The medieval winding streets and beautiful architecture of Ennis, County Clare’s main market town, are the southern departure point for Route 350, a bus service that runs through sleepy towns, historic monuments, epic scenery and some of the best coastal landscapes in Ireland.
Ennis is just 30 minutes by bus from Shannon Airport and halfway by train from Galway to Limerick City; yet for all that connectivity, there are no early departures here, and that includes the 350. The city spreads out and yawns awake soon after. 9am with the clang of empty barrels at the back of the pubs lining Abbey Street all the way to Ennis Friary. It had a literary nod as a location in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which draws a rush of visitors for its early spring book festival, but other than that, Ennis roams at her own pace until the end of May. That’s when Fleadh Nua begins, a traditional Irish music event, characterized by the sound of uilleann flutes or a bodhrán that filters through all the doors and windows of the bars.
The city has several breakfast cafes, such as the Market Bar and Restaurant in Merchant’s Square, which serves full Irish food for less than €10. It’s the best way to spend an hour waiting for the bus, which will travel along the coast from Clare to Galway city. Christy, today’s driver, is a friendly, smiling chap – he drives the bus from the station with the confidence of vast experience, which is a relief, because this is not a normal rural service, it moves at a smart pace at along a cliff. hugging narrow streets and through knife edge twists and turns.
We drive for 30 minutes on narrow lanes past thick green pastures before the bus stops in Ennistymon, outside the plain, brightly painted Unglert’s Bakery, where owner Stephan has been selling fresh bread and apple strudel for 40 years. Christy then gets back on the road to take a 90-degree turn in the center of Ennistymon, which is a challenge even for a compact car, stopping town traffic for a moment, before crossing a chunk of bridge. To the right, cascading water past the Falls Hotel, a former home of Caitlin Macnamara, author and wife of Dylan Thomas.
Just as Ennistymon backs away, the Atlantic Ocean appears on the horizon above the surf town of Lahinch. The bus diverts to a rest area, next to the old golf course, which is ranked as the fourth best in Ireland. Lahinch is County Clare’s most popular seaside town, so the bus offers the opportunity to avoid parking fees and cruise the seafront or lounge for an hour on the golden sand, waiting for the next 350 to arrive. Vaughan’s on The Prom (formerly O’Looney’s) is the place to watch the surf from a safe distance: somewhere between the beach and the Cliffs of Moher is Aileen’s Wave, a serious surf spot with gigantic waves. 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 side of the bus for the best views.
The route passes through Liscannor, the hometown of John P. Holland, an inventor who designed the US Navy’s first submarine, before ascending 200 meters above the ocean, a sign that the Cliffs of Moher they are close. This is where most passengers disembark. The interpretive centre, with its grassy domed roof, bears an uncanny resemblance to Teletubbyland, but the operation operates on an exemplary sustainable model, as well as offering views along miles and miles of the County Clare coastline and up to the Aran Islands. They are awesome on a clear day. If you stay on board, the bus will soon turn a corner past the visitor center and those same views will pan to the small tourist town of Doolin. There’s a regular ferry service to the Aran Islands (and lively pubs) here, or the chance to take a cruise below the Cliffs of Moher from the same vantage point as Harry Potter in Half-Blood Prince.
After a quick detour to Lisdoonvarna, which hosts what is said to be Europe’s biggest matchmaking festival every September, the bus follows the coastline on one of Ireland’s most spectacular drives, along the Black Head. The silvery terrain of Burren Park is on either side, hilly to the right, smooth and cracked to the left, before plunging into the bluest water imaginable. The scene softens at Fanore Beach, before moving on to Ballyvaughan, who beckons a couple of passengers to disembark. The town has a good range of rooms and restaurants overlooking Galway Bay, and O’Loclainn’s Bar has an unrivaled selection of whiskey brands stacked in its small interior.
Before leaving County Clare and the Burren Park, Christy takes an unexpected turn inland, passing landmarks such as the ruins of 13th-century Corcomroe Abbey and Oughhtmama, a valley of ruined medieval churches, and then on to Newquay. Flaggy Shore, near New Quay, is an isolated limestone and gray sand beach where the poet Seamus Heaney spent time and which he described in his Postscript poem. To savor sublime ocean views, stop by Linnane’s Lobster Bar for fresh fish and wine or draft beer.
Across the border, in County Galway, the bus creates a minor traffic calamity by blocking the main road of Kinvarra to give passengers a chance to disembark. White sails billow in the harbor ahead, and high on a cliff just outside is Dunguaire Castle. It is a small tower house where some of Ireland’s great literati, Yeats, Synge and Shaw, conjured up a roadmap to revive and nurture the arts. It’s also the last stop before the bus moves into a more urban setting as it heads to Galway City’s Eyre Square, with its Michelin-starred restaurants, world-class bars and bohemian lifestyle. But that is an adventure for another day.
With a Leap Card, Bus Éireann tickets are 30% cheaper than single tickets. The first of five daily 350 services depart Ennis at 10:30am
Doubles at The Old Ground, Ennis, from €107 (accommodation only) or €125 bed and breakfast; doubles at Monks, Ballyvaughan Village from €150 B&B; doubles at The Galmont, Galway, €160 accommodation only.