Wild Winds, Rough Going, No Blarney: Ireland's Connemara

Cycling the Coast

   

Connemara's soggy soil tends to discourage off-road biking. Luckily, the lightly trafficked roads that wind through its valleys and along its deeply indented coast offer some of the most ruggedly picturesque cycling in Ireland. South of Clifden you'll find wide, sandy beaches and the quiet resort town of Roundstone. Up north lie Cleggan and Claddaghduff, jumping-off points for Inishbofin and Omey Island, as well as Killary Harbor, Ireland's only fjord.
There are three things to know before pedaling. Rather primitive road engineering renders inclines good and steep. The prevailing west-coast winds blow south to north; if you're planning a longer tour, ride with and not against these indefatigable breezes. And be sure to stop by the Clifden Bookshop or Gibbons's office to buy Ordnance Map 37 ($6), which shows everything from public phones to historic sites. You can rent a mountain bike ($10 per day) at Mannion's on Bridge Street in Clifden. For multiday trips, consider bringing your own bike, or at least a helmet, panniers, and clipless pedals and shoes. Killary Tours, based eight miles north of Clifden in Renvyle, can help arrange luggage transport and accommodations for a self-guided trip or hook you up with a guided group.

If you have only one day for cycling, spend it on Sky Road, a classic 16-mile loop around a narrow, bluff-lined peninsula west of Clifden. Starting in front of the Hotel Alcock & Brown, you'll climb past the ruins of Clifden Castle, a mock-ancestral manse built by town founder John D'Arcy around 1818, and turn left two miles later to reach a hilly lump called Ardmore Point. Look across the inlet to see Mrs. Roche's house, the last continuously inhabited thatch cottage on the peninsula. Farther west spreads a protected harbor where, in 1947, a farmer found a fully intact skeleton clad in Viking armor. Wandering the fields and beaches are Connemara ponies, whose ancestry is said to include stallions that swam ashore from wrecked Spanish Armada galleons. (For $20 an hour you can ride one; call the Cleggan Riding Centre at 011-353-95-44746.) Continuing the loop back toward Clifden, be sure to stroll the beach near the Dereen bridge in Streamstown; the spring beneath your step comes from an underlying (and safe) expanse of quaking bog.
If you have the time or the inclination to try a more challenging itinerary, your best bet is Renvyle-based Little Killary Adventure Centre, which can equip you for everything from Hobie Cat sailing and windsurfing to rock climbing, scuba diving, and sea kayaking. Despite the blustery coast's allure, kayaking remains relatively novel here; intrigued paddlers should contact Killary Tours guide Jon Hynes, who will gladly help you plan a trip or lead your group on a weeklong foray that includes camping on uninhabited islands, fishing, and pulling up on beaches strategically chosen for their proximity to pubs.

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