Top ten best motorcycle roads in Ireland | Free maps

Geoff Hill Ireland
By Geoff Hill

Geoff Hill is a critically acclaimed bestselling author and award-winning feature and travel writer based in Belfast. His 15 books include accounts of epic motorbike journeys Way to Go, The Road to Gobblers Knob, Oz and In Clancy’s Boots, recreating the journey of Carl Stearns Clancy, the first person to take a motorbike around the world 100 years ago – complete with Clancy’s original boots. His novels are Angel Street, Smith and The Butler’s Son.

 

If you’ve never ridden in Ireland, you don’t know what you’re missing.

We’ve got glorious scenery, virtually empty roads, very few speed cameras, friendly drivers who’ll pull over to let you pass, and when you get off the bike at the end of the day, more pubs than you can shake a pint of Guinness at. Walk into any one of them, and within five minutes you’ll be special best friends with everyone inside.

Here are best-selling Irish travel author Geoff Hill’s ten best roads on the island, in clockwise order so you can link them up for a fabulous riding adventure starting from Belfast or Dublin, depending on which ferry crossing you take.

Leave two weeks for all of it, or just do a bit and come back later for more. You’ll always get céad míle fáilte*

 

1: A ferry stop with a happy ending | Belfast to Dublin

Where does it start? Belfast

Where does it end? Dublin

How long is it? 166 miles

 

Why is it great?

Belfast to Dublin on the motorway is a 90-minute blast, but if you have the time, this is a pleasant combination of inland, coast and mountains.

Ride from Belfast to Portaferry, have home-made ice cream in Blaney’s or lunch in the Portaferry Hotel, and hop across on the short ferry ride to the pretty village of Strangford.

If you thought the hotel was too formal, the Cuan in Strangford does great pub grub, then it’s on through the lovely Georgian village of Killough, which feels like being in France, to the Victorian seaside resort of Newcastle, down the coast for great fish and chips in The Galley in Annalong, then west through the soaring Mourne Mountains to join the motorway south to Dublin.

 

What do I need to know?

Give yourself a day or two to enjoy Belfast, a city reborn since the dark days of what locals call the Troubles.

For accommodation, my favourite city hotel is Tara Lodge in the leafy University Quarter: great value, friendly and helpful staff, perfect breakfasts, free Wi-Fi, off-street parking and comfortable rooms.

Visit Titanic Belfast, the world’s biggest museum dedicated to the doomed ship which was built by Harland & Wolff when Belfast had the world’s biggest shipyards, linen mills, tobacco factories and ropeworks.

Another great museum is the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum eight miles from Belfast. The transport section has some great bikes, including several raced by local hero and TT legend Joey Dunlop.

 

Anything Else?

In the evening, head for Hill Street. This cobbled street in the Cathedral Quarter has become the buzzing heart of the city’s nightlife, with eight pubs within three minutes’ walk, making it the perfect venue for a civilised pub crawl.

Start at one end with The Harp Bar, which has live music nightly, as does the permanently popular Duke of York, and if you have the stamina, end up at The National Grande Café in High Street.

For dinner, the best restaurant in the area is The Muddlers Club in Warehouse Lane, just off Hill Street. The waiting staff are young, impossibly good looking and have PhDs in food, wine and charm, and the food is so good that a Michelin star could be in the offing.

Elsewhere in the city, bars like The Crown, the only pub in the UK owned by the National Trust, are still a must.

 

2: Toast Sally with a Guinness | Dublin to Dublin

Where does it start? Dublin

Where does it end? Guinness Storehouse, Dublin

How long is it? 82 miles

 

Why is it great?

The road through Sally Gap, one of two east to west passes through the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin, was built by the British Army to make it easier to flush rebels from the hills after the Irish rebellion of 1798, and to this day is known as the Military Road.

These days, signposted helpfully by the tourist board, it provides spectacular views of the Glencree valley, the dark waters of Lough Tay, Kippure Mountain and Glenmacnass Waterfall.

To get there, the road from Dublin is well-surfaced open sweeping single carriageway through the hills, sundappled woods, lakes and rivers of Wicklow, Dublin’s back garden, and on through the Gap to the pretty villages of Roundwood and Laragh to Glendalough.

You can then come back the same way, or head east on the route marked to the coast road and back to the Guinness Storehouse for a tour on the history of Ireland’s most famous beer and a pint in the rooftop bar.

 

What do I need to know?

In the Sally Gap, stop halfway at Glenmacnass Waterfall for a great photo.

Also worth a visit if you have time are the magnificent formal gardens at Powerscourt, the inspired fabrics and colours at reinvented traditional weavers Avoca and Avoca village itself, the setting for the Ballykissangel TV series.

A must if possible is the ancient monastic settlement at Glendalough. Monks arrived in this beautiful wooded river valley in the 6th Century for a bit of peace and quiet. Unfortunately they forgot to tell the Vikings (who raided the monastery four times), the Normans (who pillaged it once), and Henry VIII (who finished the job with the Reformation). Today, it’s one of the best preserved monastic sites in Ireland.

 

Anything Else?

Top spots to get fed and watered are Bates in Rathdrum for excellent food at a decent price, and the Cartoon Inn pub next door.

If you want to stay locally, Aughavannagh Cottage, beautifully restored by owner Dave Deighan, is up a leafy lane in a wooded valley with a stream burbling through the garden.

 

3: Great food, and a leap of faith | Kinsale to Killarney

Where does it start? Kinsale

Where does it end? Killarney

How long is it? 103 miles

 

Why is it great?

The lovely sweeping A-road from Kinsale to Killarney takes you through a magnificent panorama of soaring green to your right, crashing waves to our left, and in between a winding road steaming through a panoply of bright villages.

This part of West Cork, you see, has for years been a favourite holiday or retirement haven for Dutch and Germans who arrived, took one look at grey Irish houses, sighed, and got out a paintbrush.

As a result, most villages are now all the colours of the rainbow, although in a tastefully pastel kind of way.

Even better, it’s got great towns at each end of the route, Kinsale and Killarney – and a nice little diversion in the middle.

 

What do I need to know?

Kinsale was just a sleepy fishing village until 12 local hoteliers and restaurateurs formed the Good Food Circle in 1976 to promote gastronomic tourism.

It worked, and then some; today Kinsale has the highest concentration of restaurants in Ireland and is firmly established as Top Nosh Central.

Having said that, the effect has spread to smaller bistros and cafés, so you don’t have to pay top dollar to get great food here.

My top-end recommendations are Man Friday, one of the original Circle members, for a magical harbourside terrace and fabulous seafood, Max’s Wine Bar for a French take on local ingredients, and impressive newcomer Finn’s Table.

Midrange favourites are Fishy Fishy and The Black Pig wine bar, and for pub or café grub, The Spaniard, The Bulman just outside town, Hoby’s and Jim Edward’s.

For information on accommodation, visit www.kinsale.ie, and for restaurants, www.food.kinsale.ie and www.kinsalerestaurants.com.

Killarney’s been a tourist town since local landowner Henry Herbert invited that well known biker Queen Victoria over in 1855 for tea and buns at his Muckross House mansion just outside the town. “Love to,” said Her Majesty, checking her royal diary, “see you in six years.”

Sadly, Henry then spent so much redecorating the place that after HM arrived with her own bed and an entourage of 100, he had to sell it.

Still, Thomas Cook tours soon followed, and today Killarney is buzzing year-round with pubs, restaurants and the clip and clop of horses trotting around the lakes pulling jaunting cars filled with Americans saying: “You know, Harry, this isn’t a bit like Texas”.

Because it’s so popular, book accommodation well ahead, especially in summer.

 

Anything Else?

That nice little diversion in the middle is Priest’s Leap, the highest rideable pass in Ireland at 1,516ft and according to local legend named after a priest who, during the time when Catholicism was banned, escaped from pursuing British soldiers by a miraculous leap from the top on his horse.

We’ve marked it on our route, but after Bantry, you ride north on the open and sweeping N71 through the mountains for 25 miles, then turn right for Gerha then at Gearhanagoul left up the four and a half miles of farm track to Priest's Leap.

It’s patchy tarmac for about half the way, then hard-packed gravel with grass up the middle, and fairly upsie-downsie, but if an off-road wuss like me can breeze through it, anyone can.

And the reward is spectacular, as you climb off the bike at the top and take in glorious views of the mountains sweeping down to gently cradle distant Bantry Bay far below.

Back on the N71, ride on to the lovely coastal village of Glengarriff, nestled between mountain, oak forest and ocean. Its oldest inhabitant, 103-year-old Dutchman Jan Linzel, was a Second World War RAF pilot.

 

4: Lonely wolf seeks love | Killarney to Dingle

Where does it start? Killarney

Where does it end? Dingle

How long is it? 171 miles

 

Why is it great?

The Alps? Who needs them when you’ve got scenery like Killarney National Park as you leave Killarney town on a well-surfaced road winding past deep blue lakes, rugged mountains and the last great virgin forests in Ireland, an island that was covered in mighty oaks until they were chopped down to make ships for the Royal Navy.

At least the oaks survived, which is more than can be said for the last wolf in Ireland, who was killed here in 1700, presumably after wandering through these forests for months wondering why no one had replied to his ad in the lonely hearts sections of Wildlife Weekly saying: Partner wanted for friendship and possible romance. Must have own fur coat and like long walks, cold nights out and raw sheep. Non-smoker preferred. Must be a wolf.

After that, Kenmare’s a pleasant market town with a lovely view up Main Street of pastel coloured buildings, then the church spire and the mountains beyond.

From there it’s the famous Ring of Kerry, a stunning loop on a two-lane road that dances between the soaring green on your right and the aching blue of ocean crashing onto rocks on your left.

 

What do I need to know?

In high season, most folks doing the Ring of Kerry are either on a tourist coach or in a snail trail of cars, but on a bike, you can soar past both with a cheery wave. Note that the coaches do the Ring anti-clockwise, so most car drivers do the opposite, as you will be.

 

Anything Else?

In Dingle, have a drink in Dick Mack’s, a former spirit grocer’s dating from 1899 and now a tiny haven outside; the name plaques in the pavement show that everyone from Julia Roberts to Dolly Parton and Robert Mitchum called in to have a pint or try the astonishing selection of Irish whiskies behind the bar.

Then have dinner in The Global Village, whose six-course tasting menu at €60, or €90 with wines, is better than I’ve eaten in some Michelin-starred restaurants. At one stage, a chap who turned out to be called Martin Bealin came wandering out from the kitchen dressed in whites.

“Are you the chef, by any chance?” I said.

“No, the plumber. I called in to fix a leak and they made me wear this,” he said, proving his wit is as inspired as his cooking.

 

5: A Fungi to be with | Dingle to Galway

Where does it start? Dingle

Where does it end? Galway

How long is it? 149 miles

 

Why is it great?

Starting in Dingle, it’s only five miles to the top of the Conor Pass, but what a five miles.

It’s a fairly narrow road, but well-surfaced, and snakes its way aloft with cliff faces on one side and steep drops to the lakes below on the other.

The good news is that because it gets even more narrow and twisty down the other side, caravans, camper vans and lorries are banned, and coaches tend to avoid it, so you may well have it to yourself as you crack on, drinking in the curves and the sound of your engine echoing off the cliffs.

From the car park on top at 1500ft, the view before you is so much like Middle Earth that you expect Bilbo Baggins to wander up clutching a pint of Guinness at any moment, nod wisely, and potter off on his merry way before the pub shuts.

In the last third of the ride, you’ll think you’re on the Moon riding through the bleak, rocky landscape of the Burren, and be glad to return to Earth in Galway, one of the most pleasant cities in Ireland, with its university and winding medieval streets lined with traditional music pubs creating a vibrant, cosmopolitan, fun-loving feel.

 

What do I need to know?

In July, Galway Arts Festival has 500 performers of theatre, spectacle, dance, visual arts, music, literature and comedy showcasing their talents over two weeks.

In September, the city’s oyster festival has been running since 1954, making it the world's longest running celebration of the little slimy darlings.

Anything Else?

If you’ve time before you leave Dingle, go sea kayaking with Irish Adventures and meet Fungi, the bottlenose dolphin who’s been resident in the bay for the past 32 years and still loves leaping out of the water for tourists.

 

6: To Doo is to be | Galway to Westport

Where does it start? Galway

Where does it end? Westport

How long is it?  144 miles

 

Why is it great?

This route has all the variety and scenery you’ll ever need, from winding along the coast road out of Galway as far west as Cleggan, then cutting back to the brooding magnificence of the slopes, woods, lakes and waterfalls of the Delphi Gap and the road around breathtaking Doo Lough.

What do I need to know?

At journey’s end, Westport may not be as buzzing as Galway, but it’s one of my favourite little towns in Ireland: designed with Georgian grace by architect James Wyatt and beautifully situated on the tree-lined Carrowbeg River. Just perfect for wandering up the Mall to the Octagon and stopping in at any of the very good pubs and restaurants on the way.

A good value three-star hotel is the Westport Woods Hotel, or for a treat, the four-star Knockranny House hotel and spa.

 

Anything Else?

If you’ve had enough of twisties, sheep on the road, almost falling off while admiring the view or are just running short of time, cut inland to the fast, sweeping N59.

 

7: Life’s a beach. But what a beach | Westport to Rossnowlagh

Where does it start? Westport

Where does it end? Rossnowlagh

How long is it? 168 miles

 

Why is it great?

This takes you through a world of mountains and mist through Ballycroy National Park, one of the largest expanses of peat bog in Europe and a wild and lonely place where if you’re lucky you might see whooper swans in the icy lakes or peregrine falcons soaring among the peaks, or hear the strange whirr whirr call of the corncrake, a bird which was common when I was growing up but is now almost extinct.

 

What do I need to know?

Get to Rossnowlagh early enough to go for a bracing walk on the apparently endless beach, one of the best on the west coast and a popular spot with surfers. Amazingly, I knew an Australian who came all the way to Ireland to surf here.

If you leave Westport late and are running short of time to do that, take a short cut on the fast N15 for the first part of the journey.

 

Anything Else?

For something a bit weird and wonderful, stop in Strandhill for a seaweed bath at Voya, started as a tiny family business by Neil Walton 15 years ago and now exporting its products to 42 countries where customers are rejuvenated by the iodine and alginate gel derived from bladder wrack. If you don’t like it, just phone the 24-hour kelpline.

The Shells Café next door is a great spot for a light lunch.

In Rossnowlagh, stay in the Sandhouse and have dinner in Smugglers Creek overlooking the beach.

 

8: A date with Arnold | Rossnowlagh to Dunfanaghy

Where does it start? Rossnowlagh

Where does it end? Dunfanaghy

How long is it? 107 miles

 

Why is it great?

If you’ve done all the little twisties along the coast on the previous routes, you and your trusty machine may well be begging to get out of third gear, so now’s your chance, with a lovely fast and flowing road across high moors which calls in at two friendly villages and ends up in a deservedly popular hotel.

Isolated Donegal is often overlooked by tourists, leaving it to the happy few who fall in love with its wild beauty.

 

What do I need to know?

My favourite spot in Donegal is Ardara, where Nancy’s Bar is the watering hole of choice. Naturally, it’s owned by a woman called Margaret.

A major weaving and knitwear centre, the town’s a great place to pick up Aran sweaters or tweeds from Kennedy’s in the town or Molloy’s just outside, and a 10-minute ride takes you past tumbling Assaranca waterfall to the white sands of Maghera Strand for a paddle or a bracing dip if you’re brave enough.

In Glencolumbkille, the Folk Village is a cluster of thatched cottages which shows how life was in Ireland’s most isolated county until not that long ago.

 

Anything Else?

In Dunfanaghy, Arnold’s is a welcoming family-run three-star hotel with scrumptious nosh.

 

9: There the north is the south | Dunfanaghy to Londonderry

Where does it start? Dunfanaghy

Where does it end? Londonderry

How long is it?  98 miles

 

Why is it great?

This is your only chance to confuse your friends that you’ve been to the most northerly point in Ireland; and that it’s in the south. You see, Malin Head, that northernmost point, is in the Republic of Ireland, which locals call the South, as opposed to Northern Ireland, or the North.

Still confused? Don’t worry: if you’re not bothered with geography, just get to Londonderry and be more confused, since Protestants tend to call it Londonderry, and Catholics Derry. Just call it Derry, since most locals do.

Either way, the roads are empty apart from the occasional sheep, allowing you to enjoy the wild and lonely scenery of Ireland’s most rural county.

 

What do I need to know?

Derry is the oldest walled city in Europe, and the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement for Catholic equality which led to the 30 years of mayhem locals call the Troubles.

If you’d like to know more, the Tower Museum has two fascinating permanent exhibitions, one on the city history, including the siege which changed the course of European history, and the story of La Trinidad Valencera, one of the largest ships in the Spanish Armada. In 1588, it foundered in a storm off the Donegal coast, and was discovered nearly 400 years later by local divers.

 

Anything Else?

In Londonderry, stay at The Merchant’s House, a beautifully restored Georgian town house within walking distance of the city centre, with great communal breakfasts around a big table.

For dinner, eat at Browns in my view the best restaurant in Northern Ireland, but still with reasonable prices.

If you prefer pubs, Peadar O’Donnell’s, with three separate bars and live music every night, is always jumping.

 

10: A road fit for giants | The Antrim coast road

Where does it start? Londonderry

Where does it end? Belfast

How long is it? 124 miles

 

Why is it great?

What have a dead diplomat, Sir Winston Churchill and a cult TV series in common?

The glorious Antrim Coast Road, that’s what. I’ve done this countless times, but still love riding it or showing it to visitors as one of the great routes anywhere.

Leaving Derry, it’s a fast road to Bushmills village, home of the world’s oldest licensed distillery, with a licence granted in 1608, several tours daily and a shop.

Next stop is the world-famous Giant’s Causeway. The fairy story goes that these 37,000 basalt columns are the result of a huge subterranean explosion 60 million years ago, but locals know the cold scientific truth – that they’re the remnants of a causeway built by a Scottish giant so he could come over and fight local giant Finn McCool.

Thinking quickly, Finn’s wife tucked Finn up in a cot, and the Scottish giant thought: “If that’s the size of Finn’s baby, I’m out of here”, and fled back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway as he went.

After that it’s the clifftop ruins of Dunluce Castle, the kitchen of which fell into the sea in 1639, taking seven cooks with it.

At Carrick-a-Rede, walk a swaying rope bridge 80ft above the sea to an island, give yourself a pat on the back, then realise you have to walk back again.

In Ballycastle, have an ice cream in harbourside Maud’s, and try the local speciality dried seaweed, dulce (pronounced duls), then half a mile out of town, turn left for the winding road to Torr Head, and after six miles turn left on the Murlough Road for spectacular Murlough Bay.

You can see why former British diplomat Sir Roger Casement asked before he was executed for treason in 1916 to be buried here.

Cushendun, the next stop, was designed as a Cornish-style village by Clough Williams-Ellis, whose Portmeirion in Wales was the setting for The Prisoner, and in Carnlough, the cosy Londonderry Arms Hotel was once owned by Churchill.

 

What do I need to know?

Leave a full day for this ride if you can. It’s too good to rush.

At the Giant’s Causeway, the walk down to the stones is free, but parking and the visitor centre admission is a steep £11.50 per person.

Instead, park for free at the Causeway Hotel next door and spend the money on lunch.

 

Anything Else?

If you’re on a lazy schedule, have lunch or stay at the Bushmills Inn, with open turf fires, cosy nooks, exposed oak beams, gas-lit bar, secret library, heli-pad, private cinema and its very own whiskey blended by the distillery down the street.

If you’re running short of time, at Larne just take the fast A8 dual carriageway and motorway to Belfast rather than the scenic coast road I’ve suggested.

 

* Gaelic for a hundred thousand welcomes

 

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