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Watch a blazing sunset over the Atlantic or explore secret seaside caves; the Wild Atlantic Way has so many different beaches to potter along. Here are some of the best Wild Atlantic Way beaches, each with its own unique charm.
The 2,500 kilometre Wild Atlantic Way stretches from Kinsale, Co Cork right up to the Inishowen Peninsula in Co Donegal. Thousands of years of relentless Atlantic waves mean that the west coast of Ireland has some spectacular rock formations as well as all kinds of beaches from long stretches of golden sand to little, sheltered coves. Parts of the west coast have some of the best waves in the world for surfing. While others are ecological and geological areas of importance.
Irish beaches are well looked after and monitored to ensure they are clean and safe. Most beaches that are safe for swimming will have a lifeguard on duty during the summer. The Blue Flag is an international award given to beaches which meet certain environmental, educational, safety and access criteria. The Green Coast award focuses on the protection of the natural environment and community involvement.
Here are 21 of the beaches you must visit along the Wild Atlantic Way. If the beach has lifeguards, a Blue Flag or a Green Coast award it is noted. Some of the beaches are unsafe for swimming due to strong currents.
This is one of the most family-friendly beaches in West Cork, with a long stretch of smooth sand, plenty of sand dunes and crystal clear water. There is a surf school right on the beach should you feel like getting active. Located just 10km from the vibrant town of Clonakilty, Inchydoney beach has a lifeguard during the summer and was awarded a Blue Flag Award. There are newly built toilets and a car park onsite but it can fill up quickly during busy times.
Situated below the last village at the end of the Beara Peninsula is Ballydonegan Beach. It is actually a man-made beach and the white sand is made of crushed quartz from the Allihies Copper Mines. This is why Ballydonegan Strand is the sandiest beach in the area, compared to other stonier coves on the Beara Peninsula. There is no lifeguard so extra caution is required if you do fancy a dip, particularly with children. Several rocks on the beach provide shelter from the winds coming in over the Atlantic. The colourful village of Alihies is just a couple of minutes up from the beach. There are toilets and parking available here although parking can fill up on good days.
This gorgeous beach would seem almost tropical if it weren’t for the undoubtedly Irish scenery leading up to the strand. The surrounding grasslands is actually a Special Area of Conservation under the European Habitats Directive so look out for some of the fascinating wildlife that calls the Mizen Head Peninsula home. Access to the beach is across a floating bridge. Barleycove was awarded a Blue Flag Award and has a lifeguard during the summer and parking. There is surf equipment and kayak hire close to the beach.
This little gem on the Dingle Peninsula is the filming location of the 1970s film Ryan’s Daughter. This small beach near Slea Head is the most westerly point of mainland Ireland with spectacular views of the Blasket Islands. Due to its exposed location, strong currents mean this beach is unsuitable for swimming. There is a carpark here and a couple of cafés in the area. Dunquin village is three kilometres away and the town of Dingle is 20 kilometres away.
The lively seaside resort of Ballybunion is the perfect place for a family staycation or day trip. The town leads right down to the beach where there are plenty of accommodation options with ample hotels and a campsite. The ruins of a historical castle sit just above the beach and a walk along the beach and around the area will show you some interesting geographical formations like caves, a blowhole and a sea stack.
There is a café and an ice cream shop by the beach along with the famous Ballybunion Seaweed Baths. The beach itself is divided by cliffs into the men’s beach to the left of the cliffs and the ladies beach to the right, a relic to a time when men and women couldn’t bathe on the same beach. The beaches connect when the tide is out. There is a surf school right on the beach and lifeguards work during the summer months. Both beaches have Blue Flags. There is another smaller cove called the Nun’s Beach beneath a convent that is only accessible from the sand when the tide is out.
This beach is one of only two coral beaches in Ireland. What appears to be sand is actually dried, sun-bleached algae. This isolated beach is actually about a 20-minute drive from the village of Sneem, which is known as Ireland’s most colourful village. It is part of the Kerry Geopark which covers the surrounding areas of south Kerry too and has been identified as one of the most significant geological regions in Europe. This tiny little cove is a favourite for nature lovers and conservationists.
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At the edge of the Burren in the west Clare Gaeltacht is the little seaside village of Fanore right by the spectacular Fanore Beach. There are limestone rocks from the Burren all the way down the beach and right down to the water. The long sandy beach has a surf school and an extensive sand dune system. Climb up the sand dunes to get the best views of the area. The Blue Flag beach has a lifeguard during summer and is within walking distance of a coffee shop, pubs, a shop and a campsite. There is a carpark here. Just above the beach is a walk along a grassy area which is the perfect location for a picnic away from the sand.
We couldn’t write a list of Wild Atlantic Way beaches without paying homage to our most famous surfing beach. As well as surfing, this Blue Flag beach has places to get your kayaking and kitesurfing fix too. Lahinch beach can get very busy during the summer. There is pay parking available in the beach car park. There are also toilets in the car park. A lifeguard is on duty during the summer. There is plenty of accommodation in the area with several hotels, a campsite and holiday home rentals, as well as plenty of pubs and restaurants to chose from. One thing to watch on Lahinch Beach is that the tide comes in very quickly once the tide turns and almost all the sand is covered so check the tide times before you go.
If a quieter, more secluded beach is what you’re looking for then Whitestrand Beach in Doonbeg is a great option. It’s a little cove surrounded by low rocky cliffs which protect it from winds. There’s a lifeguard there in the summer. This idyllic little beach looks across the water to Doonbeg’s larger Doughmore Strand. The beach and surrounding area are a Natural Heritage Area of Ecological Importance and a Special Area of Conservation. There is a small amount of roadside parking near the beach so get there early. Doonbeg village is less than a 10-minute drive from the beach where there are shops, restaurants and pubs.
Arguably the most famous Irish beach Salthill is located within walking distance of Galway city. It is home to the “old long walk” that Steve Earl sings about in the song Galway Girl and the location of some of the filming for the music video for Ed Sheeran’s hit by the same name. A promenade goes the whole length of Salthill along by the sea. The sand below is divided up by rocks making the long stretch of beach into a series of little coves. At the end of the prom is the iconic Blackrock diving board. Salthill has plenty of cafes, restaurants and bars as well as some shops and chippers all along by the sea. There are several routes into Galway from Salthill but the nicest is the coast road which leads to the Claddagh area of Galway city. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer. There are toilets and car parks along the prom. Salthill can get extremely busy on nice days so arrive early to get parked and get a good spot on the sand.
Ireland’s second coral beach is located near Carraroe in the Connemara Gaeltacht. Instead of sand, this beach has dried Coralline Algae called Maerl. The clear water and interesting natural formations and wildlife make this beach a perfect spot for snorkelling. It is also safe for swimming. There is a lifeguard here during the summer and it has a Blue Flag. The fishing village of Carraroe is less than 10 minutes away by car.
Three kilometres outside Roundstone in the Connemara Gaeltacht Dog’s Bay is a beautiful beach for swimming, rock pool exploring and nature watching. On a sunny day, you might forget that you are in rural Ireland and not the Caribbean. The sand here is not sand from rocks but from seashells resulting in a unique colour and texture. The beach is sheltered from currents by the surrounding headlands. Dog’s Bay backs onto Gurteen Bay and the two beaches form a tombola. From the beach, there are magnificent views of the Connemara landscape particularly Erris Beg. There is a carpark at the beach as well as a portaloo toilet.
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Keem Bay faces east but is actually on the west side of Achill Island. A visit to Keem Bay is worth it for the views on the drive out alone, over the twisting cliffside route on Croaghaun Mountain. The beach is one of the most picturesque in Ireland with white, powdery sand and headlands sheltering it from each side.
Kayaking, snorkelling and surfing are popular on the beach and there are kayaking and snorkelling Blueway trails here. There is a water sports school close to the beach. A hike along the Cliffs of Benmore starts at Keem Bay too. The beach has a Blue Flag, lifeguards during the summer and a car park. There have been several basking shark sightings from Keem Bay over the years. Basking sharks are harmless so don’t worry, just look out for the second biggest fish in the ocean while you swim.
This Blue Flag beach is located about four kilometres from Louisburgh Village. As well as a sandy beach there is a small harbour and a woodland walk here too. There are snorkelling and kayaking Blueway trails here and a number of water sport providers in the Louisburgh/Old Head area. The area is popular with wildlife enthusiasts as there is a mix of woodland and marine wildlife. The area is a Special Area of Conservation. From the beach make sure to look back inland and take in the fabulous woodland views and views of Croagh Patrick.
This beautiful unspoiled beach is extremely isolated. It is 25 kilometres from Louisburgh. The drive to get there is along narrow roads adding to the feeling of being away from everything. The Maoilrea Mountains, Connacht’s highest mountains, rise up from the beach separating the beach from the rest of the world adding to the feeling of isolation.
The beach is part an ecologically important area and has been awarded the Green Coast Award. The area also has a rich archaeological heritage with over 700 known archaeological monuments. The surrounding mountains mean that the beach is quite sheltered. From the beach, you can see views of Inisturk Island, Inisboffin and Clare Island. If you can time your visit to the beach to coincide with the evening as the sunsets over the Atlantic are fantastic.
This Green Coast beach is off the beaten track. Therefore, you might just feel like you are on your own private beach. Even on busy days, Dunmoran Strand never gets overcrowded. It is clean and safe for swimming and there is a lifeguard during the summer. There are rockpools for kids to go searching for sea creatures in. The beach is enclosed by sand dunes for playing in too. If you walk the length of the beach you will reach the Beach Bar. Apart from this, there are no shops or amenities near the beach. There is a car park. The village of Easky is about 20 minutes away by car.
While relaxing on Rosses Point Beach, make sure to take in the surrounding scenery with Knocknarea Hill to the south and Benbulben to the north. Across Sligo Bay look out for Coney Island and the village of Rosses Point, set against the backdrop of the spectacular Dartry mountain range. When not admiring the scenery take a dip in the clean, clear water. It is safe to swim on this Blue Flag beach and there are lifeguards on duty during the summer. When the tide is out you can walk the full three kms length of the beach. Rosses Point village has a number of bars and restaurants if you want to refuel after a day on the beach. There is a pier near the beach where you can get a boat out to Coney Island. There is parking at the beach.
Another of Sligo’s long sandy beaches, Mullaghmore is a perfect beach for surfing. In fact, it was voted one of the best surfing spots in the world for big wave surfing by Lonely Planet, so surfers, bring along your board and hit the waves. There is a stand-up paddleboarding school at Mullaghmore Harbour where you can do stand up paddleboard surfing and stand up paddle board coasteering. From the beach expect fabulous views of Tievebaun, Truskmor and Benbulben mountains. There are boat trips from Mullaghmore Harbour to the beautiful uninhabited Inishmurray Island. The last inhabitants left the island in 1948. The island is rich in history and culture and remains of an early Irish monastic settlement are there. Back on the mainland Mullaghmore village has a number of bars, restaurants and accommodation options. There is a car park by the beach as well as toilets at the harbour. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer.
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Located just outside Bundoran Tullan Strand is one of Donegal’s most renowned surfing beaches. While the tremendous waves make this an exhilarating strand for surfing, swimming on this beach is prohibited. This is because of treacherous currents. Tullan Strand is still definitely worth a visit. Watch the surfers as you walk along the long expanse of sand and take in the breath-taking scenery of the area. There are no lifeguards on duty at this beach, just several signs stating that swimming is prohibited. There is a large car park here.
Voted second best beach in the world by readers of The Observer, this beautiful beach on Donegal’s north coast is surprisingly unspoiled and often deserted. It stretches from Portsalon to the Knockalla Hills with some nice hikes above the beach and impressive views of the beach and surrounding area. As you arrive at the beach you will be treated to spectacular views of the Inishowen Peninsula. Ballymastocker Bay has a Blue Flag and lifeguards during the summer. There is a small café, a car park and toilets here. Portsalon village is very close to the carpark; about a five-minute drive.
Maghera Beach is a beautiful hidden treasure. Currents mean that swimming is extremely dangerous but the adventure factor makes up for it. From the car park, you have to walks through sand dunes just to get to the beach. When the tide is out you can explore some of the caves by foot and the rest are best explored by kayak. The beach is just below Slievetooey Mountain and is one kilometre from Assaranca Waterfall. There is a carpark here with a €3.00 charge for parking and the toilets cost €0.50. If you can organise your visit to coincide with the sunset and watch the sun disappear over the wild Atlantic Ocean.
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By Heather Snelgar
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