by Gary Phillips
The Ring of Kerry in western Ireland is 115 miles long but there are two parts of it that are unmissable. They are at each end of the Ring, which basically means you need to drive the whole of it to appreciate it fully. The local maps and tourist board advise travelling in an anti-clockwise direction around the Ring of Kerry to make the most of the sights, but I don’t personally think it makes any difference as you probably will need to stop every few hundred metres anyway. There are plenty of lay-by’s to stop and take photos, so there’s no need to stop somewhere dumb.
First the Killarney National Park, which is on the Eastern end of the Ring, with its Loch Leane, a pristine lake surrounded by imposing mountains including the highest in Ireland, Mount Carrauntoohil which at 1038 metres is just shy of Mount Snowdon, which is 1085 metres high. It’s also relatively easily climbable, but there are a number of peaks inside the ring over 600 metres high. The National Park, also contains the Muckross Abbey and Muckross house, built in the 19th century by an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. The house is not only a fine example of its period, but its setting is the most breathtaking I have ever seen, right next to Loch Leane and with mountains rising in the distance. Just beside the National Park is Black Valley, and the Gap of Dunloe, which are both side routes well worth taking on a good day. On a bad day you just can’t see anything for all the fog. Start your trip from the small town of Kenmare, at the southern end of the park, which itself is a very pretty place and well worth stopping for the night. It’s also a good plan to get off to an early start as the best stopping points along the route can be full of tourist coaches and cars. The most popular being the “Ladies View” so called because of the delight of Queen Victoria’s Ladies in Waiting when they stopped way back in the late 19th century when on a tour.
You eventually arrive at the town of Killarney, another great place to stop for the night with numerous hotels and guest houses. It recently hosted the Irish Open Golf Tournament, attracting huge number of visitors, but the economic downturn has taken its toll on numbers of late, not that you could tell by looking at the pristine grounds of each of these properties.
From Killarney, you pass the top of the Gap of Dunloe at the small village of Beaufort, and then on to the town of Killorglin, where there was a small music festival and fair taking place as I was driving through. By this time I was looking for somewhere to camp for the night, and passed the town of Glenbeigh where there is a very good campsite, the Glenross, but I wanted something a bit more downbeat and private, so I carried on. I just happened to stop to look at another landscape across the bay towards the Dingle Peninsula when I looked down to a small settlement right at the foot of the hills, which had a small, sheltered inlet with a long pier and small campsite. I looked at the map and found that it was the village of Kells. Kells turned out to be a real find, because not only was the campsite adjacent to the beach, but I was the only one camped there, while the masses were just 10 miles away in Glenbeigh. It cost me all of 8.5 Euro with breakfast at the guesthouse (which would have been 22 Euro), but without a shower, which I replaced with a leap into the fresh water at the end of the pier. If you like to get away from the crowd as I do, aim for Kells.
The next day, I carried on towards the town of Caherciveen, where I found a medieval fortress. Extremely sturdy, it was uncertain when it was built, estimated at about 1000 years old, and was lived in by someone important. It’s free to visit and to walk around, and well signposted from the main road. You can then divert onto the Island of Valencia, but I didn’t do that.
We now come to the other highlight of the Ring of Kerry, the Skellig Ring which includes some of the most outstanding cliff faces you will see anywhere. At one point I was shown a right turn into a farmyard where I was promptly approached by a lady explaining that after some kind of survey, their cliff face at the end of their field was officially the best view of the cliffs on the route. I then sceptically handed over 4 Euro to gain access (together with a bus load of Italian Tourists) and marched to the top of this field where there were already dozens of people looking down. As it turned out it was really spectacular and probably worth the money from the photographic point of view. Not much farming going on there any more, if you know what I mean!
Continuing along the Skellig Route you get more glances of the Islands the route is named after, the Skelligs. The Skelligs are two cone-shaped rocks rising 750 feet out of the water and about 3-4 miles off the coast. They are Gannet sanctuaries, and with a high powered lens you can see the whole of one side white with birds and Guano. You can take a boat out there and climb to the top, but not only are the seas treacherous, but so is the climb with a few fatalities in recent years.
Coming off the Skellig Route you eventually reach Waterville, the first taste of civilisation after what is such a wild road. Another good stopping point with plenty of hotels, you also have a great view across the bay and out to the Atlantic Ocean.
From here on you follow the road back to Kenmare via Sneem and back to reality again.
Getting to Kerry.
Killarney is about 1.5 hours drive from Cork, to where you can catch a ferry from Swansea with Fastnet Lines. It takes 12 hours but is far preferable to driving from Rosslare which can take at least four hours, and at night when coming off the ferry. There is also the Kerry Airport nearby, and Shannon Airport in Limerick is about one hour away as well.