The secret coastal road trip that guarantees a taste of the real Ireland

copper coast ireland - Getty
copper coast ireland - Getty

The Copper Coast is a rugged and ravishing Irish destination that has somehow managed to stay under the radar. It offers rare, wild beauty, crystalline seas, sandy-blonde dunes and splendid coves. It’s one of Ireland’s best-kept secrets – and with good reason. Its rich Viking and Celtic heritage, geological wonders and Irish folklore aside: this spectacular stretch of dramatic, windswept coastline is pure Irish magic – without the masses.

Though small, the area is a mighty outdoor geological museum with over 460 million years of geological events, and the sensational coastal route can be extended to take in some lesser-known spots, including romantic historical ruins, misty mountains, folklore-steeped falls, deserted, golden beaches, glimmering green waters and characterful fishing villages peering out onto the untamed Atlantic.

The wild coastal route can also be combined with nearby stops at the formidable Hook Head lighthouse (hookheritage.ie) – the oldest operating lighthouse in the world, with the Dollar Bay’s little sandy sweep en route – and the mist-shrouded Comeragh Mountains. In Ireland’s ancient east, the Celts named mystical spots “thin places” – where two worlds meet and spirits walk freely – and this is surely one of them.

Head to Dublin

First things first: book your first night’s accommodation close to the airport – or Dublin Port, if you’re taking the car ferry. Design-savvy hybrid hotel Beckett Locke (lockeliving.com) is a stone’s throw from both and ticks all the boxes for an apartment stay with added luxuries, with two-bedroom suites ideal for groups or families. Once you’re settled, head to Locke’s restaurant The Belis or North 7th Coffee to fuel up for an afternoon exploring the Irish capital.

If you’ve done the tourist trail on previous visits, make for the Docklands area (also known as Silicon Docks, thanks to its reputation as a tech hub), nearby upmarket Ballsbridge, or affluent suburb Dalkey to kick start the coastal theme. Take the boat to Dalkey Island and wander the village as far as the celebrity enclave of Killiney, or walk the Dun Laoghaire, Dalkey and Killiney Hill Circular (13.5km) – a coastal route with sweeping views of Dublin Bay – then tuck into some gastropub fare at The Queens (thequeens.ie) before turning in.

Day one: History

Set off early and make the two-hour drive to Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city and gateway to the start of your Copper Coast journey, founded by the Vikings in AD914. Its prolific history makes it ripe for exploration: a museum pass or Freedom of Waterford ticket (£13; waterfordtreasures.com) includes an expert-guided walking tour and entrance to five museums in the impressive Viking Triangle quarter, including Reginald's Tower, Medieval Museum and Museum of Time. Wander past the colourful Georgian-fronted houses and sparkly wares of Waterford Crystal to Everett’s (everetts.ie) for lunch, where you’ll find innovative Irish food set in a dashing 15th-century wine vault.

copper coast ireland
copper coast ireland

After cycling or driving part of the Waterford Greenway (greenwaysireland.org), visit the Copper Coast UNESCO Global Geopark – named after the 19th-century copper mines in the area. The centre offers an education on its 460-million-year geology, while the incredible cliff-rimmed coastline dotted with tiny coves is worth the trip alone.

Later, head to 16th-century Waterford Castle (waterfordcastleresort.com) – set on a private island – where the short ferry ride makes for a particularly unique arrival. The small but perfectly formed castle is also a resort, meaning you can stop for afternoon tea in the dining room, where dainty finger sandwiches and patisserie, homemade scones with clotted cream and fine bone china are the order of the day.

Finally, travel back to the mainland and check into Faithlegg, where there’s a stellar spa, golf course and beautiful country views (double rooms from £183 with breakfast; 051 382000; faithlegg.com).

Day two: Beaches

Kick off the phenomenal coastal route at the picturesque fishing village of Dunmore East (discoverdunmore.com), a spectacular seaside spot speckled with traditional white-chalk thatched cottages, guaranteed to give a taste of the real Ireland. The beach is a manageable size for families and the Dunmore East Cliff Walk (10km) makes for a fascinating stroll atop the cliffs, with views out to the horizon – including stripey Hook Head lighthouse in the distance.

Stop for fish and chips in the harbour at East Pier (lovin.ie) before driving on to Tramore (tramore.ie), a once-faded seaside resort complete with amusement arcades that now has more of an upmarket, surfer vibe, with cafes to match. The fine caramel sands and clean waters are perfect for a paddle.

Take the afternoon to explore the less-visited coves along this route: a short drive will take you to Bunmahon, Stradbally Cove and Annestown – all small, secluded beaches hugging the route. Stradbally Cove in particular, with its sparkling waters, smooth sands and rocky outcrops, is a true tonic. On your way through the food-focused town of Dungarvan – characterised by its championing of the Irish larder and Dungarvan Farmers Market (dungarvantourism.com) – be sure to stock up on supplies, before heading back towards Dunmore for a DIY cook-up.

Stradbally Cove ireland - alamy
Stradbally Cove ireland - alamy

Stay in the luxurious, traditional Butterfly Cottage (sleeps eight; from £260 per night) beside The Strand Inn, just 20 metres from the beach, or book a classic room at the inn itself (double rooms from £123 per night with breakfast; 051 383174; thestrandinn.com).

Days three and four: Magic

Take a detour inland from Dunmore East to the Comeragh Mountains, Coumshingaun Lake and Mahon Falls, a 45-minute drive through lush greenery that’s steeped in Irish folklore and home to the fabled Magic Road. Turn off the engine on this tiny stretch and wait for the car to move – by itself (it’s actually caused by an optical illusion, but don’t let that spoil the thrill). After all the excitement, drive back to the coast towards Ardmore (ardmorewaterford.com), a seaside hideaway with an artsy feel that lends itself to lingering.

mahon falls - Alamy
mahon falls - Alamy

End your trip in style and spend your last night at The Cliff House Hotel (double rooms from £306 with breakfast; 024 87800; cliffhousehotel.ie), a five-star situated on a clifftop with breathtaking views of Ardmore and the ocean. If you’re still craving the great outdoors, take the Ardmore Cliff Walk, a 4km saunter with incredible seascapes, or indulge indoors with a dip in the pool, or an oceanside clay or seaweed bath at the Well by the Sea spa.

The next day, breakfast directly over the Atlantic after a wild swim at the hotel’s sleepy private beach, then set a course for Dublin.

If you’re still yearning for the song of the sea, drive back via the coast in Ring, a ‘Gaeltacht’, or Irish-speaking area. Have a moment of stillness at the pretty pebbled beach, with its iridescent blue waters, salty air and soundtrack of crashing waves, and you’ll be hard pushed not to feel a little magic in the air. The fairies would surely approve.

How to get there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly into Dublin and Cork. Irish Ferries (irishferries.com) has car ferry routes to Dublin and Rosslare from the UK. Hertz Ireland (hertz.ie) offers car hire at Dublin airport.

For more information, visit tourismireland.com; visitwaterford.com and discoverireland.ie

What are your favourite coastal road trips? Tell us in the comments section below