Captain Atlantic: An epic motorbike journey on the Wild Atlantic Way
Wild Atlantic Wanderer
At 2,500km, Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way is the world's longest defined coastal touring route. Geoff Hill tackles a chunk by motorbike.
Travelling by motorbike is like being a kid on a pushbike.
Shorn of all the possessions and worries that bog you down in adult life, you have nothing more to do every day than to throw a few things into your panniers and head off down the road, not having a clue what the day will bring. It's a perfect antidote to the predictability of everyday life.
In a car, you're observing your environment, as Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. On a bike, you're in it - catching the smell of that frying bacon from a roadside café, the sweet tang of the pine forest you're passing through, the salty smack of the sea on your lips.
Or, in my case, feeling the environment stabbing your face with a thousand needles of rain. Rain that is trickling in icy torrents down my legs and into my boots. Just a couple of kilometres into the world's longest defined coastal route, and I'm getting quite enough environment to be going on with, thanks.
Oh well, I guess they didn't name the Wild Atlantic Way for its gentle nature. I've ridden motorbikes from Delhi to Belfast, from Chile to Alaska and all the way around the world for a series of best-selling books. But tackling the west coast with my mate Peter Murtagh was proving my most challenging adventure yet.
Dingle, Co. Kerry
The WAW, as it's known to its friends, is a brilliant concept. With the roads already there, all Fáilte Ireland had to do was signpost 2,500km of highways and byways between Mizen Head and Malin Head, set up a website, and hey presto: an instant tourist attraction billed as the world's newest coastal route!
Peter and I teamed up for a four-day taster. Our plan was to ride from Kinsale at the southernmost start/finish point to Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal.
That was the good news.
The bad news is that it's now raining so hard that the drops are bouncing off the road and passing their buddies still on the way down. And the temperature is hovering not far above freezing. In May.
Even worse, the person in charge of packing - possibly me - has forgotten to so much as look at the forecast. As a result, I've set off in light summer biking gear, with my waterproof Gore-Tex trouser linings stowed safely back in the wardrobe at home. I hope they're happy.
Read more: 10 Best Wild Atlantic Way beaches
When I loaded up the bike in Kinsale, my head got so wet that it is now steaming up my visor so much I have to ride with it open. Oh well, four seasons in one day and all that. At least I'm on a bike I love - a rugged but sporty Triumph Tiger 800 XCx, the sweetest handling machine in the known universe.
Battling this wild Atlantic welcome, Peter and I drive up the narrow, winding road of Old Head to the 17th-century lighthouse, but all we can see is a grey shape thrusting up into the murk as if aching for blue skies. I know the feeling. We take a selfie of ourselves looking like extras in The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and ride on through a dimly glimpsed paradise of colourful villages, thatched farmhouses, lush woods, soaring mountains and crashing waves.
As we arrive in Dingle, the sun comes out. Naturally.
I get off the bike and stand there dripping as Noel O'Leary, the man from Irish Adventures (irishadventures.net), comes walking over.
"Ready for kayaking?" he says.
"Well, if I fall in, I can't get any wetter," I reply.
And so, after the rigours of the morning, we spend a very pleasant couple of hours paddling around in the company of a hen party from Dublin and Fungie the dolphin (bottom right), leaping out of the water for us and doing a couple of backflips at no extra charge. Fungie, that is, not the hen party.
Even better, Peter and I are in a twin kayak, with him up the front, so he can't see that he's doing all the work while I admire the view.
"Peter, do you realise Geoff's not paddling?" Noel calls across.
"I was having my suspicions," mutters Peter darkly.
However, he cheers up later when we go exploring in Dingle town and find the best pub, then restaurant, of the entire trip.
Dick Mack's pub
The pub is Dick Mack's (pictured above), a former spirit grocer's dating from 1899 and now a tiny haven outside of which name plaques show that everyone from Julia Roberts to Dolly Parton and Robert Mitchum have called in to sup a pint or try the astonishing selection of Irish whiskies behind the bar.
Just up the street is The Global Village (globalvillagedingle.com), with a tasteful interior, friendly and knowledgeable staff, and a five-course tasting menu, which is better than I've eaten in some Michelin-starred restaurants. At one stage, a man called Martin Bealin comes wandering out from the kitchen dressed in whites.
"Are you the chef, by any chance?" I say.
"No, the plumber. I called in to fix a leak and they made me wear this," he says, proving his wit is as inspired as his cooking.
Fed and watered, we wake the next day to sunshine and showers for a spin around Slea Head past the beach where Sarah Miles cavorted in Ryan's Daughter. Dry and happy, we pop in for a snack in Kruger's Pub in Dunquin, whose walls are festooned with photos of the cast and crew, before glorying in the sinuous symphony of curves and dips over the Conor Pass to the ferry from Tarbert to Killimer (shannonferries.com).
It's strange. The ferry crossing to Co Clare lasts just 20 minutes, but it feels like an adventure to other lands. Setting off again, we ride past Kilkee's ornate and flamboyantly painted Stella Maris Hotel (apparently, Che Guevara was once a guest) and on through technicolor villages to Doolin for the night. Hurrah for the Germans and Dutch who brought imagination and tins of paint decades ago, and ended the dreary habit of leaving buildings here grey under a matching sky.
The weather, of course, is only mocking us with its sunny spells, which is why the next morning, I find myself halfway up a cliff face in a downpour, in biking gear, with Brian Bateson of Lahinch Adventures (lahinchadventures.com) encouraging me to go just a bit higher.
"Geoff, there's a good foothold to your left," he says encouragingly.
"You mean that sliver of rock the size of a pencil?" I say disbelievingly.At the Cliffs of Moher, Peter and I are the only visitors apart from a party of Japanese tourists in bright waterproof capes, fluttering about like butterflies and taking urgent photographs of each other as if they are about to suddenly become extinct.
The Burren, Co. Clare
Somewhere out there are the Aran Islands, and somewhere up there is the top of O'Brien's Tower, lost in cloud. We ride on, through the moonscape of the Burren, where signs emerge from the desolately beautiful rock formations to promise the various delights of a perfumery and chocolatier. In this bleak National Park, they almost make me feel like I am hallucinating.
We push onwards, through Galway, into the brooding magnificence of Connemara. The slopes, woods, lakes and waterfalls of the Delphi Gap, and the road running around Doo Lough are breathtaking. By teatime, an epic ride sees us reach Belmullet in northern Mayo, where the cheery receptionist utters the most beautiful words known to mankind: "Yes, we have a drying room."
Warm and dry, we emerge the next morning to find a howling gale, which has at least blown the torrential rain away, hopefully to somewhere useful like the Sahara.
Blown from pillar to post and back again, we ride to Strandhill, Co Sligo, and find ourselves soaking again, although thankfully this time in a seaweed bath. Voya (voya.ie) was started as a tiny family business by Neil Walton 15 years ago, and now exports its products to 42 countries, where customers are rejuvenated by the iodine and alginate gel derived from bladderwrack.
After the rigours of the past few days, it's wonderfully indulgent to be steamed gently to open your pores, then lower yourself into a warm, oily bath of seaweed and just lie there doing nothing for half an hour.
A seaweed bath at Voya, Strandhill
I may be wet, but at least I'm warm, and emerging feeling like we've been spring-cleaned, we grab a tasty smoked salmon bagel in the cafe next door before riding onwards, recharged, to Rossnowlagh. I spent family holidays as a child in this part of Donegal - albeit in a damp caravan in the corner of a field, listening to the rain patter on the roof, and playing Monopoly and Spot the Earwig. This time around, things are a lot better. The sun is out, and we're checking in to the rather grand Sandhouse Hotel (sandhouse.ie), tucking into mussels and lamb shanks in the cosy and busy Smuggler's Creek overlooking the bay.
Sitting here as the sun goes down in a blaze of glory, I look down at the glorious crescent of beach where my sisters and I built sandcastles as children, raise a glass to our tiny, imagined selves, and wonder where all the years have gone.
Washed away by rain, I imagine.
Still, as I look back on the ride, even though we only did about 1,000kms of it in appalling weather, the Wild Atlantic Way is up there with the Pacific Coast Highway in the USA and the Great Ocean Road in Australia as one of the world's great coastal routes.
It's certainly increased tourist numbers, according to everyone we talked to. I most definitely plan to go back and do it again.
Except this time I'm going to look at the forecast.
What to pack
Every item of clothing you possess. You may have been fooled by Discover Ireland photos of Mayo teenagers sitting outside pubs enjoying the caress of hailstones on their bare forearms, but cold and wet is no fun. The sunshine can be splendid, but don't rely on it. Trust me. I was that idiot.
If you want to do the entire Wild Atlantic Way from Kinsale to Malin Head in Donegal, say goodbye to the cat for a while. Including all the squiggly bits, it's a whopping 2,500kms. However, both the main and side routes are well signposted with the inspired WAW logo, so you can take as little as four or five days if you mix and match routes. More details/info at discoverireland.ie and wildatlanticway.com.
Trident Hotel, Kinsale
Where to stay
I stayed at the stylish Trident Hotel (tridenthotel.com, pictured) in Kinsale; the sprawling Dingle Skellig Hotel (dingleskellig.com); the cosy Cullinan's Guest House (cullinansdoolin.com) with its award-winning restaurant in Doolin; the exuberantly colourful Talbot Hotel (thetalbothotel.ie) in Belmullet and the imposing beachside Sandhouse Hotel (sandhouse.ie) in Rossnowlagh.
Read more:Pól Ó Conghaile: One year on, the Wild Atlantic Way has proven its worth