Malin Head, Rockall; south-west backing south for a time, seven to severe gale now, storm ten later, very rough, occasionally very high in Malin, rain moderate or poor.' The shipping forecast murmurs from the radio, as squally winds batter the lime-washed walls of our rented fishing cottage. In the fireplace, hand-cut peat from nearby Connemara smoulders, filling the entire cottage with the comforting reek of smoke. To the west, Storm Desmond crashes across the west coast of Ireland. Road conditions are treacherous. It looks like we will be staying for a while. We are driving the Wild Atlantic Way, a touring trail that stretches the entire length of the west coast of Ireland. We started at Mazin Head, commonly accepted as the most southernly point of Ireland, although there is a small crag at Brow Head jutting a further nine metres south into the Atlantic, but Malin to Bow doesn't have the same pleasing alliterative quality as Malin to Mazin. The destination is Malin Head in Donegal, the most northerly tip of Ireland. Our refuge for the next few nights will be Galway, a handy mid-way point on a journey along the full length of the coast. It is a buzzy bohemian city with a bustling arts scene, plenty of music seisún and conveniently, a recently launched Whiskey Trail.
Storm Desmond clears eventually, and with it the excuse not to leave Galway. The city lends itself to fantasies of staying forever, whiling away afternoons walking the coast, clad in an Aran sweater, Irish wolfhound at side, before retiring to the pub to belt out a few ballads, a fantasy unhampered by one's lack of musical talent. Instead, the car is pointed north, following the government funded chevron signs denoting the official Wild Atlantic Way touring trail. Reluctance to leave the 'City of the Tribes' subsides as the Connemara coast delivers breathtaking vistas bathed in golden sepia light, dropping low over the stone walls and hedgerows. This is the Ireland of fireside tales, of romance, sea spray, and rugged beauty.
The Wild Atlantic Way is suitable for both long and short tours: be it a weekend hop between Galway and the Connemara Coast, a loop of the well worn tourist road around the Ring of Kerry, or an epic road trip stretching out six months along the undulating coastline. Begin your journey at the Mizen Footbridge, crossing over to a rocky outcrop as the tempest sea roars below, to access the old signal station and an exhibit detailing the day to day lives of the former keepers. Dingle is usually very busy in the summer, but worth a detour to visit Dick Mack's, home of the southern chapter of the Irish Whiskey Society. The pub stocks a great selection of Irish whiskeys both modern and vintage. As the coast road winds further north, stop to gaze out over UNESCO listed Skellig Michael, a remote hermitage perched on a rock surrounded by the Atlantic, which also houses a rare bird sanctuary. From there travel north, clinging to the sea roads, before braving the Cliffs of Moher, an 8km stretch of spectacular sheer sea cliffs that tower above the wild Atlantic below. Such is the dramatic beauty of this part of the world, that the coast is regularly used as a filming location: the Cliffs of Moher starred as the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride, the dark and stormy west coast was the scene for Harry Potter's quest in The Half Blood Prince and Skellig Michael was transported to a galaxy far far away as a set for the recent Star Wars film, A Force Awakens.
North of Galway, there are ample opportunities to stop along the signposted trail, with stunning beaches, historic houses and food producers aplenty. The Arun Islands are worth exploring, with an emphasis on Irish language, music and in the summer, beautiful walks and cycles. Upon reaching Sligo, the rock formation Benbulben rises over the coastline like an over-proven loaf of bread. This part of Ireland is known as 'Yeats Country' as the famous poet adopted it as his own, and after he died in France, he was reinterred in the churchyard at Drumcliffe. There is however a school of thought that suggests the wrong body was moved and the body of a French soldier lies under Yeats' self-penned epitaph.
Sligo is popular with watersport enthusiasts. Atlantic rollers attract both professional and amateur surfers, catered to by the many surf schools. An hour or two being tossed around in the break blasts away even the hardiest of hangovers. If that sounds a little too exuberant, hand harvested seaweed baths are another antidote to whiskey overindulgence, as the iodine seems to have magical restorative properties.
After crossing the Donegal border, stop to marvel at the beauty of the Manmore Gap, before making the 15 minute trek from the carpark to visit Glenevin Waterfall, which swells to an impressive surge during rainfall. The rocky ravines leading to Lough Swilly have been named Amazing Grace Country as they reportedly inspired the lyrics of the song. A little further on, be sure to stop in the border town of Bridgend for refreshment at Harry's. Eschewing the big conglomerate suppliers, owner Donal Doherty has dedicated the last number of years to sustainability. He purchases all his fish from local day boats and he is revitalising a nearby Victorian walled garden where he grows most of the produce for the restaurant. In doing so Harry's has redefined what it means to be a local modern Irish bistro. Located close to the end of the Mazin to Malin trail, Harry's is well worth the coastal journey alone.
Upon finally reaching Malin Head, the last remnant clouds of Storm Desmond prevented visibility of the Northern Lights, which are often seen streaking across the Donegal sky. Instead, our trip ended with a nip of whiskey from a hip flask atop the ancient fortress of Banba's Crown as the wind whipped along the coast and whistled across the water. The Wild Atlantic Coast certainly lives up to its name.
Galway Whiskey Trail
A limestone plaque engraved in both Irish and English marks out each of the eleven pubs that form the Galway Whiskey Trail. Start your trail at O'Brien's Bridge where the last vestiges of the old Persse Distillery are visible on Nun's Island. On the other side of the bridge is the site of old Burke's Distillery, but there is not much left to look at, so you are best heading back into town, perhaps stopping at The King's Head to enjoy a glass of whiskey while nestled next to their 400 years old fireplace. Double back toward the old city walls to enjoy the hospitality of Sonny Molloy's, then wander further down High Street to peruse the whiskey treasury that lies within Feeney's, which at first glance looks more like a general store, with windows packed full of household accoutrements. Where High Street turns into Quay Street sits Tigh Neachtain's, which in fine weather is a great place to enjoy a spot of people watching over a whiskey.
After a restorative sandwich from McCambridge's deli counter on Shop Street (and picking up a bottle to take home from their impressive whiskey collection), visit the cluster of bars located on Eyre Square: O'Connell's, An Pucan and Garvey's. Under the stunning pressed tin ceiling of O'Connell's you might enjoy a glass of single pot still, while in An Pucan, the obvious choice is a glass of their own recent single cask bottling from Teeling Distillery.
Other great pubs on the trail include Garavan's, Blakes and the Dail.
There and away
AerLingus, Ryanair, Cityjet and Flybe fly into Cork airport, where there are multiple options for car hire.
To start closer to Galway, fly into Knock with Ryanair and AerLingus from various European destinations.
Shannon Airport is served by AerLingus, Delta, American and United as well as Ryanair to other selected destinations.
To start in the North and travel down the coast, Malin Head is a two hour drive from Belfast International Airport, and Derry City Airport is served seasonally by Ryanair from Liverpool, Faro, Alicante, London and Glasgow.
Car Hire is essential for the Wild Atlantic Way, and www.dan-dooley.ie/ or www.hertz.ie are good options.
For Malin Head to Mazin Head, allow at least four nights, anticipating about five - six hours driving a day, more if you wish to divert off to see multiple sights each day.
Distilleries along the way
Brainchild of Oliver Hughes, the owner of the Porterhouse brewery and pub chain, Dingle are the first of the next wave of Irish distillers to have whiskey of maturity. The release of their inaugural release Cask No 2 on 21 December marks a significant moment in the Irish whiskey boom as the fruition of years of work come together. Limited to the outturn of one cask, many of the bottles are already allocated.
West Cork Distillery
Located in Skibereen, a lively music town, West Cork Distillers have released several cracking gins, vodkas and poitins under various brand names, some traditional, some playful. They have also released a 10 Years Old single malt and a blended whiskey under the West Cork moniker, and in 2015 welcomed respected Master Distiller Frank McHardy on board. Their release in conjunction with the Pogues is a striking bottling launched in 2015.
The Connacht Whiskey Distillery in Ballina, Co. Mayo was opened by the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny 9 October 2015. It is early days for the distillery, but they have begun to distill whiskey. They also plan to release gin and vodka along with blended whiskey as they wait for their own to mature.
The Shed Distillery has big plans for the future, and a year on from the distillation of their first cask of whiskey, distilled at 12:23 on the 21 December 2014 (the Winter Solstice) they marked the anniversary by distilling their first gin. Located in Drumshambo, Leitrim, they welcome visitors by prior arrangement.