The Wild Atlantic Way –
a world apart
Heading west, the landscape changes until it opens up and you’re on the Wild Atlantic Way
Go anywhere on the Wild Atlantic Way and you step into another world, one that is full of awe. When you’re confronted with the scale of natural beauty, the constant interaction of natural forces, the Atlantic Ocean and the land, all the stresses and preoccupations of the modern world melt away as you come in tune with nature and yourself.
There is no destination in Ireland quite like the Wild Atlantic Way. Imagine having an ice-cream while sitting on the edge of the highest sea cliffs in Europe in Donegal, taking a boat out to the islands dotted along the Bay Coast, spotting the Skelligs for the very first time. Take a trip out to the Wild Atlantic Way this summer for a holiday you will never forget.
When I think back to my childhood, I remember days of doing nothing. It is the memories along the Wild Atlantic Way the count as some of my happiest. The sky opening up as you turn a corner on a coast road, lying on your back watching clouds race across the sky, hours picking through rock pools and quiet of the wind in the dunes, these are the things that spring to mind when I think of the Wild Atlantic Way as I experienced it as a child. This is what I want to show my children today.
Surely one of Ireland’s most stunning locations, the coast of Kerry has that immense scale in the sky, the sea, the sheer cliffs, the high mountain passes and the headlands. The Gulf Stream bathes the coast in warm sea water, giving it an entirely unique fauna. It is a magical place, with its own identity, somewhat removed from the rest of Ireland, it has that otherworldliness that can transport you far away from any stresses of modern living.
Can we measure the calming effect that the Wild Atlantic Way has on our brains?
We’ve all experiences the effects of being on the Wild Atlantic Way, even if you’re only passing through, but can we actually measure the effect of that environment on our brains?
I was interested in trying to actually measure the effect on my brain’s activity before, during and after exposure to the Wild Atlantic Way. I obviously don’t have access lab-quality equipment or MRI so the next best thing was a piece of consumer technology that’s available on the market – the Muse headband. Muse is a brain sensing headband that is designed to monitor and enhance a meditation experience by reading your brainwaves. The device syncs with an app on your phone where you can read the results.
One might argue that the last thing one needs when meditating is another distraction, but the technology works in as much as it can sense your brain activity in much the same way that a heart rate monitor reads your heart beat. Rather than use the Muse as an aid to meditation I decided to use it throughout my journey during normal tasks. It also must be stated that Muse readings are in no way admissible as scientific evidence, however the readings in my experience did yield some interesting results.
Before heading down to Kerry for the weekend I measured my brain’s activity with the Muse. In what was probably the busiest period of my week the reading indicated extended periods in the upper band of activity, followed by longer periods in the calm area. It would seem that it takes longer to return to the calm state after periods of intense activity when we’re within our daily routine.
Throwing a bag into the boot of the car and rounding up the kids, we made a break for the Ring of Kerry on the Wild Atlantic Way with our first stop at Waterville. The town is a Kerry haven with stunning views of Ballinaskelligs Bay and plenty to see and do. The town was a favourite holiday destination for Charlie Chaplin and his family who first came in 1959 and then returned to stay in the Butler Arms Hotel. They came back every year for ten years to take refuge from the pressures of Hollywood and it is no hard to see why the found tranquillity in this sheltered, secluded town.
Arriving in the evening after a 5 and a half hour drive from Dublin, we weren’t up for much except some seafood in the local restaurant and an early night in the very comfortable Butler Arms Hotel. The next morning as I rose before the family to get out on the beach for a run, I could feel myself decompress immediately. The sun was shining, the sky was a piercing blue and the waters were calm and still. Stopping to take in the sound of the gently breaking waves on the golden sand, I felt my need to grind out another few punishing kilometres fade away and I turned to walk up the beach to the hotel for breakfast.
On the wide expanse of Ballinaskelligs Beach, I let the children loose. They run off in different directions and leave me time with my wife to soak up the atmosphere. On a beach like that, when the sun is out, and the sea is still, children’s voices carry on the wind. The smell of sea air and the sound of the waves trigger a childhood memory of the Wild Atlantic Way, and I’m transported. Ballinaskelligs Beach is absolutely stunning. The white sand stretches for what seems like miles against the Kerry hills with their very own shade of green. The ruins of Ballinaskelligs Castle are silhouetted against a silvery sea, the water is clear and cold.
On to Portmagee, one of my favourite places in Ireland. It’s a real working fishing village with a population of about 150 people. Dingle gets the full brunt of tourism in west Kerry, but Portmagee, one of the main launch sites for tours to the Skelligs, is more the hidden gem. Portmagee, the base for the Star Wars cast and crew when filming The Force Awakens, maintains its natural charm.
As impressive as any cliffs on the Wild Atlantic Way, the viewing spot of the Kerry Cliffs are awe-inspiring. The craggy headlands of the peninsula jut out into the Atlantic. You can see nesting seabirds on the cliffs and the waves crashing below. Everything about the view is breath-taking. The Skelligs loom in the haze out to sea and the monolithic dark granite of the cliffs counter the vibrant greens of the surrounding grassland and the dapples of summer flowers hanging on the edge of the precipice.
From the Coomanaspic Pass you can see as far as the Dingle Peninsula and the Great Blasket. Standing there, you can get a sense of the scale of the landscape. You can all of a sudden get a real sense of the size of you in relation to the landscape around you – to the hills, the headlands, the peninsula, the islands, to Ireland and the planet itself. Your eyes rarely get the chance to be so full, it’s a chance to be in awe of nature.
Bray Head Looped Walk
The walk takes you along 6.8 km of awesome Atlantic scenery, over gentle grassy headlands you can spot the Skellig Islands off the coast. There’s a quietness in this part of the world and the walk is a perfectly modest stroll for a family, in a loop back to the car park where you began. You’ll take in the sights of Valentia Island, the Blasket islands and Dingle Peninsula.
The object of the exercise was to get the sheep with the Skelligs (Star Wars) in the background. I did this with the help of my good friend Colin McCadden who very skilfully moved the sheep into this position. As you see it worked out so well. No sheep were harmed making this shot! @natgeocreative @natgeo @natgeo @tourismireland #skelligmichael #skelligs #countykerry #ireland #wildatlanticway #starwars #scenicirelandgallery #chrishill #sheep #animals #ringofkerry #valentiaisland
From Portmagee, Valentia Island is a short hop over the bridge. It is a different place to the mainland with the warmth of the Gulf Stream allowing subtropical flora to flourish. Driving on the winding roads at times you forget you’re in Ireland as it looks like Provence. Then you hit the coast again and the Atlantic and you know you’re on the Wild Atlantic Way.
To some people, especially travelling from Europe, Portmagee, Co. Kerry, must seem like the ends of the earth. One person who has lived here all his life and has built his business, the family run guesthouse, bar and restaurant The Moorings into a hub of activity, the life and soul of the village is Gerard Kennedy.
If anyone knows about the effect of living on the Wild Atlantic Way it’s him. He has seen his hometown of Portmagee on the Skellig Peninsula go from out-of-the-way, tranquil haven off the Ring of Kerry, to out-of-the-way, tranquil haven on the Wild Atlantic Way with a lot more attention due to the filming of the Star Wars film The Force Awakens on Skellig Michael. The Skelligs themselves were always a draw for tourists, but the buzz about them now has had a positive effect. “The Skelligs tours were booked out anyway before the Star Wars phenomenon, but I suppose what the Star Wars thing has done is put an extra push on things and extend the season”.
Being so out of the way has its positives and its negatives, but according to Gerard the positives far outweigh any negative.
“We used to be worried that we were off the Ring of Kerry and we would find it hard to get tourists but now we’re seeing the opposite. Down on the Skellig Ring, we’re off the beaten track, we don’t have the roads for coaches of loads of tourists, there are no big hotels, just really local B&Bs and guesthouses,” he says. “In the bar here in The Moorings, you have the locals in there drinking and playing music. Over the years people would drop in and they get involved in the local scene.”It’s a unique vibe down there in Portmagee. It’s a real working fishing village, and the locals live their daily lives in and around the tourist traffic. The see people from all over the world land on the Wild Atlantic Way and they see the calming effect it has on them.
What is it about that part of the world that makes people relax? There’s definitely something about the landscape. To have the mountains and the ocean so close, to have miles and miles of empty, pristine beaches, the rugged headlands and sheer cliffs, everything is huge and the dark sky reserve status means the heavens come alive at night. “When people come to Portmagee, they usually then set off for Bray Head or for the Kerry Cliffs and they go out walking for the day and when they come back they’re absolutely wrecked. That’s what the landscape and the sea air does to you here, it’s very rugged. But what’s happening with these people here is, they’re not just wrecked, they’re unwinding. The landscape gives you a sense of perspective,” says Gerard.
While the summer is the peak time for tourism, Gerard insists that the Wild Atlantic Way’s best kept secret is how beautiful it is in winter. “I love the winter here. A lot of people prefer the winter. The colours are different, the sea is different, you can look at the water and every day it’s different. The locals all pull together in winter and it’s just lovely. A holiday in winter is just as good in this part of the Wild Atlantic Way, in fact I prefer the winter.”
Then there is the human aspect. We are very social animals and in the day-to-day we sometimes miss the people around us, neighbours, colleagues. Down in Kerry the people are so friendly, they love to talk and they’ll stop you and while away the time just talking. It’s not put on, they’re genuinely friendly and interested. That can have a hugely beneficial effect on our sense of well-being. “People are very welcoming in Kerry. They’re naturally a very friendly people, they like to stop and talk, they might even seem nosy at times, they’d ask you all kinds of questions about yourself, but that’s how they are. And do you know what? That kind of openness is very good for you, it’s like a tonic. Maybe people don’t get enough of that in other parts of the world but they get it in spades down here. We’re so far away from everything, it’s negative in some ways but it’s also the best thing about this place, when you’re here your removed from the rest of the world and you have to wind down.”
Portmagee is a beautiful place, for so many reasons. There are so many things to do and you can tire yourself out discovering the incredible landscape and then catch up with the local in The Moorings over a pint. Just bliss.
While packing up the car to hit the road for Dublin, Gerard mentions that he’s heading out the Skellig Islands on a boat and invites us to join him. We hadn’t planned on visiting the Skellig Islands, but Gerard makes it hard to say no. Even though the islands are closed because there was a recent rock fall, it is still an incredible place to experience. About 40 minutes from Portmagee, the Skelligs plunge out of the ocean in those vertical crags that make them so distinctive.
Skirting the smaller Island, it seems the peaks are snow-capped, but as you get closer you see they’re gannets, over 50,000 pairs of them. The sound they make is extraordinary as they cling to the sheer cliff sides of Skellig Beag. The air is full of them as they come and go, plunging into the sea all around and back to their colony high above us. It’s a marvellous site to see these birds blissfully remote from any human civilisation, a rock in the Atlantic, which they alone call home.
My first visit to Skellig Michael about 15 years ago left me completely blown away. I was wondering could the island still have the same effect on me and the answer is yes, it could. While we didn’t get to land on the island and climb the steps carved into the cliff to the monastic site on top of the island, we did get to circle it. It’s every bit as impressive to view it from every different angle and see the different routes the monks cut into the cliffs.
There is an energy about the Skellig Islands, and if you haven’t seen them, you have to. Even if you can’t land on the island, they really are one of the most extraordinary and precious sites we have in Ireland. I feel privileged to have been able to show them to my wife Sandra and children Zoe, Aran and Rua. On the return leg of the journey back to Portmagee we're joined by a pod of some twenty dolphins who escort us all the way back. There's always a chance to see them out there and the trip on the boat is worth it for them alone. You can also, in the summer months see humpback whales, seals and of course all the wonderful seabirds.
I can say that the Wild Atlantic Way has a profound effect on my state of mind. In just the few days I experienced in Kerry, I saw a change in my brain’s activity as measured by the Muse. From long periods of high activity followed by longer periods in in a calm state I saw my brainwaves return to the calm state with greater frequency during and after my journey.
Sometimes I think I have seen it all along the Wild Atlantic Way, but then I visit again and I’m blown away again. There is something special about that part of the world, it inspires, it soothes, it exhilarates and it energises. When it’s so close to us, why wouldn’t you try to get down there as often as possible?
To plan your discovery of the Wild Atlantic Way, click here.