‘Now I know why they call it the Wild Atlantic Way,” observes my 14-year-old son as he leans into the storm-force winds that are whisking Galway Bay into a maelstrom and whipping up sand from the beach on to the promenade.
He’s referring to Ireland’s spectacular 2,500km road route from Donegal to Cork, including the county of Galway, which we are exploring for four days. It’s fair to say that any cobwebs I, my wife and our three children may have had are being blown away on the 40-minute walk from our base at the Galway Bay Hotel at Salthill along the coast to the city centre.
Seeking shelter we stop at Monroe’s Tavern at Galway city’s West End and it proves to be an inspired choice. As well as our first magnificent pints of Guinness (plus a couple of glasses of red wine, soft drinks, nachos, dips and chips for €25), we experience our first example of the renowned Irish hospitality. Still raining outside as we get up and put on our coats in readiness to leave the pub and go exploring, the kindly barman instantly presents us with three umbrellas. It’s little things like that that make you think: “I’d like to come back here.”
Protected from the elements, we amble into town, taking in atmospheric Kirwan’s Lane with its cafés and quaint craft shops, poking our noses into Dillon’s jewellers – renowned makers of the famous Claddagh rings – on Quay Street, and checking out the imposing merchant house Lynch’s Castle. It’s a compact city centre and half the fun of it is just wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere on the historic streets and lanes.
Having done enough walking for day one, we get the bus back to the hotel to freshen up in our two comfortable interconnecting rooms. The weather has turned full circle and glorious sunlight streams through the windows of the hotel’s Lobster Pot restaurant, which has tanks of the eponymous crustaceans presumably trying to act as inconspicuous as possible. Fine dining is the order of the day, and while the service is a bit hit and miss – the wrong wine twice, initially no butter for the bread and no steak knife – the food itself (pan-fried fillet of cod with dill mash, and 7oz prime Irish fillet steak with pepper sauce) is hard to fault.
Next morning the weather is still glorious and after an all-you-can-eat continental buffet breakfast plus full Irish option, we hit the road and head northwest, destination Kylemore Abbey. On the drive there we stop off at the coastal village of Spiddal and visit its Ceardlann Craft Centre, where local artisans create everything from handwoven knits and wicker baskets to Celtic coin jewellery and rock ceramics.
We push on through the bleakly beautiful landscape of Connemara National Park. The distance from Galway to the Abbey is only about 50 miles but it takes twice as long to drive as I’d anticipated because of the single-track roads – and the occasional stubborn sheep blocking the way. It’s worth the effort though, as we are rewarded with an enchanting afternoon exploring the fascinating Victorian walled gardens with great views of the surrounding Twelve Pins mountains, as well as a peek inside the neo-gothic Abbey itself, which is run by Benedictine nuns.
After returning to our hotel, we dodge power-walkers and Pokémon-catchers on the promenade, and walk past poignant memorials to victims of the Great Famine, heading into Galway city. It’s a Monday night and the place is buzzing. Crossing over Wolfe Tone Bridge to the Spanish Arch area, young locals and tourists are out in force on the quayside enjoying the evening sunshine with a beer. Tempting though it is to follow suit, we need something more substantial and join the throngs on Quay Street looking for a restaurant. There’s no room at the first five popular inns we try, before Rockin Joe’s Diner off the beaten track on St Anthony’s Place comes to the rescue with tasty burgers, fries and shakes (just give the toilets a swerve if possible).
The next day we head south to the majestic Cliffs of Moher. Stretching five miles along the coast of County Clare and with sheer drops of 700ft, they are a must-visit destination – though with three heedless children cavorting near the edge, it’s not for the fainthearted (nor is trying to find a space in the car park for that matter – well, it does attract more than a million visitors a year).
On the way back we stop off for a late lunch at the Irish Arms in Lisdoonvarna, the backroom of which is a bizarre shrine to Celtic FC. It serves great Guinness and good pub grub from a menu that may not have changed since the Hoops won the European Cup.
In the evening we don our cossies and go for a splash at Leisureland complex next door to the Galway Bay Hotel – not brave enough to join the thrill seekers a few hundred yards along the promenade who plunge directly into the sea from the Blackrock diving platform, a true Galway swimming institution.
Later we grab a delicious pizza at Milano – the Irish version of Pizza Express – on Middle Street and have an early night as we have to be up sharp on our final morning, bound for the Aran island of Inishmore.
And it seems we saved the best for last with a visit to this magical isle – population circa 840. After a 20-mile drive to Rossaveal Harbour, we board the ferry, under gunmetal skies and swelling seas. Arriving at Inishmore 45 minutes later, suddenly the clouds lift, the sun breaks out, we hire bikes and set off to explore. We pedal for about an hour on undulating roads, stopping now and then to admire the widespread finery of the morning and feed grass to inquisitive horses, traffic almost nonexistent apart from the odd pony-drawn trap or tourist minibus.
We reach the prehistoric fortress of Dun Aengus, which commands breathtaking views of the entire 12 square mile island from its 100-metre-tall cliff edge (with no rail at the edge – yikes), before returning to the ferry via the coast road, spotting seals basking on the beach along the way. After an obligatory final Guinness at Joe Watty’s bar, it’s time to head home, but we do so with the fondest of memories of Galway and a determination to return one day to enjoy more wild times along the Atlantic way.
Four nights B&B at the Galway Bay Hotel costs from £270 (www.galwaybayhotel.net)
Flights to Shannon from Edinburgh with Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) cost from £170 per person
Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Garden, www.kylemoreabbey.com
Bike hire on Inishmore, www.inishmorebikehire.ie
For more information on the Wild Atlantic Way, visit www.ireland.com