Ireland's Wild West
This is elemental Ireland—a realm of lakes, bogs, mountains, and 700-foot cliffs. Its guides are true, its lodges neat and tidy, and its outdoor haunts bursting with legend.
Getting There: Continental, Delta, and Ireland’s own Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly direct to Dublin and Shannon airports. In-country, hop from city to city on the extensive bus network or with a discount airline like Ryanair (ryanair.com). Driving, an adventure in itself for those not used to hugging the left, is the best way to see the countryside.
Southwest Cork: Even locals call this corner of Ireland "off the beaten path," though it lies within an hour’s drive of Cork’s newly renovated airport. The area, which stretches between Glandore and Baltimore, is peppered with fishing villages and market towns, where farmers and artisans gather throughout the week. Skibbereen, a fishing town and hub for water-based adventures, is just five miles from the coast. Its West Cork Hotel has 30 rooms and views of the River Ilen ($67; westcorkhotel.com). After snorkeling, kayaking, and diving, try the seafood at stellar Mary Ann’s Bar & Restaurant in nearby Castletownshend; if there’s a line, peruse the art gallery while you wait (westcorkweek.com/maryanns).
Sea Kayaking: Capricious weather and reams of legal paperwork for boat rental make hiring a guide the most sensible way to paddle the Green Isle. Atlantic Kayaking offers half-day to four-day trips along the southwestern coast year-round, including moonlit summer tours (May to October) through phosphorescent algae ($74 for a three-hour guided tour; atlanticseakayaking.com).
Diving & Snorkeling: Heavy fog and heavier drinking are to blame for the number of ships sunk beneath the ocean waves on this stretch of coast, or so says John Kearney, owner of the Baltimore Diving Center. Kearney’s crew takes certified divers on intermediate tours of the wrecks ($132 for a daylong two-tank dive; baltimorediving.com). In Lough Hyne, a nearby saltwater lake, allow the tide’s ebb and flow to carry you above a thousand species of marine life, including gobies and anemones. Snorkeling and whale-watching are options on any Baltimore diving tour. The day’s dives are broken up by a bowl of chowder at the closest village.
Galway: A four-hour drive from Cork’s shipwrecks and sea caves, trendy Galway City sits beside an eponymous bay. Its city center, Eyre Square, is a bustling gathering place for poetry readings, Irish rock music festivals, and theater (galway.net has an updated list of events). The centrally located Victoria Hotel has a fine pub ($93; victoriahotelgalway.com). Cafés and restaurants line nearly every street of this university town; the 800-year-old Kings Head hosts jazz and shows soccer matches (thekingshead.ie).
Surfing: Lahinch, a 90-minute drive from Galway, is the traditional jumping-off point for exploring the Cliffs of Moher. Of late, though, surfing is an even bigger draw. Expert riders can catch the 40-foot Aill Na Serracht, which breaks some 20 times a year just off the cliffs. Smaller, beginner-friendly waves roll in year-round for students of the Lahinch Surf School ($58 for a two-hour beginner session; $139 for a weekend-long package; lahinchsurfschool.com). The Moy House, in Lahinch, is a neatly appointed seaside inn; the best rooms have fireplaces and look out over the Atlantic ($274; moyhouse.com). Finish the day at Frawley’s, where one spigot of creamy Guinness is the only tap.
Hill Walking: An Irish "hill walk" is more than your casual constitutional, often traversing crumbling shale and passing sheer drops on unmarked trails. "The countryside is still wild," says mountaineer Domnick Callaghan. Guides are useful, though not essential; most operate independently and can be found through the Mountaineering Council of Ireland (mountaineering.ie). Croagh Patrick, one of Ireland’s tallest and most sacred peaks, looms just an hour and a half’s drive northwest of Galway City. (The country’s highest peak, 3,415-foot Carrantuohill, is only two hours by car from Skibbereen in County Cork). The Burren—undulating fields of cracked limestone—fans out just south of the city. If you are hill walking on your own, the following local intel may prove helpful:
(1) When crossing a bog—a greenish yellow landscape of boot-sucking mud—step on the scattered clumps of grass to avoid getting stuck, moving from one to the next as if hopping on stones across a river.
(2) If hiking on-trail, avoid venturing off into open fields, where patches of hungry grass thrive. Victims of the Irish potato famine, the 19th-century blight that killed 13 percent of the population, fell dead in these spots. If you step on one, the legend goes, you have to eat something quickly or die. (A candy bar will do in a pinch.)
(3) Some of the best hikes are DIY. Pull off the road near the base of a peak, knock on a nearby farmer’s door, ask to cross his land, and start walking.
Text by Molly Webster