Friday 14 December 2018

Done the Wild Atlantic Way? Check out Ireland's off-radar coastal road trip...

The Celtic Sea provides an epic drive from Carnsore Point to Ballycotton

Waterford's creamy Copper Coast
Waterford's creamy Copper Coast
The Saltee Islands. Wexford in Ireland's sunny south east.
Merry's Gatropub - merrysgastropub.ie
Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford. Photo: Aidan Quigley/Fáilte Ireland
Viking Triangle

Thomas Breathnach

I'm potholing my way along a coastal boreen in County Wexford, the gearbox of my ageing Saab groaning at my off-road antics.

My destination? Carnsore Point - Ireland's southeasternmost tip. I've come to witness the merging of the waters: the point, on this wild, daisy-blotted promontory, where the Irish Sea ends and the Wild Atlantic Way has yet to begin.

Welcome to the Celtic Sea. Ebbing from Cornwall to Cobh and Brittany to Mizen Head, this body of water (a.k.a. Muir Cheilteach or Mer Celtique) is not as well-known as the Atlantic or Irish Sea, but it laps onto a lush, Blytonesque seaboard of farmland, fishing villages and secret coves. While most tourists landing at Rosslare make a beeline for Killarney or Kinsale, this is a more off-radar road trip, and I can't wait to start exploring it.

My first stop is Kilmore Quay, whose trove of whitewashed thatched cottages lends it a fairy-tale air. Kilmore's harbour also acts as a gateway to the birding paradise of the Saltee Islands. I'm taken there by Skipper Declan Bates (declanbates@eircom.net; €25), with the privilege of meeting a puffin one the greatest travel buzzes I've encountered in Ireland.

The Saltee Islands. Wexford in Ireland's sunny south east.
The Saltee Islands. Wexford in Ireland's sunny south east.

With the Celtic Sea buttressing the coast of Ireland's Ancient East (irelandsancient east.com), I also stumble upon myriad ruins along the route. First of these is Ballyhealy Castle, a 13th-century keep tower along Wexford's Norman Way (thenormanway.com). Further down, Tintern Abbey is nestled in a patchwork of Cotswolds-like countryside. I'm not alone in my quest - a smattering of other visitors are shooting photos along the trail. In this Instagram zeitgeist, our ancient architecture has never been more in. How great to see Ireland's ruins such hot property!

Back on the road, my journey tracks past landmark muses like Hook Head Lighthouse and Loftus Hall, until I wind along to the tiny harbour hamlet of Ballyhack. It's here that I board the charming pontoon ferry to Waterford, where Passage East, festooned in chequered blue and white, greets me to the Déise. An unlikely welcoming committee is out, too: the wild goats of Passage East. Legend has it that this bearded herd swam ashore from a Greek sailing ship over 200 years ago.

Passing the goats, I steer along the Suir estuary towards Waterford City. Founded by Vikings in 914, Ireland's oldest city is ambiently abandoned for a Friday night; Reginald's Tower and the old-town cobbles offering a medieval echo to its merchant age. In The Parlour, a vintage tea-room venue in the dapper Port of Waterford building (theparlourtearooms.com), I find Clang Sayne, an experimental musical quartet led by Wexford woman Laura Hyland, wooing its way through an eclectic set of folk and storytelling. I nestle in to listen, Cab Sav in hand.

The next morning I continue west, the landscapes of Waterford's dreamy Copper Coast snapshotting by. Much like the Wild Atlantic Way, the Celtic seaboard isn't an open-road affair, but rather a gear-grinding, wheel-sawing effort, demanding many a panoramic leg-stretch en route. Were this the Ring of Kerry or West Cork, I'd have an Avoca popping up along my way but, here, it's just me, the sequestered strand at Ballydowane beach and a few epic sea stacks.

Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford. Photo: Aidan Quigley/Fáilte Ireland
Loftus Hall, Co. Wexford. Photo: Aidan Quigley/Fáilte Ireland

My next stop is Dungarvan - basking in its new-found bustle of bikers, thanks to the ingenious Waterford Greenway. This is a great town for a bite, with its Georgian centre home to several top-class eateries, from The Tannery to newer spots like 360 Cookhouse, which even features a dog-treat menu. I'm lured by the local menu at Merry's gastropub (merrysgastropub.ie), however, where each course (sticky pork ribs, a ribeye main and Eton Mess dessert) is tastier than the next. What pure Déise deliciousness.

I tour onwards to the headland of An Rinn, Waterford's very own Gaeltacht, and, it would seem, kelp country! There are, in fact, a brace of seaweed-bath operators in the area, from Solas na Mara (€30; solasnamara.ie) on Helvick Head to the luxury Cliff House Hotel (€40; cliffhousehotel.ie) in nearby Ardmore. I indulge in the latter, soaking in a outdoor tub of seaweed tresses, overlooking the sparkling bay.

Not long after, I bridge the River Blackwater, border-hopping into Cork. Youghal, foolishly bypassed by many, is my first stop, where I tuck into a gelato from the artisanal Fantastic Flavours ice-cream parlour (fantasticflavours.ie) before pottering around the neat, new Walter Raleigh Quarter and the studios of landscape artist Andrea Cashell (andreacashell.com).

The shores of East Cork - the inspiration for Cashell's work - mark my road trip's end game. Following Capel Island and the blissful wilds of Knockadoon, I coasteer towards beautiful, bohemian Ballycotton, home to one of Ireland's most gorgeous coastal pubs, The Blackbird, and one of its most scenic strolls.

Wandering along the Ballycotton cliff walk, cormorants and fulmars lilt the air and a magnificent basking shark is panning across the inlet. Westwards, the evening sun is on the Old Head of Kinsale, where the Wild Atlantic Way begins.

That's for another day. For now, I'm happy to embrace my Celtic routes.

Go the distance

It's no Wild Atlantic Way in terms of length, but the Celtic Sea coastal route meanders over 300km from Carnsore Point to East Cork. To really appreciate the region, try to spend at least two nights per county, but if you're only planning to explore one particular stretch, fast-track by using the N25.

3 must-dos...

Ballycotton lighthouse

For a real East Cork escapade, Ballycotton Island Lighthouse Tours take guests from the mainland to Ballycotton Island, offering guided visits inside the island’s charming lighthouse. Did you know it’s one of just four black lighthouses in the world? €20; ballycottonislandlighthousetours.com

Waterford Greenway

Swap four wheels for two on Waterford’s 46km Greenway. The off-road route has done for Dungarvan what the Great Western Greenway did for Mayo. Cycling through the Déise relaxes you more with every passing pedal. €20; waterfordgreenwaybikehire.com

Waterford City and the River Suir.
Waterford City and the River Suir.

Kayak hook head

What could be dreamier than exploring Ireland’s sunniest seas by kayak? The Irish Experience offers spectacular sunset tours of the peninsula. The two-hour, all-levels trip promises dramatic lighthouse views, sea-cave visits, wildlife spotting and a sunset nightcap! €40; theirishexperience.com

Where to stay

Rathaspeck Manor (from €57pps; rathaspeckmanor.ie) is a historic base from which to explore Wexford, while the luxury Dún Ard B&B (from €52pps; dunard.ie) in An Rinn Gaeltacht offers a fabulous fuinneog on the region. In East Cork, the Garryvoe Hotel (from €63pps; garryvoehotel.com) is a coastal treasure overlooking Ballycotton.

Eat & drink

For some real coastal flavour, try the seafood at La Côte in Wexford (above, lacote.ie). Waterford’s Momo (momorestaurant.ie) offers a locally inspired menu with an eclectic Berliner design. The Field Kitchen in Ballycotton (blackbirdballycotton.com) is pure fish ’n’ chips bliss.

Read more:

Ireland's Top 10 secret beaches

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