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Hate organized tours? Ireland has the answer

When the Wild Atlantic Way officially launches in March, 2014, it will be the world’s longest defined coastal drive.

Ireland is what my mother told me nice girls should never be … a tease.

I learned this lesson the hard way, by driving the appropriately named Wild Atlantic Way – 2,400 kilometres of coastal roads, stretching from Donegal in the north to Cork in the south, that lead to fishing villages only gently touched by time, remote islands and village pubs that make you want to settle in to write your novel.

When the Wild Atlantic Way is officially launched in March, 2014, it will be the world's longest defined coastal drive. Maps and guides will highlight the route, listing the important sites, activities, dining and accommodation choices and the history of each area. Aimed at the independent traveller, the route will provide everything necessary for a self-guided driving trip, including local secrets and hidden treasures. It will take visitors along the steep cliffs, past crashing surf and into idyllic fishing harbours.

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In five days, I sampled close to half of the coastal tour, loosely following the coastline from Shannon on the west to near Shanagarry on the south coast. I bypassed some of the more frequented parts, such as the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, exploring instead the quieter coastal villages, with short inland digressions for points of interest. It was an exhilarating and surprising journey, an easy drive along curving roads, elevated by unexpected culinary pleasures that I had not expected.

But it was also a rainy one, done during an unusually chilly May. The locals here describe the weather as "soft:" few heavy downpours, but plenty of dewy fogs, wind and cloudy skies.

It is deceptively unpredictable. Brilliant sunshine can replace dark rain clouds in minutes, only to disappear almost as quickly.

That's where the tease comes in. Ireland pulls you to her comfortable bosom one moment, and then, just as you are puckering up, she freezes you out.

Take Valentia Island for example, one of my first stops. This remote island off the southwest coast of Kerry is home to a slate quarry whose stone helped to build prominent buildings such as the British House of Commons. Its main village, Knightstown, is a tidy clutch of whitewashed cottages, with a few businesses and fishing boats clustered around the port.

One minute I'm tucked into a snug in the Royal Valentia Hotel spooning seafood chowder and listening to Muiris O'Donahue, a local historian, tell me the story of the transatlantic telegraph cable, from its early missteps to the first transmission – sent from right here in Knightstown. The air is thick and warm, and Muiris, like many of the Irish, can spin a great story.

"The cable changed the world, Barbara, truly," he tells me, "and it was here in this hotel that most of the principle actors in the story planned the whole enterprise."

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This moment is, as the Irish might say, "lovely."

But next, Muiris drives me along the coast to the site where an intrepid anthropologist stumbled upon what may be the oldest imprints ever discovered: tetrapod tracks that date from 350 million to 370 million years ago. As I climb down to the slick rocks where the prints are preserved, the wind is so fierce I fear I will lose my hair. Waves are crashing over the rocks. My lips are salty and blue. Not lovely.

Then he takes me to the top of Geokaun, the highest point on the island and indeed, Muiris tells me, in all of County Kerry, at the edge of the Fogher Cliffs. I'm shivering wet and dreaming of a warm bath, when the clouds seem to evaporate, and there lie the Skellig Rocks, the Blasket Islands and the languorous curves of the Dingle Peninsula. Behind me, the McGuillycuddy's Reeks glisten in the wet light. I'm breathless, and this time not from the cold.

Ireland is toying with my emotions. But there's no point resisting. I'm caught.

The next curve in the coastline leads to the tip of the Mizen Peninsula, where I climb down the 99 steps and cross an arched bridge over tidal inlets to the signal station. There's a lookout here, where you can stand at the extreme edge of the rugged folded cliffs and view the ocean with nothing between you and North America but water. It's a bit like standing in the prow of a ship as the wind whips your hair and blows salt water in your eyes. The outcropping emphasizes the "island-ness" of Ireland, the raw beauty of its rocky coast, and the dangers that the Irish diaspora faced in embarking on ships for other, perhaps more hospitable, places. Mizen Head was the last view the departing passengers would have of home.

A short drive inland from this point on the coast lie the Lakes of Killarny, where I take a boat excursion to the Gap of Dunloe, a glaciated valley that creates a narrow pass in the mountains of the McGuillycuddy's Reeks. Cold winds blow the waves over the side of the open boat, and I emerge only in brief intervals from beneath a damp tarp to scan the water and grab a few photographs. Black Lake slipped past, with the ruins of a deserted island monastery, untouched shores and a big dark sky, but few signs of man – no advertising, no power lines, no houses.

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I don't know that I have ever been so cold. Scratch what I said earlier: I am ready to ditch my Irish affair on the spot.

The other passengers do not seem bothered. "But Barbara!" they say. "You're Canadian. You're immune to cold."

At the end of the lakes are "jaunting cars," pony carts that will take you through the Gap, or you can bike or walk the seven kilometres to the other end. My group calls a taxi, and a short time later we are squeezed tightly together around the hearth at Kate Kearney's Cottage, warming our bums with the fire and our bellies with Irish coffees. The smell of wet wool and warm whisky is seductively comforting. I could sit here for hours. Once again, things are looking up.

Every few kilometres of the drive along the coast turns up another reason to tarry. In Baltimore, a ferry takes me out to Sherkin Island, which boasts two cheerful pubs, the Jolly Roger and the Islander's Rest, and the ruins of a 15th-century Franciscan abbey that attracts painters and photographers.

Another ferry ride from Glengarriff in Bantry Bay takes me to Garnish Island, an island garden of subtropical delights. Rhododendrons, azaleas and bluebells are a blaze of colour – until the rain swoops in again. The ride back is chilly and I can't help but look miserable. The ferry attendant calls out – "It's not cold, Luv. You've just not had enough Murphy's!" – Murphy's, along with Beamish, being the beer of choice in this part of the country.

The next morning, in Skibbereen in West Cork, I am lured out for a run by early sunshine – and, I'll admit, by the hope that I will run into actor Jeremy Irons, who owns a neighbouring estate. Of course, the sun turns to rain and fog and Jeremy does not appear. But even in the grey light, the famous gardens of the Liss Ard Estate, where I'm staying, are green and lush. Standing in the centre of the James Turrell Irish Sky Garden, surrounded by mist, feels otherworldly.

That's when it hits me: I love the dark skies as much as the sunny ones. Everything seems more dramatic, somehow … a little dangerous.

And the truth is, it is always that girl – the tease – who gets all the dates.

I should never have listened to my mother.

IF YOU GO

Several airlines provide flights to Ireland, including US Airways, United, Air Canada and KLM. British Airways has frequent flights to Ireland via London. Both Air Canada Rouge and Aer Lingus will launch year-round direct service between Toronto and Dublin in spring 2014. From April to October, Air Transat flies direct from Toronto and Montreal. Car rentals are easily arranged with airport pickup.

What to do

The Wild Atlantic Way is a carefully planned driving route, with maps and guides that will take you to remote places of scenic beauty, and guide visitors to rare experiences – from celebrating the summer solstice at Feile Grianan Ailigh in Donegal, to biking across a blanket bog, to trekking across the sands on a Connemara Pony in Galway. Tourism Ireland is working on a series of driving routes for exploring the southwest coast, which will launch in 2014. For more information, visit failteireland.ie/wildatlanticway.

Where to stay

Park Hotel Kenmare: This grand Kenmare hotel, which dates back to 1897, was named Ireland's best hotel by both Condé Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure in 2012. After a damp day exploring the coast, a soak in the claw-footed tub is an ideal way to warm up. A swim in the heated lap pool is a close second. Rooms from $175 a person, including breakfast. parkkenmare.com

Liss Ard: This country estate hotel is just a few kilometres inland from Baltimore and an ideal overnight for exploring the small coastal towns. I stayed in the redesigned stables where the rooms look onto the garden. The main house on the 60-hectare property is a satisfying marriage of contemporary design and country house chic. Visiting the famous gardens and walking paths is free, but a tour of the James Turrell Irish Sky Garden Crater costs $7. Rooms from $126 a person. lissardestate.com

Ballymaloe Restaurant and Country House Hotel: This large and welcoming country house is set on a working farm, and the cuisine in its dining room is famous, inspired by Ireland's grand dame of cookery, Darina Allen. Her school is just down the road. Rooms from $126 a person, including breakfast. ballymaloe.ie

Where to eat

The Moorings: The menu at this restaurant/guesthouse in Portmagee is larded with local specialties, including pan-fried Valentia scallops, Cromane mussels and oysters and Cahirciveen smoked salmon. Sunday night often finds the adjacent Bridge Bar packed with locals, who sing, play their instruments, dance, drink and talk, long into the night. moorings.ie

The writer travelled with assistance from Tourism Ireland.

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