Portsalon, Co. Donegal
To look at Ballymastocker Bay (pictured) under blue skies, you’d swear the beach had been plucked from the Med or South East Asia. It’s simply that powerful (Observer readers once voted this the second most beautiful beach on earth, after Anse Victoria in the Seychelles). Fronting onto the seaside village of Portsalon, what you’ve basically got here is one breathtaking mile of golden sands. The views stretch to the Inishowen peninsula, and you can surf under Knockalla.
Details: Portsalon is a 35km drive from Letterkenny on the R246.
Inchydoney, Co. Cork
Thanks to the Inchydoney Island Lodge & Spa, the nearby hub of Clonakilty and the now-legendary Fianna Fail think-in of 2004, this must be the best-known beach in the southwest. Inchydoney remains completely unspoiled, however (unless, of course, you count the hotel and apartments). The island is connected to the mainland by two causeways, and its beach is a fantastic, sloping swathe of sand, perfect for walking, paddling, swimming and even tag rugby.
Details: Inchydoney is about 4km from Clonakilty, with public parking available.
Portmarnock, Co. Dublin
It can’t be an easy task, trying to win a Blue Flag on Dublin’s doorstep. To its credit, however, Fingal County Council has done just that, regaining the flag for Portmarnock nine years after it had last flown there. Though more famous for its golf links, Portmarnock is home to the well-known Velvet Strand, an aptly named expanse of smooth sand fronting onto the Irish Sea. It’s perfect for a stretch of the calves, or even some kite-surfing or land-boarding (as is Dollymount, Dublin’s other Blue Flag beach).
Details: Park at the South Beach, or take the 32B or the 42 bus to the North Beach.
Curracloe, Co. Wexford
Wexford boasts four Blue Flag beaches (and one marina), as befits the sunny southeast. Curracloe, close to where Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy landing scenes were filmed at Ballinesker, is perhaps the best known. Part of a continuous flank of sandy coast stretching from Raven Point to Blackwater, it’s about a kilometre from the village of Curracloe, but feels quite remote – thanks to the surrounding dunes and conservation habitats. It’s safe for bathing, attracts shore-fishermen, and you can take horse-rides along the beach from the nearby equestrian centre.
Details: Curracloe is about 10km north of Wexford town, on the R742.
Fanore, Co. Clare
Often passed over in favour of Doolin and Lahinch, Fanore must surely rank amongst Clare’s most beautiful beaches. Backing onto the Burren, and bookended with large, tufty dunes that are perfect for exploring and leaping off (don’t tell the coastal erosion people we told you), Fanore is covered in sand that assumes an almost terracotta glow in the evening light. The only blight is the tranche of mobile homes overlooking the strand – though they don’t really impinge on views from the beach itself.
Details: Fanore is about 15km along the R479 from Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare.
Barleycove, Co. Cork
Stashed between headlands on West Cork’s Mizen peninsula, Barleycove is one of the most remote Blue Flag beaches in the country, but worth every inch of the journey. It’s a model Irish dune system, with fine, yellow sand backing onto tall dunes topped with whispering mops of grass (watch out for the floating pontoon bridge designed to manage visitor access). The area also boasts a lagoon, marsh and tidal stream, all equipped with their own habitats in a special area of conservation.
Details: From Toormore, follow the signs for Goleen and Barleycove along the R591.
Derrynane, Co. Kerry
Two miles from Caherdaniel along the Ring of Kerry, Derrynane is always there or thereabouts on people’s best beach lists – and for good reason. This big, sandy stretch of Derrynane Bay is sandwiched between the Atlantic and the mountains of the Iveragh Peninsula, and a great spot for walking, swimming or goofing around with a bucket and spade (the back beach is the better surfing spot). Also nearby is Derrynane House, the onetime home of Daniel O’Connell.
Details: Take the N70 to Caherdaniel, following the signs towards Derrynane.
Keem, Co. Mayo
Five blue-flag beaches would be an impressive tally anywhere, let alone on a single island. But that’s Achill for you. From the 4km sweep of Trawmore Strand to the twin beaches at Dugort, this is pretty much an island paradise when it comes to sunbathing, wind-surfing and swimming. Keem Bay is one of the landscape features that inspired visiting artists like Paul Henry, Graham Greene and Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll. Add some of the highest cliffs on the continent, and you’re made.
Details: Keem is 10km west of Keel – follow the R319 to the end of the island.
Kilkee, Co. Clare
Kilkee is the gateway to Loop Head, Ireland’s newest European Destination of Excellence. On this gnarly finger of a peninsula, you can spot dolphins, go deep-sea fishing, dive off the Kilkee reef, take sailing lessons, or even put the seaweed to restorative use with a spot of thalassotherapy. Kilkee’s Blue Flag beach itself attracts a crowd when the weather is fine, but there’s always space for another towel, and the bay hosts swimming, diving and currach races too.
Details: From Ennis, take the N68 and N67 for 50km to Kilkee.
Bonmahon, Co. Waterford
Bonmahon is not the most beautiful beach in the southeast. It’s not even the most beautiful of Waterford’s two Blue Flag beaches (that honour goes to Clonlea). But the last time I visited, just a couple of weeks ago, it laid on one of the best hour’s surfing I’ve had (the waves were perfect peelers, sliding in at a height and pace just right for our little bunch of improvers). The beach itself is a grand sweep of sand overlooked by an old copper mining tower – a fitting crown for the Copper Coast.
Details: Take the N25 from Waterford, followed by the R675 to Bonmahon.
Trá an Dóilín, Co. Galway
Yes, the Atlantic can be chilly. But when you’re looking at clear waters off the shore of a coral beach in Connemara, even chilly seems inviting. The first thing you’ll notice here (apart from the pristine West of Ireland setting) is that the sand is actually not sand at all, but tiny pieces of coral that feel like insect bones in your hands. The beach is safe for swimming, and is touted as an excellent spot to bring snorkelers and novice divers (wetsuits a must). Appetites can be slayed at nearby Carraroe.
Details: Carraroe is about 40km west of Galway on the R336.