Tuesday 23 October 2018

Ireland's Top 10 secret beaches

Home holidays

Pól Ó Conghaile & Mark McConville

Want the seaside without the crowds? Pól Ó Conghaile and Mark McConville pick 10 of the best hidden beaches in Ireland.

1. Murder Hole, Co Donegal

No roads will get you to Murder Hole (above). You have to know what you're looking for, though locals on the Rosguill Peninsula will be happy to point you in the right direction. Donegal is crammed with dramatic beaches, but the adventure it takes to get here makes it extra special. First, there's the cross-country walk from Melmore. Then the steep incline down its hills and dunes - the price of admission is a dirty backside. Do it, and you'll arrive at the secret beach, kitted out with small caves and stunning cliffs. With a picnic in your backpack, there's no need to leave until the tide comes in. How did it get its grisly name? That just adds to the mystery. - MMC

GPS: 55.2386375, -7.8074943

Beach notes: Murder Hole should be accessed at low tide. This beach is not safe for swimming.

While you're at it: Stay in Downings, in Donegal's Sheephaven Bay. You'll be surrounded by walks, beaches and lively local pubs (govisitdonegal.com).

2. Baginbun, Co Wexford

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Baginbun Beach, Co Wexford. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Wexford's big-name beaches are on the east coast, including Curracloe, where the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan were filmed at Ballinesker. But Baginbun is its little gem, stashed away at the tip of the Hook Peninsula, just a short drive on the R753 from Fethard-on-Sea. A Martello tower overlooks the sandy cove, there's decent snorkelling along the rocks to the right at high tide, and The Irish Experience (theirishexperience.com) offers sea-kayaking trips. A small but perfectly formed shot of the Sunny Southeast. - POC

GPS: 52.1765851, -6.8329251

Beach notes: Get there early in good weather to nab a parking spot close to the entry ramp.

While you're at it: Grab a bite and a tour of Hook Lighthouse (hookheritage.ie). The Hooked on the Sea festival takes place over the June bank holiday weekend.

3. Silver Strand, Co Mayo

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Silver Strand beach

"It's the one road all the way," the woman in Louisburgh said, directing me to drive until it ran out. Keem Bay is Mayo's poster child, thanks to its status on the Wild Atlantic Way (wildatlanticway.com), but it's just one of the county's magical beaches. Taking a Google Maps screengrab of the coastline for insurance (I knew the phone signals would peter out), I passed the surfing beach at Carrowniskey, dodged an array of paint-splattered sheep, and finally came to a rest under Mweelrea mountain. Silver Strand is a long stretch of sand that turns almost white in bright sunlight, with clear, shallow waters crying out for a swim, paddle or snorkel. Beautiful. - POC

GPS: 53.649915, -9.880422

Beach notes: Bring a picnic for this one, or do it as a drive, a walk, and turn back for lunch in Louisburgh, Murrisk or the tourist hub of Westport.

While you're at it: If you've come this far, it would be rude not to take the ferry from Roonagh to Clare Island (clareisland.ie).

4. Omey Island, Co Galway

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Coast at Claddaghduff with Omey Island, Connemara

The difficulty isn't in finding secret beaches in Connemara. It's in deciding which to leave out. The fact that you need to drive across a tidal causeway to reach Omey clinches it for me. You can park along the eastern shore, walking past the sunken ruin on the northern coastline, or continue off the sand and drive until the boreen runs out. The beach is elemental, with rock pools to explore, dried scrags of seaweed scattered over smooth stones and thrashing surf out to sea. On a clear day, you'd half-expect to see the skyscrapers of New York on the horizon. A uniquely Irish adventure. - POC

GPS: 53.528713, -10.165686

Beach notes: Cross the tidal causeway at Claddaghduff (aughruspeninsula.com). Feeling the ripple of sandbars beneath the tyres as your SatNav shows you driving over blue water is a thrill.

While you're at it: After, head back to Clifden for fish 'n' chips at Guy's Bar (guysbarclifden.com).

More: Top 10 Irish Drives: The best scenic road trips in Ireland

5. Sands Cove, Co Cork

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Sands Cove, Co. Cork

You voted Inchydoney Ireland's best beach in our 2017 Reader Travel Awards, and for good reason. Just 10km away, however, lies this cute little counterpoint. Sands Cove, a stony enclave at the end of the laneway after Dunowen House, is just crying out for a dip. I swam there this April under an unseasonal splash of sun and, though freezing, the water was clear as craft gin, the cliffs bedecked with verdant grass and pink popsicles of sea thrift. Skimming stones, beachcombing the short seaweed line, maybe even cooking up a few sausages on a makeshift grill - like I saw one very contented woman doing down the road at Red Strand that day - as with all the best small beaches, simple pleasures will while the hours away. - POC

GPS: 51.552303, -8.898551

Beach notes: From Clonakilty, drive towards Ardfield, following the signs to Dunowen House (dunowenhouse.ie).

While you're at it: Grab the makings of a picnic in Clonakilty (the town's annual Street Carnival takes place on June 17, with yummy street food).

More: The Dunowen Experience: West Cork for your Little Black Book

6. Stradbally Cove, Co Waterford

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Stradbally Cove, Co Waterford

There are sweet swimming spots all along Waterford's underrated coastline - from leapin' off high rocks at Guillamene Cove, with its anachronistic 'Men Only' sign, to the sea stacks of Ballydowane Bay and Dunmore East, where Redwater was recently filmed. Stradbally Cove, a V-shaped enclave carved by the River Tay and surrounded by oak, ash, hazel and alder trees, stands out for me for its woodland setting… maybe what Ireland might have looked like millennia ago. - POC

GPS: 52.1246495, -7.4601024

Beach notes: Stop at Stradbally along the Copper Coast Drive (coppercoastgeopark.com), running 40km from Tramore to Dungarvan on the R675.

While you're at it: The 46km Waterford Greenway (visitwaterfordgreenway.com) is now open. On yer bike!

7. Glanleam Beach, Co Kerry

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Glanleam, Valentia Island. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

The Wild Atlantic Way wears a gnarly necklace of beaches, from long sandy sweeps to small storm coves. I chanced on this Valentia Island gem after a reader tweeted me the GPS co-ordinates. Glanleam House, the 18th-century estate beside the entrance to which it sits, is known for its subtropical gardens, and you'll start to notice the thick, exotic leafiness well before the road swerves down to the delicious public beach. The water is clear and shallow; you can see across to the Dingle Peninsula, and the only other people there when I visited were a German family, who had rented the 250-year-old converted boathouse as a self-catering stay (B&B and a self-catering cottage are also available). One day, I'll do the same. - POC

GPS: 51.923938, -10.317305

Beach notes: The Boathouse (glanleam.com) sleeps four from €350 to €820 per week, depending on the season. Entry to the gardens costs €6/€4.

While you're at it: Continue on the Skellig Ring, connecting Valentia Island with Waterville via Ballinskelligs, complete with tetrapod tracks, Skellig views and a chocolate factory at St Finian's Bay (facebook.com/skelligkerry).

8. Silver Strand, Co Wicklow

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Pól Ó Conghaile at Silver Strand, Co. Wicklow

When you see the words 'Silver Strand' in Ireland, it's almost always worth making a detour. Mayo has one (see above), as does Sherkin Island... as does Donegal's Slieve League peninsula. This is a small, privately owned cove set into the cliffs just south of Wicklow Head on the R750. Pay the €10 parking fee to turn into Wolohan's Caravan & Camping Park (silverstrand.ie), drive to the end of the field, park up and descend the steps to a blissful beach with splashes of ivy, grass and honeysuckle tumbling down the cliffs. Swimming is lovely (if chilly), there are caves to explore, brown sugar sands and a shop at the campsite entrance for treats. - POC

GPS: 52.952105, -6.014587

Beach Notes: Time your visit for a waning or low tide, when you can walk north to a sister beach. Space is limited at high tide.

While you're at it: Camp at Wolohan's, or make an occasion of it at Wicklow Head Lighthouse (sleeping four from €564 for two nights; irishlandmark.com).

9. Trá Bán, Co Kerry

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Trá Bán, Great Blasket Island. Photo: Fáilte Island

Trá Bán means 'white beach' in Irish, and if the sun shines on your trip to the Great Blasket Island, you'll see why. Punching up out of the Atlantic off the Dingle Peninsula, the Blaskets are rich in heritage (remember Peig?), though stone ruins are pretty much all that remains of a community evacuated in 1953. You get there by boat, so pray for sunshine, look out for dolphins, whales, basking shark, seals and birdlife along the way, and walkers might like to plan for the 3.5-hour looped trail taking in the mountain summit. Bring supplies! - POC

GPS: 52.1765851, -6.8329251

Beach notes: Take a seasonal ferry from Dingle or Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) (blasketisland.com; from €30/€15pp). There is limited self-catering on the island, too. Due to strong tidal currents, Trá Bán can be unsafe for swimming. Take extreme care.

While you're at it: Learn more about the islands at Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir - The Blasket Centre (blasket.ie) on the Slea Head drive.

10. Whiterocks beach, Co Antrim

White Rocks, Northern Ireland. Photo: DiscoverNorthernIreland.com

Locals know all about the breathtaking limestone cliffs marking Whiterocks out as one of Northern Ireland's most beautiful beaches, but visitors need a little nudge... away from Portrush and towards the eastern end. Here, a car park off the Dunluce Road leads through grassy knolls to a sandy stretch scarred with caves and arches, and teeming with seabirds. It's popular with surfers and body-boarders, and lifeguards are on duty in July and August. This is Game of Thrones country, too, so chalk down a location or two for a visit... the Dark Hedges are a 20-minute drive away in Ballymoney. - POC

GPS: 55.205767, -6.612503

Beach notes: Visit at low tide for the best opportunity to explore the arches and sea caves.

While you're at it: Nearby, the UK National Trust and Away a Wee Walk offer a guided Giant's Causeway Clifftop Experience hike (5 miles, 3.5 hours, £30pp).

NB: Remote beaches carry an element of danger. Visit at your own risk, prepare properly where there are no toilets, shelter or parking, and never swim alone. GPS co-ordinates are approximate.

Responsible walkers always respect private property.

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