You hear all kinds of stories about driving in Ireland. Yes, the roads are narrow, winding, and often filled with sheep but don’t let that stop you from renting a car and going out on your own. If I can do it – anyone can! I traveled through Ireland on my own for 3 weeks with a rental car and I also did coach tours – and by far I’ll take my own car any day over a coach tour.
You get to see so much more (coach buses aren’t allowed on many of the best little coastal roads!), stop where you want to stop, get lost, take lots of photos, and most importantly – you will get much closer to the local Irish culture. Taking local transportation is a great way to get that true local experience everyone is after. You’ll definitely walk away with a great understanding of the Irish culture, great photos, new friends, and some new driving skills!
What is the Wild Atlantic Way
What better place to take a road trip than Ireland? You can finish every day’s drive with a Guinness! And luckily Ireland had just finished launching their tourism Pièce de résistance –one of the longest coastal driving routes in the world termed the Wild Atlantic Way. It is 1,550 miles of coastal driving through the back roads, fields, and villages of rural Ireland.
I love wide open spaces, adore small towns, and am elated when I get to photograph beautiful landscapes – I couldn’t imagine a better setting and way to see a country. I knew I wouldn’t have time to do every inch of the WAW, however my plan was to stay on it as much as possible and then use the bigger highways to get from place to place quicker when I was running behind or needed to make up mileage. Here are a few things to consider when driving the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland.
One of the descriptions for the WAW is “where land and sea collide” – yes – that point where the rocky westerly European continent collides with the Atlantic Ocean is where your road is. And I have to hand it to the tourism department – because any destination that decides to take it’s smallest, winding, untraveled, narrow roads and market the hell out of it for tourists to come and drive on them has balls. Big fucking balls.
The US would never do this. We live in a land of shoulders, passing zones, and wide spacious lanes. And we certainly wouldn’t want to run the liability of promoting our hard-to-drive roads as a tourism activity. And that’s why America is no fun to drive in.
I found there was a hierarchy of roads that made up the Wild Atlantic Way. There were the ‘highways’ these actually sometimes had shoulders where cars and trucks zipped along them as if they were a 4 lane Audubon; yet they were simply a 2-way road. There were the back roads jutting off the main roads that varied in size from double lane (which honestly would be single lane in US standards) to single lane.
There were sheep roads – very rural single lane winding roads where you would often have to back up if you met another car, and be sure to stay alert to dodge sheep on the road. No coach buses were allowed on these thank God. And then there were the roads where grass grew in the middle – I called these the ‘oh shit’ roads. All of these made up the heavily marketed Wild Atlantic Way.
Example of main highway – look – it even has lines!
Example of a 2 way road – hardly 2 roads! This is the most common on the WAW.
Example of a grass lined road- still part of the WAW – oh shit…what if I meet another car…
People told me I would see the blue WAW signs and all I had to do was follow them. I was skeptical. Mainly because I knew that my mind would be on driving-in-a-new-country synapse overload and my ability to see a sign, comprehend it, and act upon it by myself would be challenging. However I didn’t really have any alternative as I couldn’t simply tell my Google Navigation to ‘follow the Wild Atlantic Way North’ and have it miraculously understand (now THAT would have been nice).
Needless to say, I became really, really good at turning around. I missed signs, I was confused by the North/South sign indications as I drove West and East (even though you spend a lot of time going West and East, the WAW signs only run North/South). But eventually after about 3 days of ‘crazy person’ driving my brain started to hone in on those blue signs and understand them before I went blowing by a turn off. Reminding me that once again – you will adapt.
However I also did rely heavily on my Google Navigation. I’d choose a point on the WAW near where I wanted to go and just have it lead me there and then choose another point, etc. Else – if I had left my Google Nav to it’s own devices, it never would have sent me along the WAW and would have chose the bigger highways most of the time as my route between point A & B. The other really key piece of advice I can give you about navigation (especially if you are driving solo) – get a phone holder to put up on your window – it saved my fucking life many, many times. Nuff said.
I asked Jim, a local friend, what it meant when another car blinks their lights at me on a single lane impasse. “It means you can go first “ he says confidently, but then pauses a second and continues, “or it means for you to stop.”
Never underestimate how challenging it can be to drive in other countries. That doesn’t mean that it’s not fun, it just means that it can be challenging. For the first 3 days my grip on the steering wheel was powerful – white knuckled driving at it’s best. And I have no idea why a simple thing like sitting in opposite seat in the car and driving completely threw off my entire 28 years of driving knowledge and perspective.
It was as if I had regressed to 16 again as I tried to figure out the dimensions of my car and consequently making my right turns super wide. Plus, As I entered parking lots or turned onto road with no other traffic my brain would immediately go into panic mode – “whooaaa, where am I supposed to be here? What side of the road should I be on” conversation swirled through my brain as I tried to sort out the confusion swiftly before causing an accident.
One of my most entertaining things about driving in a foreign country is trying to decipher the road signs. It was like solving a 1,500 mile long puzzle. After I had passed the same confusing sign multiple times over the week I’d normally have an ‘a-ha’ moment where it would suddenly make sense.
Yet I must admit, I never really did understand the Traffic Calming signs in Ireland. All of a sudden you’d see a big sign that read “Traffic Calming Ahead”. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I envisioned everyone slowing down and drinking green tea, and maybe getting a little shoulder massage in these traffic calming areas. It did always bring a smile to my face instead my normal stressed out look – so maybe the sign was indeed doing its job.
I gave up trying to understand the parking signs and pretty quickly started following the leads of locals. The local way? Park anywhere. It didn’t matter which side of a street or if you were double parked, you simply parked wherever you felt like it. I liked this Irish system and decided we should do more of this in the US…oh – and we should also all drink more Guinness in the US.
I was positive Ireland only manufactured one speed limit sign – every one of them read 100 km/hr (62 mph) – EVERY one. They had them everywhere on these tiny little single lane roads. In fact they’d even have the 100 kph signs 30 feet in front of a 90 degree curve!
It may feel like you are learning to drive all over again when you drive in Ireland, but that’s part of the fun. The biggest thing to remember is that you WILL adapt to the conditions and the changes in a couple of days and everything will feel pretty normal in no time. And for goodness sakes, skip those coach buses! Instead of feeling like you are just getting from point A to point B, when you drive yourself driving becomes part of the adventure.
Disclosure: Part of my Wild Atlantic Way Road Trip was sponsored by Failte Ireland. However, all of the opinions here are my own.
Top photo: threading a needle along the Wild Atlantic Way.