Anyone who reads a quality newspaper would know that the stunning landscape of Connemara is synonymous with efforts by Irish Tourism to attract tourists to their country. You’ll see images of Kylemore Abbey and the moss-covered hills surrounding it in just about any brochure. But how many tourists actually make it to Galway, or even the capital of Connemara itself, Clifden?
Admittedly, it’s not the easiest destination in Ireland to reach, but the scenery and the unique quietness of Connemara is unmatched just about anywhere I have experienced.
One thing you do need in Connemara, is a car. The only way to experience this slice of land beside the Atlantic is to get off the main tourist routes, and drive along some of the loop roads to some of the most isolated villages and bays you’ll ever experience. That, for most of us means packing your car and family and catching the ferry.
My favoured option was the Pembroke Dock to Rosslare route with Irish Ferries as it would be for most people living in the south of the UK. There’s now a new bypass after Carmarthen which cuts the journey by at least 10 minutes, making it now altogether a much nicer road than that of the long haul to Fishguard. The ferry itself, The Isle of Innishmore is big enough to ride the worst of what the Irish Sea can throw at it, and best of all the panoramic views from the Club Class lounge make the journey out of Pembroke Dock through Milford Haven very enjoyable, that’s if you can keep your hands out of the complimentary buffet.
The crossing to Rosslare takes about three hours departing at 14:45 or 02:45. Those taking the night crossing should expect lower fares and the possibility of booking a cabin to sleep in. Either way, the journey ought to set you up nicely for the four-hour drive to Galway.
The best way to reach Galway from Rosslare is to drive via Carlow and Tullamore, which allows you to join the M6 motorway at Athlone (note there’s a cash toll along the way which costs Euro1.90). It offers the possibility of seeing the centre of Ireland and some of the charming towns along the way. There are no bypasses as such, so you have to drive through places like Port Loaise which does slow you down a bit, as there is usually quite a lot of traffic.
Galway is not a big city, a population of 75,000 makes it the sixth largest city in the Republic of Ireland. Head for the harbour area where you can stay at the excellent 4* Harbour Hotel, a great vantage point to walk into the city or enjoy some of the coastal area by foot. The rooms are very large, and the breakfast is excellent. From here you can head out the next morning along the “Wild Atlantic Way” towards Clifden.
As you head for Clifden via Spiddal along the coastal route to Rossaveal, the coast can be seen for miles across Galway Bay with the Aran Islands in the distance. You might divert off the coastal route before Cashel and enter the inland drive from Recess to Kylemore which is part of the Twelve Pins looped drive and is another outstanding stretch of road with magnificent scenery to match. Here there are the wonderful estates of Lough Inagh Lodge and Ballynahinch Castle Hotels where you can stop for lunch or coffee.
You may wish to continue your journey to Roundstone from Spiddal . Again lovely coastal scenery with islands dotted around the seascape. Visit Malachy Kearn’s ‘Bodhran’ shop in Roundstone, Clifden, County Galway. The bodhran (pronounced bow-rawn) is an 18″ one sided drum made from Goatskin treated by a traditional process. Roundstone Music and Craft Shop lies within the walls of an old Franciscan Monastery in the quaint fishing village of Roundstone in the heart of Connemara. It is a fine Craftsman’s Craft shop, Music, fashion and coffee shop. The shop is owned and managed by “Malachy Bodhran”- Ireland’s only full time Bodhran maker. Malachy explains his craft amidst the smell of goatskin, glue, varnish and perspiration. The story of the Bodhran, its name, why its playing style is the cleverest idea in the world of manual percussion. Its beater or Bone originated as the leg of a sheep or goat..! Malachy made the stage drums for ‘Riverdance’ here in Roundstone. Regular talks and demonstrations are given about this famous instrument. www.bodhran.com.
While in Roundstone, pop into O’Dowd’s for a coffee or sample the wonderful seafood menu on offer. An alternative (shorter) route to Clifden is by departing Galway for Clifden via the inland route Oughterard, Maam’s Cross and Recess. Highlights on this route include Brigit’s Garden, on N59 between Moycullen and Oughterard. This is a magical themed garden, reflecting Celtic festivals with sculptures, nature trails, ring forts and native planting. www.galwaygarden.com.
Further on the N59 route is Dan O’Hara’s Homestead and Connemara Heritage & History Centre. www.connemaraheritage.com.
We recommend the Station House Hotel in Clifden, part of a complex built from what used to be a railway station. It’s only about 200 metres to the centre of town (bearing in mind Clifden is a very small place anyway). Here you can have a fine evening dinner or you can pop across the road for a lighter bar meal at the pub.
In the morning, head out along the Sky Road. The Sky Road is an exhilarating and challenging 11km/7ml circular drive west of Clifden. Leave Clifden passing the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel. About 400 m beyond this hotel look back towards Clifden. The 12 Bens provide a wonderful backdrop to the town and along with the two church spires, which give Clifden its distinctive skyline. The loop brings you back on to the main road to Letterfrack and Leenane or you can take the short trip north to cross the Kylemore Pass via Kylemore Abbey, a stunning road with pristine heathland on both sides. You will then be inside the Connemara National Park, covering some 2,957 hectares of scenic mountains, expanses of bogs, heaths, grasslands and woodlands. www.connemaranationalpark.ie.
You can also continue on to Killary where a magnificent fjord opens up the landscape. At Killary Harbour, Killary Cruises arrange a relaxing 90 minute cruise of the fjord and the coastline www.killarycruises.ie Check the website for departure times. From there take the R335 which runs along the north end of the harbour and continue from Delphi to Creeganbaun and then to Louisburgh.
A branch road off from just north of Delphi to Drummin which is between the Sheeffry Hills and to the north and Ben Creggan to the south is also a beautiful scenic drive and well worth the turn.
For the really ambitious, there’s the potential to drive on into county Mayo, but in my case the weather didn’t allow for that. You could head for Westport, apparently named the most desirable place to live in Ireland, and take the opportunity to discover the Greenway Route, a bike and walk route which replaced the old rail route stretching from the town centre all the way from Westport to Achill – over 42 km away. The road to Newport and Achill runs almost parallel with the Greenway www.greenway.ie.
Take the route to Mulranny and drop into the Mulranny Park Hotel which sits on the Greenway route. www.mulrannyparkhotel.ie
Achill Island is an island of splendid isolation. Accessible by roadbridge, glorious cliff scenery, spectacular drives and walks and beautiful beaches, particularly the Keem Strand, are a sight to behold. This is an excellent and open driving route. More information on www.achilltourism.com/atlanticdrive.html.
You can travel many hundreds of miles on a trip like this, one which I have to say is not suited to large cars, simply because some of the best places are on very narrow roads. I was very happy with my Peugeot 107 as a choice of car and would definitely like to take this trip again, hopefully in the months of April, May, June, or September, which are outside the main tourist season.