When you see lists of Ireland’s hidden gems including the likes of the Cliff of Moher (which saw over 1.4 million visitors in 2016) then you know that the term ‘hidden gem’ has become a cliche and is in danger of losing all meaning. However that doesn’t mean that the 2500km of the Wild Atlantic Way aren’t fertile ground for hidden gems – places of interest that aren’t very well known or might be overshadowed by better-known neighbours – and with this series of posts I would like to reclaim the phrase.
I spent a lot of time last year on the Wild Atlantic Way researching Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. Richard Creagh, my co-author, and I shared the load, he took the southern half and I took the northern, Galway City was the dividing line. On a tight deadline we didn’t have the time to explore and linger as much as we would have liked however we both discovered many places that we new to us along the Way, even in areas that we thought we knew well. It was these areas – overlooked yet rewarding – that we wanted to document in the book.
Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic WayMayo, the third largest county in the country, is a bit under the radar in tourism terms, certainly compared to the big hitters – Kerry and Galway. However this is changing thanks to recent initiatives such as the new walking and cycling infrastructure and community organisations like Erris Beo.
This vast county, the third largest county in the country, is an excellent choice for those looking to enjoy the wild open spaces and escape from the crowds.
1 Silver Strand
As the Wild Atlantic Way makes its way around Killary Fjord and into Mayo, it makes its way through the mountains via Doo Lough Pass. The massive bulk of Mweelrea, Connacht’s highest peak, forms the western wall of the pass. Behind the mountain is a stretch of coastline that is only accessible via a narrow road that winds its way from the north, all other approaches are blocked by water or steep hills.
At the end of this road is Silver Strand. The beautiful beach and the nearby rocky headlands and dunes are the perfect place to wander while enjoying the views across the sea to Inishbofin, Inishturk and Clare Island. And thanks to the long drive it is rarely busy.
It’s possible to walk north from Silver Strand around the headland to White Strand and then follow the road back south to the carpark (about 10km in total). This walk, best done at low tide, takes you through a remote and unspoiled area, with beautiful sand dunes, rare machair and interesting archaeology, including a very significant dog whelk midden from where early Irish settlers extracted a rare pigment highly valued by North African traders.
2 The Bangor Trail
The Bangor Trail is an ancient droving route that connects the towns of Bangor and Newport. It passes through the heart of the Nephin Beg Mountain range, a wild and empty place surrounded by blanket bog, riddled with small streams and lakes and, on the eastern slopes, covered in pine forest.
The signposted trail winds through the hills, linking a number of valleys and avoiding any steep climbs. It can be walked in a long day, the trail is over 30km long, but could also be done as an overnight, there are two huts along the route – the Mountain Meitheal shelter near Lough Avoher and the Brogan Carroll Bothy, a simple stone cottage, near the southern road head.
The Trail passes through Ireland’s first designated wilderness, know as the Wild Nephin, which consists of 16,000 hectares of forest and bog owned by Coillte and the National parks and wildlife service.
Read more about my walk along the Bangor Trail.
3 Annagh Strand, Achill
I was completely blown away when I first saw the photos of Annagh Strand. Lying on the north side of Achill Island it is an hour’s walk from the road over rough ground. Surrounded by steep slopes on all sides, this is a special, hidden place, and the perfect wild camping spot. The lake, Lough Nakeeroge East, the lowest corrie lake in Ireland, sits only a few meters above sea level and on the slopes surrounding the lake are a megalithic tomb and a number of ruins including the remains of a booley village.
Annagh is sometimes also referred to as ‘The Back of Beyond’ after an article of the same title by T. Barry in the Capuchin Annual (1973). It is a location rich in folklore and is the setting for many ghoulish stories involving ghosts and apparitions. Certainly those of a more superstitious disposition should avoid camping overnight in Annagh, as more than one such party has reported ghostly encounters. Among these stories is one involving a group of girls staying overnight in one of the booley huts in Annagh. During the night their dog was thrown in on top of them by an unknown figure. In folklore, the appearance or sighting of a figure is often a sign of impending death, and many of the stories of sightings at Annagh have this tragic outcome for the participants.
From Visit Achill.
There are all sort of mysterious stories about the place and when I visited I definitely felt something strange in the air. In fact shortly after arriving and putting up my tent for the night I got this sudden and powerful urge to leave immediately. I left my tent and went to my companions and explained, wild eyed, that I was leaving. Once packed up to go the feeling passed just as suddenly as it arrived. I’ve no time for the supernatural but I definitely felt something that day. Haunted or not I’m keen to return to spend the night.
4 Fallmore, Mullet
It was tempting to include the entire Mullet Peninsula on this list but it’s probably more helpful to be a little more specific. I first visited Mullet as part of my research for the book, it lies out on its own and isn’t on the way to anywhere so it’s easily overlooked. I spend a long summer’s day exploring but you could easily spend a weekend particularly if you linger on the beaches or did a walk or two. At the northern end there are the little visited cliffs at Erris Head. To the west is the beautiful beach and signposted walk at Cross and the impressive blowhole and sculpture at Doonamoe Point.
The northern end is the rougher and more rugged, probably at its best on a wilder day, while the southern tip is more suited to a warm sunny weather.
For the purpose of this list I’m going to single out the southern tip of the peninsula. It is home to a half dozen beaches in a tight cluster as well as a number of interesting signs as well including Blacksod Lighthouse, which played a crucial part in the D-Day Landings and the intriguing granite standing stones at Fallmore. The majority of the southern coast consists of sandy beaches, but the standouts are probably Fallmore and Portglash (pictured above) on the western side. However if there is a strongly westerly wind, Termon and Mullaghroe on the eastern shore, facing Blacksod Bay, will be more sheltered.
5 Benwee Head
The cliffs near the small Irish-speaking village of Carrowteige (Ceathrú Thaidhg) are some of the most spectacular along the Wild Atlantic Way. The huge cliffs, sea stacks and arches are little known and in my mind just as impressive as the Cliffs of Moher or Slieve League. That you will have them practically to yourself only adds to their appeal. There are also two nice beaches in the area, the remote Green Flag beach at Portacloy and the more sheltered Rinroe Strand.
Carrowteige village is a good base for walkers as it’s the trail head for four signposted walks that explore the area, download maps of the walks from irishtrails.ie. The pick of the bunch is the Children of Lir walk, a beautiful 10km coastal route through a wild landscape of bog and windswept mountainside. It follows surfaced roads, grassy tracks and paths and brings you past the Children of Lir sculpture, which overlooks the Benwee Head.
For more information about these and other similar areas check out Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.