Due time off before the end of the year? Why not spend it on our own spectacular shores! Stella Forte guides us through her recent mini-break on Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way.
Australia has its Great Ocean Road and now, thanks to Fáilte Ireland's ingenuity, Ireland has the Wild Atlantic Way. Having been to Oz, I can tell you it has stiff competition. With only three days for our journey we had to be quite selective with where we went on the 2,500km route. We decided on Mayo to Donegal.
We began in Westport, a picturesque town with Croagh Patrick as its impressive backdrop. The soon to be very familiar brown signposts with the blue wavy WAW logo directed us North West towards Bellmullet. Due North we landed at Erris Head, the northernmost tip of the Mullet Peninsula. Voted the wildest of the Atlantic way, the 5km loop walk around the head is almost surreal, with earth-banks as your guide and only sheep for company. The coastal scenery is nothing short of breathtaking.
Hugging the North coast of Mayo, we travelled East to Downpatrick Head - also known as 'Dún Briste' (The Broken Fort) - one of the signature points of the WAW. There, we discovered a stunning, free-standing sea stack. Legend has it that St Patrick struck his crozier into the ground here, splitting a chunk of land into the sea when a pagan chieftain refused to convert to Christianity.
A recently laid boardwalk hints at bigger things to come. This leads you to grass mound which cleverly hides in the landscape a newly constructed art piece - 'Spirit of Place'. The main attraction, though, is the 50 metre sea stack. It's the equal of any of Australia's 12 Apostles, but alone it stands. Visitors can currently get up close and personal to the cliff edge which offers it's own natural beauty with rugged caves and blowholes. The panoramic views take in Croagh Patrick to the left and on a clear day Sligo's Ben Bulben to the right.
Our resting place for the evening was Ballina, where the 4-star Mount Falcon Estate is situated on the banks of the River Moy. After a long day out in the wild, an evening of calm in the hotel's spa with the outside woodland looking in was just the ticket. With a healthy appetite built up, the five-course meal on offer was devoured.
Though the surrounding Moy river is abundant with wild salmon and anglers are encouraged to 'catch and cook', we were happy enough to leave it to the pros and enjoy the fruits of someone else's labour.
An absolute must for guests or passers-by alike is Mount Falcon's renowned Hawk Walk. Before leaving we had the opportunity to enjoy it.
Not necessarily a fan of birds, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the experience. Jason the expert and enthusiastic falconer quickly puts you at ease with the Harris Hawks - who are more than happy to interact, especially when you have a tasty bit of pigeon meat in hand with which to lure them.
Walking through the beautiful woodlands on the estate, the hawks follow the pack. Watching the magnificent bird of prey swoop down and manoeuvre around trees and branches heading directly towards you really is a sight to behold, before it lands on your arm stealthily, no lighter than a feather.
We took flight ourselves towards Sligo, passing by sights such as Lissadell House - now open to the public again - and Drumcliff, a great stopping point for a cup of tea and snack. At the foot of Ben Bulben is a church that is the resting place of WB Yeats. Nearby, Glencar lake and waterfall is pretty impressive after good rainfall ( so, most of the time!).
Heading up the N15, we turned off for Mullaghmore head, another "signature point", where I've been lucky enough to spend many childhood summers and now every other weekend in my father's home. For all its comforting familiarity, the beauty here never ceases to leave me with a sense of awe. The distinctive Classiebawn Castle is surrounded by a landscape of uniquely shaped mountains with Ben Bulben and the Horseshoe amongst them. Every way you turn your gaze is greeted with a picture postcard view, with the cliffs around the head offering views of Donegal, the blue flag white sandy beach and a sleepy harbour.
The Pier Head and the Beach Hotel offer ample choice for passers by and those staying over. For us though, it's my Dad's place, with BBQ and beer at the ready for another beautiful summer's evening.
Before setting off, a drive or better still a walk around Mullaghmore's three-mile head is a must to take in the panoramic views one last time. From here, we can see our next port of call across Donegal Bay, the Slieve League cliffs. If only we had a boat! But of course en route there is plenty to keep us occupied.
Just down the road, Bundoran is a good stop off for kids on a wet day, with Water World for entertainment. Continuing on, Rossnowlagh beach has some of the best surfing in the country with frequent steady sets of waves.
Amongst the highest in Europe, the cliffs themselves are truly mind-blowing - and luckily for us the sun shone through again. Runners at the ready, the ascent up the rocky steps is a tricky one, but only really because you have to keep stopping to take in the views and try better the panoramic photo you took just 20 feet below.
As the rocky steps come to an end, we think we're done - only to spot scattered stakes in the ground luring us onward. Time and again we say 'just a little further'. Still not satisfied, eventually we reach a point where we get a full 360-degree view back in towards Donegal, Sligo, the magnificent cliffs and the vast Atlantic Ocean. With more time and preparation, the four-hour trek along the entire cliff face is a must for another day.
Back then towards Donegal town to Lough Eske Castle. The five-star hotel is the lap of luxury with a relaxed welcome. A dip in the pool and steam room make for perfect unwinding and the relaxing of muscles that don't often get such a work out. A pint of the black stuff in the luxurious and cosy bar sets us up to head into town for a three-course cracker in Red Hugh's restaurant in the Old Castle Bar. With hearty portions and another Donegal welcome, it tops off another amazing day on the Wild Atlantic Way.
More info: www.discoverireland.ie/wildatlanticway
By Vicki Notaro
When we think of the Wild West, it's often easy to forget about its southernmost points. Kerry is never short of a few tourists, especially from the good ol' US of A, but this WAW campaign also aims to get our very own out to the coast for an autumnal staycation. And while it's always tempting to nip off abroad for a weekend away, our few days spent on the Ring of Kerry were ones we won't forget in a hurry.
The Muckross Park hotel and spa, formerly owned by good oul' sod Bill Cullen, is a five star establishment in the heart of Killarney. However it's not about grandeur or a stunning drive-up; this places thrives due to its smaller touches. Every need is catered for, from a complimentary minibar to a four poster that turned out to be the comfiest bed I ever slept in, and organised activities. We embarked on the Taste of Kerry tour (tailored to guest's needs, price on request).
Ours was a day long trip in a mini-van around the ring with stops at a Bog House (where they claim to make the best Irish coffee), a sheepdog demonstration, the Skellig chocolate factory, the picturesque village of Portamagee (recent home to the Star Wars Episode VII cast) and the vast, stunning vistas of Moll's Gap and Ladies View, with a little detour to the Dutch (and Beatles) inspired Strawberry Fields Pancake Cottage.
Yep, it's as good as it sounds. The day is rounded off back at Muckross' traditional pub for an "Irish night" aimed squarely at the Americans. But look, my foot tapped a bit during Galway Girl, I'll admit it. Worth the drive from anywhere in the country, even the furthest point of the WAW, don't leave Kerry off the list.
Mount Falcon, Foxford Road, Ballina, www.mountfalcon.com
Special Offer: Overnight stay in superior room with dinner that evening. Guided hawk walk on castle grounds with breakfast the following morning €225pp. Hawk walk must be booked in advance.*
Pier Head, Mullaghmore, www.pierheadhotel.ie
Special offer: Overnight stay with breakfast, €69*
Lough Eske Castle, Donegal, www.solishotels.com/lougheskecastle
Special Offer: 3 nights for the price of 2 from €245 per room per night B&B, valid until 30/09/14*
Olde Castle Bar & Red Hugh’s Restaurant, Castle St, Donegal Town, www.oldecastlebar.com
Special value menu each evening from 5pm to 7pm at €20 per person*
Muckross Park Hotel and Spa, Killarney, www.muckrosspark.com
Special Offer: For €240 pps, a three-night stay includes one evening meal and a complimentary upgrade, available in September and October.
*All offers are limited and subject to availability. Details are correct at time of printing.