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Ireland's West Coast


We are taking you along one of the world's most scenic drives on the west coast of Ireland. It's called the Wild Atlantic Way, passing countless green fields, greener than green with cows grazing in the meadows along with some craggy limestone landscapes and what's called the Burren, and then driving further south passing some remote villages and isolated homesteads.

We'll stop at Lahinch for a look at their famous surfing beach and cross the River Shannon on a ferry continuing further south on our way, heading ultimately towards Dingle. Traveling in fine style with our private tour and driver Charlie who is bringing us right into an Irish traffic jam.

Then arriving on the north side of the Dingle Peninsula that we are going to drive up and over taking the Conor Pass, a slightly scary, rugged mountain road. We stop at the top of the pass for a dramatic look back towards Cloghane

and Brandon on the north shore of Dingle, then continue downhill across the middle of the Dingle Peninsula on our way into Dingle town.

And we will bring you on a brief driving survey of this beautiful town. We have a separate movie all about Dingle you can see in our collection. But for now we're just taking a little sneak peek down Green Street then up Main Street lined with Irish pubs. Oh, this is a great place for a pint of Guinness and some music.

The map shows the route that we will be taking you on from Galway all along the west shore down to Dingle. It's about 250 kilometers, part of that Wild Atlantic Way that goes from the northern tip at Malin Head, around the west coast down to Kinsale in the south. We're taking the midsection from Galway to Dingle.

Leaving Galway, one of Ireland's major cities, with our driver guide Charlie of My Ireland Tour.

Heading out through the suburbs as we pretty quickly get into a much more rural setting. We will be turning off the main highway and onto the scenic route that will bring us up to the Burren and some small towns.

We got an early start for this long drive and had a chance to catch the opening of the school day for these young folks – charming to see the parents out front with their eyes on the children at play before heading into the school room.

We have left Galway city far behind, but we're still in County Galway coming up on one of Ireland's famous castles in a scenic setting along the shore.

Dunguaire Castle is a tower house that was built in 1520 as a noble residence. It was restored in the early 20th century and became a literary meeting place.

Now it's open to the public for slight admission fee and they also host evening banquets with musical and dramatic entertainment.

From the castle parking lot we could see a thatched roof under construction, interesting, it is almost like an x-ray cross-section of how to make a thatch roof.

Next we come upon the seaport village of Kinvara, which is the southernmost town in County Galway, population under 2000 but they have a number of pubs and restaurants and variety of little shops clustered together in a nice village setting. There is the Merriman Hotel, a fine three-star place with 32 rooms and another thatched roof, along with some bed-and-breakfast and other lodging choices.

As we leave Kinvara we pass by a few more lovely looking scattered homes and pretty quickly reach and a more rustic and rural landscape with the green fields surrounded by the stone walls as we enter into County Clare.

Notice how empty the street is. This is a lovely experience. We're traveling in the month of May, so it's the shoulder season but not exactly off-season, yet not crowded.

A refreshing contrast with the heavy traffic that one encounters so often when traveling, partly because we are in the far west of Ireland, which does not get as many tourists as Dublin or the southwest down in Killarney area.

Ireland gets about 9 million visitors annually, much less than big countries like France with 82 million or Spain with 76 million, or the UK with nearly 40 million. And County Clare just gets about 1 million annual visitors, most of whom arrive on a tour bus only to see the Cliff of Moher and depart, leaving the rest of County Clare peaceful and quiet.

Notice that these houses are not part of a new subdivision. They've been here for quite a while, unlike many other parts of the country that saw a housing boom in recent decades. It was a big housing bubble and then it burst. The values dropped back in 2008 leaving many expensive new homes empty for quite a while.

But not here. Instead we have this rustic rural beauty of the small farms.

As mentioned the route that were taking is part of what Ireland has dubbed the Wild Atlantic Way. It's 2500 kilometers long from the northern tip down south and it's considered the world's longest, defined, coastal touring route.

It's a sensational journey, soaring cliffs, cute towns hidden beaches, historic sites an picturesque bays with lots of green, green fields rolling by.

You'll come across a handful of small villages along the shoreline drive with populations about 1 or 2000 people, such as here in cute little Ballyvaughan, with homes and shops lined up along the main road. The largest city in the county is Ennis, inland with a population of 25,000. It's more of a farm country than a tourist magnet.

Along with this pretty scenery, another attraction of County Clare is the Burren. It's these stone hillsides that you see off in the distance. We'll be driving into it shortly.

Then you will discover how miles of barren rock can be so beautiful, a fine example of glacial karst landscape.

You can see this part of the Burren while driving along the coast, so you'll enjoy taking a half-hour detour just turn off the main road and head up into the hills to enjoy this spectacle of hills and fields covered with limestone as far as you can see.

As we drive uphill the terrain changes in character from all green fields to a mix of green vegetation giving way gradually to more and more of the limestone bedrock coming to the surface.

The area was formed from a quick succession of sedimentary rocks, mostly limestone. Over 300 million years ago, this region was under a tropical ocean in which limestone sediments formed reaching a thickness of 800 meters. Glaciers later stripped away the surface, exposing these rocks in the last million years. The surface we see today dates from approximately 10,000 years ago, very recent in geological terms.

The ancient Irish certainly made use of this area and left behind some intriguing archaeological sites.

Stopping in the Burren to have a look at an ancient prehistoric tomb. It's a dolmen. They estimate it's about 6000 years old, and had 38 skeletons in the ground there, ancient prehistoric burial site. In the Burren you've got about 90 of these still standing, very important historic remains.

It's been estimated there were nearly 800 of these ancient relics of the Celtic race distributed throughout Ireland with the same basic format of several very large upright stones holding up a much bigger stone slab for the roof.

The Burren has an unusually temperate climate with moderate year-round temperatures and 60 inches of annual rain, which ironically means that this seemingly barren rocky outcrop has one of the longest growing seasons in Ireland and supports diverse and rich plant growth.

It's a little tricky to walk across the rock so best to stay on the path and that might lead you to a jewelry craftsman, handmade items you can buy directly from the artist.

Did you make some of this? Yeah, yeah, I make it all.

We're in the Burren National Park which is the smallest of the six national parks in Ireland, visiting in late May, which is the sunniest time to be here.

Continuing our drive passing the cows out at pasture and more old ruins out in the fields. As mentioned that Dolmen stone monument is 6000 years old, but the first evidence of humans in Ireland goes back 10,000 years, to what's called the Paleolithic, a time before they were farming. They were just primitive hunter-gatherers living off the land.

We're coming up now on what is undoubtedly the number one attraction of County Clare and that's the spectacular Cliffs of Moher. We have a complete movie that's all about this wonderful site, so here we're just taking a quick peek and then continuing along on our way.

Another big attraction in County Clare is golfing, with more than a dozen golf courses available.

And then there is surfing, another very popular activity, especially here at Lahinch, a charming coastal town that's notable as surf capital of Clare.

Lahinch enjoys a beautiful, long, white sandy beach.

The waves at Lahinch are quite friendly for the beginning surfer which makes it a good place to learn how to surf, especially with the help from the local surf school. You can sign up for a two hour lesson, or just rent a surfboard and go off on your own.

In addition to the surf school it's a small town that has a variety of shops and a couple of hotels the Lahinch and Shamrock hotels. There are several pubs, some small cafés and restaurants, a church and a bookstore. On the outskirts of town you'll find some houses that offer bed-and-breakfast accommodation, s all situated along the lovely shores of Liscannor Bay.

From Lahinch we continue driving south for 30 miles to reach the ferry crossing the Shannon River.

The ferry ride goes from Killimer to Tarbert. The crossing just takes about 20 minutes and it will save you a lot of driving time. If you were to drive all the way up the Shannon and cross over and come back again, that could take at least an hour maybe two hours depending on traffic.

So it's a very popular way to get across the Shannon, just get on the ferry, crossing over from County Clare to County Kerry. And it's great to get out of your vehicle and stretch your legs, get some fresh air and enjoy the view.

Driving off we continue south heading eventually to Dingle but along the way we pass through Listowel, a typical small market town, population about 5000 people.

A distinctive feature of the main street is the color and variety of the shopfront designs. Listowel is acclaimed as a place of literary excellence with Ireland's oldest literary festival and a literary museum in the center of town.

There are several reasons why Ireland is so green and rural with so much open grasslands, partly because it rains a lot, but primarily because Ireland does not have any coal or iron resources, and so it was passed over by the Industrial Revolution. And it was controlled politically by England, which saw Ireland as a source of agricultural produce.

And then in the mid-19th century Ireland lost half its population because of the great famine with failure of the potato crop and lack of support from England, resulting in tremendous numbers of people leaving the country. The population dropped from 8 million people to 4 million people by the early 20th century. Even today, it's barely recovered back up to about 7 million.

So this unfortunate series of events has resulted in keeping the country mostly green with many pastures of rich grass that supports a thriving dairy industry. It seems like there are cows in every field and sometimes they walk right down the road, creating what's known as the Irish traffic jam, rush-hour in Kerry as the cows return from pasture to barn for some much-needed milking.

It's a very welcome sight for the visitor to see this quaint tradition still continuing and for the locals, well, they're used to it, so they're quite patient, waiting for the cows to get out of the way.

Of course, lots of Irish sheep are also enjoying the nutritious green grass.

Our route has now taken us down to the Dingle Peninsula, our final destination.

Here's the typical route coming in from the north, driving along roads through the green fields with beautiful scenery, but in our case we are taking a different tangent following the redline. We're going to go up and over the mountain. It's called Conor Pass, one of the most dramatic roads in Ireland.

Very scenic with these craggy rocks, including a waterfall where you can pull over and take a break for a good look.

Driving conditions are, well, let's say, challenging, something like riding a roller coaster but so worth it.

Rocky overhangs on the cliff make it impossible for large buses or camper vans and trucks to get by. Vehicles weighing more than two tons or longer than seven meters are just not allowed.

We were fortunate to be in a minibus provided by My Ireland Tour, driven by our expert guide Charlie, who's done this many times.

It's the highest paved public road in Ireland, reaching 1500 feet at the top of the pass, and extends for about 12 kilometers in a narrow, twisting route from Kilmore Cross in the north down to Dingle town in the south.

This most curvaceous section extends for several kilometers as you're reaching the summit coming from the north side. That part is only one lane, but there are places to pull over.

Finally reaching the top, you definitely want to pull into the parking area, get out of your car and enjoy the spectacular view. It is one of the country's finest mountaintop vistas that you can drive to, looking north towards distant villages of Cloghane and Brandon.

There are a couple of hiking trails up here. If you'd like, you can walk down to the lake, but for most people it's time to get back in the vehicle and continue on the way.

Conor Pass goes over the Brandon Mountains which is Ireland's second highest mountain range, reaching a peak of 3100 feet from top of the pass, which is at 1500 feet.

Driving down to Dingle town, the road runs 4 1/2 miles in a much more gentle route than the north side we just went up.

You'll find driving the south side of Conor Pass is much easier than that narrow winding craggy road coming up. Here we've got two lanes and the road is generally straight with no rocky cliffs leaning in from the side, and very scenic. It's a lovely part of the drive as well, but not nearly as dramatic as that earlier portion.

Some drivers feel that it's easier to come up on this section of the road, and then go down the winding narrow portion, maintaining somehow that it's easier going down through that stretch.

It seems difficult, but just drive slowly, watch what you're doing and you'll find it's not that much more challenging than driving on many of the small roads in Ireland.

And then we arrive at beautiful Dingle town. This is one of the best places to visit in all of Ireland, a town of an incomparable charms with many little shops and restaurants and pubs to enjoy.

We'll take you on a brief survey drive along to the main streets in the town, going down Green Street right now.

That heads down towards the waterfront and it is lined with shops and restaurants, and Dick Mack's, one of the most popular pubs in town.

Dingle is famous for its pubs hosting live Irish music which you can find every night at some place in town, and Dingle's also famous for fish dinners because it's right along the Atlantic Ocean and there is a major fishing industry that's still quite active here , and not only fish. Dingle has become one of the gourmet centers of the country with a wide variety of continental cuisine. You can also eat on a budget with fish and chips or takeout sandwiches.

Upon reaching the bottom of Green Street we are turning along the Strand. We're going to take a jump now over to Main Street and bring you up past a row of almost nonstop pubs. This is the place to come for your evening entertainment and fine dining at what have become gastropubs.

As we reach the end of our journey I remind you we have many more movies about Dingle, about the town and the peninsula and the rest of Ireland.