It is not unusual for motorists on Ireland's western coast to feel as if they've driven straight into a painting, bordered on one side by picture-perfect waves and on the other by fusing shades of green.
But that surreal spell is often broken by unexpected splotches of color, as drivers find blurs of blue, yellow or white whizzing by — atop cars carrying another common but somewhat anachronistic sight: surf boards.
Ireland may not be known for a beach bum culture or limitless sunshine, but its breathtaking coasts and world-class waves have made the island a star in the world of surfing and windsurfing. Pros from all over the globe travel to Ireland to take on its challenging swells, and the country has hosted more than its share of championships.
"Ireland's ideal for it, because we have so much coastline," said Easkey Britton, 21, a County Donegal native and surfing champion — who also happens to be named for one of Ireland's premier surfing spots, Easkey, in County Sligo. "There are some really challenging breaks for really experienced surfers, but there are also really great beaches for learning how to surf."
The damp, cold weather is another challenge for surfers. Even in summer, water temperatures in Ireland don't average much more than 60 degrees in July and August; in winter they are more like 50.
"Ireland, like many surfing destinations around the globe, should have some special pre-planning," said Alan Atkins, vice president of the International Surfing Association. He adds that April-May and September to November are the better seasons for surf, but if you're planning on visiting in the cold months of the year, make sure you have a full winter wetsuit — boots, gloves and hood. He recommends researching conditions at an Internet site like GlobalSurfers.com.
The sport certainly doesn't spring to mind when most people envision Ireland; the country is more likely equated with whitewashed stone walls, grazing sheep and lively pubs. Britton, Ireland's three-time national champion and current British Pro Tour champ, said she often gets funny looks when she turns up at international competitions with an Irish accent.
"When I travel, people still find it quite unusual to find that there's a big surf scene in Ireland," she said.
But for those aware of secret global surfing hotspots, more than a few can be found in Ireland, almost all of them along the western coast.
Bundoran, in County Donegal, lies in the island's rugged northwest and is the de facto epicenter of Ireland's surf scene. The town boasts a celebrated beach culture, offering multiple surf schools, yearly festivals anchored by surfing and establishments with names that seem transplanted from Bondi Beach or California — such as Turfnsurf Lodge.
Bundoran has hosted European Surfing Championships and the Quiksilver World Masters in 2001, and those high-profile events spurred Irish surfing's popularity not only with international surfers but with Irish people eager to learn, insiders say.
"We've gone from having only a handful of surf shops to about 30 or 40," said Zoe Lally, development officer for the Irish Surfing Association. "Every car you see now has a surfboard on the roof. Back when I started surfing you would've known all the surfers in the country."
Tourism officials said no comprehensive statistics have been compiled to track the increase in revenue or visitors brought by surfing — but the sport has sparked the transformation of numerous seaside spots, from small or quiet villages to resort towns bustling with surf boards and athletes.
Bundoran may have prompted the trend, but other sites are hugely popular with Irish and international surfers alike. Strandhill, in County Sligo; Achill, in County Mayo, and Tramore, in County Waterford, all draw locals, foreign travelers and "weekend warriors" to the waves — and each spot is surrounded by breathtaking scenery, with tourist towns, cozy pubs and ancient ruins all within comfortable driving distance. Easkey, in County Sligo, harbors a desolate beauty and decidedly tougher waves, but Rossnowlagh Beach, also in County Donegal and close to Bundoran, is a tamer teaching locale and was Britton's personal training ground.
And finally, County Clare hosts a number of key surf spots, namely Lahinch — which is a revered name among Irish surfers and offers lessons, shops and rentals, just a stone's throw from Ireland's famed Cliffs of Moher and renowned Lahinch Golf Club. Organizers chose County Clare as the locale last year for a new three-day surf and music festival — Cois Fharraige, translating to "Beside the Sea'" in Irish — with the surfing competition scheduled for Spanish Point Beach. But the weather, ironically, was too calm and sunny, and the competition was postponed.
The climate in Ireland is the only drawback to its surfing scene, as visitors never know what they might get. It's rare that they'll be faced with endless sunshine and stillness — such as the conditions plaguing Cois Fharraige — but it's not uncommon for surfers to suffer wind, rain and cold. While the diehard Irish can be found in the waves on the toughest of days in the dead of winter — and the roughest of days in summer — those extremes can be somewhat troublesome for visitors.
"We get the full brunt of that north Atlantic swell — a load of cyclones passing by us," Britton said. "It's just so unpredictable. It challenges you, the ocean in Ireland and the climate and the weather."
Aguerre said Ireland would "probably remain an obscure surfing destination" based on its weather. But that unpredictability, with sunshine one day (or hour) and rainstorms the next, gives even the most dedicated surfers an excuse to enjoy the best of Ireland's other offerings — a pint in the local pub, a traditional music session or a bit of banter with the locals. There's no better feeling than retiring to a coastal bar and watching the waves break while gearing up for another day — but the lure of the ocean often prompts visitors to refrain from excesses they might otherwise enjoy in Ireland, Britton said.
Surfers often "head out for one or two, but usually if the surf's going to be good the next day, people seem to be focused," she said.