On our weekend break in Ireland back in February (wow, time is flying this year!), we spent one day exploring the town of Galway, and the next day on a road trip down the Wild Atlantic Way, taking in the rugged and unforgiving countryside and making a few touristy stops on the way.
The Wild Atlantic Way is 2,500km long, running from the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal right down the West coast of Ireland to Kinsale in County Cork. We only did a very small portion of the Way from Galway to the Cliffs of Moher, but it was the perfect day trip and was enough for us to fall in love with the beauty and wildness of rural Ireland.
After an epic brunch at Ard Bia at Nimmos in Galway, which really set us up for the day, we packed up our little hire car and headed for the coast. It took about 15 minutes from Galway to join up with the Wild Atlantic Way, which is very well signposted at all junctions so very easy to follow even without a map or satnav. I knew there were a couple of little castles along the coast, before we got to our main destination of the day, the Cliffs of Moher, but we also managed to find an extremely welcome stop off in the middle of nowhere which ended up being my favourite part of the trip almost!
First stop was Dunhedin Castle. It should have been open to visitors, but when we arrived it was all closed up, so instead we took a few photos and walked the perimeter, which took us all of five minutes – it was a little smaller than we had imagined!
Impressive nevertheless, especially with the backdrop of the ever-changing dramatic skies. I am not sure if it is always the same, but the weather on our drive down the Wild Atlantic Way was absolutely crazy – one moment bright sunshine, the next torrential rain hammering on the car and reducing visibility to less than a couple of metres – a little bit scary when you’re on a road clinging to the side of a cliff face with the sea raging just below you! And indeed, often washing up and over the road in front of the car. Whoever named the road was right, it is most definitely wild.
After the Castle, we planned to just drive and stop where the mood struck, which it certainly did when we saw a huge sign pointing off the road to a ‘Chocolate Factory’. A few minutes driving through the dramatic landscape of The Burren, an area of highlands made of stone scree and little else, and we stumbled upon Hazel Mountain Chocolates.
Hazel Mountain Chocolates
We were lucky as they had only opened for the season the day before, so our timing was perfect. We wandered into their beautiful shop and looked around for a moment at the lovely displays before the man behind the best till I have ever seen asked if we would like to hear more about the place.
Of course we said, and he gave us a 15 minute tour of the facility and explained to us how they make their chocolate, and the fact that they are one of only two bean-to-bar chocolatiers in Ireland. This means their chocolate is single-origin and completely pure, just chocolate, with no added sugar or nasties. Ste was delighted to be handed this bar of half processed chocolate and would very much have liked to take it home with us but with a “street-value” (as Gilles, our tour guide called it) of well over £300, we thought we had best leave it and buy some finished bars instead! We even got to taste some chocolate mid-processing as the beans were being ground into paste. Liquid heaven!
Once we had tasted the raw product, it was time to taste the finished bars, of three different origins. We were instructed to take a tiny amount and wait for it to melt on our tongues. Despite the fact there was no sugar added, and the chocolate was between 60 and 85%, there was no bitterness at all, every one was sublime. Their milk chocolate version was amazing too, with just Irish cream added. It was all we could do not to buy half of the shop, but we restrained ourselves and came away with just three bars.
After watching the ladies at work tempering and making truffles, we were hungry for more so popped next door into their café for a hot chocolate.
The Irish Times has listed their café as one of the top 10 in Ireland and I can see why. An amazing array of cakes lines the entry and the menu sounded deliciously fresh and made with all local ingredients.
Sadly we weren’t hungry enough after our huge brunch to eat there (I passed up this cake – I am still regretting it), though I was very tempted (again!) to buy their gorgeous cookbook. I have even now got it on my Amazon wishlist! The hot chocolate was absolutely to die for though and so rich I don’t think I could have eaten cake too.
The Cliffs of Moher
Delighted with this impromptu stop, we hopped back in the car and drove on along the impressive coastline until we started to encounter huge coaches full of tourists stopped at the roadside, disgorging people onto the rocks like penguins on a migratory rush for the sea, and we realised we must be nearing the Cliffs.
I had imagined parking up somewhere and going for a wander along the clifftops, being the only people there, but clearly word has got around about the beauty of the cliffs and we ended up at the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience (6 euros each), parking up and then walking up the hill to the Visitor Centre. I almost got blown away just stepping out of the car, and the wind only got stronger the further up the hill we got – the most scary conditions for going to stand on a clifftop! The Visitor Centre was packed with info on the cliffs and how they were formed and had great facilities and a café with a view, but we were mainly there for the cliffs so we went straight out. They have obviously spent a great deal of money making the Cliffs safe for the hundreds of daily visitors, installing a large wall to prevent people from falling over, in both directions from the visitor centre. We wandered up one side and then the other. The brightness of the sun made it impossible to take photos of the main part of the cliffs South of the centre, but the ones of the North view came out looking like it did on the day.
The size of the cliffs and their length has to be seen to be believed. I wanted to walk the full length of them, but was wearing a regular pair of boots (not hiking ones), and as soon as we left the carefully managed area of the visitor centre, we entered a quagmire of mud and paths falling off the clifftops, yet still overrun by tourists posing precariously on the edge.
I am amazed there are not more accidents there given how reckless some people were. Walking on the slippery mud was impossible, and the thought of falling over and ending up over the cliff edge put us both off trying to walk any further (especially as I was 5 months’ pregnant at the time), but I think even from the visitor centre you can really appreciate the majesty of the cliffs.
Caked in mud, we hopped back in the hire car and headed slowly back to Shannon Airport, stopping in a little village pub on the way for supper. We spent the night in the Shannon Airport Park Inn by Radisson, which was surprisingly nice with a lovely little pub with a roaring fire, in front of which we spent the rest of the evening, before getting an early night before our flight home at 6am the next day.
I would have loved to take a few days to do the full length of the Wild Atlantic Way, taking in the Isle of Arran and further south, Skelling Michael and the dramatic landscapes of the south, but even a single day was a fabulous experience that I would highly recommend. And it involved chocolate – what more could you want?