Even though I lived in Ireland for 12-months back in 2003 that included a lot of weekend getaways and a full 2-week lap of Ireland taking in many of the top points of interest, I’d never even heard of Achill Ireland until three months ago.
That’s the beauty of travel, always discovering new places, experiencing different adventures, and creating new memories that last a lifetime. And over the past 20+ years of travel some of my favorite moments have been at the lesser-known destinations!
When it comes to tourism in Ireland, places that come to mind are the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, the Cliffs of Moher, and the Ring of Kerry. And I think of experiences like listening to traditional Irish music in a pub, eating Fish n’ Chips, visiting a castle, exploring the cities of Dublin and Galway, tasting Irish Whiskey, sipping on an Irish Coffee, and of course, a pint of the “black stuff”, Guinness.
I love all those Ireland travel experiences. But another genuine connection I feel is to Ireland’s natural beauty. The rolling green hills, the dramatic cliffs, the picturesque valleys, and the rugged and rocky Atlantic coastline.
I never get tired of coastal road trips and have been fortunate to experience some of the best in the world like the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the Garden Route in South Africa, and the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
West Coast Ireland is breathtaking. And on my recent 8-day tour of Ireland in partnership with Globus, one palace they introduced me to was Achill Island.
When I lived in Dublin, we explored the famous Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula which are stunningly beautiful and a must-do. But they are both heavily visited, especially the Ring of Kerry as the road on the Dingle Peninsula can’t be navigated by the big tour buses!
What I loved about our day on Achill Island is that we basically had the island all to ourselves!
Where is Achill Island?
Achill Island is a remote island off the coast of County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland, about an hour’s drive (26 miles) from the charming town of Westport (which we used as a base). It’s also close to the towns of Newport, and Castlebar.
Drive times from other popular places to visit in Ireland include:
- Galway – 2 hours (75 miles)
- Dublin – 4 hours (177 miles)
- Belfast – 4.5 hours (202 miles)
- Cork – 4.5 hours (202 miles)
- Ring of Kerry – 5.15 hours (233 miles)
It occupies an area of some 57 sq miles (15 miles from east to west, 11 miles from north to south), and its coastline measures over 80 miles. This is one of the most westerly islands in Europe.
This island forms part of the Wild Atlantic Way, a coastal route that stretches 1,600 miles along the Irish west coast from the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal to Kinsale in County Cork and is divided into 14 stages for easier orientation, one of those stages includes Achill Island.
Departing Westport, our drive took us through Newport and Mallaranny before crossing Achill Sound over the 740 ft long Michael Davitt Bridge that connects the island to the mainland.
About Achill Island
Achill is at the heart of the Wild Atlantic Way and is Ireland’s largest offshore island. It’s known for soaring sea cliffs, rocky headlands, rolling mountains, ever-changing Atlantic skies, and sheltered beaches – Keem Bay is one of the 14 Signature Discovery Points that span the 1,600-mile route.
It has a history of human settlement that is at least 5000 years old. Remains of megalithic tombs and monuments suggest settlement in the 3rd or 4th centuries BC and has been a frequent refuge during Ireland’s various rebellions.
The current population is about 2,500 people (lots of sheep, too), and the village of Keel is the island’s main center of activity, with other shops and services scattered throughout.
The two highest peaks are on Slievemore (671m) and Croaghaun (668m), the most westerly peak. Its cliffs are the highest sea cliffs in Ireland and the third highest in Europe, and can only be seen by hiking around or to the summit, or from the sea.
Two-thirds of the island is covered by peat bog (a type of wetland) and this probably accounts for the relatively low number of plant species, and why trees are almost entirely absent from the island
It’s thought the name Achill is the Gaelic word ‘acaill’, meaning eagle. One of the earliest references to Achill came in 1235 when the Annals of Loch Ce refers to ‘Eccuill’ (Eagle Island). However, the last reported sighting of an eagle was in 1912.
Achill’s remote location and unique landscape has attracted a long list of interesting characters, artists and writers seeking inspiration, including writers Heinrich Böll and Graham Greene.
The film, The Banshees of Inisherin, was filmed extensively on Achill Island, and The Venice Film Festival awarded Colin Farrell ‘Best Actor’ for his role. The movie My Sailor, My Love, was also filmed on location and will hit cinemas in Ireland and the UK in early 2023.
Achill Island has long been a popular water-sports and walking destination, and offers a range of accommodation, dining and entertainment options.
Exploring Achill Island
The most flexible way to explore is by car. This way you can discover all the hidden gems at your own pace, pass through the small towns and villages, and meet the locals.
Or you can do it like I did, as part of a longer group tour of Ireland. On day 3 of my 8-day Ireland trip with Globus we visited from Westport, and it was a definite highlight of the whole Ireland trip! As far as I’m aware, Globus are the only current large tour bus operator who visits Achill Island on their Green With Envy Tour.
From Westport, we drove the N59 to Mallaranny, then the R319 all the way to Keem Bay. Alternatively, instead of following R319 from Mallaranny to Achill, you can take the sign posted Ocean Rd which curves clockwise around the Curraun Peninsula and offers stunning views of Clew Bay and out to sea.
Then once you cross Michael Davitt Bridge onto Achill, cut left to pick up Atlantic Drive signed Wild Atlantic Way which follows the southern shore passing through the little fishing village of Dooega.
Love biking? You can also cycle around Achill. The island has three looped trails, and the Great Western Greenway is a cycling and walking trail that runs around the Eastern and Northern stretches of Clew Bay in Co Mayo. This trail follows the route of the renowned Westport to Achill railway which closed in 1937. Go here for bicycle hire providers.
Day Trip from Westport
But first, coffee (Irish style)
After departing Westport, our morning stop was for our routine Irish Coffee fix at Alice’s Harbour Bar & Restaurant, just across the Michael Davitt Bridge.
This bar & restaurant is a part of the Achill Island Hotel, a family run 3-Star Hotel overlooking the sea, and also offers seasonal food including local seafood, and their extensive menu is available all day.
If you visit on your return in the afternoon, why not enjoy a pint of Guinness while watching the sun set over the water.
Continuing on from Alice’s along the Atlantic Drive, we witnessed stunning views of the rocky coastline, sea cliffs and bays and with our knowledgeable tour guide Helen knowing the scenic spots for photographs, we stopped at some of the best vantage points for views.
We passed by the White Cliffs of Ashleam. These white, chalk cliffs surround picturesque Ashleam Bay and are about 30 meters in height.
Lunch at Gielty’s Bar & Restaurant
Lunch was taken at Gielty’s Bar & Restaurant at the edge of Dooagh village. The last pub on the road of pubs in Achill Island on the road to Keem beach, Gielty’s is the most westerly pub in Europe and the only pub in the area with Sky Sports (in case you can’t miss your game).
We sat down in their cozy bar & coffee shop at the front which has a fantastic panoramic view of Clew Bay. I chose well with one of my favorite Irish dishes, a humongous Beef & Guinness pie, washed down with a Smithwicks Irish Ale.
They offer breakfast, bar food, a full-dinner and they use locally sourced produce and get fresh fish from their very own boat. They’re also renowned for their traditional music sessions most evenings of the week.
I grabbed a coffee to go to sip on the road as we took in more scenery, which was surprisingly pretty good. For more places to eat and drink on Achill Island go here.
Following the Atlantic Drive around the picturesque coastline, a short while later we arrived at what would be the highlight of our day on the island.
At the western end of the island is Keem Bay and The Strand (beach), which has been named as one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe.
Keem Bay reminded me of Wineglass Bay in Tasmania somewhat, not necessarily the shape, but its remoteness and turquoise water. It was virtually uninhabited, and the only building is a former coastguard station perched on the cliff. I now know why it’s recognized as one of the most picturesque bays in Ireland.
Located at the head of a valley between the cliffs of Benmore to the west, and Croaghaun Mountain to the east, the Strand Beach (Keem Beach) is one of Achill’s five Blue Flag beaches – an international standard for beaches with a criteria that includes water quality, environmental education, environmental management, and safety and services.
Popular for water sports and beachgoers during the warmer months (there are lifeguards during bathing season), in the cooler months it’s perfect for a slow amble along the sand – mind you, one of my travel friends, Jon, who likes cold water immersion therapy decided to jump in and he said it was probably about 50F.
The water did look very inviting, but I was happy to take it all in from the sand and clifftop. Even the views walking down to the beach from our parking spot at the top of the winding road were stunning!
This was our longest stop of our day, and I would love to come back here in the warmer months for some stand up paddle boarding or kitesurfing.
NOTE: it was quite windy and cool when we visited in late September, wear layers and appropriate gear no matter the time of year for your visit to Achill Island.
Other Points of Interest on Achill Island
We didn’t quite have a full day to explore the island, but if you have more time, or possibly stay overnight somewhere, it has a lot to offer and below are some other attractions and things to do on Achill Island.
As I mentioned, there are five Blue Flag beaches on the island, and they offer some of the best quality beaches in all of Ireland.
- Keel Beach – one of the biggest beaches on the island with clean water. A few shops nearby and popular for surfing.
- Trawmore Strand – a 3km long stretch that’s one of the most well-known and photographed beaches and popular with bathers and watersports including surfing, windsurfing and sea kayaking (beware of strong currents on the eastern half).
- Silver Strand Beach, Dugort – On the north side of Achill and faces Blacksod Bay and the Belmullet Peninsula.
- Dooega Bay Beach – also known as Camport Bay, Dooega is a picturesque fishing village with south-facing views across the Atlantic.
Minaun Heights Viewing Point
Located close to the center of Achill Island, the 466m high Minaun Heights offers spectacular views over the island and is one of the key stops along the Atlantic Drive. On a clear day, you can easily see the tropical-looking Trawmore Beach and Keem Bay and the peaks of both Slievemore and Croaghaun.
You can drive to the top via a steep and narrow road (walkers and cyclists also use the road), and from the carpark it’s about a 15-minute walk to the peak..
The Deserted Village (Slievemore)
Slievemore is the largest of several ‘booley’ settlements. Booleying refers to the practice of living in different locations during the summer and winter periods, primarily to allow cattle to graze in summer pasture.
The Deserted Village at Slievemore consists of some 80 – 100 stone cottages located along a mile long stretch of road. Some of the dwellings were occupied as summer ‘booley’ homes, and the area is also rich in archaeological artifacts including megalithic tombs dating from the Neolithic period some 5,000 years ago.
Blueway (kayaking & snorkeling)
Located on the north and western coastline at Dugort and Keem, The Blueway is a network of water trails where you can experience a variety of water based activities such as kayaking and snorkeling, in a safe controlled environment.
Kildavnet Castle is located on the south-eastern shore of Achill Island, and the placename literally means “the small church of Davnet” and refers to the 7th century Saint Dympna who built a small church here.
The castle is said to have been built in about 1429, and is a fine example of a 15th-century Irish rectangular tower house. It is best known as the home of its most famous tenant, the legendary pirate queen Granuaille (Grace O’Malley).
Where to Stay in Westport
We spent two nights at the Westport Plaza Hotel, ideally located in the heart of Westport and steps away from shops, restaurants, and Westport House. This 4-star hotel is a lovely place to stay with large rooms and a quality bar and restaurant for breakfast and dinner.
When in Westport, don’t miss exploring the Westport House and enjoy some live music over a few pints at The Porter House Pub. If you want to stay on Achill Island, here is a list of options.
I hope this post inspired you to explore the west coast of Ireland, the scenery is spectacular and I encourage you to add this area to your list of things to do in Ireland.
For more information about my 8-day tour of Ireland with Globus, be sure to check out this post for all the details.