Driving the Connemara Loop
Day 5 of our trip was one I was very excited for, driving the Connemara Loop. Connemara is a sort of oddly defined region of Ireland. It centers around Connemara National Park, but the national park makes up only a small portion of the area dubbed “Connemara”. The national park itself has no roads going through it, only around the outside, but there is no shortage beautiful scenery to drive through. Whatever you do, don’t get caught calling it “The Connemara”, as cool as it sounds. It’s just “Connemara”.
We were starting in Clifden, whereas most people start in Galway, so we had already done the southern part around the impressive Twelve Bens mountain range and were skipping it. Our plan was to head northeast from Clifden to the national park visitors center, then to Kylemore Abbey, followed by a drive and and boat cruise along Killary Fjord to the beautiful Leenane. From there we would complete the loop via a southerly drive down the R336, before finishing up going north through the Inaugh Valley which we’d heard was a stunning drive, finishing up through Renvyle. I’d found some advice online to do the loop part of the drive clockwise and, from a views standpoint, I regret not doing it the other way around. The R336 is significantly more impressive when headed north (the approach to Leenane, which we saw only out of our rear view mirror) is incredible while the Inaugh Valley is rather equally scenic from either direction.
Our first stop after leaving Clifden was the Connemara Visitors Center which is a launching point for the Diamond Hill hike. “Hill” is a bit of a misnomer here as a hike to the top is no joke and would require a fairly steep/grueling ~3 hours to complete the round trip. We decided to pass on the hike as Stacie was still sore from cycling and we knew we had a long day ahead of us already, but we could see some small figures at the top and it looked like they had a quite a view for their reward.
Next up, and our first real stop was Kylemore Abbey which was about sixteen kinds of awesome. “I just inherited butt loads of money so I want you architects to build me a sweet castle on the side of a mountain with a beautiful lake and mountain views out front”. I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s essentially the conversation that Mitchell Henry had after inheriting his father’s textile company. Kylemore Abbey is the result.
You get a great view of the Abbey from the parking lot but we decided to pay the 6 euro per person to enter the grounds. Inside the Abbey you can walk through a few rooms and learn some interesting tidbits about the estate. The real star though is the view from the front of the Abbey, and the walk down along the lake (towards the private church that was built on the grounds). Some folks that were smart enough to bring a swimsuit even took a dip in the lake. We spent several hours just walking and enjoying the views, and had a picnic of Stacie’s delicious SuperValu Ham+goatcheese sandwiches and Tayto chips while I captured a time-lapse and took a million pictures.
An optional addition to the visit is a walk through the Victorian walled garden on the estate, which is about a mile away (accessible via walking or a shuttle bus). We did this and, other than the delicious vanilla popsicle (basically a block of vanilla ice cream on a stick) that I bought there this wasn’t really that interesting. I would recommend just sticking to the Abbey and saving the hour from the gardens.
After finally managing to peel ourselves away from the Abbey the next major landmark was the Killary Fjord, the only fjord in Ireland. The drive alongside the south side of the fjord was beautiful and Stacie was anxious to use the time we had saved by skipping the Diamond Hill hike on a cruise through the fjord. Killary Harbor cruises operates just off the main road that travels along the south side of the fjord and you can walk right in and book the next cruise. That’s exactly what we did, and the journey through the fjord was worth the trip for sure, with views of large mountains cascading down into the water throughout the journey.
A loop through Leenane and the Inagh Valley would be the next highlight of our drive. Leenane is a visually spectacular and underrated town, nestled at the end of the Killary Fjord and surrounded on all other sides by large mountains. We drove away from Leenane south on the R336 through the Maumturks mountains, and as mentioned earlier I wish we had done it the other way around. I’m lucky I was able to stay on the road as I was constantly peering through my mirrors to see the views that we were driving away from (and would otherwise have been driving towards). Along the way there is a small pub called Kilmilkin Bar with great views of the mountains from the picnic tables out front. A great place to enjoy a pint amongst some wonderful scenery. Now this is Ireland.
When the R336 met back back up with the N59 we hung a right towards Inagh Valley, and then hung another right on R344 to actually enter the valley. When driving through the valley we came across the Lough Inagh Lodge, which is beautifully located and has a pull off spot where you can take a short path through the grassy fields down to a crisp, mountain shadowed lake. It is an utterly picturesque spot and definitely worth a visit, if not a stay, and is the highlight of the drive through Inagh Valley in this humble traveler’s opinion.
At the end of the valley we met back up with the northern stretch of the N59 and took a left towards the Connemara Loop road, which would mark the last leg of our now kind-of-a-loop. The road takes you through Tully and Renlyville which is an area that George RR Martin must have liked. Or maybe he hated it given the fate of the Tully’s and Renly in Game of Thrones. Regardless, it’s a nice area with small coastal roads up on the side of large hills overlooking the ocean, something we would become accustomed to in Ireland. By this point it was pretty late and we were quite hungry. Unable to find anything that looked appealing to eat in the area (or really, unable to find anywhere to eat at all) we kind of rushed through the area to get back to Clifden for dinner.
After dinner we went back on the hunt for some fiddle music, but came up empty handed. I never realized it was this hard to find people playing a fiddle in Ireland. I guess it’s not 1920 anymore. We ended up back at J O’Connelly’s where the same band as we had seen a few days prior was on again, though sadly the fiddler was replaced by a banjo player.