After 14 years of visiting Ireland, I was slowly losing my passion for exploring the island, however I am happy to say I have found a corner of the country that has revived my love for all things Irish. County Mayo on the Wild Atlantic Way, on the west coast of Ireland, with the Atlantic Ocean as both its northern and western border is my new favorite place on the Emerald Isle.
Mayo really is the Ireland you have visualized in your dreams. Its scenery ranges from craggy, rocky cliffs to vast areas of squishy bog land to rolling green hills covered in sheep. Visitors come to County Mayo to discover unspoiled nature, idyllic towns and to get close to Ireland’s heritage and history. It is truly is a hidden treasure waiting to be explored.
Ever since the Wild Atlantic Way campaign started in 2014, I have longed to spend some time on the 2500 km route that stretches all along the coast from Cork to the top of the island in Donegal. County Mayo was the perfect place to explore the Wild Atlantic Way as it has more than 500 km of this scenic route, which also happens to be where much of Mayo’s most spectacular scenery lies.
Our route to County Mayo began with a 4 hour bus journey across 5 counties in Ireland. Miles of sheep and cow dotted scenery kept our senses pumping. Our first stop on our adventure was Westport. Arriving to town you quickly realize it is much bigger than the places you have traversed to get here, however the quaintness of a traditional Irish village is not lost by it’s size.
For many visitors, one of the first stops here is to Westport House, as it was for us. This 18th century mansion, owned by the descendents of famous pirate Grace O’Malley, is well worth a visit from a historical and architectural perspective. The house is filled with stories of strong women who have lived here through the years as well as the struggles to keep it in the family through turbulent times. During summer, the vast lawns are filled with fun activities like archery, birds of prey demonstrations and plenty of kiddie activities, which you can use to bribe the little ones to tour the inside of the house with you. Westport House is a hub of family friendly activity, particularly during summer season.
Moving on from Westport House, the town is at your disposal. From absolutely delectable Irish fare at The Idle Wall (Check out their food trail tours every week!) to riding bikes along the green belt, there is no shortage of adventures to keep you going during your stay. If you want to get a better handle on the town, take a walking tour with Westport Walking Tours. Our guide was hilarious and a great portal into the real vibe of Westport.
While in town, don’t miss a stop at Chocolate Haven for an amazing hot chocolate made with melted chocolate not powder!
Where to Stay in Westport
There are an abundance of places to stay in Westport, but our favorites were The Knockranny Inn which is more traditional Irish style that will be comfortable for all generations of the family. Generous size rooms that can accommodate families with cots, mini-fridge and more. For a more modern room, the Westport Plaza Hotel is a perfect place to rest your head while in town. It’s conveniently located which means you can park the car and spend your time walking or biking around town. If you prefer to stay closer to Wesport House, Westport Woods Hotel & Spa is a great option. If none of these meet your needs, there are tons of other options to satisfy all budgets.
Bicycle the Great Western Greenway
Hop out of the car for a bit and get your legs moving with a beautiful bike ride along the Great Western Greenway. This is the longest, off-road trail in Ireland. At 42 km, it stretches from Westport all the way to the tranquil island of Achill. You don’t have to do the entire route, but it is quite doable especially if you rent an electric bike like we did! Our route took us from Newport (a little outside of Westport) to Mulranny, however we could have easily kept going as it was breathtakingly beautiful, relaxing and scenic.
We rented our bikes from Clew Bay Bike Hire. They were amazing, especially with my minor freak out about how to actually use an electric bike (Hint: it’s SO easy and is sort of like having a magic broomstick!). The electric bike makes what could be an arduous journey for those not super fit, into a fun, tranquil activity – even up the hills! Even though I was a total scaredy cat at the start, I was completely sold on it by the end.
I know you are thinking “But how do I get back?” I was thinking the same thing as we cycled 18 kms to Mulranny Park Hotel. Clew Bay Bike Hire has thought of everything and will pick you up to return you to your starting point or transport your bags if you aren’t driving. Perfect!
My ideal day suggestion is to ride from either Westport or Newport to Mulrrany Park Hotel for an exquisite gourmet lunch before heading on further to Achill. Return to Westport for a night of delicious food before heading by car to Achill Island to explore even further on your own. Just to give you a sense of the length of each section, Westport to Newport is 11 km, Newport to Mulranny is 18 km and from Mulranny to Achill, it is 13km. We quite easily rode 18 kms (on the electric bike) in less than 2 hours with frequent photo stops.
Get Wet on Achill Island
Let me help you right off the bat, Achill is pronounced “ACK-el”. It took me our entire visit before I could get it right! Now that that is out of the way, let me tell you that Achill Island is one of the most beautiful places I have explored in my 14 years of visiting Ireland and shockingly it’s not overrun with tourists (yet!). Achill is unique in that it is attached to the mainland by a bridge, making visits much easier than to other islands off the coast of Ireland.
Achill is known for its breathtaking sea cliffs and it’s unspoilt blue flag (meaning super clean!) beaches. This island is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts with hiking, swimming, kite surfing, kayaking and even stand up paddle boarding! One of the signature attractions on the Wild Atlantic Way route in County Mayo is Keem Bay Beach which is well worth the drive to the end of the road. On our visit we were rewarded with spectacular views and a pod of dolphins frolicking in the bay!
For those into water adventure sports, the best place to head is Pure Magic Watersports. Owner, Francois is a riot and knows the best spots on this island to chill, play and explore. During our visit, we were taken to Acorrymore Lake for a lesson in SUP. Yes, you can go stand up paddleboarding in Ireland in October!! The wetsuits really work well here, I promise, which means that water adventures can be had even in the cold Irish summers.
Where to Stay on Achill Island
Achill Island is quite small with limited options for accommodation. That said, the two places we checked out were adorable and quite charming. Pure Magic is a great option for younger travelers or those looking for basic accommodation options attached to a lively restaurant (with amazing pizza!). This is also a great place to stay if you plan to do water sports through Pure Magic. My top family friendly recommendation would be at the Bervie Guesthouse. It is not fancy, but is comfortable and comes with some great perks like ocean views. And who wouldn’t want to stay at a former Coast Guard residence!
Get Off the Beaten Path on Inishkea Island
Visiting County Mayo is sort of like being off the beaten path as it is, but the county is full of cool things to check out that most visitors never even consider. One of these is a visit to the abandoned islands of Inishkea off of Blacksod Bay.
The Inishkea Islands were once home to a small fishing community until disaster struck. In one day, 10 men of the town drowned in a fishing accident. The surviving family members were devastated in more ways than one. Very soon they were provided homes on the mainland where they all relocated. The land and homes on the island are still technically theirs, however, the only real residents are animals – sheep and donkey who roam the hills, grey seals basking on the rocks and nesting birds who come and go as they please.
You might ask why you would want to visit the island, but it’s a rare day that you get the opportunity to explore the ruins of stone cottages amongst tropical white sand beaches with only sheep and donkey as your companions. I would highly recommend a visit out to the islands if you can finagle it! We hired a boat through Gerahaty Charters, however during summer regular boat trips go from Blacksod Pier several times a week.
Explore your Heritage at the Ionad Deirbhile Heritage Center
From 1883-1884 fifteen voyages left County Mayo taking over 3000 Irish immigrants from Ireland to the United States and Canada to start new lives. These voyages were different than ones during the famine in that entire families could sail together. These families then moved on to their new homes, leaving behind their heritage and history. The Ionad Deirbhile Heritage Center have initiated a project to help connect the descendants of these voyages with their homeland in County Mayo. If you know you have an Irish background, but aren’t quite sure from where, check the registers on the Blacksod Bay Assisted Emigration Database just in case this is where you are from!
Apart from the ancestry work being undertaken here, there is a great deal of information about the local area through its history, flora and fauna. There is even a new project being set up about an arctic buoy that washed ashore here, bringing attention to climate change and its effects across the globe. Be prepared that this is an Irish speaking area as well, so practice a little Irish before you arrive!
Hike at Deirbhiles Twist at Fallmore
The Deirbhiles Twist, a stone circle made from local granite, is the last part of a sculpture trail that leads through the North Mayo County. The granite stones are situated in the form of a spiral or twist. The Deirbhiles is one of many public arts projects that make up the North Mayo Sculpture Trail that was established to pay homage to the heritage of the region.
This can be a quick photo stop or you could explore through the vast rocky fields as much as you feel up to! I thought I could make it to the sea, but it looked to be a much longer walk than I had time for. Next time, I’d love to do the entire sculpture trail to check out all the different installations.
Go Coasteering or Hiking at Erris Head
For the truly adventurous, a visit to Erris Head means only one thing -coasteering! What is that you ask? Check out this video my fellow family travel blogger at Carpe Diem Our Way made of our visit.
I was a total chicken and did not try it. It scared me to even watch them climb up the cliffs! But the three who did it had a total blast and highly recommend it for the adventure crowd. The company to go with is Wave Sweeper Sea Adventures based out of Belmullet. The owner/guide was amazingly patient and super convincing about how awesome it would be.
For those of us who would rather have our feet firmly (well that is not quite accurate to be honest!) on the ground, there is a great 5 km loop hike around Erris Head. This loop trail starts at the cliffs of Erris Head and meanders up, over and through sheep land which also doubles as bog land! If you have never tried to hike in boggy land, you are in for a soggy surprise! During our visit the trail was pretty wet even though the skies were clear. It was actually so fun to explore our way through the pastures, never knowing for sure if the ground was going to give in under our feet or hold us up as we stepped. I would definitely recommend hiking in waterproof boots or wellies if you have them.
The views are spectacular across the water with oh so Irish scenes playing out before your eyes. A clover filled stream, sheep dotting the landscape and turf used as climbing steps. This for me was the quintessential Irish hike taking in all the things I had always envisioned about this mythical land. My boots weren’t quite as impressed I must say.
Ballycroy National Park
Being avid National park fans in the US we are always excited to check out national parks around the world. Ballycroy National Park is Ireland’s 6th and newest national park. It is comprised of a one of the last intact blanket bog systems in Ireland and Western Europe. This vast uninhabited wilderness protects rare and important species and habitats and is a must visit.
Your first stop should be made to the Visitor Center which houses a cafe, amazing interactive exhibits detailing the life and history of the area as well as detailed information on the flora and fauna of the park which will help inform you for your hikes in the area. There is also a short 2 km walk along a boardwalk through the blanket bog fields.
If you have time for longer hikes, head for the Claggan Mountain Coastal Trail which is also a boardwalk trail, however it hugs the coast providing spectacular views. For those wanting even more adventure, check out more remote areas from the Robert Lloyd Praeger Center in Letterkeen Woods. The loop trails in this area are 6 km, 10 km and 12 km.
With only a few days, I know we only scratched the surface of all there is to see and do in County Mayo, but I am super excited that it has revived my love for exploring Ireland. I can’t wait to continue on the Wild Atlantic Way a bit more to see County Donegal to the North!
Have you done any of the Wild Atlantic Way? What do you recommend?
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