Swapping continental travel for something closer to home

It seems strange for a traveller to complain about travel. However, since Brexit and the loss of a number of bike transportation options the journey to get to the European ‘good bits’ feels tedious. I don’t want to spend my limited time riding motorways.

Having said that a lot of overland travel worldwide involves shipping motorcycles. Granted this is usually to cover the impassable wet bits such as oceans. When considering European travel it’s very easy to waste up to four days of travel to find you’ve covered distance but only experienced butt pain. Most of this may also be spent knocking around on a ferry.

With this in mind, I thought I would look at options closer to home. The problem is that it’s all too easy to feel too close to home. When everything feels familiar the journey feels like a number of day trips rather than a tour. The aim was to find something that could be easily reached but had its own unique ambience. The answer it would seem was already in my route playbook, Ireland.

The Wild Atlantic Way

I’d mapped a route in Ireland a while back and left it in the folder marked possibilities. In the past I had a short round trip by air to Belfast. This was to collect a vehicle that was brought back on the ferry via Dublin. I’d also had visits to Dublin on business but I’d never really figured it to be a contender when Alpine destinations had been so accessible.

In March 2014 Fáilte Ireland launched a new coastal drive, ‘The Wild Atlantic Way‘ (WAW). It had appeared on my radar increasingly over the last couple of years. It is a tourism trail on the west coast and on parts of the north and south coasts, of Ireland. The 1,553 mile driving route passes through nine counties and three provinces, stretching from County Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula in Ulster to Kinsale, County Cork, in Munster, on the Celtic Sea coast.

I’ve covered my planning in a previous post but the short of it was the journey would be much more than the mileage stated above. I’d have to take into account getting to and from the start and endpoints. The solution was to chop the route in half. I’d be entering via Dublin so the natural route would be to head directly west to the coast. I’d then pick up the Wild Atlantic Way, and then going to the most northerly point before heading into Northern Ireland. I could then follow the Northern Irish coast before returning to Dublin.

Off to catch the boat

The run to the Holyhead ferry was tedious. The roads, especially a large section of the motorway to Chester were more like a car park. After more miles of filtering than is comfortable, I was met with a North Wales Expressway. It was less than express, more stationary. I had never considered that it was a Bank Holiday weekend. If it wasn’t for the fact I was on two wheels then I doubt I would be catching this ferry. As it was I arrived not far off the intended time and lined up to board the ferry.

There were a handful of bikes and they were soon strapped down. It was a far cry from the cramped chaos of the ferry to Santander last year. It looked like we would have a swift disembarkation at Dublin. As it was we would need it as the ferry’s departure was delayed. An accident on the A55 leading up to the port from Wales had seen a number of passengers delayed forcing the ferry to open up its doors again to get the final latecomers onboard.

The start of a drink habit!

The time wasn’t an issue as I would be arriving in Dublin with the only tasks being to find the hotel and then find a pint of Guinness. The latter task proved extremely simple. The sheer amount of bars that were passed was staggering, much like the occupants. It was Saturday night in Dublin and there was craic to be had.

I can’t put my finger on it but it is true that Guinness in Ireland is different. On the face of it, it looks the same and to a degree, it tastes the same. Is it creamier? Does it have more body? Is it pulled with more care and/or experience? Whatever it was there were few, if anyone who wasn’t drinking it.

The next day’s task was to get to the west coast and pick up the Wild Atlantic Way by whatever means necessary. That meant motorways and a couple of tolls. I had considered alternative routes but without any knowledge of the area or recommendations, there seemed to be no reason to detour from the fast route. Best to get to where I needed to be for the following day which would be far more scenic. The journey was flat and uneventful other than one of the tolls playing up that called for manual intervention. As we closed in on our destination we got a view of the sea at Kinvarra and a taster for the journey ahead. The sun was belting down and I was reminded often that this isn’t the case. The good weather would remain and be a feature for the remainder of the trip.

“If you ever go across the sea to Ireland”

I was staying south of Galway in a place that resembled something you would find in the Alps. A gorgeous looking property surrounded by countryside. The bikes parked were parked up and after a quick splash through a shower, I was ready to head to the nearby village of Ballyvaughan. Sat outside a traditional Irish pub in the belting sunshine I was enjoying another pint of Guinness. Inside a packed bar, they were watching stick ball which I was reliably informed was called hurling, an outdoor team game of ancient Gaelic Irish origin. After the game, and to give the full Irish bar experience, an Irish folk band played. Each song sounded much alike but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

This is the way (that sound familiar)

The following morning I started with another fry, the black and white pudding ever-present. Rolling of, I began my journey north by going south. I was starting by doing the Burran loop that would take me down to the Cliffs of Moher and up the coastal road back to my starting location. I stopped briefly to look across Galway Bay and towards Galway that I would shortly be passing through.

My final destination for the day would be Clifden, stopping for refreshment in the town before a short ride to a B&B overlooking Clifden Bay. Below me sailing boats bobbed on the water alongside a fishery and behind me the Clifden Sky Road. But that was for tomorrow. I washed away the day’s sweat and dust and headed back to Clifden for more Guinness.

You can’t miss the references to John Alcock and Arthur Brown in Clifden. They were the British aviators who made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in June 1919. They flew a modified First World War Vickers Vimy bomber from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Clifden, crash landing in a Derrigimlagh bog. I was pleased to learn that they were Manchester lads although Brown technically was born in Glasgow before moving to Manchester shortly after his birth.

Stick it to them

I departed from the B&B the following morning which was only a few hundred yards from the upper Sky Road. The circular route takes you from Clifden onto the Kingston peninsula where it offers stunning panoramic views over Clifden Bay and its offshore islands. The official Sky Road WAW viewpoint gave me an opportunity to deposit one of my tour stickers having seen others stuck to a post. I’ve often wondered about the etiquette of sticker tagging. It seems popular on the continent but less so closer to home where I almost feel I’m leaving graffiti.

I picked up the N59 and continued on the Wild Atlantic Way north route, briefly stopping off at Kylemore Abbey. The abbey is a Benedictine Monastery founded in 1920 on the grounds of Kylemore Castle. The Abbey was founded for Benedictine nuns who fled Belgium in World War 1 with the original castle being built in 1868.

It was still quite early and there was little activity at the cafe or gift shop, so I took my pictures and left.

The next destination was Westport, initially heading inland where the scenery became more mountainous before flattening out again as I approached the destination. The appearance of Westport was welcome on a very warm day and gave an opportunity to get some much needed refreshments.

Pirate queens and Banshees

It wasn’t far from the day’s final destination of Achill Island, now known for the filming locations of The Banshees of Inisherin. I had amused myself in the weeks before the trip with clips from the film, notably Colm Doherty’s line “I just don’t like you no more”. I felt it fitting given my occasional frustrations with my travelling companions.

Crossing the Michael Davitt Bridge to the island, I headed down the southern peninsula to Grace O’Malley’s Towerhouse, the Kildavnet Tower. This was another official Wild Atlantic Way stop off.

It was once a stronghold of Grace O’Malley, or in the Irish tongue, Gráinne Ní Mháille. She was known as the Pirate Queen of Ireland. Grace O’Malley (a. 1530 – 1603) is one of the most famous pirates of all time. From the age of eleven, she forged a career in seafaring and piracy and was considered a fierce leader at sea and a shrewd politician on land. I think we would get on.

There are some stunning views around the coast of the island and I’d soon reached the western tip of the island, Keem Bay. It was formerly the site of a basking shark fishery, but now filled with tourists and families bathing in the sunshine and running down the beach into the clear waters of the bay. It was another filming location so I was keen to get some pictures, walking across the beach in motorcycle boots along side those either barefoot or in flip flops.

Did I mention the Guinness?

The accommodation was back inland on the island and just out of walking distance from the nearest pub especially given the incline that would need to be tackled on the way back. I’d partly worked out the logistics and eaten early at Gielty’s near Keem Bay whose claim to fame is being Europe’s most westerly pub. However, having now freshened up was looking for options to get to the pub. Taxis were getting evermore sparse. Thankfully after a wait one was found that would take me down to the pub in Dooagh and most importantly take me back.

I was away early the following morning. The breakfast options were sparse so I intended to find something on the road. Crossing back to the mainland it was a long and sparse ride, flat with nothing of any great significance. It wasn’t until Ballina that I found an open cafe that could serve me up a fry.

I continued on the Wild Atlantic Way route with the occasional detour passing through Sligo and stopping off at Mullaghmore harbour, infamous as the location where Lord Mountbatten was killed when a bomb planted by the IRA exploded on his leisure boat.

The pipes, the pipes are calling

It was another hot day and I stopped in Donegal for lunch. It was a place that seemed popular for motorcycles and if not for that I would have been riding around looking for a parking space. As it was I followed the lead from others and rode onto the central pedestrian square where other bikes had parked up. There I rested for a while after food and drink while an old chap with his portable karaoke belted out all the favourites like The Fields of Athenry and Danny Boy. Eventually, his battery ran out and he left, as did I.

My evening accommodation lay on the N56 between Killybegs and Ardara. The following day I would be riding back down to Killybegs and around the coast to Ardara but for now, I was seeking food and drink and took a taxi into Ardara. It was a Wednesday and it initially looked like kitchens close on Wednesdays. I started at Nancy’s Bar where I was told of the closure. I looked at the options over yet another Guinness and looked at the piece of paper given to me by the B&B owner. The only other option written down was Mickalene’s which according to Facebook was closed. I was almost resigned to an evening of peanuts and Guinness but set out on foot to see my options. Luckily Mickalene’s was open.

More than the stout brewing

I returned to Nancy’s after as the Guinness was particularly good. This time I was served by the old boy and owner who despite relying on a walking stick managed to pour the pint. He was the 7th generation owner of the bar and his offspring were now running the place. Unfortunately, it was becoming increasingly obvious that my travelling companions and I weren’t on the same page. While I was happy to stay a while and soak up the atmosphere and a few more pints, they wanted to be back and in bed by 9pm. In hindsight, I could have stayed alone but I wasn’t prepared to trust the taxi availability and left with them.

Meanwhile, away from the coast

The mornings ride around the coast also took me over the Glengesh Pass which was a welcome distraction from all the coastal views. The roads were more typical of those you would get at altitude, not quite alpine but enjoyable nonetheless. After stopping for a coffee and cake in Adara I cracked on. It was one of the longer rides and the next notable stop would be the most northerly point of Malin Head.

Following the N56 I passed through Dungloe before peeling off onto the R251 just after Gweedore. Following a brief stop to take on the views at Money More I passed up, over and through the Glenveagh National Park to Letterkenny. By this point, the old boys were feeling it and I opted to cut out some of the coastal route and head straight for Malin Head.

it’s true, all of it

Apart from being the most northerly point of Ireland and notable for some stunning scenery in its own right, it is also notable for being a Star Wars filming location. Malin Head gained international fame in 2016 when Luke Skywalker aka Mark Hamill and the Star Wars production crew used it as a filming location for Episode 8: The Last Jedi.

It was quite busy and despite its remote location, it was serviced by a couple of trailers selling gifts and coffee. For me though I was happy to find a toilet block. It was too bust and open, with little cover to hide behind and I was busting. I spent a while looking at the scenery and watching any number of oversized motorhomes inconsiderately blocking in the bikes before leaving. While one of us was busy on the phone I saw an opportunity to tag another sticker.

Back at the accommodation in Carndonagh I was told that the phone call was advising him that his wife was unwell and that he intended to head home immediately. Fortunately, we had flexi tickets on the ferry. Still, after rearranging the crossing it would mean a long ride to Dublin to get an overnight ferry before an arse breaking to Southampton the following day.

Back in the bar

Thirty minutes later he was gone leaving the two of us to get an evening meal and a few drinks. I was about to get a round of drinks when I found that the bar of the accommodation come restaurant had shut at 9pm. My one remaining companion decided this was his opportunity to retire to bed. Since there were no taxis involved I’d forseen this happening and had eyed up a pub a few doors down.

The Glenn Bar was a traditional looking Irish pub and when I entered a few locals huddled around the bar on stools. The owner, an older lady, overlooked her bar and kept everyone in check. I took my place at the end of the bar and ordered a pint with the intent of keeping myself to myself. There was no chance of that and the boys wanted me in on the craic. As if I had any choice in the matter. It was typical Irish hospitality.

My Guinness arrived and as I reached for my card I was told it was cash only. Luckily I not only had €15 in my wallet but the price was €4.80. I was good for three pints. I left after the third pint and briefly considered using the cash point that I spied across the road. By this point it was getting late and I saw reason and retired myself.

Running the NW200

I was heading into Northern Ireland via Derry and the scenery was changing in the sense of the street signage, road markings and the change back to MPH from KMH. My first stop would be Portstewart notable for being part of the NW200 road race course. I approached on the road used for the race at a much slower speed than the bikes that had been going down the road only a couple of weeks earlier.

At Portstewart, I parked up where a number of people were whale watching. I had to take their word for this as despite their cries, I saw nothing. I took the opportunity to get the cameras out to record the short coastal run of the NW200 from Portstewart to Metropole at Portrush.

Portrush seemed a typical seaside town. I took a ride through the harbour area and the centre of town without stopping. I continued further along the coast and stopped at the Magheracross View Point. The purpose-built viewing platform offers panoramic views of the Causeway Coast’s stunning natural environment and coastal headlands.

From there the next stop would be the Giant’s Causeway. I was a little apprehensive as I expected it to be a bit touristy. I’d also seen that it’s a bit of a trek on foot from the entrance. I had memories of visiting Stonehenge a couple of years back where the walk from the visitors centre to the stones was completed in motorcycle boots. The weather was similarly very hot.

Some funny shaped rocks that you walk on

I expertly rode around the queue of cars at the entrance much to the annoyance of the occupants and paid the entrance fee. Following the crowds I set off on foot. The walk down while lengthy was downhill. I’d already clocked the shuttle bus which I’d definitely be using on the way back.

The causeway is a lot smaller than I had expected. I climbed up the rocks which were a little slippy even on a dry day as it was. I wouldn’t fancy it if they were wet. After ten minutes I’d seen all I wanted to see and I was ready to leave. I got the bus back to the visitors centre and despite being a bit hungry and thirsty, I didn’t fancy one of the captive audience so left for the next stop.

There was a bit of a theme developing on this trip. I’d visited the filming location of the Banshees of Inishirin, and that of Star Wars. Now I would be visiting a couple of filming locations from Game of Thrones. For ten years, HBO and Game of Thrones made Northern Ireland their home for the fictional land of Westeros.

Winter is coming

Not far along the coast, I picked up the sign for Ballintoy Harbour. The harbour location has been used for exterior Pyke shots and as the Iron Islands. The harbour is where Theon Greyjoy arrives back in the Iron Islands and where he later admires his ship, the Sea Bitch. This is also where he first meets his sister Yara. Anyone who is familiar with the series will instantly recognise the location.

There were a few others in the harbour car park and it is a beach and actual harbour in its own right and not a film set. I did wonder if the paddle boarders or the guy with his metal detector knew of the significance of the place. Either way, Ballintoy Harbour had given up its secrets to me and it was time to move on.

Escaping the coast via King’s Landing

The next location on the little Game of Thrones tour would take me inland. It was only a short ride through open fields and across country lanes. I was soon riding into the trees of Dark Hedges. It’s a popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland in its own right but I was there because of its use as a filming location. The Dark Hedges was used as the King’s Road and the place where Arya Stark escapes from King’s Landing.

Its origin dates back to around 1775 when James Stuart built a house named Gracehill House. Over 150 beech trees were planted along the entrance road to the estate, creating an imposing approach. It’s said the hedges are visited by a ghost called the Grey Lady, who travels the road and flits across it from tree to tree. There were no ghosts on my visit, only tourists. Luckily there weren’t many. Those who didn’t move out of my way were Photoshopped out of my pictures.

A wee visit to Belfast, so it was

With these two locations visited and enjoyed I headed towards Belfast where I’d stop for the evening before heading off back to Dublin the following morning. I did have a full day’s ride planned but decided to take the quick route to Dublin. I’d struggled to find accommodation for the Saturday night at a reasonable price so, as I sometimes do, went for a pricier location. The costs even themselves out when spread across some of the cheaper places I find. It should be noted that accommodation is far cheaper on the continent and often you’ll find more options to share rooms that have three or more beds.

Doubling down in Dublin

As it was I was a man down. With two twin rooms booked each of us would have their own privacy for the final night. Not only was it the final night, there was also the matter of the FA Cup to be watched on TV. After a quick change I found a nice seat in the bar of this very nice hotel, and with a plentiful supply of Guinness settled in for the match. Coming from the red side of Manchester it was a hard watch but I was reminded by a Leeds fan in the bar that there is always someone worse off.

It was an early start the next morning to catch the ferry. The terminal was only minutes away from the hotel. Boarding was quick and I quickly settled into the large lounge chairs. I’d booked lounge access on both crossings since all drinks and snacks are free. Any ordered meals are paid for but I know I can do enough damage to those snacks to cover the fee.

The disembarkation at Holyhead was quick with no need for passports as there would be coming back from France of Spain. I was soon back on the road and heading for home. With no need to stop and the traffic light I was back home within two hours.


Sometimes its hard not to compare places to others such as the Alps, Pyrenees or Picos de Europa. I know I’ve found myself in the Scottish Highlands thinking “Well this isn’t the Alps”, but to do so is somewhat of an injustice. In doing so you also overlook places that are on your doorstep. On reflection I really enjoyed what I did of the Wild Atlantic Way. For different reasons I also enjoyed Northern Ireland although I was growing weary of coastal views. Despite this I did find some great inland roads, a couple of passes and at least one alpinesque set of hairpin switchbacks. Most off I anjoted the craic. The people are so warm and welcoming who need no excuse to fire up a friendly conversation.

Best of all, I only did the top half of the Wild Atlantic Way. There is unfinished business.

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