Top 5 Best Road Trips in Ireland - The Travel Expert
I love road trips - give me a scenic drive over a holiday resort any time! I’m not one for staying in one location too long, so when I am planning holidays for myself and my family, road trips usually sit at the top of the list. We have driven the Pacific Coast Highway, the Garden Route and driven through France and Italy, so how do road trips in Ireland compare? The answer is extremely well.
It will come as no surprise to you that Ireland is home to one of the world’s best road trips - The Wild Atlantic Way, but we also have many more outstanding offerings. When Carzone asked me to write about my favourite road trips in Ireland, I decided to include road trips that could be enjoyed on a weekend break, or even a day trip. I hope you like my choices and they inspire you to explore your home country this summer.
The Beara Peninsula
West Cork is one of my favourite parts of Ireland. There are so many great towns, villages and beaches to explore, but when it comes to road trips in this part of the country, you can’t beat the Beara Peninsula drive.
The drive from the village of Glengarrif to the vibrant town of Kenmare via the Beara Peninsula is approximately 128km. It is possible to drive it in about 3 hours, but I think you need to allow a full day, or even longer, to appreciate it properly. You WILL want to stop, I can guarantee you that. There are so many gorgeous towns and villages to explore, as well as beautiful cove beaches, great pub grub, and it is also home to Ireland’s only cable car.
Glengarriff is a great starting point. In fact you could do worse than stay in its landmark Eccles Hotel. Make time to take the short ferry over to Garnish Island. It is renowned for its beautiful gardens with rare plants, as well as its stunning sea views.
Castletownbere is the principal town along the Beara Peninsula and is one of those towns that you can’t help but fall in love with - its seafood might be one of the reasons! You have to visit 150 year-old MacCarthy’s Bar. Passed down from generation to generation, this quintessential Irish pub still sells groceries, alongside Guinness, and has remarkable stories to tell.
The colourful towns of Allihies and Eyeries should also not be missed. There are rows of terraced houses, each painted a different colour, it is an Instagrammers dream. Eyeries is one of those places that demands you to stop, grab a camera and walk for a while. The beach at Coulagh Bay is idyllic - you will want to spend hours there taking in the views.
You may think you have seen it all at this stage and take the direct route from Eyeries to Kenmare, but I beg you not to. If time allows you can drive further south to Ballaghboy and take Ireland’s only cable car across to Dursey Island. Alternatively take the coastal road through Ballycrovane and on to Kilcatherine for the most breathtaking scenery. On a clear day you should be able to see Skellig Michael in the distance.
One last tip, when you get to Lauragh, on the way towards Kenmare, take the 10 minute drive to Healy Pass. You may feel it is out of your way, but it will be worth it.
After exploring the Beara Peninsula, reward yourself with a night or two in one of Kenmare’s luxury hotels, or continue on to the Ring of Kerry
The Ring of Kerry
My parents were from Tralee so I spent many summers holidaying in the Kingdom, but it wasn’t until my twenties that I actually experienced one of the best road trips in Ireland. I thought I had become somewhat immune to Kerry’s beauty, but in fact it was the opposite. With vibrant towns, quaint villages and stunning scenery, driving the Ring of Kerry is one of those rare experiences, where the journey is the destination.
The Ring of Kerry is approximately 180km in length and is best driven over a few days, or longer if possible. Make sure to drive clockwise around the Ring, particularly when international visitors return, as tour buses travel anti-clockwise due to the narrow roads. With this in mind, I think the best starting point is the vibrant town of Kenmare. Hopefully you will get the opportunity to stay here and enjoy some pub grub and a traditional music session in PF McCarthy's Bar.
From Kenmare take the Ring road to Sneem and Caherdaniel, and if the weather is good stop at Derrynane beach for a stroll or a dip. Lunch in the seafront village of Waterville is a must. Waterville claims to be the seafood capital of Ireland, and I would not dare disagree. The scenery is spectacular, and if you find a better place in Ireland to catch the sunset, let me know...
From Waterville you may be tempted to take the main Ring of Kerry road to Cahersiveen, but don’t - take the Skellig Ring Drive to Valentia Island instead. This is one of my favourite places along the Ring of Kerry.
Valentia Island is a great location to spend the night and it is also home to the Skellig Experience visitor’s centre. If time allows, you can book a boat trip to Skellig Michael, but this needs to be done in advance. If you haven’t managed to do this, don’t despair, you can still see the famous World Heritage Site from Valentia Island.
You can access the island by bridge or ferry, but I recommend crossing the bridge at Portmagee, and then taking the car ferry back at Knightstown.
When you leave Knightstown you will be in Cahersiveen in less than ten minutes. There are so many places to stop here, but if travelling with children I can recommend Kells Bay House and Gardens, and if you fancy a beach stop, the beach at Glenbeigh is superb.
Killarney will be your final destination, but don’t miss the scenic drive to the Gap of Dunloe and Molls Gap. Hopefully you will be able to stay overnight in one of the most visited places in Ireland. Killarney is normally thronged with international visitors, so this summer is an ideal time to visit.
Don’t go to the trendy cocktail bar, or a restaurant with an international menu. Enjoy a pint, pub grub, and a trad session in a traditional Irish pub. You will leave proud of your Irish heritage and be reminded why so many international visitors love coming to this great city.
The Causeway Coast
The Causeway Coastal route begins in Belfast and stretches 212km to Derry. We didn’t make it as far as Derry but enjoyed a fabulous few days exploring one of the best road trips in Ireland. Like most of the road trips on this list, you need a few days to appreciate it properly. There are so many sights to see - many of Northern Ireland’s top attractions are located along the Causeway Coast.
If travelling from Belfast, and have pre-booked in advance, your first stop should be the Gobbins Cliff Path walk. This is one of Europe’s most dramatic cliff path walks, and reopened last year after massive refurbishment.
From there continue on to Larne and take the coastal drive via Cushendun to Ballycastle. On a clear day this offers stunning sea views and you should be able to see Scotland in the distance.
Don’t miss the drive around Torr Head, Murlough Bay and Fair Head. This is often overlooked and was one of my favourite drives along the Causeway Coast. I recall the amount of times I asked my husband to stop for photos, and my constant promises that it would be the last time, only to find another stunning view around the corner.
If you are taking a few days to explore the Causeway Coast, Ballycastle is a great town to stay in. We stayed here and loved it. There are some great bars and restaurants and it also has its own beach.
The Causeway Coast is renowned around the world for its many Game of Thrones locations. However, I am one of those rare breeds that only watched a few episodes. I may not be a big fan, but I still loved visiting its filming locations. Ballintoy Harbour and Bregagh Road, aka The Dark Hedges, are just some of them. They are located just 15 minutes from Ballycastle, and are a must visit.
The Giants Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and Dunluce Castle are practically a given if visiting the Causeway Coast. I love that these world class attractions are so close together. Of course I recommend taking your time to explore them properly, but it is possible to see all three in one day if needs be - you can enjoy a tasty lunch in the Bushmills Inn between visits!
It is here that many decide they have seen the Causeway Coast, however another day to explore the Portrush, the stunning Whiterocks beach, and Mussenden Temple should also be considered. Dramatically perched on a 120 ft cliff drop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with panoramic views of Donegal, Portrush and Fair Head - it is my excuse to return.
Keem Bay, Achill Island to Leenane, Connemara via Doolough Valley
The drive from Keem Bay in Achill Island, to Leenane in Connemara is 115km, and is best enjoyed if you are spending some time in either Mayo or Galway.
We visited Ireland’s largest island, Achill, for the first time last summer, and I was blown away by its beauty. I wholeheartedly agreed with Lonely Planet when they named Keem Beach Ireland’s best beach this year. My advice is to get there early and hike the mountain behind the beach for the best views of the bay.
However, Achill Island is also home to many magnificent beaches. I recommend staying the night (or longer if possible), in Achill to appreciate its true beauty, and to enjoy the many outdoor activities available.
There are cliffs aplenty for hiking, including Croaghaun Cliffs which are said to be the highest sea cliffs in Europe, and Minaun Cliffs which offer superb views of Keel beach.
As beautiful as Achill is, the drive from Achill, via Louisburg to Connemara is equally as rewarding. Take the road through the coastal towns of Newport and Westport to Louisburg, and spend the night in one of these towns if possible.
The drive from Louisburg to Leenane, through Doolough Valley is undoubtedly one of the best road trips in Ireland. We drove back to Dublin this way last summer and it was breathtaking. I recall our Sat Nav suggesting this scenic drive would add an hour to our journey back to Dublin. It added three hours.
There are two captivating lakes, and there are magnificent views around every corner. The scenery is stunning in Doolough Valley. It is Ireland’s lakes and mountains at their very best - move over Austria.
This drive will eventually take you into the pretty town of Leenane in Galway. The movie, The Field was filmed here and many of the pubs that were used in the film are still there today.
Glencree to Glendalough via the Sally Gap
This drive is one of my local scenic drives, but this makes it no less deserving to be included on this list of best road trips in Ireland. I am fortunate that Glencree is about 30 minutes drive from my home, but Bray or Enniskerry are also great starting points to get onto Old Military Road, which runs across the spine of the Wicklow Mountains.
When you get to Glencree you will be immediately greeted by wide open plains. I love that within minutes of leaving suburbia it feels worlds apart. After a short drive you will see the entrance to Kippure TV Mast entrance - a popular route for hikers as it is Dublin’s highest point.
Once you reach the Sally Gap crossroads, you have a choice of options available to you. You can continue south towards Glendalough, drive west to Blessington Lakes, or East to Roundwood. I suggest you take the latter. This will also bring you to Glendalough, but via the stunning lakes of Lough Tay and Lough Dan.
Lough Tay is one of Wicklow’s most photographed locations - the views are stunning, even on a bad day. The lake is surrounded by the Wicklow mountains, and the scenery is dramatically different to the wide open plains that you have just driven.
There is a small car park at the side of the road. Take the short walk up to the viewing point and you will be rewarded with spectacular views over Lough Tay and the Wicklow Mountains. Lough Tay is often referred to as The Guinness Lake. If you look closely you can see the white sand beach at the top of the lake, this along with the shape of the lake makes it look like a pint of Guinness.
You will then pass the walkway point for Lough Dan. I highly recommend this walk, we have enjoyed many family walks here, although you would need to allow 3-4 hours.
Follow the road down to Roundwood, and enjoy some tasty seafood chowder at the Roundwood Inn, or alternatively go further to Laragh, and visit one of my favourite restaurants in Wicklow - the Wicklow Heather. Located just minutes from Glendalough, we enjoyed many long lunches here after walks around one of Ireland’s most visited attractions. With no overseas visitors this summer - there has never been a better time to explore Glendalough’s monastic sites and numerous walking trails.
One massive advantage of this 34km road trip is that it is possible to drive it in one day. Of course there are many things to do and sights to see in Wicklow, so if you can take time to stay overnight, all the better.
These are just a sample of the many great road trips in Ireland - there are so many more to explore. I hope you enjoy discovering them this summer.
Sarah Slattery - 21-May-2021