A seaside road trip along the Wild Atlantic Way (photo: Tourism Ireland)

All Roads Lead to an Ireland Self-Drive Tour

By Waheeda Harris

With lush landscapes, easy-to-navigate motorways and friendly locals, Ireland is a road-tripper’s dream. A driving holiday reveals off-the-beaten-path gems and lesser-known nooks and crannies, ripe for exploration. To help make planning easy—and keep your focus on the road ahead—AMA offers self-drive holidays that mix some pre-booking with ample room for spontaneous side trips.

Travellers will appreciate the pay-one-price getaway, which includes car rental, most accommodations and some entrance fees to must-see attractions. But you also have the option to stray off the itinerary, striking the right balance for touring the Emerald Isle at your own pace.

Working with your AMA Travel Specialist, you can choose from hotels, B&Bs and even some castle stays. The suggested schedule includes route info and details about well-known points of interest for each day, with lots of time for impromptu hikes or pints at cozy village pubs.

With the big-picture details taken care of, you can kick off your Irish immersion in the quaint capital. A UNESCO City of Literature, Dublin oozes storybook charm from every cobblestone. Take a stroll around Trinity College—the oldest university in Ireland and the alma mater of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. The Old Library’s Long Room features more than 200,000 historic texts, including the Book of Kells, an illuminated ninth-century Christian manuscript.

After a couple of days perusing Dublin’s must-see sights, such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Guinness Storehouse, head southwest to County Tipperary. After picking up your rental car, remember to drive on the left and program your GPS to the Rock of Cashel, Tipperary’s legendary castle complex, via the M7 and M8.

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Road trip sights: County Cork, St. Patrick, and the Rock of Cashel (photos: Tourism Ireland)

The first day of driving provides a good lesson in using toll roads. There are 11 such roads in Ireland with tollbooths that allow payment by cash or credit card. Another important driving note: It’s easier to find gas stations in bigger cities than on rural roads. On motorways and major regional roads, Circle K Service Stations are perfect for road-trippers, with 400-plus outlets across the country offering petrol, free Wi-Fi, ATMs, convenience stores and restrooms.

Sidetrack to visit the pretty streets of Waterford. Skip the M9 motorway and take regional roads NR688/N24 instead for views of charming villages and verdant hills. The oldest city of Ireland, Waterford was established as a Viking settlement in AD 914. Stroll around the Viking Triangle, anchored by the 13th-century fortification of Reginald’s Tower. Not to be missed: a pit stop at the House of Waterford to pick up a piece of the city’s namesake crystal.

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Killarney, the next stop on the driving itinerary, is less than three hours away, but take the long way along the N71. The detour reveals County Cork’s seaside villages, with their colourful storefronts and family-run pubs. Other fun places to pull over include the port of Cobh, where many Irish left to emigrate to the New World, and the coastal town of Kinsale, known for its regional cuisine and annual food festival. The area provides endless post- card views of the south Irish coast, but remember to stop to snap a photo with your phone: It’s illegal in Ireland to hold a mobile phone when driving.

After overnighting in Killarney, tick off two iconic Irish drives: the Slea Head Drive and the Ring of Kerry. Slea Head’s 65-kilometre loop is best taken slowly—not only due to the endless green cliffs, begging for an Instagram—but because road signs are in Gaelic (this region promotes use of the native language) and numerous cyclists also share the road.

Devote the rest of the day to the bucket-list 179-kilometre Ring of Kerry. Be sure to stop at the Torc Waterfall, gaze at offshore Great Blasket Island and take time at the ancient stone forts of Staigue and Loher. County Kerry locals often set up on the side of the road to sell handmade wool shawls or blankets.

Leaving Killarney, head north to the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,600-kilometre route that passes through nine Irish counties. Break up the drive to Galway via the N21 with a stop in Limerick, a city known for Georgian townhomes and the medieval St. Mary’s Cathedral and King John’s Castle. Take the quick route along the N85 to visit the iconic Cliffs of Moher and divert 15 minutes to the nearby village of Doolin. You’ll get a hearty dose of Irish music at watering holes like Fitzpatrick’s Bar or McGann’s Pub. From here, it’s less than two hours of driving to Galway, where Eyre Square’s pubs and shops make for a great evening out.

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On the road from Derry to Giant’s Causeway (photos: Tourism Ireland)

Rural Ireland is probably the last place you’d expect to find Hollywood nostalgia, but don’t be surprised if you come face to face with John Wayne. The village of Cong, a short daytrip from Galway, was the filming location of 1952’s The Quiet Man, starring Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.

As a tribute to this celluloid legacy, Cong residents erected a statue of the duo. The town is also home to Ashford Castle, which rebranded as a five-star luxury hotel. The extensive grounds of the castle are open to the public (staff provide complimentary maps), but make a reservation in advance to enjoy a meal within the 13th-century stonewalls.

It’s about four hours of driving from Galway to Derry. On the way, stop in Sligo, the second-largest town in western Ireland. The Sligo County Museum houses memorabilia from poet W.B. Yeats, and history buffs will appreciate the 13th-century Sligo Abbey. Follow the N15 and R237 to Derry, where you’ll cross into the U.K. If you need to gas up, wait till you arrive in Northern Ireland where it’s cheaper, and remember to pay in British pounds.

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Derry, also known as Londonderry, is the only walled city in Ireland. Walk along the wall and pop into landmarks, including the gothic cathedral of St. Columb and the neoclassical Bishop Street Courthouse.

From Derry, it’s an hour’s drive to the fabled Giant’s Causeway, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, the basalt rock formations feature in the famous folk tale of Finn McCool. It’s said that the besotted 16-metre-tall giant created the causeway to protect his ladylove, Oonagh, from a competing suitor. Twenty minutes down the road, be brave and walk the rope bridge above the ocean waves to the tiny isle of Carrick-a-Rede. Reward your bravery with a drop of Irish whiskey at the nearby Old Bushmills Distillery, Ireland’s oldest working distillery.

Next stop: Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. Though it has a storied industrial legacy, the city increasingly draws artists, musicians and other modern creators. Titanic Belfast, a museum dedicated to the ill-fated ocean liner, is one of the city’s top attractions. It was constructed in the newly developed Titanic Quarter, where the ship was originally built. The new zone at Belfast Harbour also features the Northern Ireland Science Park, as well as Paint Hall Studios, home to the HBO series Game of Thrones.

Take a side jaunt to the town of Downpatrick before leaving Northern Ireland and finishing your epic Irish road trip. The town’s cathedral houses the burial site of Ireland’s most famous son, Saint Patrick. It seems a fitting place to reflect on your Irish journey and ponder the road less travelled.

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A rollicking night at Belfast’s Ullster Hall (photo: Tourism Ireland)

BEHIND THE WHEEL
A few pointers for navigating Irish roads

Get an IDP: Though it’s not legally mandated, consider an International Driver’s Permit. Most car-rental agencies require one and it can act as an additional piece of photo ID. Apply at an AMA centre

Exclusive extras: AMA members get discounted rates when booking a car rental through AMA

Go small: Smaller cars are better suited to narrow Irish roads. But make sure you book one large enough to fit your luggage

Pick a side: You drive on the left in both countries, but Ireland uses kilometres and the Euro, while it’s miles and British pounds in Northern Ireland

Know your ETA: Driving times on maps are always the minimum; traffic and construction may impact the real time

Don’t speed: The speed limit is 120 km/h on motorways, 80 km/h on local and regional roads, and typically 50 km/h in towns and villages

SEE IT WITH AMA
Emerald Expedition 12 Day Self-Driving Tour (CIE Tours)
: Explore Ireland your way, on your time—with a little help for details like car rental and hotel bookings. This self-drive holiday includes pre-booked four-star hotels, where you’ll savour daily full Irish breakfasts. Also included in the pay-one-price holiday: a spectacular sightseeing bus tour in Dublin. For more savings, you can pre-book skip-the-line tickets to the Guinness Storehouse or House of Waterford Crystal guided factory tour.

From $1,515 (land only); flights from $782/person (including taxes)
Year-round departures
Call an AMA travel specialist: 1-866-667-4777
AMATravel.ca/Europe