately $230 per night and in low season from $170 per night.
From Cong you take a relatively dull route (R346 to R334 to the N84) for the most direct path back to Galway. You may want to stay a night in Galway or push on down the N18 closer to Shannon and your airport escape.
Some people donít appreciate being bounced around in a car for hours at a time when they are on vacation. But this land of bracing wind, ancient rock walls, startling green hills and fierce seas will wake you out of whatever sleepwalking that has you in its sway from your day-to-day life.
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Thanks. Happy trails.
© Copyright 2006 Chris Cloud.
Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:35:50 PM.