The winding, medieval streets and gorgeous architecture of Ennis, County Clare’s main market town, are the southerly starting point of route 350, a bus service that navigates sleepy villages, historic landmarks, epic landscapes and some of the finest coastal scenery in Ireland.
Ennis is just 30 minutes by bus from Shannon airport and midway by rail from Galway to Limerick City – yet, in spite of all that connectivity, there are no early starts here, and that includes the 350. The town stretches and yawns awake sometime after 9am with the clanking of empty kegs to the rear of the pubs that line Abbey Street as far down as Ennis Friary. It had a literary nod as a location in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which brings a flurry of visitors for its book festival in early spring, but apart from that, Ennis ambles along at its own pace until late May. That’s when Fleadh Nua starts – a traditional Irish music event, hallmarked by the sound of uilleann pipes or a bodhrán filtering through every bar door and window.
The town has a scattering of breakfast cafes – such as the Market Bar and Restaurant on Merchant’s Square, which serves a full Irish for under €10. It’s the best way to idle away an hour waiting for the bus, which will coast along Clare’s coast as far as Galway City. Christy, the driver today, is a friendly smiling sort – he steers the bus from the station with the confidence of vast experience, which is a relief, because this isn’t a normal rural service – it moves at a smart pace along cliff-hugging narrow lanes and through knife-edge twists and turns.
We ride for 30 minutes skinny roads passing thick green pastures before the bus stops in Ennistymon, outside the simple, brightly painted Unglert’s Bakery, where owner Stephan has sold fresh bread and apple strudel for 40 years. Then Christy is back on the road to take a full 90-degree corner in the centre of Ennistymon that’s a challenge even for a compact car – he brings the village’s traffic to standstill for a moment, before crossing over a sliver of a bridge. To the right, cascades of water tumble past Falls Hotel, a former home of Caitlin Macnamara, author and wife of Dylan Thomas.
Just as Ennistymon recedes, the Atlantic Ocean appears on the horizon over the surf town of Lahinch. The bus swerves on to a layby – by the old golf course which is ranked fourth best in Ireland. Lahinch is the most popular beach town in County Clare, so the bus offers the opportunity to skip the parking fees and roam along the promenade or settle down for an hour on the golden sand, waiting for the next 350 to come along. Vaughan’s on The Prom (formerly O’Looney’s) is the place to watch the surfing from a safe distance – somewhere between the beach and the Cliffs of Moher is Aileen’s Wave, a serious surf spot with gargantuan breaks. I prefer the relative safety of the road – and at this point it’s worth mentioning that northbound passengers on the 350 should sit on the left-hand side of the bus for the best views.
The route passes through Liscannor – the home village of John P Holland, an inventor who designed the US navy’s first submarine – before climbing to 200 metres above the ocean, a sign that the Cliffs of Moher are nearby. This is where most passengers disembark. The interpretive centre, with its grassy domed roof, has an uncanny resemblance to Teletubbyland, but the operation works on an exemplary sustainable model, as well as offering views along miles and miles of County Clare coast and over to the Aran Islands. They are breathtaking on a clear day. If you stay on board, the bus will soon swoop around a corner just beyond the visitor centre and those same views come into panoramic focus as far as the tiny, touristy village of Doolin. There’s a regular ferry service to the Aran Islands (and lively pubs) here – or a chance to take a cruise beneath the Cliffs of Moher from the same vantage point as Harry Potter in the Half Blood Prince.
After a quick detour to Lisdoonvarna, which hosts what is said to be Europe’s largest matchmaking festival every September, the bus hugs the coast on one of Ireland’s most spectacular drives, along Black Head. The Burren Park’s silver terrain is on either side – mountainous to the right, smooth and creviced to the left – before it plunges into the bluest water imaginable. The setting softens at Fanore beach, before moving on to Ballyvaughan, which tempts a couple of passengers to disembark. The village has a good range of rooms and restaurants overlooking Galway Bay – and O’Loclainn’s Bar has an unsurpassed selection of whiskey brands stacked in its cramped interior.
Before leaving County Clare and the Burren Park, Christy takes an unexpected turn inland, passing landmarks such as the ruin of 13th-century Corcomroe Abbey and Oughtmama – a valley of crumbling medieval churches – then on to New Quay. The Flaggy Shore, near New Quay, is a secluded limestone and hoary sandy beach where the poet Seamus Heaney spent time and which he described in his poem Postscript. To relish the sublime ocean views, stop by Linnane’s Lobster Bar for fresh catch and wine, or draft beer on tap.
Over the border, in County Galway, the bus creates a minor calamity with traffic as it blocks the main street of Kinvarra to give passengers a chance to disembark. White sails billow in the harbour ahead – and perched on a bluff on the outskirts is Dunguaire Castle. It’s a small tower house where some of Ireland’s literary greats – Yeats, Synge and Shaw – conjured up a road map to revive and nurture the arts. It’s also the last stop before the bus trundles on to a more urban setting as it makes for Eyre Square in Galway City – with its Michelin-star restaurants, top-notch bars and bohemian lifestyle. But that’s an adventure for another day.