For such a small country, Ireland has a lot of secrets. The Emerald Isle is so petite it could fit inside Western Australia some 30 times over, yet many of the more than seven million tourists who visit Ireland each year still somehow manage to miss some of its finest locations.
The Ring of Kerry
In downtown Dublin, the Ring of Kerry, a Galway pub or the countryside around the Cliffs of Moher, foreign accents are almost as common as the Irish brogue. Each of these places is embedded in Ireland’s traveller trail. Just a one or two-hour drive away are towns, landscapes and heritage sites every bit as beguiling as these tourist magnets, with a fraction of the visitors.
The Wild Atlantic Way
The west coast, north of Galway, is particularly overlooked. That’s starting to change because of the recent establishment of The Wild Atlantic Way, a marked 2600km drive which skirts the entire western fringe of Ireland. It has been a brilliant marketing ploy by Ireland’s tourism authorities which has given travellers a reason to venture beyond the ever-popular counties of Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Clare and Galway.
The epic route takes drivers past some of the country’s hidden gems. Like the astonishing sheer sea cliffs of County Donegal’s Slieve League which are higher and, in my opinion, even more spectacular than the world-renowned Cliffs of Moher.
Then there are the concealed delights of County Mayo, on the mid-west coast, the place I’ve lived the past two years on-and-off while travelling the world. Before the Wild Atlantic Way, tourism in Mayo was almost non-existent. While my Australian accent never raises an eyebrow down in Galway, Cork or Kerry, it has kickstarted many a conversation with intrigued locals in Mayo.
When I tell them I actually live in Mayo they are equal parts surprised and delighted. But where Mayo was once among the poorest and most unfashionable counties in Ireland, now it has a newfound cache. This is, to a significant extent, because of the radiating appeal of one of its largest towns, Westport.
The Best Place to Live in Ireland
People really want to own a house in Westport. It's been voted the ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’. That decision came as no surprise to Mayo residents like myself. Long before I ever lived in Ireland I was well acquainted with the charms of Westport, which is just 30 minutes from the Mayo town where I would stay while on holidays visiting my Irish family.
Westport is, to me, the best town in Ireland. Yet you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s as genuinely Irish as anywhere I’ve been – home to down-to-earth people who sing along with the traditional music played in the lively pubs which line its streets.
Yet it’s popularity as a place to live or holiday among Irish people has seen it develop a cosmopolitan edge, just enough to give it a modern buzz without affecting what makes it an authentic place. Complementing its rustic pubs are chic cafes with great coffee and elegant restaurants serving quality food. Family-run clothing shops selling traditional Aran Wool sweaters are in loose competition with stylish boutiques stocked with local and foreigner designer garments.
It’s only a small town, with a population of about 6,000 people. But there are enough shops, pubs and eateries to fill a day or two comfortably. I would advise not to get too caught up in the town itself, though, as the true allure of Westport is its status as the gateway to some of Ireland’s most extraordinary landscape.
In the countryside immediately surrounding Westport you can find pristine beaches, a stunning natural harbour, the country's most famous mountain and, just off the coast, some majestic, untamed islands. Only Westport’s out-of-the-way location has prevented it from becoming soaked in tourists.
The adventurous souls of Ireland flock here for its array of adventure sport activities which include climbing, kayaking, coasteering, snorkelling, swimming, hiking, zorbing and paragliding. There’s also surfing on Achill Island, which is just off the coast to the north of Westport, through the gorgeous Clew Bay. This natural bay also boasts hundreds of tiny islands which can be reached by boat or kayak.
More commonly, though, visitors will head for Achill or Clare islands. The former challenges the famed Ring of Kerry for scenery, with a string of beaches so gorgeous they would impress even a West Australian. Several of them are backed by craggy cliffs which are topped by green grass and inhabited by hardy mountain sheep, their black faces and feet contrasting against their cream coats. Achill is actually connected to the mainland by a short bridge and there is no more invigorating way to reach it from Westport than by cycling the Greenway.
This cycle path cuts through the raw landscape, offering a smooth riding surface and distracting views. Clare Island is more difficult to reach, but equally rewarding. There is a sense of having skipped back many decades when you land here after a brief 10-minute ferry ride. You’re unlikely to encounter a vehicle on this island, lined with stone-fenced fields where locals grow their own vegetables as part of a popular self-subsistence culture.
In the distance, Ireland’s holiest mountain Croagh Patrick stands watch over Westport. Up to a million people each year make the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, as part of a tradition which has an uninterrupted history of more than 5,000 years.
Famously, Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days on its summit, almost 1600 years ago. A chapel has been built on this spot and pilgrims make the 750m climb to attend masses and confessions inside. From up here Westport looks positively miniscule, a subtle brushstroke on the magnificent green canvas of Western island. Such is the extraordinary beauty of the landscape it is easy to overlook this town, just as tourists have been doing for decades to their own detriment.
- On the last Sunday in July each year, more than 20,000 pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick mountain, on the outskirts of Westport, as part of one of Ireland’s most ancient religious traditions.
- The Wild Atlantic Way is one of the world’s most spectacular coastal driving routes, starting at the Inishowen Peninsula in the northern County Donegal and stretching all the way south to Kinsale in County Cork.