3 Day Self-Drive Tour of County Kerry & County Cork
Kenmare to Dursey Island
Leaving behind the boutique charms of Kenmare, follow the road as it weaves and dips along one of wildest stretches of coastline – the Beara Peninsula. It’s an incredible drive, with craggy hills crashing down to the sea, tiny villages and sheep that seem to cling to the edge of rocky paths. Beara’s landscape offers a proper get-away-from-it-all feel, with scenery that is haunting, dramatic and rugged. A line of brightly coloured houses and lively pubs mark out the village of Allihies, known for its copper mines. You can trace the story of this 19th-century industry and its effect on the village at the Allihies Copper Mine Museum. After that, follow one of the short coastal looped walks, with blasts of invigorating Atlantic air and jagged seacliffs. From Allihies, sweep out to the tip of the Beara Peninsula and one of the Wild Atlantic Way’s most curious attractions, Dursey Island.
Dursey Island to Glengarriff
Separated by a narrow slice of water known as Dursey Sound, Dursey Island is the proud owner of Ireland’s only cable car (be sure to check running times before arriving). For those visiting, the car is a quirky transportation from Ireland’s mainland to a paradise island and a land that time forgot. But for visitors to the area, it’s the views afforded of the foaming Atlantic waters thrashing below that is the real attraction of this little trip. They’re likely to be some of the more memorable images of the Wild Atlantic Way. Dursey itself measures a modest 6.5km (4 miles) long and 1.5km (0.9 miles) wide and is easily walkable, with few climbs. Importantly, the island does not boast any shops, pubs or restaurants, but what a perfect place for a picnic! Say goodbye to Ireland’s only cable car on your return, and point your car towards Glengarriff, along the Beara Peninsula’s wild southern coast.
Glengarriff to Bantry
Along the way to Glengarriff, the Wild Atlantic Way continues to zigzag as the landscape slowly changes from rocky and rugged to green and wooded. This part of the peninsula is well known for its gardens, with the unusual Ewe Sculpture Garden just outside Glengarriff being one of the most intriguing. This verdant Eden high on a hill is a glorious jumble of waterfalls, bridges, sculpture, games and trails. Just off the coast of Glengarriff is another unique spot: the garden island of Garinish. Boats bring visitors out to explore the Grecian temple, clock tower and beautiful Italian gardens here, and along the way you might even spot some local seals. Continuing along the road to Bantry, it’s worth stopping off at Manning’s Emporium in the tiny village of Ballylickey where you can taste some of the local produce that is making West Cork a gourmet heartland. Bantry itself is an enjoyably busy town, with great seafood restaurants (try the Fish Kitchen), traditional pubs and a lively weekend food market. Undoubtedly, the highlight here is Bantry House, a country home of exquisite grandeur. Wander through the delightful gardens, take in the glorious views over Bantry Bay, and relax with afternoon tea in the elegant surrounds of the library.
Bantry to Sheep’s Head
Leaving Bantry behind you, the landscape gets wild and rugged once more with another peninsula that juts out into the wild Atlantic. Undiscovered and untouched, Sheep’s Head is the very definition of a hidden gem, with walking routes through some of the island’s most inspirational scenery. Heading out to the tip of the peninsula, you’ll have to leave the car behind for the last stretch: a hearty walk out to the Sheep’s Head lighthouse. After the walk, treat yourself to a well-deserved home-baked scone or slice of apple pie at the little café at the car park – the views are quite incredible. There are lots of little pubs that will tempt you in for a gourmet lunch as you skirt the southern side of the peninsula and Arundels by the Pier in the village of Ahakista is one of the best, with a great location facing the village’s tiny harbour. For something a little grander, keep going towards the village of Durrus (famous for its artisan cheese). It’s a hard choice deciding between Blairscove House and Restaurant and The Good Things Café (weekends only), but you’re guaranteed an exceptional dining experience in both.
Sheep’s Head to Mizen Head
Durrus is the gateway to yet another of Cork’s majestic peninsulas: Mizen Head. Stretching out into the Atlantic in a profusion of sheer cliffs and foaming ocean, Mizen is Ireland’s most southerly point (Donegal’s Malin, also on the Wild Atlantic Way, is the most northerly). There couldn’t be a more dramatic location for a visitor centre than the Mizen Head Visitor Centre, perched high on rocky cliffs with a bubbling ocean below. Connecting the signal station to the mainland, the Mizen Head Footbridge is a bracing walk on the wild side. Those with a fear of heights will be reassured by the bridge’s high sides, while those with more acute concerns may want to sit this one out. In the near distance sits Fastnet Rock, a lonely island and lighthouse that has kept sailors safe for generations. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, whales and basking sharks – all of which are common to the waters here.
Mizen Head to Baltimore
Move southeast, zigzagging along the Mizen Peninsula and past the mini-archipelago of islands between Mizen Head and Baltimore. Boasting what are some of the finest views along Cork’s stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way, this collection of islands demands attention. Should a photostop not suffice, take to the water and visit either Cape Clear (host to a much cherished annual Storytelling Festival) or tiny Heir Island (home to a restaurant run by Paris-trained chef John Desmond) by ferry. Sailings from Baltimore and Cunnamore, respectively, are subject to weather conditions. Finish this section back on the mainland and head for the village of Baltimore, a haven for sailing enthusiasts.
Baltimore to Old Head of Kinsale
At Baltimore you come face to face with one of Cork’s coastal icons: “the Beacon”. Overlooking broad swathes around Baltimore Harbour, this conical curiosity was built by the British government following Ireland’s 1798 rebellion. Along with other lighthouses and similar buildings, it formed part of Ireland’s coastal warning system. A hub for avid sailors, the village of Baltimore has a colourful history thanks to the Sack of Baltimore in 1631. Attacked by North African pirates on 20 June, 108 English settlers and some Irish locals were abducted and sold into a life of slavery in North Africa. Most never saw Ireland again, and you can discover more about the story at the Dún na Séad castle. Finish up with an al fresco pizza at La Jolie Brise overlooking the glittering waters of Baltimore Bay. From Baltimore, set a course east along the Wild Atlantic Way to one of Cork’s most resplendent headlands for a game of golf you won’t forget in a hurry. As well as being famous for its dramatically located golf course, the Old Head of Kinsale was the scene of a unique moment in maritime history. This is the closest piece of land to the wreck of the Lusitania, the ocean liner that was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in 1915. With each passing year, the Old Head of Kinsale seems to become an even more impressive sight. In his book, Jaywalking with the Irish, American author David Monagan describes the Old Head as “a natural treasure that spreads into some of the most stunning and storied vistas that can be created by water, stone, and sun”. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Old Head of Kinsale to Kinsale Town
You now find yourself making for Kinsale on the final leg, not only of your journey, but of this southbound section of the Wild Atlantic Way. Set into a niche of Cork’s south coast, Kinsale began life as a medieval fishing port. Regularly referred to as one of Ireland’s culinary capitals, the food scene here buzzes throughout the year, with the Fishy Fishy Café a leading light. Both postcard pretty and practical, Kinsale is equally well known for the 17th-century star-shaped Charles Fort, notably used during the Williamite War. Guided tours are available and the panoramas over the estuary are sublime.