sadBy Gary Walsh

In marketing terms, Tourism Ireland’s development of the Wild Atlantic Way driving route along the west coast of Ireland has been a stunning success. The 2500km route from the far north of County Donegal to Kinsale in County Cork has driven – no pun intended – a surge in tourism to the entire island of Ireland.

In 2014, the year in which the ambitious Wild Atlantic Way concept was made reality, Ireland attracted a record 8.6 million visitors. And so far, the country is on track for another record year. Arrivals grew by 13% in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2014, while Oceania arrivals – mostly from Australia – were up by 18% over the previous year in the March to May period.

And Australia matters. Tourism Ireland statistics show that Australian travellers average 50% more time in Ireland than other visitors, and spend double the amount of money. The average Aussie spends 13 nights in Ireland, including Northern Ireland where Australia is the third largest international market. In fact, a third of all Australian visitors to Ireland visit Northern Ireland.

Significantly, Tourism Ireland notes that the travel trade has a greater influence on the travel decisions of Australians than elsewhere in the world. Australians also take more time to decide on their travel plans that other travellers. All of this means that Tourism Ireland is prepared to put time and energy into the travel trade in Australia.

The Wild Atlantic Way will remain a major focus for Tourism Ireland in 2015, along with the Causeway Coastal Route which covers the northern coastline of Northern Ireland, including the famous Giant’s Causeway. The two have great synergy, both focusing on the scenic fringe of the island and virtually running into one another.

It seems unlikely that a country of Ireland’s size – it is, after all, smaller than Tasmania – could have a coastal drive along just one part of the island that could extend for 2500km. It’s because the Wild Atlantic Way is not simply a linear route from north to south; it deviates onto countless small roads and laneways which lead to sights that are worthy of note. One minute you are on a four-lane motorway travelling at 100kmh, and the next you are meandering down a tiny country lane lined with drystone walls at walking pace – at all times following the distinctive blue-and-white Wild Atlantic Way signposts.

The route features 15 Signature Discovery Points, which are essentially the best that the coast has to offer. These include such places as Slieve League, a wild and windswept spot where the tallest sea cliffs in Europe tumble into the Atlantic; Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only true fjord; and the stunning Cliffs of Moher, south of Galway Bay.

But there are hundreds of sites and attractions along the Wild Atlantic Way, from hotels and historic homes to beaches and horse riding establishments. And you can add some of the country’s glorious islands to the list, even though they are technically not a part of what is essentially a driving route.

The Aran Islands west of Galway are perhaps the best known. Inishmore, the largest of the three islands, is a dramatic place comprised of swathes of limestone, drystone walls and stunted trees. There are Iron Age forts clinging to tall sea cliffs, ancient churches and tumbledown ruins of abandoned cottages. It is bleak but also incredibly beautiful.

In summer it is thronged with visitors, but off-season you may be among a bare handful of people who arrive by boat from the mainland each day, or fly into the island’s tiny airport. You can hire bicycles right on the end of the jetty where the ferries arrive, and head off to visit Dun Aengus, the biggest and most spectacularly situated of Inishmore’s forts. Or you can take a pony-and-trap ride around the island in a jaunty little carriage steered by a voluble local.

The Wild Atlantic Way also takes in perennially popular areas such as the Ring of Kerry and the Beara Peninsula, but one of its main aims – and one that is beginning to bear fruit – was to boost tourism to the northwest of the country. Whatever you have in mind, one thing is for sure; the Wild Atlantic Way is truly worth the visit.

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