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Weekender: County Mayo

A rugged region of mountains, lakes and castles perfect for a scenic road trip

Weekender: County Mayo
Downpatrick Head, Ballycastle. Image: Getty

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There’s little doubt as to what’s considered County Mayo’s main draw. Venture out along one of its coastal roads in almost any direction, and in no time you’ll be struck by the implausible beauty of this Western Irish landscape.

The key to such an endeavour is the Wild Atlantic Way — a coast-hugging road network that runs for over 1,600 miles around Ireland’s west coast. The section that passes through Mayo is stunning: winding roads cut through orange-green moorland, dappled with heather and lichen-covered rock; past shady woodland dells or along precipitous coastal cliffs; and through picturesque towns nestled on the hills above pristine emerald lakes that sparkle in the sunlight.

More often than not it’s practically deserted, too. It all makes for a fine short road trip, through a landscape littered with ancient castles and grand monasteries, with days bookended by hearty breakfasts in cosy inns and evenings of warm fires and live music in the pubs of towns such as Westport. And if you think the mainland is spectacular, just wait until you see the islands.

Island life

The largest of the country’s many islands, Achill offers perhaps the best scenic drive anywhere in Mayo. With its dramatic sea cliffs, ramshackle houses shrouded in mist and miles of wild terrain (Achill is 86% peat bog) it feels like a remote, unexplored wilderness. The views are stunning wherever you drive although Keel Strand, with its turquoise waters and white-pebble beach, provides Achill’s pièce de résistance.

Fit for a King

Set on the banks of a lake and surrounded by manicured gardens, Ashford Castle is everything you’d want from a luxury country hotel. Suits of armour stand guard in the hallways and classical artwork adorns the walls. The hotel is made for long stays, with four restaurants and activities such as falconry and fishing.

Croagh Patrick

Known in Ireland as The Sacred Mountain, Croagh Patrick is famous among hikers and pilgrims, with the four-hour hike to the summit undertaken by an estimated one million people a year. Though the way is rough and can be a little tricky at times, the determined will be treated to one of the best views in all of Ireland — mile upon mile of blue water, green islands and yellow gorse-covered hilltops spread out in all directions.

Three to try: Golden oldies

Kylemore Abbey
Just over the county border in Galway, on the banks of Pollacappul Lake, this neo-gothic Benedictine abbey sits in a 1,000-acre estate and features a Victorian walled garden, plus numerous woodland and lakeside walks.

Westport House
A grand old estate, originally built in 1650 by the great-great-granddaughter of local legend Grace O’Malley (the Pirate Queen). Today there’s a campsite, Pirate Adventure Park and Birds of Prey Centre in its grounds.

Rosserk Friary
A ruin, yes, but an impressive one. What remains of Rosserk Friary has been standing for nearly 600 years. The oldest example of its kind in Ireland, it’s wonderfully atmospheric and at dusk, sunlight refracts across the lake onto the ancient stone walls.

Clare Island. Image: Getty

Clare Island. Image: Getty

Eyewitness: The Lost Valley

A dull thud comes from under the car as the wheel dips into the pothole and bounces back out, jerking my head forward. The scenery so far has been pretty distracting — a patchwork of earthen yellows and verdant greens — and it seems I haven’t been concentrating on the road ahead.

I pull over and check my map. I’m pretty sure I’m somewhere south of Louisburgh. The road has become so narrow I’m not certain I’m on the right track — the signposts have disappeared and the tarmac wanders aimlessly ahead with grassland on both sides. The road leads towards a low hanging cloud sitting between two large hills in the distance.

The map suggests I continue on this course, so I set off again and try to avoid wrecking the car any further. The trail takes me through a wild and barren expanse of land, past rivers, through boggy woodland and tiny farming hamlets, and all the while the road twists like a racetrack between the fields.

As I head into the large valley, and the fog begins to swirl around me, hanging low over the bushland on either side, I’m momentarily sad to see the open fields behind me begin to fade from view. Then, the road begins to climb and as the cloud breaks I see the enormity of the hills around me. They jut up almost vertically into the white sky above, rocky and foreboding. It comes as a complete surprise.

As the ground starts to level out, a few sheep trot past, crossing from bank to bank. Then, as I reach the top, I find myself pulling over once more — not because I’ve hit a pothole again though, but for the chance to take in the view that’s suddenly emerged. The land opens up for several miles ahead, the valley sits in full glorious view in all directions, and at the centre is a huge mirrored lake, sparkling as the wind ripples its surface.

There’s no mention of this place on my map and I can’t seem to work out exactly where I am in relation to my destination. I continue to breathe it all in, and by the time I head off, the light is starting to fade. Eventually I hit a main road, and as I turn off I glance behind me and catch sight of a wooden signpost pointing back in the direction I’ve come from. I can’t help but laugh as I read the words: ‘The Lost Valley’.

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