Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: ‘Who knew that winding coastal lanes could be so lucrative?’

Stretching for 1,600 miles between Donegal and west Cork, the longest defined coastal touring route in the world has been a resounding success. Nigel Tisdall took a test drive to mark a decade since it launch.

Day 1: Cork to Kinsale

Who knew that winding coastal lanes could be so lucrative? A hit with both international and domestic travellers, the Wild Atlantic Way has raked in three billion euros and supports more than 80,000 jobs. 

For a quick taste, my wife and I fly into Cork for a four night trip starting from its southern end, Kinsale. Once a busy herring port (above), this is now a flourishing tourist town painted in bright Caribbean colours with a reputation for fine food.

We start our feasting with a pint of Cork-brewed Murphy’s Irish Stout at The Grey Hound pub, a candle-lit warren that dates from 1690, then fast forward to the smart, Nordic-feel Man Friday restaurant for some local oysters and grilled hake. 

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Day 2: Kinsale to Skibbereen

All road trips should start with a hearty breakfast and the spread at Acton’s Hotel is a generous romp from kippers and porridge to Irish farmhouse cheeses. 

Thanks to plentiful signs bearing its distinctive blue-and-white wavy logo, following the Wild Atlantic Way proves straightforward. At the Old Head of Kinsale, a windblown headland jutting three miles into the Celtic Sea, we encounter our first Discovery Point — one of 188 along the route that flag up places of interest.

An hour later we’re eating again at the Clonakilty Black Pudding Visitor Centre where self-guided tours culminate in a tasting of black, white and veggie versions. It’s best to go in the morning when the cooking takes place and the list of spices used is protected with a kind of secrecy normally reserved for nuclear warfare. 

Gastronomy is also to the fore at Liss Ard Estate near Skibbereen which was built in 1853 and features splendid grounds with a lake, mature trees and a huge walled garden. Now an elegant Relais & Châteaux hotel, its new, style-savvy Californian owners are upfront about their ambition to garner a Michelin star using the talents of ex-Noma chef Luca Armellino. 

Another key reason to stop here is the Irish Sky Garden (above), a mystical oval crater designed by the American artist James Turrell which has sides so steep its grass has to be cut using a lawn mower tied to a rope.

Day 3: Skibbereen to Kenmare

Rising up to the west of Bantry like a monumental cowpat, the Caha Mountains form the spine of the rugged Beara Peninsula and exemplify the many scenic surprises along the Wild Atlantic Way. Here sinuous, single-lane roads lead to a plucky cable car, operated by Cork County Council, that offers a seven-minute swaying ride over the raging waves to Dursey Island. This is home to a handful of resolute residents and we lend a hand to a couple shipping in essential supplies, namely cement, potted herbs and champagne.

On the return leg we call into Derreen Garden, created in the 1870s by Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, who sent expeditions to gather plants in the Himalayas. 

Then, for pure fun, we tackle the 30-odd hairpin bends of Healy Pass. Built in 1847 to provide work during famine times, this runs for eight miles between Lauragh Bridge and Adrigole Bridge. The descent is enlivened by numerous sheep, colourfully spray-painted for purposes of identification. They look like they have just been to a carnival.

Tonight’s stop is in well-to-do Kenmare, a planned riverside town dominated by the imposing Park Hotel Kenmare, itself constructed in 1897 by the Great Southern & Western Railway. 

Behind its austere grey exterior lies a bastion of civility with eye-catching antiques, a wood-panelled lift and plush lounges serving complimentary afternoon tea and cake. It’s no fossil, though, with a tip-top spa and — thanks to new owners Bryan and Tara Meehan — a collection of contemporary Irish art that includes seven works by Sean Scully. 

Day 4: Kenmare to Caragh Lake

While some drivers follow every twist and turn of the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s easy to hop between your preferred sections using main roads. A quick spin north through Killarney National Park gets us on to Ireland’s most popular tourist route, the 111 mile Ring of Kerry that circles the Iveragh Peninsula. 

Tongue-twisting placenames such as Knockaunnaglashy and Illaunstookagh pepper the map as we make for the family-run Carrig Country House hotel, once a Victorian lakeside hunting lodge. 

Its homely dining room is packed with locals for good reason as head chef Patricia Teahan serves an outstanding meal featuring Cromane mussels, Skeaghanore duck and Kerry lamb.

Day 5: Ring of Kerry

At some point you have to stop the car and get on those glorious beaches, which we choose to do on the broad sands of Derrynane National Historic Park. Here seaweed expert John Fitzgerald leads foraging walks that lift the lid on this wonder-crop with tastings of bladderwrack, sea spaghetti, rock samphire and the truffle-like pepper dulse.

Until now we’ve been spared rain, but the skies darken ominously on the two-hour drive back to Cork Airport. We pause in Sneem where in 1969 former French President Charles de Gaulle spent a two week holiday with his wife Yvonne. 

Being 6ft 5in tall, a special bed had to be found and his sojourn is now commemorated with a large memorial boulder that was quickly dubbed ‘De Gallstone’. Its inscription praises ‘the most friendly way’ with which the statesman was welcomed and that’s still the case for visitors today. 

Our 450 mile round-trip has been an engaging cavalcade of humour, fine Irish fare, characterful hotels and a mighty landscape where the unwavering rocks conduct their ceaseless negotiations with an indefatigable ocean.

At a glance: Nigel Tisdall’s itinerary

  • Plan your trip with the Wild Atlantic Way Pocket Map (Collins, £3.99) and Discover Ireland 
  • Aer Lingus operates daily flights between London Heathrow and Cork, from £59.99 one-way