From spectacular sea views and daunting cliff faces, to wonderful food and pampering in style, the County Clare coast in Ireland is an area of contrasts
One minute we were walking in the sunshine, the next running for cover from a sudden downpour. One day we sunbathed on the beach in the afternoon, but snuggled in front of a peat fire in the evening. Ireland’s west coast is full of contrasts and the weather presents the most frequently changing element of this dramatic Atlantic coast, so the advice is to go prepared!
Despite the weather, being out of doors is the most exhilarating way to spend time here and in a week we saw some incredibly spectacular coastline, some fabulous rainbows (of course!) and even the odd glorious sunset. We also ate wonderful food and luxuriated in an outdoor hot-tub.
The first thing the local guide books will tell you to see in County Clare is the Cliffs of Moher. Stretching for 8 km and with a sheer drop into the sea of 214 metres, this natural wonder can literally take your breath away. Go on a windy day and you will see what I mean. The cliffs are also the site of the Atlantic Edge interpretive centre, built into the side of sloping grass land, and showing displays which examine the various elements of the cliffs. ‘The Ledge’ is a film shown on a wrap around screen as the camera zooms around and down over the cliffs – those of a sensitive nature may wish to sit at the back, as it can induce vertigo!
If you prefer your nature unmediated, and with distinctly fewer tourists, head to the cliffs in the town of Kilkee. As you face onto the horseshoe shaped bay, take the path that leads away on the left hand side. The beach gives way to flat rocks here and quite a few of the hardier locals can be found swimming in the pools left by the receding tide. It looks fun, but I have to confess I’ve never tried it. The path then takes a sharp turn upwards as the steep cliff faces come into view, with several stacks left isolated by erosion. One of the stacks even has the ruin of a dwelling perched on the top, leaving me wondering if the inhabitants got away before their path to land fell into the sea. Once you’ve seen the cliffs, be sure to return along the path and take tea in the Diamond Rocks Café. This highly popular spot serves some of the finest cakes for miles around!
The Aran Islands can be seen clearly from all points along the coast and they may well tempt you out to see a way of life few of us can imagine. The smallest island Inishere (or, in Irish, Inis Oirr) is the smallest of the islands and the closest to land, lying only 8km from the tiny village of Doolin. From March to November, ferries run several times a day from the dock at the end of the road. The boat ride takes 30 to 40 minutes and can be smooth or rough depending the elements.
But once you’ve arrived you can soak in the isolation and slow pace of life. As you step off the boat, you’ll be offered several choices of taking a horse-led carriage ride around the island, or hiring a bike. On a nice day, you may wish to take a few minutes just sitting on the beach with its impossibly white sand. I’ve always chosen to walk around to see the sites and have immediately been blown away by the sheer impossibility of eking out a living here. The island is covered in tiny fields, each one surrounded by dry stone walls, and it is the walls you notice as they seem to go on forever. It's as if the only way to get anything from the land was to remove the stones, and the only thing to do with the stones was to build walls.
This isn’t really a place to come to see ‘the sights’ as such, but a climb up to the 16th-century castle ruins will reward you with fabulous views over Inishere itself, back to the Clare coast, and on to Inish Maan, the middle of the three islands. The rusting remains of the Plassy are also worth seeing, as you contemplate the destruction of the man made, amidst nature in the raw. The ship ran aground in the 1960’s,with all aboard being rescued, and the hulk of the ship remains beached on the rocky coastland.
There are a surprising number of places to eat and drink on the island. The Tigh Ned pub was established in 1897 and claims to count Brendan Behan among its clients. There is certainly a great atmosphere and good food to be had here amongst the old photos and artefacts lining the walls. For excellent home made soup and salads, try An Maidean Mara, which you pass on a hill above the beach if you walk around to the Plassy wreck. And for excellent tea, scones and cake try the Tea House, or Teach an Tae, on the other side of the dock.
The mainland also boasts some excellent restaurants if you fancy livening up your evenings. Barrtra is tucked away on a side road as you travel between Lahinch and Miltown Malbay, so look out for the signpost. It is most famous as a seafood restaurant, but does an excellent vegetarian menu making the local vegetables a particular highlight, and the six course set menu is a wonderful way to sample the food here. In nearby Miltown Malbay the Pearl Restaurant in the Armada Hotel offers gorgeous views over Spanish Point beach as well as a modern menu of local specialities.
After all this adventure, you may find that you need a little pampering. If so, head off to Ennistymon and the Falls Hotel. Not only does the hotel have a spectacular location on the River Inagh with views of the 15 ft cascade, but it is home to the River Spa and Fitness Club. The club has a gym, pool, outdoor hot tub and a sauna with a picture window. The hot tub and the sauna both overlook the river gliding past and the greenest of woodland, while the sauna also has a soundtrack of calming music. Once you’re done swimming and luxuriating, have a drink in the bar and watch the evening light fade over the falls.
Ennistymon Falls Hotel
Rooms start at £117 Day Spa €25
Barrtra Seafood Restaurant. 6 course set menu €30 - 45
Lahinch Co Clare
Tel:+353 (0)65 708 1280
The Armada Hotel. 3 course set menu €33
Rooms start at £56.24
Spanish Point, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare
Diamond Rocks Café. Tea and cake approx. €5 - 6
West End, Kilkee, Co. Clare
Tel: +353 (0)86-0810320
O'Brien Line Cruises, Adult Ticket €15
Doolin Pier, Doolin, Co.Clare,
Tel : +353 (0)65 707 5555