County Sligo’s serrated coastline is pummelled by big North Atlantic waves. Tucked into the north-west of Ireland, the water here is as soothing as it is menacing. “There’s a raw wildness about this place. It’s confronting, but I find it a very inspiring place to be,” says Melanie White, founder of Rebelle Surf, a company offering surf lessons and retreats in the seaside village of Strandhill. “It’s nature’s energy,” she adds.
In this windswept pocket of the 1,550-mile Wild Atlantic Way driving route, it’s possible to go from transcendent limestone peaks to inky loughs, emerald-green forests and honey-gold beaches all in one day. While hikers make the pilgrimage up Knocknarea – a flat-topped summit shadowing Strandhill – surfers limber onto boards in the frigid waters below.
Coarse heather carpets Knocknarea’s summit and there’s a trail encircling a neolithic burial site. According to legend, this rocky cairn conceals Maeve, a warrior queen of Connacht, in an upright tomb. On a clear day, the views from the top are cinematic, reaching County Donegal in the north and the Ox Mountains in the south-west, while the horizon is a shimmering haze of ocean and pewter skies.
A yomp to the top of Knocknarea takes around one hour, best fuelled with a flat white from Shells Cafe and a rewarding pint at The Strand, both in buzzy Strandhill.
However, the best way to end a hike is with a steaming soak at Voya Seaweed Baths on Strandhill’s seafront (€45 for 50 minutes). The seaweed’s slimy goodness, harvested straight from the ocean, is reputed to help release toxins from the body.
Ireland lures surfers from around the world to ride some of Europe’s wildest waves. The more experienced are drawn to winter’s monster breakers, while softer swells, milder sea temperatures and warmer air tends to attract beginners between April and September.
In 2023, the National Surf Centre opened in Strandhill, cementing County Sligo’s status as a big-wave surf destination. It offers lessons, changing and shower facilities and a surf shop.
It’s not just Strandhill that serves eye-popping waves, though. In 2020, Irish surfer Conor Maguire caught a 60-ft wave in Mullaghmore, a fishing village 30 minutes up the coast. Mullaghmore’s sweeping, soft beach is one of Ireland’s best for swimming and surfing, while kayaking and boat trips depart from the pretty harbour.
Sligo Kayak Tours run trips in Mullaghmore’s sheltered bay (€50 – about £43 – for three hours), with paddlers treated to views of the rugged Dartry Mountains and Classiebawn, a 19th-century castle perched on the edge of Mullaghmore that was once the summer home of Lord Mountbatten.
Mullaghmore-based Offshore Watersports offers sea-life safaris on MV Kiwi Girl, with whale and dolphin sightings becoming more common off Sligo during summer and autumn. Among the cetaceans and sea birds, minke and humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoise and northern gannets have been spotted.
Ireland’s Table Mountain
Standing proud between Sligo Town and Mullaghmore, Benbulben forms part of the Dartry Mountain Range. This blockbuster limestone peak – Ireland’s answer to Cape Town’s Table Mountain – reaches 1,726ft with a pancake-flat summit and sharp green slopes etched with deep, glacial scars.
Access to Benbulben is near Drumcliffe village, the resting place of Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Literary pilgrims can visit his modest grave at Drumcliffe Church. Yeats often retreated to this west-coast spot, writing many verses about County Sligo, including “Under Ben Bulben”. The lines “Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death/ Horseman, pass by!” are engraved on his gravestone.
An easy, all-weather hike is the three-and-a-half mile Benbulben Loop Trail, which takes around 90 minutes through a forest of ash, beech, mountain ash and sycamore. During summer, paths are festooned with yellow gorse and blackberry brambles. Hike to a higher altitude and you might spot fringed sandwort, a white-petalled wildflower only found on the slopes of the Dartry Mountains. The full trek up and down Benbulben takes upwards of two-and-a-half hours. Take your time and pack a picnic for when you reach the top.
After a hardy swim, hike or kayak session, watch the sun go down at Rosses Point, another gleaming beach with a golf course and a Hot Box for sea-view sauna sessions (from £11). Fish & Bean is a wonderful seafood restaurant at Rosses Point Yacht Club, serving Coney Island Natural Oysters fresh from Sligo Bay, buttery Rosses Point lobster and sublime views of Benbulben.
How to get there and around
Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly to Ireland West Airport in Knock, a 50-minute drive from Sligo.
Bus Eireann operates an hourly coach service from Ireland West Airport to Sligo bus station, which takes roughly one hour.
Where to stay
The Driftwood in Rosses Point has sea view rooms from €155. In Sligo Town,
The Glass House in Sligo Town overlooks the Garavogue River with doubles from €119 B&B.