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Wild at Heart
Written by Georgina Wilson-Powell
Ireland’s west coast, from pretty Kinsale in County Cork in the southwest to wild Malin Head in Donegal in the northwest, was rebranded a few years ago under the moniker the Wild Atlantic Way. 1,554 miles of coastline weaves around jagged rocks, inlets and harbours, making up Ireland’s Atlantic frontier. Some of the frontier is battered and bruised by relentless pounding surf. Other parts hide quaint harbour towns, where time and the sea appear to stand still.
Along the route you can opt for high adrenaline activities, history lessons or culinary adventures discovering a world of artisan cuisine, from beer to chocolate and numerous local morsels in-between.
South coast harbour town Kinsale has a reputation for being one of Ireland’s “gourmet” towns. Restaurants, festivals and awards abound, but they also brew some of Ireland’s tastiest ales.
Sam Black of Blacks Brewery reckons the secret is in their location.
“We use the best local malt from Cork and combine it with American hops, this unique combination brings out the best flavour.”
Across the county, there’s a real sense of collaboration and support for anyone doing things independently.
“Clonakilty Chocolate make a great range of tasty fair-trade chocolates from scratch; they are one of very few bean to bar chocolate makers in Ireland. We source the cocoa husks for our World’s End Chocolate and Vanilla Stout from them,” Black says.
Clonakilty (a little way down the route) is a market town and it is becoming a local hotspot for West Cork’s independent producers.
“We love West Cork as the coast is beautiful and everything is on a much smaller scale. Shops are family-run and friendly and business networks are personal and warm,” says Allison Roberts of Clonakilty Chocolate. ”There's a different festival nearly every weekend too.”
But it’s not all about work. The coast that inspires is also a favorite spot for exploration. Roberts shares her go to places,
“My favorite spots are the islands off Baltimore. Sherkin and Cape Clear would be the main two. They are both super accessible by ferry and once you're on the island, you feel a million miles away. The islands are both so beautiful, Sherkin with beaches and walks is great for relaxing. Cape Clear is rugged and great for hiking.”
Heading out of Cork and into Kerry (famed for its lush scenic drive, the Ring of Kerry), visitors will want to stop in Dingle, at the tip of one of the thin peninsulas that stretches westward like grasping fingers. While it has plenty to offer, including dolphin tours, don’t miss Murphy’s, the original site for Ireland’s best-loved, homemade ice cream.
The key, Kieran Murphy reckons, is local milk. “We use Kerry milk and cream, I don’t know of any better in the whole world. For our most popular flavor, Dingle salt, we even make our own salt.”
Dingle is part of the inspiration as well, “I love the landscape, specifically the mountains and the sea, as well as the people and culture, and the Irish language - it's the largest town in the Gaeltacht [Irish speaking region],” Murphy says. “For such a small town, there's always something going on.”
While English is the predominant language in Ireland, the traditional language of Gaelic is still spoken in pockets of the country and can most widely be found on the west coast, where more of the country’s older traditions are still in play today.
Work your way up through County Clare and Limerick and into Galway city, and you'll be overwhelmed with artisan producers. It's a hugely creative city, with people baking, making things and living life their own way. This artistic and vibrant city has always had an independent streak, with festivals and happenings going on year round (The Galway Oyster Festival every September is world famous).
While the Atlantic and its storms sweep in throughout the year, Galway flies a colorful rebellious flag for creativity. But it’s not just food producers who are worth stopping for. Out on the island of Inishmaan (one of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay), there’s a fabulous restaurant, Inis Main, that relies on foraging and fishing and uber local farming for its menu.
“Our restaurant is situated in the most elementary of natural environments, where the combination of clean earth, water and air provide optimum conditions for the purest produce,” explains Marie-Thérèse de Blacam from the restaurant.
A four course meal gives you a taste of the immediate environment, which is little more than a wave-soaked rock and is designed to reward those who revel in a life outdoors.
Inis Main restaurant.
Taking what nature provides and finding a fabulous use for it is also what Rí na Mara does. A skincare producer based in Connemara (some of the sparsest and wildest stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way), Rí na Mara harvests local seaweed for their award-winning products.
“Rí na Mara carefully selects a variety of organic seaweed species, which are hand harvested by local cutters in Connemara using traditional sustainable harvesting techniques,” explains Deirdre Ui Chathmhaoil at Rí na Mara.
“They contain a rich collection of vitamins, proteins, minerals and antioxidants, which will enhance the skin’s physiological functioning, repair and hydrate, replenish elasticity and help treat skin conditions including eczema, psoriasis and acne.” The wild beauty of Connemara inspires their brand along with the flourishing Irish language in this area.
“Connemara is full of wild stunning landscape and beautiful pristine, coastline and beaches. These surroundings perfectly capture our philosophy and core values such as sustainability, local seaweed sourcing, natural beauty and healthy lifestyle. We are inspired by Irish language and culture. My favourite place to go in the West coast has got to be An Spidéal, it’s a beautiful picturesque village in the heart of the Gaeltacht, where you can walk along the beach and pier and look out over Galway Bay to the Aran Islands.
From Connemara travellers work their way around the very edge of the north west of Ireland, through county town Sligo, full of farmers markets and small batch producers like Bramble Lodge foods, who make delicious jams and chutneys, and then onto to Malin Head, made famous not long ago for its epic coastal golf courses, but overshadowed recently by the filming of the global juggernaut, Star Wars. While that is officially the end of the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s not far to Londonderry/Derry, the medieval walled capital of Derry – one of the biggest towns in Northern Ireland. You’ll have crossed into the UK without even realising it (the land border currently doesn’t have markings). The city is packed with micro-breweries, artisan butter makers and plenty more to stave off hunger, and it provides a fitting end for a culinary expedition along the entire coastline.