The Cliffs of Moher. The very name conjures up images of mythical, magical places – the Elysian Fields, the Island of Avalon, the Garden of the Hesperides, the Wilds of New Jersey. But while the cliffs are not mythical – they are very much real – they are rather magical in a slightly-overrun-by-tour bus-y sort of way.
Stretching for about 8 kilometers along the coast of County Clare, the cliffs rise at their highest point to 214 meters (702 feet) above the pounding surf below, where in recent years surfers have flocked to be sling-shot into the Aill na Searrach break (aka Aileen’s) by jet skis, then skipping out before the 10-meter (35 foot) waves detonate in explosions of spray on the cliff face. Not a spot for neophytic surfers, it would seem.
Access to the cliffs is on R478, about equidistant from the villages of Liscannor and Doolin, each a 15-minute drive. Tickets are a very reasonable 6€ (free for kids under 16), and give you access to the walking paths and the educational exhibitions. With the largesse of EU investment the area has been given a makeover, and my mother, who had visited the cliffs many years earlier, hardly recognized the place.
A state-of-the-art, eco-friendly visitors’ center, paved walkways, stone walls and railings have replaced the rambling cows and crumbling and perilous paths that once made the cliffs such a wild and Romantic place. No doubt it’s a lot safer now, but somehow slightly sanitized, like watching a lion tear chunks of flesh off a zebra carcass from the climate-controlled comfort of a tour bus, or hearing the Rolling Stones rip through ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ as you pick up low-fat yogurt at the local supermarket. About a million people visit the cliffs annually, so throngs of tourists just like you will be marveling at the natural wonders and picking their way past fiddle-bearing buskers and gray-haired New Age hippies hawking crystals and Celtic crosses and other mystical gewgaws.
All of that makes it sound like I didn’t like the place; in fact, I liked it very much. I’ve certainly nothing against interpretive visitors’ centers and safety railings, particularly when you’re with the kids. I think protecting the fragile flora from stomping feet, and the nesting birds – gulls, kittiwakes, puffins, gannets, fulmars – from undue disturbance is laudable and important. What I do have is an aversion to crowds. But one astounding evening I found the answer.
We were staying at a little B&B outside of Doolin, admiring what looked to be the beginning of a spectacular sunset from the front lawn. A white mare and her foal grazed and frolicked in a pasture below us, the Aran Islands lumped darkly offshore, and the mountains of Galway turned evening-purple across the bay.
The proprietress of the inn joined us, and remarked that a sunset like that was a very rare thing. I knew what I had to do. Grabbing my camera I hopped in the car, and drove furiously back to the cliffs. And when I say furiously, I mean slowly and carefully but in an emotionally furious state, since the twisting hedgerow-hemmed road required frustratingly fastidious driving.
Now, the cliffs officially close at 7:30 at that time of year. Sunset was around 9:45, so as I furiously carefully drove there I didn’t know what to expect. The empty car park I considered a bad sign. But here’s the thing. Although the ticket offices and visitors’ center close, there is no gate, no guard; as far as I could tell, visitors could access the cliffs at any time, day or night.
There were four other people at the Cliffs of Moher, and two of them left just after I arrived. In essence, I had the place to myself. Here was one of the most stunning sunsets I’d ever seen, at a place that defines superlative, and no one else was there. As I set up my tripod and snapped away, I knew that I had discovered the secret to the cliffs. You just go in the evening when everyone else has gone, or early in the morning before they arrive. Now I know that’s true of many tourist destinations, but the contrast here was remarkable. It was a place transformed. And I loved it.
Where to Stay:
The cliffs are not really a long-term destination in themselves, and are most often seen as part of a larger tour itinerary or as a stop-off on the way to somewhere else. We spent two nights in the area to break up the journey from the Beara Peninsula in the south-west to Connemara in the north. There are a number of places to stay in nearby Doolin, which is a nice little village to use as a base for visiting the cliffs.
We stayed at the Trildoon House on the outskirts of Doolin, and can’t recommend it highly enough. The rooms are elegantly furnished without the fussy doily-laden Beatrix Potterian fiddle-dee-dee that some B&Bs feel obliged to twee up their rooms with. Breakfasts were simply outstanding, and it was a pleasure to sit around the peat fire in the evenings chatting with Lorraine Fitzpatrick, who runs the place with her husband Pat. (Patrick Fitzpatrick? Or is Pat a nickname derived from Fitzpatrick? I never found out.) Anyway, it was a marvelous place with some stunning sea views, and very highly recommended. (And, by the way, we got another amazing sunset while we were there. Luck o’ the Irish, I suppose.)
Where to Eat:
McGann’s Pub in Doolin is a legendary local institution, which offers up live music every night during the summer. It’s a bustling, boisterous place, so no one will notice or care if your kids are up and about, and the traditional pub food is very nicely done. Highly recommended.
Housed in a traditional stone cottage is Stonecutter’s Kitchen, a fabulous place to take the kids. There are play areas and toys both inside and out, as well as a kids’ menu that doesn’t make you choose from a list of unhealthy options. Their Beef and Guinness Stew is outstanding. Very highly recommended.
For something a bit more upscale, try the Roadford House Restaurant. It’s more expensive than some of the other options, but then this isn’t pub food – it’s innovative and interesting fine dining. The food was phenomenal, and I’m a big proponent of exposing your kids to all types of food and dining experiences. This was an exceptional one. Very highly recommended.
If you’re passing anywhere near this part of the country, take the time to visit the Cliffs of Moher. It really is a remarkable place, and if you get a chance, spend some time in Doolin. The village and the cliffs are conveniently set up for tourism, but nowhere do you see kitschy tea houses named Moher Tea Anyone? or places called Cliff’s Pub or clothing shoppes called The Cliffs of Mohair. This is a real place with real people who happen to have made their local natural wonder a really safe and easy place to visit. With great lodging, dining, and pub options, you can’t really go wrong. Especially if you go at sunset.