Thu. Aug 22nd, 2019

Chasing Waves on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

“Endless Summer”-style searching for perfect waves.When they arrived in Ireland, with its friendly locals and powerful, mostly empty waves, amid a landscape of stone walls and ruins, Mr. Naughton recalled, “there was a sense of disbelief,” an improbable feeling that perhaps of all places, on the often frigid island in the North Atlantic they had…

Chasing Waves on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

“Endless Summer”-style searching for perfect waves.

When they arrived in Ireland, with its friendly locals and powerful, mostly empty waves, amid a landscape of stone walls and ruins, Mr. Naughton recalled, “there was a sense of disbelief,” an improbable feeling that perhaps of all places, on the often frigid island in the North Atlantic they had found what they were looking for.

“I’ve had more great solo days in Ireland than anywhere else,” Mr. Naughton said when I called him to research an Irish surfing trip.

Over the years Ireland has gained a somewhat mythical reputation in the surf world as a wild and unspoiled place for exploration and crowd-free surf. But you can’t jump on a flight and count on great waves, which explains why, along with the cold water, it has remained off the mainstream surf-travel circuit.

The prime Irish surf season is September through November when the water is warmest (relatively speaking, that is; it peaks in the low 60s) and storm swells stream out of the North Atlantic from hurricanes and early nor’easters coming off the eastern coast of the United States. Winter brings the coldest, biggest waves, with water temperatures dipping below 50 degrees, but it’s also the season that attracts big-wave experts from all corners of the globe.

It’s a capricious island, going from sun splashed and sparkling to dark and menacing in minutes. So the plan for a two-week trip in June was intentionally flexible, driven by weather and waves. The general idea was to drive from south to north along the Western coastal route known as the Wild Atlantic Way in a camper van, looking for surf.

My wife Idoline and I picked up a 24-foot Mercedes-Benz van at Shannon Airport, about two thirds of the way down the west coast, and headed west in an unwelcoming drizzle.

An hour or so from Shannon we turned off the main road onto a narrow, winding strip of pavement through the mostly treeless coastal range. It appeared on the map as a short cut to a surf beach. It wasn’t. The road ran like a twisty runnel through fuchsia hedges and bright fields of buttercups and cow parsley, up to a pass among the 3,000-foot Slieve Mish mountains. The only other vehicle was a farmer’s van coming the opposite direction, a sheepdog riding shotgun.

20 miles

Donegal

Rossnowlagh

Bundoran

Rosslea Castle

Ballyshannon

Easkey

Sligo

Mayo

Ireland

Carna

Galway

Doolin

Cliffs of Moher

Lahinch

Spanish Point

Clare

Doonbeg

Shannon

Coumeenoole

Inch Strand

200 miles

Dingle

Kerry

Slea Head

BRITAIN

Detail area

FRANCE

We came to a stop, seeing as the road was barely wide enough for one of us. We faced off calmly, taking the measure of each other to see who would back up to some unseen wider section where passing would be possible. I smiled and waved. He smiled back. I backed up and he waved as he passed. This civil face-off, we would learn, is part of rural Irish driving.

Somewhere near the summit we got our first glimpse of Ireland’s beckoning magic. With our van nudging through flocks of sheep in the road, the rain let up and the sun turned the clouds from gray to gold. In the distance we could glimpse the placid Atlantic.

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CreditTherese Aherne for The New York Times

The Irish call their beaches strands, and by mid afternoon we’d made it to Inch Strand, in County Kerry, where we witnessed one typical Irish surf scene.

The end of the so-called Irish Troubles, the bloody conflict in Northern Ireland, and the advent of the Celtic Tiger, the great Irish economic boom, kicked off a surge of surfing around the turn of the century. Seaside beach holidays to the Irish coast began to include surf lessons, made easier and safer by soft foam surfboards and comfortable, warm wet suits. Big, well-organized surf schools, offering inexpensive (by American standards) lessons flourished.

Now, on any given day, hardy throngs of learners, most frequently in group classes, are braving the waves everywhere in Ireland. On this moody, cool day in June, with rain and sun in a full wrestling match, more than a dozen people splashed in the easy rollers at Inch when we pulled up, a scene we would see repeated at the long, wide beach at Rossnowlagh, in Donegal, and Lahinch, in Clare.

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CreditTherese Aherne for The New York Times

The waves at Inch were ideal for first-timers, but too gutless and small for our purposes. We moved on.

The colorful little commercial fishing and tourist town of Dingle is the surfing hub in the region. The Dingle peninsula itself has a jagged coastline of beaches and breaks within driving distance and with southern, western, and northern exposures to catch any swell in the Atlantic.

Dingle town was hopping the Tuesday night we rolled in, with traditional Irish music at seemingly every drinking and eating establishment. At Lord Baker’s, which claims to be the oldest eatery in town, going back to the late 1800s, the proprietor, John Moriarty, regarded our surfing adventure with amusement.

“You’re not confusing Ireland for Hawaii are you?”

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CreditTherese Aherne for The New York Times

“You might find something at Coumeenoole,” the owner of Dingle Surf, Ben Farr, told me when I stopped at his shop in the village for advice the next morning.

In a version of a story we’d hear often from expat surfers, Mr. Farr, a Briton, moved to Dingle 20 years ago. He came from his home in Cornwall to help his mother relocate. A few surfs later, he decided to stay. He took over a butcher shop and turned it into a surf shop, and eventually opened a surf school. Business is thriving.

Coumeenoole is on the Dingle loop, 30 road miles around this western tip of Europe. It doesn’t get the billing of the Ring of Kerry, but the Ring of Dingle has all the history and breathtaking scenery, some half a million sheep and rumors of excellent surf. The road winds past thousands of years of Irish history, abandoned cottages and farms, hillsides divided into a patchwork of stone walls, late-Stone Age and Iron-Age forts, defensive ramparts and ditches.

Optimism was high as we rounded Slea Head and Coumeenoole came in to view, a white-sand cove amid the cliffs. The sun was high, and the wind was light. Not a surfer in sight, only a handful of beachgoers. A tiny wave peeled across a sandbar. It wasn’t much, but we parked, unloaded, and stroked out into the water to catch a few. I could see how on a day with some real swell this place might deliver dream surf. But sparkly and pretty as it was, the waves were barely waist-high, and after a few rides we joined the nappers on the beach.

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CreditTherese Aherne for The New York Times

One of Ireland’s reputations in the surf world is for big, menacing waves, among the most terrifying surf on earth. Surfers from everywhere come to test themselves against the Irish monsters. “Slabs” as the locals call them — breaking so big, so hard and so fast that you have no choice but to ride inside the massive breaking “tubes,” the perilous interior pockets of a wave. “Slab hunters” make up a small, nervy subset in t

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