Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “it’s the journey, not the destination”. However, I’m normally all about the destination rather than the journey. I usually travel with a purpose and a clear destination in mind…and I hate getting lost. Odd then, that I found myself taking Ralph’s advice on a recent road trip around Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way from Galway to Clifden.
The “fast way” to Cliften (on Ireland’s notoriously slow roads), takes about 1-1/2 hours. But by hewing to the Wild Atlantic Way coastal route and Ralph’s mantra, I spent seven hours meandering the coast from Galway to Clifden. The following day, I continued the unhurried pace by wandering through moors, over the Cliften sky road, along the southern section of the Connemara loop and down the Inagh valley back to Galway.
It was a two day road trip that covered a lot of ground but left plenty of time for beachcombing, spotting great views, hiking and getting lost. If you want to do a longer trip, check out this 2-week itinerary.
Getting Lost from Galway to Clifden
The Wild Atlantic Way is a 1,500 mile (2,500 kilometer) coastal road that starts in the southeast of Ireland at Kinsale. It zig zags along the southern tip of the island before turning north up to the border with Northern Ireland. You could spend a lifetime doing a proper exploration of the road but most visitors stick to popular areas near the Ring of Kerry, Dingle or Cliffs of Mohr. Those areas are beautiful to be sure, but I found the section of road between Galway and Clifden to have its own intimate beauty and it’s far less crowded.
“Oh yea, they painted over the English signs there so they are only in Irish”
The Connemara region has a deep pride in the Irish language. The coastal area just west of Galway is so very proudly Irish that they have eliminated bi-lingual road signage in favor of Irish-only. However, Google maps and the paper rental car map will be in English. So as you whiz by trying to mentally translate place names, you will get lost. Just go with it.
The best part of this drive is exploring the side roads down to the water and the distances aren’t so far that you can’t easily double back. But for ease, I’ve done my best to provide you with English and Irish place names.
Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for the Wild Atlantic Way sign posts. They point out both the main road and also worthwhile side trips. You can also pre-plan some of the trip on the Wild Atlantic Way website
Routing from Galway to Clifden
Here’s the route:
- Get out of Galway. Take the R336 out of the rental car park, over the Wolf Tone Bridge and into Salthill. Just keep left on the coastal road and the Wild Atlantic Way signage will begin to appear.
- Stop in Spiddal (Spidéil) at the craft village. It’s located on the main road with easy parking. They have artisan shops with jewelery, leather, ceramics and glass. There is also an on-site cafe/restaurant.
- Take a left after the Inveran (Indreabhán) airport down to the beach at Céibh Bhaile na hAbhann. Commune with the cows and go bog hopping along the beach.
- Detour left again after Costello (Casla) through Carraroe (An Cheathrú Rua) to Trá an Dóilín. It’s a necklace of little sand jewels with boulders and bog in between. It’s a great place for tide pooling and eating a picnic lunch.
- Accidentally miss the sign for Screeb and hang a left down toward Lettermore (Leitir Móir). You’ll be driving down what feels like a peninsula but is actually a string of islands connected together with old stone bridges that look like something out of the Shire. Then double back out through Costello and north to Screeb.
- Drive into Roundstone (Cloch a Rón). BUT- before you get all the way into Roundstone, take a left at the small bridge and onto the small island. It has 360′ has views of both Roundstone and the Bertraghboy Bay. Drive the rental car around the island until you realize that you’ve accidentally gone down a cow track, reverse out and head into Roundstone.
- Drive round the peninsula, through Ballyconnelly and into Cliften.
You can see why this took seven hours but the journey was the destination and it’s worth it to be curious and get lost on the road.
The Sky Road of Connemara & Other Things to Do in Clifden
While there are B&Bs dotted all along this drive, I recommend staying in Clifden. The town is the tourism center for Connemara region and it offers a lot of choice for hotels and restaurants. The location sits at the apex of a Galway-to-Clifden-to-Galway Connemara loop route and is the perfect place to break up a two day drive.
The Sky Road in Clifden is a highlight of the area. It’s a 7.5 mile (12 kilometer) loop that starts just outside of Clifden. The road rises to an unspoiled vantage point overlooking the Clifden Bay. It’s one of those vast sea views, which on the clear day, hints at Newfoundland just over the horizon. The guide books suggest that you can bike or hike the road…but be aware it’s a single track steep road with no footpaths, so pedestrians and cars share the Sky Road. Because I don’t like getting run over, I chose to drive the Sky Road in Connemara.
But since I also wanted to take a hike, I choose the discovery trail on the Derrigimlagh bog. Derrigimlagh’s bog houses 6,000 years of carbon peat, dozens of sheep, the site of Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless transmission and the crash pad of the first nonstop transatlantic air flight. There a lot going on there!
There is a 3.5 mile (5.5/k) trail that loops the bog past a series of displays explaining the history of the transmission site. The trail was uncrowded (but for the sheep) and the bog has views of the 12 Bens mountains and the endless expanse of bog that characterizes the topography in Connemara. It’s very quiet on the trail and but for the baaa-ing of sheep, the trail offers a quiet space for contemplation.
Pro Tip: You can find the trail head just 2.5 miles (4/k) south of town with a well marked parking lot.
Like many Irish towns, the ratio of pubs to people in Clifden is high. There is live music somewhere every night and plenty of restaurant choices. I ate at Guys Bar & Snug and had a crab cake salad to end all crab cake salads.
Where to stay: Hotels in Clifden
Awesome Breakfast: The Quay House
I only spent one night in Clifden but after checking into the Quay House, I nearly chucked my itinerary so that I could stay longer. This friendly B&B has huge rooms, lux bathrooms, resident dogs, several living areas with peat fires and the best B&B breakfast I’ve had in ages. The owners used to run an on-site restaurant but they now use their commercial grade kitchen and mad baking skills to fatten up their guests. Is eating smoked salmon scrambled eggs, berry crumble, home baked rustic bread and four kinds of Irish cheese too much for breakfast? Well yes, but I did it anyway. Check reviews or book on Trip Advisor.
Right on the water: The Ardagh Hotel
This full service hotel sits right on the water, near the Derrigimlagh Bog and just a few miles from downtown. “A beautiful place to stay, with spectacular sea views and warm log fires both in the Lounge and the dining room”. Check reviews or book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com.
Under $100: Buttermilk Lodge Guesthouse
This is a modestly priced eleven room guest house walkable to downtown Clifden. “A wonderful bed and breakfast on the beautiful Wild Atlantic Way! Walking distance to the center of all the nightlife and pubs”. Check reviews or book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com.
Pro Tip: If you are visiting during the high summer season or on a weekend, book in advance. This goes for Galway as well because the city has limited hotel inventory. My trip was in the mid-October off season so I did my lodging on the fly.
The Southern Connemara Loop back to Galway
The route back from Clifden to Galway goes inland so the road will be faster, but there is still plenty to see and do along the way.
You could choose to skip the Marconi bog loop and instead hike in Connemara national park. They have several loop trails, including a 2 mile (3.7/k) loop trail that ascends Diamond Hill.
The historical jewel on this southern section of the Connemara loop is the Kylemore Abbey. Kylemore is one of those grand Victorian experiments. Mitchell Henry built the estate as a home and model farm. He built a walled Victorian garden with glasshouses heated by a series of water pipes, re-forested the grounds with native trees and harnessed a local lough for electricity.
Over time, the estate passed into the hands of Benedictine nuns who ran it as a boarding school. The nuns are still there, but the estate and grounds now welcome visitors to tour the house, church and gardens.
Did you know that the author Jack London also had an estate with an experimental farm in California?
Pro Tip: Bus tours from Galway stop at Kylemore. Avoid the crowds and give yourself some breathing room by visiting early or late in the day. Allow for at least 1-1/2 hours to fully explore the grounds.
Take the slow scenic way back to Galway via the Inagh Valley on the R344 road. The landscape opens up with wide open views of the hills. I drove cautiously on the winding roads because this stretch is populated with free roaming sheep who have a death wish. They weren’t just crossing the road, they were napping on it.
“Ná reáchtáil os cionn na gcaorach” (Don’t run over the sheep)
As I turned in the car, I did so wishing that I had given myself more time on my Galway to Connemara excursion. Cruising the coastline at an unhurried pace had given me a profound sense of peace. I didn’t want to relinquish it to busy Galway.
Spend time in Dublin before or after your road trip and check out these great literary sites.
4 Items to Pack for Your Road Trip
Be prepared for your road trip with these essential items for Ireland
- A big SD card for your camera. You’re going to want to take a lot of shots
- A Gore-tex shell jacket. Ireland is green for a reason and you’ll want some rain protection.
- Light trail runners for hiking and wading through the bog.
- A road map for Ireland. Cell service can be sketchy in the hinterlands.
Enjoy your road trip and cosáin sona (happy trails).
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