Wild Ireland’s Atlantic Way

The thought of traveling internationally during Covid times—even for a seasoned adventurer—seemed daunting or, at best, unnecessarily complicated but my journey to Ireland actually proved to be wildly rewarding, mellow, and had me feeling like the world was my literal oyster. Our road trip up the west of Ireland included exploring castles, foraging, hiking, and eating extraordinary food with three iconic hotels as a base for exploration, all with the freedom to make our own schedule.

Photo: Dromoland Castle

Hayfield Manor, County Cork

It all started in Cork, with an airport car rental (pro tip: get a small car for the narrow roads—we didn’t and have regrets) and a short drive to Hayfield Manor—located right in the center of the city beside University College Cork. It’s a humble old estate with beautifully appointed rooms, lovely gardens and food, and is a great base to explore. Enjoy tea in the garden and don’t miss the seasonally-driven menu at Perrotts Garden Bistro where we sampled Irish beef, Skeaghanore Farm’s duck, Kenmare scallops, Castletownbere crab, and lots of local produce. 

A short walk into the city center led us to the centuries-old and not-to-be-missed English Market—a sprawling site where we found local eggs, preserves, cheeses, pantry goods, and readymade snacks and meals to take with us on the road to Kinsale, a colorful and historic fishing town founded in the 12th century. Take the Lighthouse Loop Walk on Sheep’s Head Peninsula to the sea cliffs where a 17th-century lighthouse awaits and work up an appetite to enjoy some seafood at the Michelin-starred Bastion back in town. Finns’ Farmcut and Max’s are two other more casual spots not to be missed.

Explore west to Kenmare in County Kerry, a lively small town worth a stop and a meal at the picturesque, chic Sheen Falls Lodge—not far from Killarney National Park which provided some of the most beautiful walks on the trip. 

Pan Seared Kenmare Scallops | Photo: Hayfield Manor

Dromoland Castle, County Clare

We continued north to stay at Dromoland Castle, located near Newmarket-on-Fergus, which has been welcoming guests since the 16th century and is one of the finest castles in Ireland. The estate itself is lovely—known for its world-class golf course—and provides endless opportunity for walking and exploration. We wandered into the woods to find the Hermit’s Cave, then over to the walled gardens where we found the chef’s greenhouse bursting with tomatoes and beautiful summer squashes, pears, grapes, herbs, and more lining the paths. 

If weather permits, go on a guided foraging walk to a secluded beach and sustainably harvest and learn about twelve types of seaweed or learn to identify local wild plants, flowers, and fruits—all followed by a lovely picnic. Or stay on the estate for clay pigeon shooting, archery, fishing, horse riding, stand up paddle boarding, or golf. 

We settled into our magnificent Queen Anne suite before diving into a wonderful afternoon tea downstairs. The interiors here are unmatched—it still feels like I’m entering a different century, but everything manages to be comfortable, quiet, and not at all stuffy. 

Afternoon Tea at Dromoland Castle
Foraging for Turkey Tail mushrooms at Dromoland Castle
Lake fishing at Dromoland Castle

From the castle, we drove to check out the famed Cliffs of Moher—a tremendous sight you may recognize from a number of blockbuster movies and also happens to offer a beautiful midday hike. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a sight of some Puffins, basking sharks, or dolphins.

Onto Galway, we were sure to stop at Sheridans Cheesemongers on the lovely St. Nicholas’s Church square in the city center for one of Ireland’s best selections of local farmhouse cheeses, which you can taste and pair with wines in their shop and bar upstairs.

Ashford Castle, County Mayo

Ashford Castle was best saved for last—a truly magnificent sight awaited us as we made our way down the drive and crossed over the stone bridge. This 13th-century castle first opened as a hotel in 1936 and recently underwent a multimillion dollar renovation, modernizing the castle with touches like air-conditioning and heated floors, but retaining the old-world charm that continues to bring guests back for generations.

Ashford Castle Estate | Photo: Aervisions

There are seemingly endless activities on the castle grounds and beyond—fly-fishing for wild brown trout on Lough Corrib or Atlantic Salmon on Cong River, falconry, clay shooting, archery, kayaking, zip-lining, and so much more for any adventurous spirit. There was enough to do that we didn’t actually feel the need to leave the castle grounds, ever. The castle feels like a sprawling, magical playground and I certainly roamed the halls at night admiring all the nooks and crannies, pretending I was a lady of another time.

Afternoon Tea in Ashford Castle’s Connaught Room

Afternoon Tea in the Connaught Room is a must, with incomparable service and views, but the real culinary gem here is the upscale—jackets required for men—George V, where chef Barry Lynch offers an innovative approach to fine hotel dining and hopes to be running a fully self-sustaining culinary program on the property within the next five years. He met me for a stroll through the culinary garden, boasting just enough seasonal produce like Swiss chard, soft herbs, and crab apples to make do, but it’s not nearly enough for the entire property’s needs. 

In a remote place like Ashford Castle, last-minute produce orders from even the most local of vendors prove to be a challenge. If an order is missing a crucial ingredient for the night’s menu, it could be days before there’s a fix. Chef Barry and I walked out to the edges of the estate where he showed me their expansion plans—pretty impressive but also daunting. The idea that he could send someone out to fetch a pound of tomatoes in the middle of service, though, sounds pretty amazing and worth all the effort.

After strolling the property, we met Tommy, our guide at Ireland’s School of Falconry—the oldest established falconry school in Ireland—and each flew our own Harris hawk around the spectacular forests of the castle for about an hour and a half. It’s hard to describe the experience except to say that it was quite extraordinary, memorable, and I’ve told every single person I know about how much I loved it. Oneness with nature and all. 

The folks at Ashford Castle can craft amazing itineraries, which all include seeing so much local goodness, from visiting the local blacksmith, ceramicist, or stone carver to foraging for seafood, visiting an Irish cheese-making family’s farm, or experiencing the art of beekeeping. There is no shortage of adventure from the steps of the castle.

Cycling at Ashford Castle

If you have time, head west to Connemara National Park and enjoy the majestic mountains, endless greenery, expansive bogs, and spectacular hiking. Or ride legendary Connemara ponies along sandy beaches at Errislannan Manor Riding Centre near Clifden. •


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