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Ireland: A leap into the unknown

Spanning just 25 miles, Waterford’s Copper Coast is a local secret and the perfect antidote to the Wild Atlantic Way

Ireland: A leap into the unknown
Copper Coast Geopark. Image: Getty

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‘Men only’ reads the sign at Guillamene. Don’t worry, though: it’s a relic, a museum piece. Today’s visitors to this little cove, cut into the southern Irish coastline just west of Tramore, can ignore it. Walk past, pop your togs on and head straight for the diving board. Do not pass ‘Go’. Do not collect £200. This isn’t a swimming spot for delicate souls or gradual immersions. It’s a place from which you should leap, hollering and whooping, from the diving board and rocks.

Jesus! I was expecting cold, but not this cold. When you hit the water, your body spasms with shock. Summer. Winter. It doesn’t matter. Your organs contract like sea anemones. Your skin turns almost orange. But hold tight. Do not resist. Stay put for a moment, embracing the iciness of the Irish water. “It’s grand after a few minutes,” they’ll tell you. And they’re right. Particularly the ones in wetsuits. The Guillamene Cove is the perfect baptism for one of the shortest and sweetest coastlines in Ireland.

I’ve done this drive several times; I still can’t believe it’s so little known. Mention the Wild Atlantic Way and eyes light up. Everyone has a favourite part, a childhood memory (not surprising, given that the 1,500-mile coastal route stretches the entire length of Ireland’s western seaboard). However, bring up the Copper Coast in conversation and it’s another story entirely. You’ll more than likely get quizzical looks in response.

Not from Waterford folk, though. They’ve seen millions of tourists miss out. Cars and campers, zipping from the ferry port of Rosslare towards West Cork and Kerry, oblivious to the little patch of paradise just a few minutes from the N25. Those who do swing by get their dues. They’re rewarded with a burst of sea stacks, hidden beaches, blooming hedgerows, pretty little villages and copper mining husks that feel like Cornwall crammed into the Algarve. Fewer visitors, of course, make the secret even more delicious.

Stretching 25 miles or so between Tramore and Dungarvan, the Copper Coast covers a short distance, but a deceptive one. No sooner do I release the handbrake and set off from Tramore (its name comes from the Irish trá mór, or ‘big beach’) than I start seeing excuses to stop and explore the waters and the wild.

Fishing on Ballydowane Beach.

Fishing on Ballydowane Beach. Image: Getty

The Copper Coast dangles its coves at the end of L-roads — after M (motorways), N (national routes) and R (regional roads), the smallest of Ireland’s highways and byways (the L stands for ‘local’, by the way). They’re the ones that look like hairs on Google Maps. The roads on which you pray you won’t meet another car. Or cow. But that’s the thrill of it. You turn off; you nose the car down. The bars disappear from your phone’s screen.

There’s Garrarus, Kilmurrin Cove, the forested fringes of Stradbally filling its beach with birdsong. Or the jagged stacks of Kilfarrasy, a sandy sweep that looks blessed in sunshine, ominous under cloud. Then there’s Bonmahon, where I once tried to surf with my siblings.

The Copper Coast is named for the metal mining industry that thrived here during the 19th century. Along the drive, I pass the bones of old towers and engine houses, heritage ghost notes. Today, it’s also a UNESCO Global Geopark, with rocks scarred by 460 million years of grinding and crunching. Outside Bonmahon, a little visitors’ centre is set in a church. I pop in and learn that this stretch of coastline started on the ocean floor, near the South Pole, when Ireland wasn’t a land yet.

Reading about geological heritage is one thing. Seeing it in the ground is another. Mud folds frozen like Impressionist brush strokes. Sea stacks punching up from the ocean floor. Glacial boulders dumped at random. Between Bonmahon and Stradbally, waves peel into Ballydowane Bay. If you look closely, you can see a sand-filled ventilation shaft in one of the sea stacks. It’s the dislocated remnant of an 18th-century silver mine.

The short drive floats by. But how long can it stay a secret? Waterford recently completed a new greenway, a 30-mile off-road cycling and walking trail stretching from Ireland’s oldest city to the foodie hub of Dungarvan. At its southwestern end, cyclists emerge to stonking views of Clonea and the Copper Coast. “A lot of the city folk, they absolutely love the silence,” one local says. “We live here, of course, so we don’t think anything of it.” 

Essentials

Dublin Airport is around a two-hour drive from Tramore, while Cork Airport is about an hour and 15 minutes from Dungarvan. British Airways Holidays offers fly-drive packages from £113 per person with flights from Heathrow to Dublin plus car hire, but not accommodation. For those taking their own cars, Irish Ferries and Stena Line both serve Dublin and Rosslare.

ba.com irishferries.ie stenaline.ie visitwaterford.com  coppercoastgeopark.com

Read more from the cover story. 

Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)