A Dozen Unique Ireland Adventures From Mild to Wild

Cruit Island Ireland- sea stack climbing

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Why read a book on Ireland when there are over 190 destinations that fly non-stop to Dublin, including most major US hubs? If you think seeing is believing, wait until you’ve tried some or all of these unique Irish adventures, from mild to wild, which will not only thrill you but also help you experience and understand life on the Emerald Isle.

These adventures are laid out in a 700-mile road trip around Ireland that takes you from Dublin to Northern Ireland and down the Wild Atlantic Way before returning back to Dublin. Of course, you’ll find delicious food and unique accommodations along the way, but you’ll have to read about those later.

Until then, let’s start on our adventure tour of Ireland.

Kylemore Abbey Ireland

Howth Cliff Walks

Our first uniquely Irish adventure is a walk on the mild side in the quiet coastal town of Howth (rhymes with both) which sits on the northside of Dublin Bay. It’s just outside Dublin City and easily reached by car or the DART Train.

Once you arrive, you’ll find four marked walks around the Hill of Howth that offer spectacular views of Dublin Bay. They all pass by Howth Harbour and the sea cliffs but close the loop in different ways. The most direct route is the 4.4-mile Tramline Loop, and the longest is the 7.4-mile Bog of Frogs Loop, which runs the length of the sea cliffs before returning to the village. Perhaps the most popular route is the 5-mile Cliff Path Loop that runs along the upper and lower cliff paths.

If you want to go beyond blazed routes and scenic views, consider taking a guided tour from Howth locals at Shane’s Howth Adventures, known as Dublin’s best coastal experience and the top-rated provider on TripAdvisor. They connect the stories, people, and land together in a meaningful and authentic way. On our walk, we learned about how Dublin and Howth were tied together in history through Viking invasions, Napoleonic threats, and trade in the British Empire. We also learned fun facts, like did you know Halloween originated in Ireland?! You can’t understand Ireland without knowing Dublin, and there’s no more natural and scenic viewpoint to that story than the cliffs of Howth.

Bailey Lighthouse from Howth Cliff Walk

Howth Cliff Walk

Kayaking Strangford Lough

Heading up the coast to Northern Ireland, you reach Strangford Lough, one of the largest sea inlets in the British Isles. It has over 58 sq-mi of water with remarkably idyllic flat-water conditions from the Ards peninsula and numerous islands sheltering the bay. It’s also a Marine Nature Reserve, SSSI, AONB, and a Special Area of Conservation that protects and preserves over 2000 species of wildlife.

Retreating glaciers left more than 120 drumlin islands scattered throughout the bay, each with a story that comes to life with a guided tour from Strangford Lough Activity Centre. Learn how the fierce Viking Magnus Barelegs used the Lough as his fortress and St Patrick’s returned to Ireland through these waters. It’s a paddle through time into the heart of Irish history. If you want to double dip on St Patrick, you can visit his grave in nearby Downpatrick.

Kayaking Strangford Lough Activity Centre Ireland
Kayaking Strangford Lough Activity Centre Ireland-2
St Patricks Grave
St Patricks Grave

Coasteering at Ballyhornan

The Giant’s Causeway is one of Northern Ireland’s most spectacular shorelines, where 40,000 interlocking basalt columns meet the water. Allegedly, the giant Finn McCool built the causeway across the North Channel to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. Only, I don’t trust anybody who has to proclaim their McCoolness, and it’s hard to get cooler than coasteering, which is best done just down the coast on the limestone cliffs of Ballyhornan.

Clear Sky Adventure Centre runs canyoneering trips featuring up to 25′ cliff jumps, shoreline swims, and aquatic exploration of sea caves. It’s an extreme adventure that is tailorable for any group. Their site states, “Jumping is not compulsory, but most people like to try the smaller ones, and you do not even need to be able to swim under the care of our expert guides, so no excuses!”

The center is located at Old Castle Ward Demesne, more commonly known as Winterfell Castle to Game of Thrones Fans. Seeing is believing when you take an archery lesson from a costumed instructor in the Winterfell Castle Courtyard, where Jon Snow & Rob Stark taught young Bran Stark the primal art of archery. You can also ride the Westros Cycle Trail through 20 GOT filming locations around the castle grounds.

Ballyhornan Coasteering Ireland-2
Ballyhornan Coasteering Ireland

Visiting Ulster American Folk Park

The Ulster American Folk Park is an immersive museum that tells the story of three families from Ulster who all left for America and made a tremendous impact on the world. The Mellons, as in Mellon Bank and Carnegie Mellon University, Robert Campbell, one of the premier mountain men of the 19th century, and John Joseph Hughes, the first Archbishop of New York.

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The park is centered around the original Mellon farm, but the stories are told as you tour over 30 buildings. Docents in period costumes tell you the story of life in Ireland as you make your way to Belfast docks and then journey across the ocean to Baltimore Harbor and the New World.

The story doesn’t stop with the prominent families. It continues with the tenant farmers who suffered during the Potato Famine, Irish women marginalized in American cities, and even Native Americans displaced by the waves of European immigration. You’ll never forget your Irish history lesson with the smell of smoldering peat lingering heavily in an authentic peasant cottage.

lster American Folk Park Ireland- 18th century Belfast Harbor
Ulster American Folk Park Ireland - Docent in costume

Biking Glenveagh National Park

After crossing over Northern Ireland, you reach the Wild Atlantic Way. Glenveagh National Park is in the heart of the Derryveagh Mountains in northwest County Donegal. Lough Veagh and Glenveagh Castle highlight the park, but there’s more to see and explore. The walled gardens are part of the Donegal Garden Trail, and the castle is being restored with museum-quality exhibits.

If you’re feeling mild, you can take a bus from the visitor center to the castle. If you’re feeling a little wild, rent a bike or hike along the length of the lake (Lough Veagh) through Mullangore Wood for views of the towering Astelleen Burn Waterfall.

The mileage from the visitor center is as follows:

  • Glenveagh Visitor Center – 0 mi
  • Glenveagh Castle – 2.2 mi
  •  Mullangore Wood – 3.6 mi
  • Far side of Lough Veagh – 3.9 mi
  • Headwall of Canyon – 4.8 mi
  • Top of Canyon (jnct w/ R254) – 6.7 mi

Glenveagh National Park is an Irish story of power and greed from John George Adair, who made his fortune from predatory real estate deals during the Potato Famine. Adair evicted 244 peasants from the castle’s lands, reportedly to improve the view. From poet William Allingham’s Eviction

In early morning twilight, raw and chill,

Damp vapours brooding on the barren hill,

Through miles of mire in steady grave array

Threescore well-arm’d police pursue their way;

The hamlet clustering on its hill is seen,

A score of petty homesteads, dark and mean;

Poor always, not despairing until now;

Long used, as well as poverty knows how,

Glenveagh is a microcosm of Irish politics and ecology with goats, villains, and class struggles. It also struggles with deforestation and climate change. The name means valley of the birch trees, but those are few and far between these days. However, scientists are taking core samples of the peat bogs to determine the best ways to replant the forests, herds of iconic red deer have been reintroduced, and invasive rhododendrons are being cleared to make room for a temperate rainforest. These efforts prove that with science and education, there is a future for humanity and ecology.

Glenveagh National Park- Castle- Gardens Ireland- road and lake
Glenveagh National Park- Castle- Gardens Ireland- approach road
Glenveagh National Park- - Gardens
Glenveagh National Park- trail through woods
Glenveagh National Park- Castle by road
Glenveagh National Park- Castle and bike

Unique Ascents on Cruit Island

Cruit Island lies 20 miles due west of Glenveagh National Park, but it feels like it’s a million miles from nowhere. For contemporary travelers, it’s best known for its golf course, which is world-renowned as one of the best nine-hole courses anywhere. However, adventure travelers make the trek to this far northwest corner of Ireland because it’s where granite meets the sea, which means world-class climbing with unbelievable views.

80% of Ireland’s marked climbing routes are in this region, and they’re incredibly underdeveloped and unexplored. Iain Miller, the World’s Only Full-Time Professional Sea Stack Climber and the owner of Unique Ascent, said that if you climb a new route every day, it will take you 15 lifetimes before you run out of first ascents. Iain said there are only three areas with sea stacks like this in the world: Scotland, Tasmania, and this remote corner of Ireland.

Even casual climbers will love a day on the rocks with Unique Ascent, who will make sure they pick routes tailored to the group’s skills. After all, there are plenty to choose from😉. Milder visitors can opt for a guided walk around Cruit Island, where local guides from Unique Ascent will show you the highlights and introduce you to life on the Irish coast.

Cruit Island Ireland
Cruit Island Ireland
Cruit Island Ireland
Cruit Island Ireland-
Cruit Island Ireland

Surfing Rossnowlagh

This shoreline in Ireland is known as Cold Water Hawaii because they have waves to suit every surfer, from beginner to advanced. James, the owner, and operator of Rossnowlagh Surf School, explained how the slope of Rossnowlagh Beach creates a uniform and consistent wave with minimal rip currents. It’s set in the back of a large bay that keeps down the wind chop and focuses ground swells onto the beach. Of course, it helps that the bay faces a thousand miles of open ocean for waves to develop.

During my surf lesson, I was impressed at how easy it was to position myself on the inside of the break and ride broken waves all day. I was plenty warm in the school’s 5-mil suit in late September, but James said the winter waves were coming soon. From October to March, a temperamental big wave forms at nearby Mullaghmore Head that can reach over 60′ tall. There’s something uniquely Irish about surfing where the North Atlantic Current first hits Europe in the shadow of Classiebawn Castle.

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(Special thanks to Pam LeBlanc for her picture of James and me surfing)

James - Rossnowlagh Surf School owner
James and Ed surfing Rosnowlagh Beach - Photo by Pam LeBlanc

 Rougey Cliff Walk

The Rougey Cliff Walk in Bundoran is a milder activity to partake in while your adventurous wildlings go beyond the pale surfing in Rossnowlagh. It’s also an excellent segue for a little Irish history. The Pale was a strip of land centered around Dublin controlled by English kings in the Late Middle Ages that marked the historic edge of English law and cultural subjugation. Hence, the idiom – beyond the pale. Geographically speaking, the Rougey Cliffs are about as far beyond the Pale as you can get. The wilds of western Ireland retained their cultural identity through centuries of English occupation, including preservation of the Irish language and belief in fairies.

It’s not surprising that the Rougey Cliff Walk features two distinctively fairy features – the Fairy Bridges and the Wishing Chair. The Fairy Bridges are a series of blow holes that send a tower of water high into the air when the tides are right. Up until the 1700s, locals believed that fairies inhabited them, which might explain the origins of the Wishing Chair ritual. discoverbundoran.com describes how to perform the Wishing Chair Ritual as follows:

Legend says it is advised to approach the chair with caution lest the powers of the chair be disrupted. Wishers are advised to sit down slowly, holding on to both “arms” of the chair and then pause for at least 15 seconds to take in the stunning scenery that surrounds them before making their wish which must be done in silence and kept private to the wisher in order to increase the chances of it coming true. Finally, it is believed that tapping the seat twice as you get up will give your final commitment that your wish is a genuine one.

Whether you believe in fairies or just want to take in the stunning scenery of the Bundoran, the Rougey Cliff Walk might be for you.

Rogey Cliff Walk - Tullen Strand
Rogey Cliff Walk Fairy Bridges and Wishing Chair Bundoran - Wild Atlantic Way

Cycling the Great Western Greenway

When you travel a little farther down the coast in County Mayo, you’ll find even more Irish adventures. Many people come to explore the bogs and dark skies  of Wild Nephin National Park, but if you’re looking to escape into the Irish countryside, consider a ride on the country’s growing network of greenways. We rode the Great Western Greenway, Ireland’s first Greenway, which runs 27 miles around Clew Bay in County Mayo. The first segment opened in 2010, running from Newport to Mulranny. Since then, it has garnered multiple prestigious awards, including being voted one of ‘the top three cycle trails in the world’ by the New York Times.

Roughly speaking, The Great Western Greenway is broken into three sections:

  • Westport to Newport (7.5 mi)
  • Newport to Mulranny (11 mi)
  • Mulranny to Achill (8.7 mi)

The trail runs slightly downhill from Achill to Westport, with bike hires in every town. They can even arrange point-to-point rentals if you only wish to ride one way.

Our ride from Achill to Mulranny was delightful in every way. The fall weather was still warm and dry without any of the summer crowds. We found incredible views around every corner and met some friendly livestock as the path worked its way through active farms. The rental bikes had wide enough tires to handle the crushed stone surface that dominated most of the trail’s length. It was a beautiful ride by any standard, and we wished that we could have kept going farther down the route.

Crew Bay Bike Hire
Great Western Greenway-
Great Western Greenway-
Great Western Greenway - a friendly cow on the greenway
Biking-Great-Western-Greenway

Exploring Kylemore Abbey & Victorian Walled Garden

At its core, Kylemore Abbey is a love story. Mitchell Henry built the estate for his beloved wife, Margaret, and his love for Ireland. Henry and Margaret first came to Connemara on their honeymoon, and the rugged beauty captured their hearts.

A crew of over one hundred men took over four years to complete the sprawling, 70-room castle. However, their work wasn’t finished. Just a few years after the building was complete, Margaret died, and Henry built her tomb next to her castle.

Benedictine Nuns purchased the castle after they fled Ypres during WWI and converted it from a private estate into an Abbey. Today, you can visit the Abbey and its grounds to enjoy the remarkable scenery and maybe even some pottery and award-winning chocolates handmade by the Benedictine nuns

Kylemore Abbey Ireland
Kylemore Abbey Ireland

Hiking Connemara National Park

Connemara National Park is a free attraction and destination for hikers who want to challenge themselves on the climb up Diamond Hill. The 4.2-mile loop trail is typically hiked clockwise to best manage a steep descent from the summit. There’s some dispute on whether the name Diamond Hill comes from the summit’s shape or the quartzite flakes you’ll see shimmering on the trail.

On clear days, visitors will enjoy 360° panoramic views from the summit that are well worth the 1348′ of climbing required to get there. Along the way, you’ll see 5,000 acres of scenic mountains, expanses of bogs, heaths, and grasslands, including an enclosure of pure-bred Connemara Ponies descended from a herd gifted by late Irish President Erskine Childers.

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While Diamond Hill is the park’s biggest draw, often getting quite crowded on summer weekends, I particularly enjoyed exploring along the Ellis Wood Nature Trail. It’s relatively short but packs a powerful scenic punch. With just a few steps, you leave the grasslands and enter a dense wooded glade where green moss grows wild. The presence of Lungwort indicates that this is a temperate rainforest, and you pass a small waterfall as you work your way back to the cafe.

Connemara National Park - Diamond Peak
Connemara National Park- Ellis Woods

Walking the Burren

The Burren is a fascinating karst landscape centered around County Clare, where every rock and blade of grass tells a story. There was always precious little topsoil covering the surface limestone that eroded away completely by the Late Bronze Age due to over farming and environmental changes. One of the largest collections of exposed limestone pavement in Europe is left in its place.

You’ll find oddities like Arctic-alpine and Mediterranean Basin plants living side by side and low-impact herding techniques used to fight the expanse of invasive shrubland. It’s home to Neolithic sites, like the Poulnabrone dolmen and Burren National Park, which is part of a UNESCO Global Geopark along with the nearby Cliffs of Moher. It’s also where local eco-tour operators, like Tony Kirby from Heart of Burren Walks, work to educate visitors and preserve the area’s unique culture and environment.

We had the opportunity to walk the Burren with Tony, and I learned something new with each story and every step, but one stop by an ancient deer park wall brought five hundred years of Irish history to life.

Tony started by having us look at the wall and imagine the massive amount of labor required in its construction, usually provided by the poorest members of society for little pay and a generational ‘reward’ of never being allowed on the land again. A stand of Harebells grew at the base of the wall, a flower tied through folklore to the Puca fairies. The half horse/half man Puca and this flower are particularly prominent in the Burren.

St Patrick’s Catholicism was quite different from Traditional Roman Catholic practices. It left room for fairies and magic. Some stories even say that Patrick embedded the pagan symbol of the moon goddess (a circle) with a cross, making the first Celtic Cross. Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire, and no Norman Castles were ever built in the region.

The area held onto its old ways until the Potato Famine in the mid-1800s. Over one million of the poorest Irish died, and another two million immigrated away from the Island. The Roman Catholic Church provided perhaps the most organized response to the crisis, but they asked for devotion in return, which marked a shift away from the old traditions.

There are too many details and stories from my Burren Walk to pack into an adventure piece, but if you get a chance to go out with a dedicated local guide like Tony, you will not regret it.

Burren National Park with Guide Tony Kirby_
Burren National Park with Guide Tony Kirby_-3
Deer Park Wall and Harebells

My Final Thoughts on Irish Adventures

I saw the Howth Cliffline drop beneath the plane as my non-stop flight back to Atlanta lifted off. I thought about how little I knew about Ireland just a week ago when I first laid eyes on the Irish coast. We circled back around and crossed over the Wild Atlantic Way, too high to see the waves crashing onto the beach or the base of the sea stacks, but I knew they were there. From now on, I will always know they’re there.

Our trip took us over 700 miles on over a dozen Irish adventures that spanned many disciplines and visited half of the national parks in Ireland, but my mind was already racing, planning more adventures in Ireland and thinking of everything we could do when we return. We loved visiting in fall when the summer crowds had dissipated, but the warm, dry weather remained. Until we then, we’ll keep you in our memories Ireland💚.

Disclosure: A big thank you to Tourism Ireland for hosting us and setting up a fantastic itinerary! For more travel inspiration check out their InstagramFacebook, and Twitter.

As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.

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Rock climbing in Ireland
2 bikers biking a bike path in Ireland
Person on a Tyrolean traverse in Ireland
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Meet Ed & Jenn

Hi! We are Jenn and Ed Coleman, and together we are Coleman Concierge. It is our goal to inspire you to get out, expand your world, and to seek adventure, even in your own backyard.

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