Connemara captivates with its stark beauty. Located in north-west County Galway along the Wild Atlantic Way, the atmospheric landscape is rugged and rocky with wind-swept expanses of blanket bog populated with hardy sheep that roam the roads. The hundreds of lakes that dot region are dark as stout. The brooding Twelve Bens watch over the countryside and are often covered in ribbons of fog. It’s all very cinematic. But this time of year, colourful wildflowers carpet the headlands and the hedgerows are ablaze with fiery-orange montbretia, scarlet fuchsia and yellow gorse. The countryside is alive with technicolour brilliance.
With all this comes some of the best walking in the country through its hills and valleys, scenic driving routes with never-ending views, the freshest seafood, and being on the very edge of Europe, a romantic sense of remoteness where traditions are preserved, including the Gaelic language. Connemara is calling with it wild wondrous ways, and with its kaleidoscopic landscapes in full bloom, now is the ideal time to make a break for it to this bewitching destination.
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Head for the high road in Clifden
Clifden (An Clochán), located some 77km north of Galway City, is the capital of Connemara and this colourful little market town is a great base for exploring the region due to its amenities. Its main streets are chock-a-block with cafés and galleries, pubs and restaurants, gift shops and bookshops. And there is a great selection of accommodations too.
It is also the starting point of the Sky Road. This stunningly scenic 16km looped route takes you out onto the Kingstown peninsula. As you drive out of Clifden and up the hill, the road separates. The lower road heads toward the sea and gets you up close to the landscape, whereas the upper road provides breathtaking views over the entire region encompassing the Atlantic Ocean, the coastline of Mayo to the north and Clare to the south and the islands of Inishturk and Turbot. Driving the Sky Road at sunset is just magical and mesmerising as the sky puts on a vivid performance.
Top tip - Do not stop on the narrow road to take photos. Wait until you get to the highest point where there is a car park so you can pull in safely and snap away at the scenery.
Hike the hills of Connemara National Park
Dominating Connemara National Park is the isolated peak of Dimond Hill. Four trails take you up ‘The Diamond’ each varying in difficulty but all providing stunning vistas of the Connemara countryside. All the trails can be accessed from the Connemara National Park Visitor Centre, which is located close to the village of Letterfrack.
The looped trail that takes you to the summit of The Diamond is about 7km and takes about 2.5-3 hours to complete. The upper part of the trail is steep but the climb is worth it for the panoramic views at the top taking in the Twelve Bens to the North and East, Tully Mountain to the West and Mweelrea to the North with Kylemore Abbey down below.
For those looking for something a little less Bear Grylls and a bit more Paddington Bear, chill out in the cafe tucking into delicious sandwiches, soups, salads and sweet treats. Sip coffee in the courtyard nestled under The Diamond - the views from here are just as good - and let the children burn off some energy in the playground or along a nature trail.
Top tip - Bring insect repellant especially if you plan on exploring the park between May and September and during the early morning and evenings.
Cruise Ireland’s only fjord with Killary Fjord Boat Tours
At the head of Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only fjord, the mountains Maumturk and Mweelrea face each other sandwiching the tiny village of Leenane. Film fans will be familiar with the village as it was the location for Jim Sheridan’s 1990 film, The Field.
It is from here that you board the Connemara Lady catamaran at Nancy’s Point that takes you on a voyage through this picturesque 16km stretch of sheltered water. Deep and dark, the fjord was gouged out of the rock by a glacier in the Ice Age and forms a natural border between counties Galway and Mayo.
The 90-minute cruise takes in the beautiful scenery and you might even see seals and dolphins too. There is running commentary for the first half of the cruise telling tales of the fjord’s history and mystery. With an open deck up top and cosy cafe inside serving hot and cold food and drink, this is the perfect activity come rain or come shine.
Join the queue for lunch with a view at the Misunderstood Heron
A little further up Killary Harbour in Derrynacleigh, Leenane is a food truck serving fresh, seasonal, wild Atlantic produce with a side order of views. Join the queue - believe us, the food is worth the wait - and tuck into award-winning creative Irish food whilst surrounded by Connemara’s majestic mountains and seascape. So, find a space in the funky seating area and take in those views and breathe in that fresh air.
The menu changes daily, but the food is fresh, flavourful and fabulous. The husband and wife team behind Misunderstood Heron pickle, ferment and forge ingredients and use them to great effect in their creative dishes. Irish seafood, shellfish and meat feature and there is an admirable variety of vegetarian and vegan options. There’s something on the menu for everyone. And, those with a sweet tooth are also well looked after with a tempting selection of scrumptious cakes and bakes. With all of this on offer, plus the best coffee for miles, it would be a mistake to miss the Misunderstood Heron.
Top tip: The Misunderstood Heron is a seasonal operation and is open from Easter until November, Wednesday to Sunday, 12pm-5pm. Go early to get a head start on the crowds.
Kylemore Abbey & Victorian Walled Garden
Kylemore Abbey & Victorian Walled Garden is far more than its name implies. On a visit to this extensive estate, you can enjoy wonderful woodland walks, uncover a secret walled garden, discover historic buildings, frolic in the Wild Play area, make a wish at the Ironing Stone, meet pigs and donkeys, devour delicious food and buy gifts and goodies made by the nuns who live on-site.
Kylemore Abbey, a convent with a photogenic lakeside setting, is a great place to start your visit as you’ll learn all about the history of the buildings and people associated with Kylemore’s story. Follow this with a visit to the nearby Neo-Gothic Church which was built by Mitchell Henry in memory of his wife Margaret.
An enchanting woodland walk with a wild play area leads you to the splendid Victorian Walled Garden which has been lovely restored by the Benedictine nuns. The orderly, formal gardens are a magnificent contrast to the backdrop of the wild Connemara Countryside. Being a Heritage Garden, only plant varieties from the Victorian era are on display. The garden is split in two by a bubble mountain stream with one-half home to the formal flower garden, glasshouses, the head gardener’s house and the garden bothy (a small cottage). The other half of the garden includes the vegetable garden, fruit trees, rockery, herb garden and one of the longest herbaceous borders in Ireland. It is bright, beautiful and currently in full bloom making this time of year a very colourful time to visit.
Finish your day with a trip to the cafe to enjoy delicious dishes made with ingredients from the gardens and some traditional hearty home-cooked food. Make sure you leave room for some scones smothered with Kylemore Abbey jam.
Top tip - The Kylemore Craft and Design shop stocks jams, chocolates and other edible gifts as well as soaps, skincare and pottery made on the estate.
Enjoy an engaging bog walk at the Derrigimlagh Signature Discovery Point
The bog surrounds you like a sea of sphagnum moss. The Twelve Bens visible in the distance are draped in a soft blanket of fog. Piles of peat line the lonely road as do shaggy sheep. Underneath, relics of vanished communities yet to be uncovered. But this isn’t some remote region in wild Connemara, this is a popular Signature Discovery Point along the Wild Atlantic Way and it is just a few minutes outside of Clifden off the main road.
Apart from being an atmospheric walk through a landscape that epitomises Ireland of the romantic imagination, Derrigimlagh is a ‘Wonder of the Wild Atlantic Way’ due to it being an important wilderness area and a site of historic significance.
Not only does the blanket bog have a complex ecosystem with rare plant and animal species but, in 1907, Guglielmo Marconi set up a huge station on the bog. This was the first commercial wireless service across the Atlantic. Not only that but, in 1919 the inaugural transatlantic flight, piloted by John Alcock and Arthur Brown, came to an abrupt end when their aircraft crashed near Marconi’s station.
The Derrigimlagh Signature Discovery Point takes you on an interactive, 5km looped walk taking in the important sites. Dotted along the route are interpretive panels telling the story of the site’s significance. Many of these information points are interactive with old fashioned crystal radio sets playing the sounds of the bog wildlife and recordings from the old Marconi station. There are a parabolic mirror and a wind reed installation as well as ‘historioscopes’ that you look through that show how the sites would have looked in the early 20th century. It really is an immersive, engaging and fun way to spend a few hours and one that can be enjoyed by people of all ages - kids will love it.
Top tip: The bog road is smooth and there are wooden walkways linking sites so most of this walk is suitable for wheelchair users and buggies.
Take a fascinating farm tour on the DK Connemara Oyster Experience
Did you know that oysters are grown from seed? That it takes three years for an oyster to mature or that an oyster’s flavour comes from its environment? You’ll find out all these interesting tidbits on the brilliant DK Connemara Oyster Experience.
The DK Connemara Oyster Experience lasts about one hour and takes place at its oyster farm in Ballinakill Bay, one of the oldest oyster farms in the country.
On this fascinating farm tour not only will you learn some astonishing facts about these marvellous molluscs but you’ll also learn about their life cycle from seed to plate. This is one of the most unique, eye-opening experiences to enjoy in Connemara.
At the end of the tour, you’ll learn how to shuck an oyster - give it a go if you think you can pop these beauties open - and you’ll get to taste the oysters too. These oysters taste of their environment and are flavoured by the streams which flow through the surrounding arable mountains and bogs and make their way into the bay. It gives the oysters a subtle peaty favour. A true taste of Connemara.
Top tip: Time your visit to coincide with the spring tide so you can walk on the seashore and out to the oyster beds.
Make a break for it to Connemara
With its heady mix of history, heritage and heart Connemara appeals to the curious and adventurous.
Its wind-swept landscapes, rugged wilderness and majestic mountains make Connemara a destination for those who like to venture off the beaten track and into the heart of wild Ireland. Its bogs and bays make for fascinating discoveries, its harbours and hills exhilarating experiences. Yet, there is a gentle side too, with plenty of places to slow the pace and enjoy the peace meaning your holiday in Connemara can be as wild or mild as you desire.
So go on, make a break for it! It's time to start planning, time to start counting down the days and, most importantly, time to get excited for your very own Wild Atlantic Way adventure in Connemara.
Limited capacity and procedures may be in place at visitor attractions, sites, and restaurants so you are encouraged to book ahead to avoid disappointment!