Only have 10 days? Take to the roads less travelled, skimming skyhigh cliffs and into buzzing towns and villages with our pick of the highlights along the way!
By Rick Le Vert and Lisa Gaughran.
Dublin to Tramore
A lush wilderness suddenly takes over a little south of Dublin’s urban sprawl. County Wicklow, known as the ‘Garden County of Ireland’, has seen many people come to get lost in its sun-yellow gorse, deep purple heather, majestically green forests and the 20 hectares of eclectic botanical splendour at Powerscourt Estate in Enniskerry.
As you push south you can choose to beach hop along the Wicklow/Wexford coast, including Curracloe in Wexford, where Spielberg gathered an army of extras to film the beach landing of Saving Private Ryan. Or you can opt for lush river valleys by skirting Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs Mountains and heading for the River Barrow.
Whether by coast or river, find your way to Hook Head, before dashing back up the estuary for a short ferry crossing to Passage East and onward to the seaside town of Tramore.
Tramore to Cork
Leave the bustle of Tramore behind for Waterford’s amazing Copper Coast. Virtually unknown but to locals, the Copper Coast enjoys the status of a UNESCO Global Geopark, essentially an outdoor geological museum.
Built up an appetite? Do something about it in the harbour town of Dungarvan, where you can join the locals for lunch at the beloved Thursday Farmers’ Market. Between Dungarvan and Youghal, the landscape presents more subtle pleasures, while the popular cliff walk around Ardmore Head and Ram’s Head passes monastic ruins out towards Goat Island.
Unspoiled villages dot east Cork’s countryside, which, thanks to Myrtle Allen and her family in Ballymaloe Cookery School, is the heartland of country cooking. Before pushing for Cork, stop off at the Jameson Experience in Midleton for a whiskey tour. Remember to designate a driver!
Cork to Killarney
Get the day started by soaking up the atmosphere of Cork city, designated Europe’s 2005 Capital of Culture, followed by a stop in the English Market, the Victorian landmark at the heart of Cork’s culinary soul.
From here to Mizen Head, Ireland’s most southerly point, a chain of meticulously kept villages lies strung along the coastline. First is medieval Kinsale, a favourite of seafood enthusiasts; then on to Clonakilty, the proud birthplace of Michael Collins. Glandore, Unionhall, Baltimore, Skibbereen, Schull… all the way to Mizen Head. Take time to beat a path north through Glengarriff and Garinish Island before it’s up and over Healy Pass. Catch your breath in Kenmare then onto Moll’s Gap, followed by a twisting descent through Killarney National Park and into Killarney.
Killarney to Galway
Take the opportunity to detour around the famous Ring of Kerry. Decision time. One option is to follow the main Killarney to Limerick road through rolling farmland and the pretty village of Adare. In Limerick, gaze at the Shannon river from the walls of King John’s Castle before crossing the river into County Clare via Bunratty Castle and Folk Park.
The alternative takes you through Tralee and north Kerry. A half an hour should do for a gentle walk around Nun’s Beach, and then it’s off to Tarbert for a ferry across the Shannon to Clare and a drive up the Atlantic coast. High or low, all roads lead to the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren’s contorted limestone landscape. Follow the coast road around Galway Bay, stopping in Ballyvaughan or Kinvara for a late afternoon break before landing in Galway city.
Galway to Westport
Make your way out along the northern shore of Galway Bay. The landscape grows increasingly bleak until Rossaveal. Suddenly, an enormous expanse of watery bog unfolds, along with the moody shapes of the Twelve Pins. But don’t let the apparent bleakness fool you. Intriguing pockets of life can be found tucked away. Deep in the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht, the peninsula of Carraroe is a hotbed of Irish language and culture. The village of Roundstone surges with energy in summer, and the coast road from here to Clifden is speckled with pretty cottages.
Continue on to Letterfrack for Connemara National Park. Scenery hounds will follow the road to Leenaun, while culture vultures will aim for Kylemore Abbey. Everyone joins up at Killary Harbour – Ireland’s only fjord – before crossing into Mayo and Clew Bay. From here to Westport skirts Croagh Patrick, where centuries of pilgrims have scrambled barefoot up its scree-covered slopes.
Westport to Donegal
Instead of heading to Achill Island, a rugged gem glittering in the Atlantic, today’s path heads inland to the town of Castlebar and the Museum of Country Life. Head north through Ballina back to the shoreline at Inishcrone. This is surf country, where the north Atlantic swell sweeps into Donegal Bay creating world-class surf breaks.
Follow the coast to Strandhill before heading into Sligo town, stopping for a short hike to the top of Knocknaree and enjoy the view. After pausing in Sligo to gaze at Jack B. Yeats’ paintings at the Model Art Centre, you enter poet and Nobel laureate W.B. Yeats’ country – his grave is at the foot of Benbulben in Drumcliff. The evening light bathes the coastal drive from here to Donegal town in shades of shimmering green.
Donegal to Derry~Londonderry
May the sun linger above as you take the back road over remote bogland to Ardara, then just south to Maghera Beach. The route then heads north again, through Glenties and across the Gweebarra River to The Rosses. As you round Bloody Foreland, windswept Tory Island and the imposing bulk of Horn Head come into view.
Take a break in Ards Forest Park before crossing the bridge of upper Mulroy Bay to the Fanad Peninsula. Follow the Fanad drive for Malin Head – Ireland’s most northerly point – until Rathmullan.
Whether you take the ferry to Lough Swilly (summers only) or drive round, stop in Burt. On the hill above, you’ll find An Grianán Ailigh, an iron-age ring fort and views over nearby Londonderry city.
Derry~Londonderry to Belfast
On a journey packed with highlights, it isn't easy to single out any as the pick of the litter. The Causeway Coast may just get the nod. Leave Londonderry's famous walls behind, following the Causeway Coastal Route to the chalky cliffs at Whiterocks. From here, it's just one superlative after another: cliff-top Dunluce Castle; Bushmills, Ireland's oldest working whiskey distillery (easy on the tasting!); the iconic Giant's Causeway and the headspinning Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
Pick your jaw back up and on to the Glens of Antrim, nine wonderfully unspoiled valleys, and the pretty villages of Cushendun and Cushendall. Venture to the head of Glenariff for a wander around the waterfalls, before returning to the shores of Belfast Lough and finally Belfast itself.
Belfast to Newry
This gentle southerly glide along the Irish Sea will take you back to Dublin. As for highpoints, there are plenty, starting with the award-winning Ulster Museum and its collection of incredibly life-like and impeccably preserved Irish birds. To see them in the wild, head to the Castle Espie Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre on Strangford Lough. From there continue to the understated beauty of the Ards Peninsula. A short ferry journey takes you from Portaferry to Strangford.
On the far side of Dundrum Bay is Newcastle and gateway to the Mournes. Lose the wheels for a ramble up Slieve Donard, then spare a thought for the hardy souls who built the wall over its summit. Refuel in the emerging food centre of Warrenpoint before finishing up in the city of Newry.
Newry to Dublin
For one last taste of Ireland's wilder side, make a beeline for the Cooley Peninsula, home to the Cooley Distillery, Ireland's only independently-owned whiskey maker. Avoid any urges to jump on the M1 at Dundalk, heading instead through the villages of Castlebellingham, Clogherhead and Termonfeckin. Leave plenty of time for County Meath's Boyne Valley and the richest assemblage of historical sites and monuments found anywhere in Ireland.
For early Christian folklore, pop over to the Hill of Slane where St Patrick supposedly lit his famous paschal fire, claiming Ireland for Christianity. From here, the entire Boyne River Valley opens up. Complete the arc by criss-crossing the hedgerow-lined laneways.
Return to Dublin via the coast road, taking in Malahide, Portmarnock, Howth and the truly unique sanctuary of Bull Island.
If you would like to view more sample driving itineraries why not download the Great Irish Road Trips app for your Ipad from iTunes