Coastal walks

The Antrim coast
The Antrim coast

Rugged or gentle, desolate or welcoming, violently dramatic or perfect for paddling, Ireland’s beaches and cliffs offer a staggering variety to the coastal walker, says Vanessa Harriss

As Paddy Dillon explains in his book Irish Coastal Walks, the last Ice Age left its mark on our island: “Ireland has a definite north-south tilt. The practical upshot is that the northern coasts feature raised beaches and the southern coasts feature drowned river valleys.”

Naturally this affects the landscape. “Southern landscapes can be farmed practically down to the sea, while northern landscapes generally end with a cliff-line or a rugged raised beach,” he says.

That’s not to say that the sea is any better behaved in the south – no one could look out towards the Blasket Islands in County Kerry in the teeth of a sou' westerly [wind] and think that. But this geological legacy lends surprising variety to the types of walking terrain – and everyone has their favorite.

Nowhere like the north Antrim coast

"I've done a lot of coastal walking, but there is nothing else like the north Antrim coast. It tops them all,” says Toby Edwards, a National Trust Warden, in UK newspaper the Guardian. “My favorite part is the highest section of the cliffs, which give an incredible 360-degree view of the area, leaving you in awe of the forces of nature.”

For those who may not know it so well, the north Antrim coast includes one of Ireland’s most famous sights, the Giant’s Causeway, all geometric columns of basalt and crashing waves. And yet, just 20-odd miles to the west is Benone Strand, “seven miles of golden sands with n’er a tangle of seaweed, a slice of shingle or a toe-stubbing rock in sight,” according to historian Turtle Bunbury. “Benone is truly a spectacular setting, as good a beach as I’ve seen.” It’s sheltered by sand dunes and backed by the brooding bulk of Binevenagh to the south – and is often just about deserted.

Wild and wonderful West Cork

By contrast, West Cork has a “wild other-worldliness” that has long attracted artists, writers and hippies, says John Crowley in the Wall Street Journal. “The more extreme free spirits may have gone but the area still has an alternative edge,” and it remains “an innovative and quirky place.”

It is also home to the Sheep’s Head peninsula, and a walking trail of some 88 kilometres (55 miles). There are many opportunities to shorten the trail for the less fit, but it is “superb – the essence of wild West Cork, wonderful walking and breathtaking scenery without crowds,” according to TripAdvisor reviewer, Odysseus53 from London.

My own favourite spot is in Connemara

As Kevin Doyle, writing in CN Traveler, says, “Ireland has located its soul in Connemara’s vast treeless expanse of mountains, lakes, and rugged coast. The west is the Ireland of wide-open spaces, but Connemara's are the widest.”

My perfect coastal walk loops out and back from the village of Roundstone, along the soft white sand of Gurteen, across the headland to Dog’s Bay and back to Vaughan’s for a bowl of chowder before one final saunter down the hill to the harbour. It’s O’Dowd’s for a pint. For my money, there’s not a place to beat it.

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