Ireland can be a fairly wild rugged place. if you’re planning a road trip and want to step off the beaten track (and we suggest you do) you don’t want to be bringing the Lamborghini or Ferrari down here, this is rally car territory! You need something compact, agile and tough. A good hot hatch is the perfect weapon for Irish roads. A word of warning though: make sure you have a good co-pilot who can map read or at least pack a sat nav, we don’t really believe in sign posts! Here’s some of our favorite driving roads:
Let’s start with an easy one. Take the N71 out of Skibbereen and head west. You’ll swoop down alongside the River Ilen for a while, but instead of taking the turn-off to head to Baltimore, stay on the N71 all the way to the tiny village of Ballydehob, and then, with the huge 12-arch railway viaduct on your left, follow the R592 to Schull. It’s a great place to stop for a restorative coffee and, if the weather’s nice, a picturesque stroll out along the harbour.
Back in the car, and you have a choice – head towards Goleen and the Mizen Peninsula or double-back towards Skibbereen, Clonakilty and Cork. I can give you a third way though – instead of going all the way to Goleen, turn off onto the R591 and head up the north coast of the Mizen towards Durrus and Bantry. Obviously, all of these roads are going to be choked with tourists in the high summer, so maybe consider this an off-season tour.
Of course, if it’s solitude you want, you can always head up Mount Kid… It’s a low-lying mountain (a big hill really) lying between Bantry and Skibbereen, and has variously been used as the home to rally stages for the West Cork Rally, the Cork 20 and in the old days the Circuit of Ireland. The roads are mostly unnamed and un-numbered, but if you’re heading from Ballydehob to Bantry up the N71, just turn right and you’ll be going in the right direction. Spectacular views, but mind the pot-holes.
We mentioned Glendalough in our recent post about where to eat stay & visit in Ireland and it gets another mention here because it offers some spectacular driving roads and scenery to boot, plus it’s right on Dublin’s doorstep making it very handy for a lot of visitors. If you’re coming from Dublin you’ll probably be approaching from the M11/N11. Turn off the N11 at kilcroney Cross onto the R117, heading towards Eniskerry. A quick diversion here to Powerscourt House for a spot of lunch wouldn’t go amiss.
Heading back to the village of Enniskerry then take the R760, after a few miles take the right onto the R755, follow this road to Roundwood, passing the Vartry Reservoir and then on to Laragh. Fork right on the R756 to Glendalough.
This is an ideal time to stretch the legs again and visit the monastic village. Back in the car and follow the R756 to Hollywood. Take a right onto the main road (N81) Here you can make the choice to follow this route back towards Dublin or if you want even wilder, more dramatic scenery take a right at Manor Kilbride on to the R759 heading towards the infamous Sally Gap. When you’re in the absolute middle of nowhere you’ll reach a cross roads, take a right onto the military road.
This road was built after the Irish rebellion of 1798. It was built by the British Army who were looking to flush the rebels from the hills. Follow the singletrack ribbon of coarse and unforgiving tarmac as it winds its way across the top of the rugged moors and back down towards the village at Laragh, then follow the R755 to Roundwood and back to the N11.
Right, let’s go to the other end of the country now, and the Mourne Mountains. Nearby Newry may not exactly be the garden spot of Ireland nor Northern Ireland, but head around it and down towards Rostrevor and you have gorgeous, almost Nordic fjord scenery to enjoy. Head inland at Rostrevor along the B25 as far as Hilltown, and then turn left up the B27. This will bring you up to the Splega Valley Reservoir and, further along, Silent Valley and its reservoir. It’s gorgeous up there – a bit like the Peak District and the Yorkshire Moors rolled into one, and the reservoirs make perfect locations to stop for a flask of tea and a selfie. The roads are spectacular too – running from high, straight and fast to a series of tight hairpins. Sort of like the Nürburgring but with more sheep and hill-walkers.
Head across Northern Ireland now, skipping the Antrim Coast Road (which is brilliant but only if you get there at 5am before the tourists beat you to it) and head back into the Republic and Donegal. Assuming you’ve crossed the border at Derry/Londonderry, stay on the N13 to Letterkenny, but then take a right, up the R245 to Ramelton, where you’ll need to turn right onto the R247. Now, pay attention; I’m sending you to Port Salon, but if you just follow the signs, the R247 will take you on a long, boring loop back across to the west coast of the peninsula. You want to ignore the signs and take the R268, which leads you up the rugged east coast to Port Salon, and the last couple of miles are a stunning ascent and steep descent of a big hill, which brings you on some roads that would rival those out of Monaco for excitement and scenery. Keep heading north and you’ll come to the bleak and beautiful Fanad Head – not as famous as Malin Head, and not quite as far north, but with a similar ‘you’ve reached the end of the world’ vibe. A quick stop for refreshments in The Lighthouse Tavern, just yards from the Head itself, and then head back south again, stopping in Rathmullen to catch the ferry across the Buncrana.
A little way’s south we find Leitrim, and a county that doesn’t get a lot of love from either tourists or car nuts. Which is a shame, as there are some undiscovered gems here, not least the N16 road that runs from Manorhamilton to Sligo town. Normally a main N road wouldn’t be much fun at all, but this one is – it’s relatively quiet in traffic terms, and the final descent into Sligo town is a series of switchbacks that really puts your steering accuracy and car control to the test. Make sure you stop off en route to the gorgeous waterfalls at Glencar. Instead of heading into Sligo itself, take a right and head up to Rosses Point. The views up there are amazing and The Little Cottage Cafe is a terrific place to stop off for a sandwich.
Finally, for now, we come to Galway. Take the R336 westwards out of Salthill, and stop off at O’Grady’s restaurant in Barna (amazing seafood). Keep heading west into Spiddal, and while the road you’re looking for isn’t numbered on most maps, as long as you turn right at the traffic lights in Spiddal heading to Moycullen, you’re going in the correct direction. It’s a road that leads you up across the Keeraunduff Hill, and which dips and crests over soft, shifting bog-land all the way down to meet the N59 main road at Moycullen. It’s only a short run, but usually enough to tell if you the car you’re driving has properly sorted suspension, shall we say?