Connemara, or Land of the Sea, is a wild region of bogland, pristine lakes and mountains located in the west of County Galway. Unlike the more famous Ring of Kerry or Dingle Peninsula, Connemara is sparsely populated and the landscape much more open. This is Ireland’s big sky country. Because the area is so remote, the Irish language and traditions have survived here and Irish is the first tongue of many of the inhabitants, particularly along the south coast.
Connemara is a beautiful place to drive through but this area more than any other in Ireland is all about open air and out doors. All manner of activities are catered for from hiking to fishing, horse riding and scuba diving. All told, Connemara is the ultimate anti-dote to life in the fast lane. Two days is good, A week is fabulous. Any longer and you may not want to get back on that freeway.
Here are our top picks and tips:
1. Do the Ultimate Connemara Drive
Day 1: Starting in Galway City head west on the R336 towards Spiddal and beyond. There are fine views across Galway Bay to the Burren in north Clare on your left. The road turns northwards away from the sea at Rossaveal and suddenly the distant Maumturk and Twelve Bens mountain ranges appear on the horizon. Stay on the R336 until you reach Maam Cross. Like any crossroads this one provides you with a number of options, but unlike most, all options are good here. The route I am going to follow assumes you intend staying in Clifden or Ballynahinch Castle. Take a right at Maam Cross and follow the N59 all the way to Clifden. The scenery is wild and fresh all the way with mountains on the right, low hills on the left and almost as many lakes along the way as there are fields. Ballynahinch Castle is located about 10 km off theN59 on the R341 (signposted for Roundstone). Driving time from Galway to Clifden via this route is 2 to 3 hours.
Day 2: Start the day with the Sky Road drive which is a mini loop starting in Clifden. This is perhaps the most impressive coastal drive in the country and while stunningly beautiful, it can at times feels like you might be driving just a little too close to the sky for comfort.Probably should not be attempted with too much or too little coffee on board. Back in Clifden continue on the N59 signposted for Westport passing Kylemore Abbey and Letterfrack on the way to the tiny village of Leenane which is situated at the head of Ireland’s only fjord,Killary Harbour. From here you can continue on the R336 back to Maam Cross or double back to the R334 and drive through Lough Inagh Valley with the Maumturks on one side and the Twelve Bens on the other. This is the superior drive in my opinion and well worth the extra few miles. There isn’t a house to be seen along the whole route, the only sign of life being the splendidly located Lough Inagh Lodge right in the centre of the valley by the lake. Either route will bring you back onto the N59. Take a left and it is straight all the way back to Galway City.
2. Get Lost in Style
Find comfort, romance and solitude in one of Connemara’s many perfect hideaway hotels. Here are our top picks:
- Ballynahinch Castle, Recess:
A perennial favourite among Authentic Irelanders, everyone loves Ballynahinch. Beautiful castle, spectacular location, great food,enchanting gardens and no where near as pricey as Dromoland or Ashford. Enough said.
- Lough Inagh Lodge, Lough Inagh
Not another soul for miles, only the mountains and lake for company this is the‘get away from it all’ luxury country house. Fishing and painting courses a speciality. Send your trophy bride out fishing for rainbow trout while you find inner peace with paintbrushes and canvas.
- Zetland Country House, Cashel
Family run country house (former hunting lodge) with views over Cashel Bay.Splendid location, great restaurant and plenty of great beaches and walks nearby to work up an appetite.
- Cashel House Hotel, Cashel
Just a mile up the road from Zetland, Cashel House was one of the first manor house hotels on the scene when it opened back in 1968. General Charles De Gaulle and his wife stayed here for two weeks a year later and were instrumental in putting the place on the map. The proprietors haven’t looked back since. Expect the best, you won’t be disappointed.Exceptional service and food topped off with beautiful gardens that rundown to a private beach.
- Dolphin Beach Country House, Clifden
Located off the Sky Road about 5km from Clifden, Dolphin Beach House is set in14 acres of wilderness with the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the garden. Staying here is a unique and joyful experience. The infectious hospitality of the Foyle family and the home they have created is sure to win you over. Carved furniture by dad Billy, food by daughter Sinead, managed by daughter Clodagh, all overseen by mum Barbara. Say no more.
- Delphi Lodge, Delphi:
Take one look at the photo of Delphi Lodge on their website and tell me you don’t want to move in immediately and stay for as long as possible. Not strictly a hotel (there is no room service), Delphi Lodge operates more as a sporting and fishing lodge where everyone dines together, presided over by the owner Peter Mantle or the captor of the day’s biggest salmon. Deservedly famous.
3. Check out the Most Scenic Girls School Ever
Kylemore Abbey is located about 17km northeast of Clifden on the N59. Forget Hogwarts, this is where I wished I went to school. The setting is jaw droppingly spectacular. The Abbey doubles as a monastery for Benedictine nuns and an exclusive boarding school for girls. Can you imagine studying art history or calculus here? I have never met a raduate of this academy, but I imagine those girls must be something special. Sadly, the nuns announced in 2006 that the school will close in 2010. The Visitor Centre, Pottery Studio, Walled Victorian Garden and Craft Shop are open daily, but many parts of the Abbey are closed to the public so the nuns can pursue the monastic life in peace and solitude. http://www.kylemoreabbey.com/
4. Find Adventure
Connemara boasts two of Ireland’s best adventure centres where you can try your hand at everything from abseiling to zip wire, archery to raft building and surfing. Fun for kids, fantastic for adults. Trust me, I’m an adult.
5. Go Walkabout
Connemara arguably provides the best walking or hiking in Ireland. It is a different experience to Kerry. The landscape is more open meaning you can see where you are headed and once you get there the views tend to be unobstructed and expansive with the whole of Galway and Mayo in the palm of your hand. Here are a few personal favourites:
- Climb Benbaun:Benbaun is the highest of the Twelve Bens and the views across Lough Inagh Valley throughout the climb are breathtaking. From the top you can see from Crogh Patrick and Clew Bay in the north clear to the Aran Islands in the South. In a word, stunning. Park about 5 km (3 miles)north of Lough Inagh Lodge on the R344, just beyond a private road to the left (the only turn for miles). Benbaun sweeps up from the R344 on your left. There is no trail to follow but navigation is easy on a clear day with the summit constantly visible. Total time approx 4 hours. The walk can be extended by completing a loop that takes in the three peaks visible to the south of Benbaun and returning to the R344 from the far side of the Gleninagh Valley. Total time 6.5 hours.
- Diamond Hill Loop: Start from the Visitor Centre in Connemara National Park. Total time is approx 3 hours.
- Climb Errisbeg: absolutely the best return for energy expended, Errisbeg is but a pup at 298m (977 feet), but the views from the top will make you think you have climbed a monster. The rather pompously named Mount Errisbeg lies just west of Roundstone and is clearly visible from the town. From sea level it looks too small to be bothered with, but whoever said easy is bad?There’s a perfect access point about 5km southwest of Roundstone on the R341. Look out for a gate into a field on a 90 degree bend in the road.There’s room to park by the gate. Climb the gate and turn off the path heading towards the summit on your right. Skirt around the pond and pick a path upwards. There’s no trail, but the going is easy – you should be at the top in 45 minutes. Before you to the south is the intricate coastline of Connemara, with the Aran Islands, Roundstone and its two beaches. To the west and north lie Clifden and the mighty Maumturks and Twelve Bens. Sweet.
For other walks in Connemara try this website: http://www.goconnemara.com. Or pick up a copy of Best Irish Walks by Joss Lynam or Hill Walkers Atlantic Ireland by David Herman.
8. Go Fishing
Ireland may be the last unspoiled fishing country in Europe, but Connemara with its myriad lakes and rivers is rightly known as a fisherman’s paradise. Connemara is simply the best place to fish west of the Volga. For all the information you could possibly need on game,course or sea angling check out the Western Regional Fisheries Board website.
Most of the lodges and country houses mentioned above specialize in fishing. Enquire when booking.