Attention Thrill Seekers: Adventure in Ireland Is Even Wilder Than You Imagined

Man in helmet climbing a coastal cliff in Ireland.
Pam LeBlanc

Sure, Ireland’s Rory McIlroy pulled off a seven-stroke comeback to win his third Fed-X Cup title in August, but there’s far more to the Emerald Isle than golf, Guinness, and Game of Thrones, or even its famed Irish whiskey. In a nation of storytellers that will leave you telling your own, it’s also an outdoor hotbed. Harboring the Irish Sea and North Atlantic for sailing, sea kayaking and, yes, surfing, the Emerald Isle is also furnished with granite sea cliffs for climbing, rails to trails and other paths for biking and hiking, lakes and rivers for fly-fishing, and more. Ireland adventure is wilder than you’d ever imagine.

Throw in historic castles and abbeys, six national parks, famous libations, and music—and, of course, friendly locals—and there’s plenty of reasons to add Ireland to your outdoor adventure bucket list. For proof in the shepherd’s pie, we visited in September, finding we’d rather stay longer than sneak out with an Irish goodbye.

Two surfers on a wave on Ireland's west coast.
Ireland Tourism

Surfing

Unless you’re a diehard, you might not know there’s great surfing in Ireland—notably along the west, where swells crash into the coast after an unimpeded journey across the North Atlantic. That’s a major reason why big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara of HBO’s 100-foot Wave fame tapped Ireland big-wave pioneers Andrew Cotton and Belfast-born Al Mennie to help him on his quest.

Don’t just take his word for it. Ask former Irish Surfing Champion James Garvey, who’s been shredding his hometown waves for a quarter-century. One of the best places to go, he says, is the seaside village of Rossnowlagh (meaning “Heavenly Headland”) in County Donegal, where Garvey bases his Rosnowlagh Surf School. “It’s a cold-water Hawaii,” he says of the beach, whose water is actually surprisingly warm. “The whole beach is low gradient, which grooms the swells perfectly even. Plus, there are no rips. It’s the best beginner’s beach in Ireland.”

Come winter, all that changes. “With a big swell we can get 70 footers here sometimes,” he says, adding that the region is known for its massive barrels—and not those housing whiskey. Nestled 10 minutes from Donegal and five minutes from Ballyshannon, the two-mile-long beach stretches from the cliffs at Coolmore to the rock outcrop at Carrickfad. Blanketed with golden sand and commanding views of the coast, it’s renowned as one of Ireland’s best surfing beaches—which we experienced in three-foot swells reminiscent of Waikiki. A mix of short and long boarders sprinkled the line-up, none with the attitude you might find elsewhere. It was Irish hospitality at its best, at a beach break instead of a bar.

Surfers at Rossnowlagh Surf School_
Rossnowlagh Surf School

Another hot spot, he adds, is farther south in County Clare, where they’ll drive and jet ski to find everything from long point breaks to shore break barrels. His school serves up everything from beginner courses at Rossnowlagh to privates touring the coast for the best waves. The region’s surf history is also steeped in the Rossnowlagh Surf Club, Ireland’s oldest, established in 1966. It hosts events, publishes surf reports, and is a gathering place for surfers like Garvey.

Need a place to stay after you dry off? Try the Sandhouse Hotel at the break in Rossnowlagh, whose rooms overlook the beach and lull you off to sleep to the sound of waves. To celebrate with a Guinness, hit its Surfer’s Bar, whose walls are covered with old-school surfing photos as if you’re in Malibu instead of the Emerald Isle.

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Bikers in green pedalling the coast of Ireland
Ireland Tourism

Biking

With Ireland’s highest point just 3,414 feet, that spells plenty of rolling hillsides for pedaling, whether you’re under e-power or your own. One of the best ways to take advantage of it is sampling the country’s six official Greenways, traffic-free trails built on old railway lines and river and canal towpaths for cyclists, pedestrians, and other non-motorized transport.

Topping the list is the Great Western Greenway—voted one of the top three cycle trails in the world by The New York Times—running 44 kilometers from the seaside town of Westport to Achill Sound, paralleling the North Atlantic the entire way.

Three mountain bikers on the trail along the Irish coast.
Ireland Tourism

We tackled a 15-km section dubbed the Mayo Greenway, taking us through bogs, woodlands, salt marshes, and farms from the seaside village of Newport to Mulranny. A mild gradient, thanks to its late-1800s Balfour railway line, let us take in the scenery—from Clew Bay and Clare Island to grazing sheep, tidal estuaries, and the surrounding Nephin Mountains. Pedaling by brick-like piles of peat, still harvested from the bog by area farmers, we even passed the old rowboat ferry site operated by Margaret Lynchehaun, who ferried everything from cows to corpses to and from area islands.

Want more? Continue all the way to Westport, Achill Sound, or beyond. Or take to the trails of Achill Island. It’s all part of a proposed 3,500-km National Cycle Network, connecting key destinations across the country with safe and user-friendly cycling routes.

Adventurers ziplining/coasteering off the Irish coast
Pam LeBlanc Photo

Coasteering

Yes, this is an actual sport—and it’s fitting that the Irish embrace it as much as they do hugging and hurling. It combines the skills of swimming, rock climbing/traversing, and cliff jumping as you Spiderman or Aqua Man your way down the coast.

“It hits that adrenaline button,” says guide James McKay of outfitter Peak Discovery, adding it’s popular for “stag and hen” parties, meaning bachelor and bachelorette. “And it’s something you’re not going to do by yourself.”

Two swimmers "coasteering" by a cave along the Irish coast.
Ireland Tourism

A short drive out of Newcastle, we found ourselves at Ballyhornan—six miles south of Strangford (Viking for “strong waters”), where a stairstep of limestone cliffs rises out of the Irish Sea in the shadow of Guns Island. With the water a balmy 51 degrees Fahrenheit, McKay handed us three-millimeter wetsuits, helmets, and lifejackets for our excursion. Then we strolled down the clifftops to our first objective: a plunge into the cold water and swim to an adjacent point.

The tides here are about 22 feet and we arrived midway on the ebb. Thankfully, McKay and his team know the waters and cliffs well and how to best calculate each jump.

“The East Coast is normally pretty sheltered,” he says, advising us to establish footholds before climbing out and pointing out a lion’s mane jellyfish to avoid. “That’s why it’s such a good area for this.” He also told us of the annual Magnus Barelegs Festival, celebrating a Viking who never wore trousers. With that, we plunged in to cries of “Magnus Barelegs” and swam down the cliff bands, exploring spires, passages, and sea caves. Unlike Magnus we were clad head to toe, but no doubt shared his exuberance.

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Climbers on a rock wall in Ireland
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Climbing

Get your climb on by tackling the world-class sea stacks of County Donegal along the West Coast—one of the top three areas in the world to climb such sea-rising monoliths.

“The three best places are here, Tasmania and Scotland,” says Iain Miller of Unique Ascents, a merchant-marine-turned-climbing-legend in the area. “We have about 2,000 named routes so far, with the potential for at least 15,000 more. Even in 15 lifetimes, you could climb a new route every day.”

Miller should know. He’s been climbing here his whole life, has written two guidebooks on the area, and is touted by Red Bull as “the world’s only full-time, professional sea stack climber.”

As the only place in the country where granite faces meet the sculpting waves of the sea, Donegal has more climbing than the rest of Ireland combined, he says. While the area has lured the likes of such professional climbers as Will Gadd and Sasha Digiulian, it’s also suitable for us mortals, with the heavily tattooed Miller leading us on a milder route on Cruit Island. With emerald water splashing below and, believe it or not, blue skies above, we lapped various routes on a granite wall rising straight from the sea, sprinkled with cracks, jugs, ledges, crimps, and more—leaving us with just enough finger energy left to hold our celebratory pint of Guinness afterward. Bonus: A few nearby sea stacks are known as the Fairy Bridges, once believed by locals to be haunted.

Hiking

If the Irish are talkers, they’re also walkers—a pastime on par with singing. Disembarking in Dublin? Hit Dublin’s Coastal Trail, either by yourself or with Shane’s Howth Adventure, the same day you arrive. Your guide is Shane O’Doherty, an army veteran, yachting champion, and mountain climber, whom you’ll meet at the northern point of UNESCO Dublin Bay Biosphere. Here, Ireland’s entire history unfolds along its glaciated coast, from the early Celts to the Vikings, Normans and more. You’ll imagine their footsteps before you as you pass stoic lighthouses and old lookouts built during Napoleonic Wars while gazing across the Irish Sea.

Strolling through coconut-smelling gorse bushes, hillsides of purple heather, and too many blackberry bushes to count, you’ll also spy Lambay Island, the site of Ireland’s first Viking landing in 795 AD. Your hike ends with a view of 54-acre Ireland’s Eye Island—loaded with such seabirds such as gannets, guillemots, cormorants, kittiwakes and puffins—as well as a stroll by U2’s old stomping grounds and the home of poet William Butler Yeats. Drink in views of the Martello Tower, a 6th century Christian monastery.

Castle on the coast of Ireland.
Ireland Tourism

Up the coast in Newcastle, try the granite Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland’s County Down; the highest peak, Slieve Donard, tops out at 2,788 feet. Guide services such as Walk the Mournes can lead you up the range’s rocky paths, where it’s not the altitude that steals your breath but sweeping views toward the Isle of Man.

Pro tip: Stay in the Slieve Donard Hotel, home of the world-class Royal Country Down Golf Club—which has a two-year wait to play. For an option on the West Coast, try Glenveagh National Park, one of six in the country where glacially sculpted mountains, lakes, and waterfalls mix like an Irish coffee in the Derryveagh range of County Donegal.

Stroll shoreside along Lough (Lake) Veagh to the 19th-century Glenveagh Castle, a hunting lodge whose gardens (including the “Pleasure” Garden) will make you want to upgrade your petunias back home. Farther south, try 1,450-foot, quartzite-topped Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park (meaning “Beside the Sea”), the second most popular trail in Ireland through and above a temperate rainforest of ash, birch, oak, sycamore, beech, and hawthorn (the “fairy tree), with views of countless islands peppering Barnaderg Bay. Take a side jaunt to the Kylemore Abbey, a 1,000-acre maze of woodlands, gardens, and lakeshore walks built in the late 1800s and home to a Benedictine order of Nuns.

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Sea Kayaking

If Ireland has its Greenways for biking, it has a network of Blueways for paddling. Indeed, it recently became the world’s first country to establish accredited “Blueways” for people to explore its myriad waterways. Three have been approved so far, including the Suir Blueway Tipperary, a 33-mile water trail from Carrick-on-Suir to Cahir, taking you under arched bridges, by castles, and beneath the Comeragh Mountains; the Lough Derg Blueway, part of the River Shannon, which runs along 100 miles of lakeshore and takes you by the ruins of a 1,500-year-old monastery; and the Boyne Blueway, offering 217 miles of river in Trim County Meath, a half-hour north of Dublin (visit the Trim Castle, built in 1173).

Paddling options abound in the sea also (after all, it is an island), from protected inlets along the west coast to the colder but calmer waters of the Irish Sea on the east. One hot spot: the tranquil waters of Strangford Loch in Northern Ireland’s County Down, a calm stretch of sea in the interior protected by the Narrows, a fissure in the Mourne Mountains which leads out to the more splashy Irish Sea (time your passage here with the prevailing tides). Rent your own boat or head out on an outing with the Strangford Activity Center, where you’ll paddle past both sea lions and cows, each looking like they’re expending the same amount of energy, before stopping on a rocky island to take in the views of the surrounding Mournes, which inspired C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

Otherworldly, indeed.

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