Why The Ardmore Cliff Walk Should Be On Your Southern Ireland Itinerary
I was SO excited to visit the tiny village of Ardmore at the end of my most recent Ireland roadtrip. But even if Ardmore didn’t rate a spot on your itinerary yet, if you’re spending time on the southern coast in or around County Waterford then you ABSOLUTELY need to do the Ardmore cliff walk.
I’m going to start here with a glimpse of the mind-blowingly good, just to whet your appetite…then take you on the journey that I went on.
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Located in County Waterford, the little village of Ardmore is nestled into the coast, and boasts some of the area’s most impressive religious history along with its gorgeous coastal views. St. Declan, who pre-dates the famous St. Patrick for bringing Christianity to Ireland, founded the monastery at Ardmore in the early 5th century.
The cliff walk is studded with ancient Declan-based spots, which add a nice historic touch to the sweeping views and crashing waves. I’ll be honest, I was here more for the views and waves, but the history adds a nice touch.
But why was I PERSONALLY so stoked to visit Ardmore? I’ll talk about this much more in my deeper Ardmore post, but when I was a teenager, the first Nora Roberts romance books I read were set here in Ardmore (where she lived while writing them).
I absolutely fell in love with the Gallagher trilogy, and it was one of the first things that really stoked my travel wanderlust. And the cliff walk and round tower really factor into that heavily.
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Tips for planning your cliff walk in Ardmore
Here are a few logistics and tips for planning your visit…
- There are like 2-3 parking spots at the top of the hill, but it would be extremely lucky to get one of them (because hotel guests also take them). So your best bet on parking is to park in the village or at Ardmore Beach and walk up to the Cliff House Hotel.
- The walk is looped and it starts and finishes at the popular Cliff House Hotel. It is well marked by yellow arrows on a brown background. You can also choose not to do the full loop, and break off once you get into the village (vs. climbing the hill back up to the Cliff House Hotel…though the views are worth it).
- The cliff walk is about 4km, and on average probably takes an hour if you’re a semi-brisk walker, and don’t stop to take tons of photos. This would be beautiful either at sunrise or sunset!
- The walk is an easy one, with little-to-no elevation change, with the exception of going down into the village and then (if you desire) back up to the Cliff House Hotel). It’s mostly a gravel path, with a few stairs as well. I don’t know that I’d consider it handicap-accessible but am not an expert on that.
- There are fences through parts of the walk, but overall if you’re bringing young children you need to be very vigilant as the walk is on the edge of the cliff and many parts do not have guardrails.
- Wear comfortable shoes and appropriate clothing…the path is quite exposed so feels windier and chillier when the weather is inclement, and very hot when it’s sunny (I recommend sunscreen, here are my faves).
When to visit: The cliff walk would be amazing any time of year, but especially spring, summer, and fall. Late July is the festival around St. Declan, so will likely be nuts (and I’d avoid). Summer is peak tourist season overall, so I’d go early in the day (or around sunset, which may still be busy but totally worth it). I was there in mid-May 2022 and it wasn’t crowded at all (a little before peak season starts).
Where to stay in Ardmore: There are a few great choices here, but there’s only ONE choice in my mind—the (AMAZING) Cliff House Hotel (you can see reviews on TripAdvisor as well). It’s definitely a splurge, but completely worth it. Here’s my detailed review!
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As I mentioned above, I had pictured Ardmore in my head for a couple decades and was so excited to visit. Visions of emerald green cliffs and azure waters danced in my head…and then THIS was what the entire day looked like on the radar.
It was the only rainy day I had the whole trip (and was the last day of my trip, so I couldn’t just shift my itinerary). I was so bummed! But once I got checked into the (AMAZING) Cliff House Hotel, I decided that I wasn’t going to let the rain stop me! I bundled up and headed out into the rain.
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I’ll freely admit that I’ve gone a little overboard on photos…one, because it was beautiful and it was hard to choose the best pics. But two…well, I actually did the cliff walk twice fully back-to-back. And you’ll see why…
How to do the Ardmore cliff walk
I’ll show you how this all unfolded for me chronologically, so this first batch is full of rain-soaked, windy, gloomy sea cliff ambiance. I’ve included historical context and route notes where possible as well.
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Declan’s Well and Hermitage
Right as you leave the hotel on the path, the first thing you run into is what’s called Declan’s Hermitage, but includes both his well and church.
The well (marked by those two large openings and the crosses below) served as his baptistery in the early 400s CE.
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If you turn around and face the other direction, you’ll see the remains of St. Declan’s Church (also called Temple Dysert). All that really remains is the west gable and portion of the south side wall with doorway. The ruins here have parts dating back to multiple eras, including the 400s and some as late as the 14th century.
The church was built on the site of the little cell that Declan built for himself in his old age to escape the hordes of pilgrims flocking to Ardmore. Declan: an O.G. introvert 🙂
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Ardmore Head, Ram Head, & the Samson shipwreck
As you continue on the coast walk path and head around to the right, you’ll begin to really appreciate the steep drops to the rocks and waves below. Once you round Ardmore Head, you’ll see the shipwreck jutting out of the sea.
There are actually multiple shipwrecks off the coast of Ardmore (including one from 1917 that was sunk by a German U-boat), but what you can SEE here is the crane ship Samson. Rather than ancient history, this occurred in the 1980s, and while not particularly pretty, it’s a good landmark to go from.
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The watch towers
The path continues on around Ram Head (where the shipwreck is), and as you come closer you’ll notice a couple different styles of watch tower. The first below dates from WWII, a look-out post built for observing all ships and aircraft that passed Ardmore.
The one in the second pic below pre-dates it by about 140 years, and was built during the Napoleonic wars as an early warning system if the French tried to invade Ireland.
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The rain kept coming down and I got gusts of wind that my umbrella struggled to deal with, but overall the rain was coming *down* versus sideways, and I’ll consider that a win. (Side note, I basically lived in this travel wardrobe combo of cute raincoat, scarf, and earrings the entire trip)
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Now we’re getting into a really great section for flora and fauna, in addition to some of the best views. I don’t know that this has a specific name, but I realized that all the white spots on the cliff face below in this deep “gash” are sea bird nests.
I spent some time just observing them flying around and resting as the wind currents rose and dropped, and of course their incessant squawks. You start to see more lush plant life at this point as well, particularly wildflowers.
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Fr O’Donnell’s Well
It’s not known for sure who, or when, the namesake “Fr O’Donnell” was (Father? Friar? Rumor has he was a silenced, de-frocked priest). Local legend has that at the very spot where he is said to have come to pray regularly, a spring appeared. The same waters today trickle gently down the cliff face and into the sea.
The stone edifice over the spring was built in the 1920s by a man who claimed the spring had miraculous healing powers, and opinions vary on whether it’s picturesque or ugly (I’m in the former camp).
In particular, the view from the other side of the well back toward where you just came from is AMAZING. I have a blue-sky photo later on that really shows this.
At this point, the path cuts away from the coast and heads back toward the village. This small stretch doesn’t have any special landmarks, but you can see the round tower in the distance…that’s where we’re headed next!
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St. Declan’s Round Tower & Cathedral
This is one of the iconic Ardmore sights that I was so excited to finally glimpse, as it is a frequent scene in those Nora Roberts books. While I’d pictured it as a bit more remote (and didn’t realize it had a church and cemetery connected), the dramatic impact of the tower definitely lived up to my expectations.
The tower is considered to date to the 12th century, but could be as old as the 10th century. At 97 feet high, it juts proudly over the town and is visible from pretty much everywhere around. It did see military action in the 1600s, during the English Civil War.
In a far corner of the plot stand the ruins of St. Declan’s Cathedral (from the 13th century) and an oratory from the 8th century. Make sure to do a full walk around the cathedral’s outer walls, which feature some beautiful stone carvings taken from an earlier 9th-century edifice.
Just wait til we get toward the end, because I have amazing blue-sky sunny pics of the tower and views over the bay.
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From here you’ll continue downhill through the village, taking in the cute buildings and beautiful little details as you go, until you hit Ardmore Bay.
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Ardmore’s wide and mile-long beach is beautiful, and I wish I’d had more time on my visit to explore it. Here’s where things got interesting for me. The rain had let up around when I hit the round tower, which was a pleasant break, but it was still gloomy and overcast.
The next 3 photos were taken within 2 minutes of each other…I hit the bay with stone-gray cloudy skies, then it was like a literal switch was flipped. All of the sudden it was brilliant blue skies and sunny. I mean, WUT.
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St. Declan’s Stone
Shucking my (now oppressively-hot) raincoat, I continued back up the hill to the Cliff House Hotel to complete the loop. Soaking in the rays of sun, I happened to notice the sign for St. Declan’s Stone, since the tide was out.
The boulder is supported on two small rocks, and of course, has a legend behind it.
“The legend has it that Declan received a golden bell from Heaven while he was celebrating a Mass. He wanted to bring the bell along with him to Ireland, but he left it behind when he sailed from Wales. The bell was very precious for him and he prayed that it would be safe. His prayers were answered and a boulder carrying his bell appeared and floated on the waves before his boat up to the shore in Ireland. Declan promised to build a monastery wherever the bell would have landed, so the boulder stopped on the shore of this bay and Declan founded his church on the heights of this area, the Great Height, Aird Mhór.” (source)
SOOOOO…I waffled for a minute, but decided that I would kick myself later if I didn’t do the cliff walk again to get photos with the sunny blue skies. Having already done a lot of walking prior to arriving in Ardmore (it ended up being a 25,000+ step day!), my tired feet and legs protested.
So I bypassed the hotel entrance and hit the path once more.
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Ardmore Cliff Walk…”Take 2″
I won’t go into all the history of the landmarks again, so this part is a bit more “photo essay”, but I just couldn’t resist showing you how gorgeous the walk is in the sunlight.
As you round Ram Head, these photos give a good feeling for how closely to the edge of the cliffs the path clings.
I personally love that, but I suppose it could make some folks a bit nervous. I never felt true dangerous parts of the path, though, like I have while hiking other parts of Ireland. And of course they’ve added some fencing in some parts (which takes away from the ambiance a bit, but I get why).
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A contrast in how the Samson shipwreck looks in the sun versus in the gloomy rain.
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As you round Ardmore Head and look back from Fr O’Donnell’s well, this is one of my favorite views…just STUNNING, dramatic blues and greens, crashing white-capped waves, and I love that pop of yellow!
Again, I think the view back from Fr O’Donnell’s Well is one of the best photo angles on the cliff walk (and you see one of the watch towers in the distance).
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These brown and yellow markers appear every so often along the cliff walk, but just know that in general it would be extremely hard to lose your way…the path is very clear and there aren’t options to veer off.
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On a sunny day with blue skies and just enough clouds for some drama, you absolutely can’t beat this view of St. Declan’s Round Tower, looking out toward the bay.
BOOM. Favorite. Now *this* is the Ardmore I’d pictured in my mind since I was a teenager.
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I can’t believe that the Ardmore cliff walk is flying under the radar, but it really is…the only reason I knew about it despite my detailed pre-trip research was because of those Nora Roberts books. And the walk itself was WAY better than the small stroll I’d pictured in my head. Trust me, this needs to be on your southern Ireland itinerary!
How long is the Ardmore cliff walk? It’s a loop of about 4km, and on average probably takes an hour if you’re a semi-brisk walker and don’t stop to take tons of photos.
Other easy, gorgeous “hikes with views” that you’ll love:
- Hiking The Hooker Valley Track On New Zealand’s South Island
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- Discovering A Secret Scottish Castle Ruin On A Sea Cliff
- Fairytale Waterfalls In Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park
- Hiking Yant Flat & “Candy Cliffs” At Sunset: A Must In St. George, Utah
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