The Cliffs of Moher, Ireland's most-visited attraction — Photo courtesy of Wendy O'Dea
It’s a bitter February morning, clouds are hanging low and the forecast is grim but not unexpected: rain. Yet when I step outside into the quiet village of Doolin in County Clare, Ireland, it’s sunny and the temps aren't too bad.
It’s a surprising welcome as a friend and I head off with local farmer Pat Sweeney on a walk that meanders five and a half miles along the Atlantic coast to the majestic Cliffs of Moher.
The cliff walk, which the animated Sweeney spearheaded by negotiating with politicians and local farmers who own the land, is a hidden gem along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – the longest defined coastal touring route in the world. It covers 1,600 miles from Derry (Londonderry) in the north to Cork in the south.
We’d arrived about a week earlier to explore Connemara and County Clare, with a few days in Galway, the country’s cultural heart. We don't cover too much ground. It doesn’t feel right to rush Ireland.
We drive to Connemara and soak up the views: crashing waves of the Atlantic, lakes glistening in intermittent sunshine, sheep darting across roads, rainbows. These predictable yet iconic images feel magical, quintessentially Irish.
In Galway, we peruse the brightly colored shops and restaurants, stopping in for a chat with Jonathan Margetts, owner of Thomas Dillon's Claddagh Gold. The shop was established in 1750 and Margetts is the only jeweler allowed to claim the Claddagh rings as “original.” We leave adorned in Irish jewelry with fewer euros in our pockets.
The streets of Galway, Ireland — Photo courtesy of Wendy O'Dea
The foodie scene in Galway – which blossomed during Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy in the mid 1990s – has continued to flourish. We’re reminded of this after devouring a meal at the critically acclaimed Kai Café and Restaurant.
Another afternoon, we warm up over a ham and leek potato pie at the charming Ard Bia at Nimmos, near the Spanish Arch. Evenings are spent soaking up pub life and tapping our toes to traditional Irish music, naturally.
South of Galway, in County Clare, we explore The Burren Food Trail. The Burren is known for it’s massive rocky limestone landscape and is home to more than 20 food producers and restaurants that are recognized for the quality, sustainability and local flavor of their products. Green valleys, rich with native plants, remain as they have for centuries.
We taste test caramelized Irish stout truffles and a chocolate bar with crystalized violet petals at Hazel Mountain Chocolates, one of only two Irish chocolatiers making chocolate from bean to bar. Then we drive along the Flaggy Shore (named for its flagstone beaches) and fill our bellies with fresh seafood at Linnanes' Lobster Bar and freshly made ice cream at Café Linnalla.
Further inland we sample perfectly smoked Irish salmon at the Burren Smokehouse and award-winning goat cheese at St. Tola’s goat farm.
Truffles at Hazel Mountain Chocolates — Photo courtesy of Wendy O'Dea
Taking a break from food (finally), we head to the remote Burren Perfumery and watch as chemists mix essential oils from around the world with flora and fauna from the Burren, then we pop into the tearoom for a hot drink.
Because development has been slower in western Ireland, travel here can provide a feeling of transcendence. On our last day, we pass Dysert O’Dea, where my ancestors once gathered and ruled. I feel like I’ve traveled back in time, imagining the lives of those who migrated to North America during the famine in the mid 19th century.
Given Ireland’s natural beauty and charm, and all that it now has to offer, it’s understandable why – despite the passing of more than 150 years – its offspring, like me, still feel the desire to return to the Wild Atlantic Way, and beyond.
Beautiful Connemara — Photo courtesy of Wendy O'Dea