Comprising all of Galway to the west of the city, Connemara (Web: www.connemara-tourism.org ) is a ravishingly diverse tract of land. Cut off from the rest of the county by the sweep of Lough Corrib, the lie of the land at first looks simple, with two statuesque mountain ranges, the Maam Turks (Mám Tuirc, the "boar pass") and the Twelve Bens (or sometimes Twelve Pins; Na Beanna Beola, the "Peaks of Beola", a mythical giant), bordered by the deep fjord of Killary Harbour to the north. The coast, however, is full of jinks and tricks, a maze of little islands, winding roads, bogs and hills, where it can be hard to tell small loughs from sea inlets. All around the littoral are quiet, white-sand beaches that are great for swimming.
Connemara's harsh land, however, has always been thinly populated and isolated, though this has ensured the persistence of rural traditions and of the Irish language. It contains the country's largest Gaeltacht, stretching as far west as Roundstone, and Raidió na Gaeltachta and TG4, the Irish-speaking radio and TV stations, are broadcast from here. Four-week Irish-language courses for adults, supplemented by cultural activities and singing and dancing classes, are held each summer by NUI Galway at Árus Mháirtín Uí Chadhain (Tel:091/595101, Web: www.nuig.ie ) in An Cheathrú Rua (Carraroe).
The major route through the area is the N59 from Galway, which cuts across to Clifden before skirting the Twelve Bens on its way to Westport, but there are plenty of scenic side-roads through the mountains and around the frilly coastline. It's hard to miss out Clifden on your travels, the likeable and lively main town, poised dramatically between steep hills and the harbour. Other likely bases are the pretty fishing village of Roundstone and Oughterard, an angler's delight, not far out of Galway city on the lush banks of Lough Corrib. Oughterard has a good selection of visitor attractions, but the only really compelling historic sight in west Connemara is Kylemore Abbey and Gardens. Just off shore near here, you can sample easy-going island life on Inishbofin.
Bus Éireann services from Galway run along the coast via Spiddal to Carraroe, and around the N59 via Oughterard, Clifden and Letterfrack to Leenane (with a summer extension on to Westport), branching off to Roundstone, Cleggan, the Renvyle Peninsula, between Leenane and Maam Cross, and between Cong and Clifden, via Leenane, in summer. As we were going to press, a long-running private bus company in Connemara, Micheal Nee Coaches, was bought by major operator, Citylink (Tel:1890 280808, Web: www.citylink.ie ). Their main route from Galway via the N59 to Clifden, Letterfrack and Cleggan for the ferry to Inishbofin will continue, but it's unclear what will happen to the summertime services between Clifden and Cashel via Ballynahinch, and between Clifden and Kylemore Abbey via Letterfrack.
Connemara offers a fantastic variety of walking, including mountains over 700 metres – though remember the nearest rescue team is in Galway. A good map and guidebook for serious walkers is The Mountains of Connemara, with a 1:50,000 scale map derived from aerial photography and fieldwork by Tim Robinson, and an excellent guide to eighteen walks of varying length and difficulty by Joss Lynam. It's available by post from the publishers – Folding Landscapes of Roundstone, Connemara, Co. Galway – or from bookshops and tourist offices. The Ordnance Survey has recently resurveyed the area, producing their own maps at 1:50,000.
A good introduction to the Maam Turks, with fantastic views of the Twelve Bens across Lough Inagh, would be the ascent of Cnoc na hUilleann and Binn Bhriocáin from the Inagh Valley back road north of Recess, on a three- to four-hour circuit described in Mountains of Connemara (part of it on the Western Way). Also described are the classic Twelve Bens walk, the seven-hour Gleann Chóchan Horseshoe, starting from the Ben Lettery youth hostel and bagging six of the peaks; and the tough, high-level Maam Turks Walk, which traverses the range from north of Maam Cross to Leenane – it can be done in one very long day, but most people will want to do it in two, staying down in the Inagh valley, either at the very welcoming and friendly, en-suite Lough Inagh Ranch (Tel:095/34716, email@example.com; Price: 60-90) or at Lough Inagh Lodge (Tel:095/34706, Web: www.loughinaghlodgehotel.ie ; closed mid-Dec to early March; Price: 200-250), a characterful country house, built as a fishing lodge in the nineteenth century.
Mountains of Connemara also covers the waymarked Western Way, which runs for 50km from Oughterard to Leenane. This varied, low-level trail starts as a pleasant, sometimes boggy walk beside Lough Corrib, before crossing over from the village of Maam into the dramatic Inagh valley, which runs between the Bens and the Turks. The walk can be done in two long days, with an overnight near Maam, where B&B is available at Leckavrea View House (Tel: & f094/954 8040; March– Nov; Price: 60-90), or in the Inagh valley (see above). There's also a new waymarked route, the Slí Chonamara, which runs mostly on roads for 250km with quite a few spur trails through the Gaeltacht (details from local tourist offices); the main path follows the coast round from Galway through Spiddal and Rosmuc to Recess, with plenty of accommodation options along the way.
Worthy short walks include the ascent of Errisbeg and other routes near Roundstone, the sky road from Clifden, the trails at Connemara National Park and the climb up Tully Hill.
Walking tours are organized from Clifden by Connemara Safari on the sky road (Tel:095/21071 or 1850 777200, Web: www.walkingconnemara.com ), which runs five- and seven-day walking and island-hopping trips.