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Ireland

Magic Islands and Historic Charm: A Road Trip through County Mayo

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If you’re looking for the most stunning places on the Emerald Isle, there’s no better place for an Ireland road trip than beautiful County Mayo. This county is home to some of the most stunning landscapes, delicious food, and off the beaten path gems in Ireland.

This road trip itinerary will take you through all the best things to do in Mayo, Ireland’s most photogenic and striking county, which can be done in a minimum of four days. Of course, the longer you have, the more leisurely you’ll be able to travel as a result. Alternately, you can explore Ireland by train, as it’s quite well-connected, though you’ll be limited to larger cities and it can be a bit harder to see the smaller towns.

And with views as epic as you’ll see all over the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s well worth the extra time spent visiting these gems along the coastline!

Ireland Road Trip, Stop One: Westport

Explore the cute town of Westport

Westport may very well be one of the most photogenic towns in all of Ireland, which is saying something — Ireland is a beautiful place.

I particularly loved the canal going through the center of Westport, especially beautiful in the fall as the leaves change color and the brightly colored flowers on the bridges add pops of color everywhere. It’s one of the cutest places in Ireland!

The houses are painted in a variety of fun, vibrant colors, and there are tons of great shops and bars, including one of Ireland’s most famous bars — Matt Molloy’s.

Westport House

While many people don’t think of Ireland when they think of pirates, they’re mistaken. Grace O’Malley, the most famous female pirate of the 16th century, was actually born and raised right here in County Mayo.

This badass pirate took over her father’s position after his death, skipping her brother in the typical ascension line, and made a name for herself as the “Pirate Queen.”

things to do in Mayo Ireland - visit the Westport house!

The Westport House is owned by direct descendants of Grace O’Malley. It’s now a historic house open for guided tours, from the grounds to the ornately decorated rooms to even the dungeons!

The residents of Westport love their Grace O’Malley history so much that there’s even some street art dedicated to her in the town center!

Cycle and eat along the Great Western Greenway

The 42-kilometer trail can be biked in a day or in bits and pieces as you choose. The Greenway starts in Westport, passes through Newport and Mulranney, before going onto Achill Island.

The trail is rather hilly in parts, so for the less fit amongst us (read: me) I highly recommend renting an electric bike.

An electric bike gives you a bit of extra oomph up the hills, but you’ll still have to put in some effort and power yourself. There are plenty of places to stop along the way for food or photographs.

Trust me, the views as you approach Clew Bay are some of the most beautiful in all of Ireland, so you’ll want to make sure you come with your camera battery fully charged.

If you’re wondering about the logistics of renting a bicycle if you have a car, Clew Bay Bike Hire offers pickups and shuttle service, so if you only want to bike one way, it’s totally doable! This is great for people like me who loathe the idea of doubling back. If only every hike offered this service!

I recommend stopping in Mulranny where you can try food from the Gourmet Greenway, an association of local farmers, fishers, and butchers based along the Greenway. The Nephin Restaurant at Mulranny Park Hotel puts together delicious food from these local merchants.

I was drooling over the wild Atlantic smoked salmon — simply delicious.

Ireland Road Trip, Stop Two: Achill Island

See the postcard-perfect Keem Bay on Achill Island

When thinking of the beauty of Ireland, you most likely think of all sorts of shades of green and the deep blue of the sea. You’ll see beautiful spots all over your Ireland road trip, but Achill Island is different.

There is, in my opinion, no more beautiful place in Ireland that I’ve seen than Achill Island.

Sheer cliffs drop a massive 688 meters (2,257 ft) into the sea, the tallest in all of Ireland and the UK — and without the crowds of the cliffs of Moher.

Besides the highest cliffs in Ireland, there are also historical sites, cute pubs, tranquil lakes, cozy inns, and so much more.

But the real gem of Achill Island is the stunning Keem Bay. Located on the western side of Achill Island, Keem Bay is one of the best examples of Ireland’s beauty and is a designated Blue Flag Beach.

If you visit on a sunny day (which is basically akin to winning the lottery in Ireland), the water is almost a Caribbean shade of blue. But even on a cloudy day, there’s no denying the gorgeous color of the water and stunning cliff landscape.

Kitesurf or stand up paddle board on Achill Island

If you want a side of adventure along with your visit to Achill Island, you’re in luck. French expat Francois has opened up Pure Magic, a kitesurfing school, cozy inn, and delicious restaurant all in one.

If kitesurfing is a bit too much adrenaline for you, you can stand-up paddleboard.

You’ll want to wear a wetsuit if you do as the water in Ireland is around 50 degrees F/10 C year round!

Ireland Road Trip, Stop Three: Belmullet Peninsula

Visit the abandoned Inishkea Islands

The Inishkea Islands are a beautiful but slightly haunting set of two islands about an hour’s boat ride away from Belmullet.

Surrounded on all sides by white sand, low lying grass spreads across the entirety of these islands, which are dotted with the remnants of stone structures.

No one lives there anymore, save for a few coy donkeys and sheep.

Sadly, a tragic fishing accident in 1927 killed 10 young men – a huge number given the small population of these islands. Shortly thereafter, the inhabits of Inishkea North and South left for the mainland.

There is a small graveyard where you can pay your respects to the lives lost.

There isn’t a whole lot to do on the Inishkea Islands, but it’s magical nonetheless.

You can hike around, photograph the abandoned villages, marvel at the water, and even discover a hidden lighthouse. It’ll only take you about two hours to get a sense of the Inishkeas, but it’s absolutely worth the trouble. There are no public boats or ferries, so you’ll have to charter a boat: we went with Geraghty Charters and it was a wonderful experience.

For all the sadness of what happened here on Inishkea to make it so quiet and peaceful today, there’s no denying the views are beautiful. On a calm day, the turquoise sea’s crystal clear water offers views straight to the ocean bottom.

You can see why, despite the isolation, people have been calling the islands of the Inishkeas home for over 5,000 years.

Visit the Ionad Deirbhile Heritage Center

It’s odd, but I swear it’s true: pretty much every other American you will meet (including yours truly) lays claim to some Irish roots. The Ionad Deirbhile Heritage Center works tirelessly to preserve the heritage of Mayo County and its history. Here, the Blacksod Bay Assisted Emigration project works to connect people with their Irish roots, with records of over 3,000 Irish emigrants.

Also at the Heritage Center, you can see photographs of daily life, documents preserving the history of the region around Blacksod Bay, and talk to the lovely staff who will share with you anything you want to know about this area – from wildlife to history to tradition.

Visit the North Mayo Sculpture Trail

The North Mayo Sculpture Trail is the largest public art installation in all of Ireland and one of the largest in all of Europe. The focus on the sculpture trail has been blending together the landscape and nature with more contemporary art.

This means that walking through dunes and fields, art will seem to rise out of the ground, flowing seamlessly with the land around it. Over the years, more sculptures have been added, making it a living art installation that is ever-changing.

Road signs and plaques with information about each piece dot the landscape.

We didn’t explore the whole sculpture trail, but we made a quick stop at Deirbhiles Twist, a mini-Stonehenge of sorts that elicits a bit of a supernatural vibe due to its location on the isolated Belmullet peninsula.

Walk the cliffs of Erris Head

Journey through several different fields, past sheep and stunning sea views, while climbing the beautiful yet super steep cliffs of Erris Head.

The plateau at the top of the cliffs offers a completely unobstructed view of the Atlantic Ocean and of the surrounding cliffs — Cliffs of Moher, eat your heart out! Looking out across the ocean, you almost feel like you can see to the other side of the ocean, putting the migration of so many Irish to the Americas into perspective.

Be sure to wear proper waterproof shoes, as I very nearly got sucked into a bog doing this hike! But it’s so worth it.

The braver amongst us (read: not me!) can even go “coasteering,” which is a combination of cliff jumping, scrabbling, climbing, and letting the ocean sweep you around.

It’s not my kind of adventure, but for the adrenaline junkies amongst us, you can’t miss it. My friends went with Wavesweeper and loved every minute of the experience!

Ireland Road Trip, Stop Four: Ballycroy & Ashford

Check out the ancient landscape of Ballycroy National Park

Comprised mostly of bogs, the park also boasts rivers, viewpoints to the nearby Achill Island, and a number of endangered habitats. It is one of the largest peat bogs still in existence and teams with various rare wildlife.

Bogs are depleting rapidly, as some Irish still use the peat as an energy source. However, the peat from these bogs have taken over 10,000 years to be the way it is today, and therefore it’s not a very sustainable solution.

To preserve the bog for future generations, you’ll find a boardwalk you can walk across to protect the fragile ecosystem below it. The different habitats within almost guarantee that you will see rare flora you can’t find anywhere else.

See the magic of Ashford Castle

No Ireland road trip is complete without a trip to a castle, and Ashford Castle is one of the most interesting castles in all of Ireland.

Converted to a hotel within the last century, the castle dates back to 1228 and has Anglo-Norman roots.

Image Credit: Unukorno [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Recently featured in the show Reign, the castle has been mostly preserved as it would have been in the 15th century, offering visitors a once in a lifetime experience.

If you’re looking to live out your castle fantasies, Ashford has got you — hotel rooms are available for a hefty price tag — or you can visit for a price more suitable for peasants like you and me (a mere 5 euro).

Note: I was a guest of Failte Ireland and TBEX Ireland during my time in County Mayo. All opinions expressed are my own

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