Counties Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo in 5 days

Reconnect with nature on remote islands, listen to the beat of the land at a trad session, and watch the very best surf sky-high waves.

Winding through the counties of Donegal, LeitrimSligo and Mayo will give you an authentic glimpse into the wild ways of the west.

Starting in the surfers’ paradise of Donegal, embrace the staggering greenness of Leitrim, before exploring Yeats Country in Sligo, driving across Achill Island and concluding your journey in Westport, County Mayo. This touring route covers four whole counties so it could take up to five days to really experience all the magic.

You can find more information on driving in the island of Ireland here.

Day 1

Donegal Town to Sligo Town: 62 miles / 2 hours at 30mph

Donegal Town to Mullaghmore Head

The beginning of this route brings us to Donegal town, and your farewell to this vast county as you head southbound on the Wild Atlantic Way. Settle in for the evening after a stroll along the harbor and a feed of Donegal Bay oysters fresh from the trawlers.

And so we move towards Mullaghmore, but not before a brief but beautiful stop in the ever-verdant county of Leitrim.

Stocky stone crosses are almost ubiquitous in Ireland, but the sample at Tullaghan has a story that sets it apart. Mysteriously washed up on Leitrim’s shores in 1778 it was rescued and erected by a local landlord. Today, it stands proudly in Tullaghan village, safe from the Atlantic’s erosive intent.

Any anglers in this part of the world should take note: the Drowes and Duff rivers are some of the most plentiful salmon spots on the island.

Mullaghmore Head

Mullaghmore Head is where surfing records are broken. The last to be smashed here was in 2012. It’s also where you’ll find one of nature’s purest therapies…think about stopping off for a hot bath of Atlantic seawater seaweed at the Pier Head Hotel.

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Streedagh Beach

As an island, we’ve had our fair share of seafaring visitors. Some have come to a tragic end on these shores. You can visit the site of the 16th century Spanish Armada Shipwrecks at Streedagh Beach, County Sligo. A monument now commemorates those who lost their lives.

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Mullaghmore Head to Sligo Town

Leave the Neoprene-clad daredevils behind at Mullaghmore, and head south to Sligo town next, a place well known for its toe-tapping traditional Irish music sessions. In fact, the town’s stellar reputation put it top of the list to host the most prestigious Irish music festival on the island of Ireland – the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil. So pack your dancing shoes if you’re making your way to Sligo around August 2014.

You’re in Yeats Country here, too. The Nobel Laureate WB Yeats (son of a Sligo-born mother, who brought her children back to grow up in her home county) is celebrated both in the town and countryside. The dramatic backdrop of Ben Bulben in the Dartry Mountains can be seen from Sligo town. Standing out as a spectacular rock formation, there’s no doubt WB Yeats gazed upon this very same sight when penning his poem Under Ben Bulben. His younger brother Jack also ensured that his illustrious works of art portrayed a little of that special Sligo beauty, no matter what the subject.

Glencar waterfall, County Leitrim provided by Shutterstock/Walshphoto

A 25-minute detour from Ben Bulben is Glencar Waterfall, a secreted gem of gushing brilliance immortalized by Yeats in the poem ‘The Stolen Child’. Picnic facilities are plentiful here, so should the weather suit, make an afternoon of it.

Post Glencar visit, reconnect with the Wild Atlantic Way at Sligo Town, home to countless Yeats brothers secrets and sliced elegantly by the Garavogue River.

Day 2

Sligo Town to Downpatrick Head: 77 miles / 2 hours 30 minutes at 30mph

On leaving Sligo town, head southwest along the Wild Atlantic Way, you’ll arrive at Aughris. Check out The Beach Bar, an award-winning restaurant housed in a cosy thatched cottage. Aughris is part of the Dunmoran/Aughris coastal walk, which takes you to a nearby deserted village where you’ll find the remains of booley huts. These simple stone dwellings were built for herdsmen who needed to be close to their cattle during summer months. Historically, entire families used to call these places home.

The Beach Bar, Aughris, County Sligo

The Beach Bar’s thatched roof is just a hint of the traditional heart that lies beneath. In addition to serving heart-warming food, the pub and restaurant overlooks the sea and hosts weekly traditional music sessions, encouraging passing musicians to drop in and play a tune.

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Downpatrick Head

Downpatrick Head remains a pilgrimage site due to its namesake – Saint Patrick. Ruins mark the site where Ireland’s patron saint is said to have founded a church. Mass is held here every year on the last Sunday in July.

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Aughris to Downpatrick Head

Continue west from Aughris, and you’ll pass through the town of Ballina, where every July the town relishes its location on the banks of the River Moy by hosting the Ballina Salmon Festival. Hug the coast northwest again until you come face to face with Downpatrick Head, which stands a staggering 126 feet above the sea.

It’s little wonder that a lookout post was built here during World War II. The Dún Briste (The Broken Fort) sea stack can be seen from this point, too. Separated from the mainland in 1393, this Atlantic rock has remained remarkably intact, despite the ferocity of the waves below.

To the southeast of Downpatrick Head lies Killala Bay, while to the west, take a moment to soak up the sight of the tall Staggs of Broadhaven at the edge of Portacloy: a group of five rocky islets rising 330 feet above the crashing waves. The Staggs, said to be millions of years old, are a magnet for deep-sea divers, kayaking groups and those who simply wish to watch the sun rise and set.

Day 3

Downpatrick Head to Belmullet:105 miles / 3 hours 22 minutes at 30mph

Downpatrick Head to Céide Fields

Taking the road west from Downpatrick Head, you’ll arrive at a place called Céide Fields. This is where the first settlers began to farm the slopes of the Behy and Glenurla hillside over 5,000 years ago, and the natural blanket bog covers secrets from the Stone Age that may surprise you.

These Neolithic field systems are the oldest in Europe and have their own interpretative visitor centre (open from Easter to September) exhibiting the region’s unique ecology and bogland. Guided walking tours are available to get a feel for the site’s rich history.

Céide Fields

An astonishing chunk of Ireland’s agricultural legacy, the Céide Fields serve as a reminder of the ancient Celts who once farmed the land. The interpretive centre will bring you back to a time 5,000 years ago when the land played a major role in survival.

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Trad music at McDonnell’s Pub in Belmullet

After exploring the town, relax and enjoy some live traditional music at McDonnell’s pub. Their sessions are legendary and newcomers are always welcome to join in – and no one minds a spontaneous dance or two.

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Céide Fields to Belmullet

Over half an hour away to the northwest is Belmullet (Béal an Mhuileat), a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) town on the Erris Peninsula. Lying to the southwest of the peninsula is the tiny island of Inishkea (Inis Gé Theas), which can be visited during the summer months from Blacksod.

Belmullet is ideally placed for those interested in sea angling, while also forming the end of the North Mayo Sculpture Trail (Tír Sáile in Irish). This involved the creation of 14 site-specific sculptures along the north Mayo coast from Ballina to Belmullet. The sculptures were installed in 1993, coinciding with the celebration of Mayo 5000, a year-long event that marked the presence of humankind in Mayo for that many years…

Day 4

Belmullet to Keem Strand: 82 miles / 2 hours 39 minutes at 30mph

Belmullet to Ballycroy

Head south to Ballycroy village, located between Mulranny and Bangor. Ballycroy National Park is Ireland’s newest National Park and is dominated by the Nephin Beg mountain range. The park is a hillwalker’s dream with dedicated walking trails. The Bangor Trail dates back to the 16th century when it was the main route for locals and their livestock. Summing it up, Irish author of The Way That I Went, Robert Lloyd Praeger said: “You are thrown at the same time back upon yourself and forward against the mystery and majesty of nature.”

Ballycroy to Keem Strand

Further south again is the bridge leading to Achill Island. Following the island signposts brings you across to Keem Bay, which gazes out onto to the Atlantic Ocean – next stop America. Mayo is known for its multitude of Blue Flag Beaches (each must meet 32 strict criteria for water quality, management, safety and environmental education) and Keem Strand is one that continues to thrill beach goers. We suggest a change into your swimsuit should the sun shine down on you, most times you’ll only have the sheep as onlookers…

Ballycroy National Park

Nature lovers flock to this 11,000-hectare park with its conservation areas and special species of flora and fauna. Greenland whitefronted geese, golden plover, red grouse and otters are just some of the wildlife to look out for in Ballycroy National Park.

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Keem Strand

The perfectly horseshoe-shaped Keem Bay contains Keem Strand – one of Achill Island’s Blue Flag Beaches. Bordered by dramatic mountain ranges and cliff faces, this is a picture perfect location right on Ireland’s edge.

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Day 5

Keem Strand to Westport: 60 miles / 1 hour 56 minutes at 30mph

Keem Strand to Clew Bay

Return to the mainland and go south to Clew Bay where locals say there are 365 islands, one for every day of the year (in reality, there are 117). The largest island, Clare Island, still has around 130 inhabitants and can be easily accessed by ferry. See the bay from onboard Clewbay Cruises during high season, and keep watch for Dorinish Island, which John Lennon bought in the 1960s.

Clew Bay is and has always been a hub for maritime activity. The infamous Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley based herself from this spot over 500 years ago. Nearby Westport House celebrates her fearsome legacy.

Clewbay Cruises

This is an ideal way to wind your way around the islands of Clew Bay. On board with Clewbay Cruises, there’s never a dull moment with refreshments, live commentary and a chance of spotting a resident seal, otter or dolphin.

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Rolling Sun Spectacle, Bohea

Just outside Westport, in April and August every year, as the sun sets it appears to roll down the northern slope of Croagh Patrick. Taking around 20 minutes to full sunset, this has to be one of the most spectacular sights to capture on your Wild Atlantic Way journey.

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Clew Bay to Westport

Just a few minutes from Clew Bay is Westport, which was voted the best place to live in Ireland in 2012. Once you arrive, you’ll understand why. The charming coastal town buzzes with warmth and the locals’ welcome is legendary. The town is particularly lauded for its great gourmet offerings, especially during the Westport Food Festival (September).

From Westport, you’re ideally placed to keep on exploring the rest of the Wild Atlantic Way. Counties Galway and Clare, just south of here, boast some of the best natural landscapes imaginable, while Limerick city is the first ever Irish City of Culture in 2014.

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