We’ve been in Ireland for two and a half months now. After more than a month in Dublin, three weeks in Galway and a week in Cork, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve already seen a fair bit of the country.
During our time in Galway on the west coast we went to explore the emptiness of Connemara, the other-worldly landscapes of the Burren and, of course, we went to see the Cliffs of Moher.
When we were in Cork a couple of weeks ago, which, by the way, we didn’t really like, we rented a car for a day and drove west. The Ring of Kerry is Ireland’s busiest and longest loop road and there’s no way we were going to miss it. We took a bus to Connemara and the Cliffs before, but this time we decided that we would rent a car and explore the region on our own.
I was a bit nervous before we picked up the car to be honest. I hadn’t driven on the left side of the road since Australia, over two years ago, and never with a manual car. Luckily the roads in Ireland are calm and sometimes even empty for a while. A possible worry for drivers, though, is the width of the roads. In particular places the roads are so narrow that there’s only room for one car. Many of the roads are also bordered by high hedges that limit the view a lot and that, combined with trucks and buses on the roads, could be a problem. That is the main reason why people are advised to drive the Ring of Kerry in an anti-clockwise direction. Like most drives on highways, the drive from Cork to Killarney is rather boring. It’s an hour and a half and there’s not much to see along the way.
But no matter how boring the drive to get there is, the Ring of Kerry itself is totally worth it. It’s the longest (179km) and most diverse of the big loop drives in Ireland – the Connemara loop is another one that’s worth your time.
After picking up our car at Cork airport (there are car rentals in Cork City too, but they all close around 5-6pm, which is way too early) and the hour and a half drive, we arrived in Killarney just before noon. Killarney is a small town of almost 17,000 inhabitants, but it’s one of the major tourist attractions in Ireland. The reason is its location. There are waterfalls, moors, rivers and mountain peaks just outside of town in the park that bears the same name: Killarney National Park. We stopped in Killarney town for a quick lunch in a pub and headed out again.
This is where the Ring of Kerry begins!
There are plenty of things to see on the way, but we only had one day, so had to be selective. You could easily spend three days if you take your time and visit every place of interest.
The first potentially interesting place where we didn’t stop was the Kerry Bog Village Museum. It’s a recreation of a 19th-century bog village. Even up until now, the main industry in Ireland’s most remote parts revolves around peat bogs. Here you can see how it was done in the 1800s.
We did stop at the next marked spot on our map, Ballycarbery Castle. These ruins of a 16th-century castle are located about 3km outside of Caherciveen. The surroundings are beautiful; green pastures, the nearby ocean and grazing cows (even inside the ruins!) certainly make for a photogenic setting. If only it didn’t rain…
On the road from Caherciveen to Ballycarbery Castle are two stone ring forts, which somehow we missed completely. I still can’t believe that. The remains of these forts date from the 9th and 10th century and are supposed to be pretty well preserved. I’m still a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see them, but again, there’s so much to see that there’s no way you can see everything in one day.
A short while further you have a choice. Either you continue straight on the Ring of Kerry, or you turn right onto the quiet and even more remote Skellig Ring. We chose the second option. This is a part that most people usually skip, a lot of the tour buses don’t go here for example, but I loved it. Some of the most spectacular views were on the Skellig Ring.
At the Kerry Cliffs you are able to see the rugged and hostile Skellig Islands. You can only visit one of the islands, Skellig Michael, which happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reason for that is that in the 6th century Christian monks chose this rock, of all places, to build a monastery. They survived there for at least 600 years. It’s also a great place if you’re into bird watching, it hosts huge colonies of gannets and puffins. If you want to pay a visit, make sure to plan and book your ferry tickets ahead. Also, prepare for pretty bad weather and bring water and food; there’s no shelter whatsoever on the island. I may make it look like we went there, but we didn’t. Not enough time! I just wanted to give some more information here, because it’s definitely a place that’s interesting to visit.
When you continue on the Skellig Ring you will pass Ballinskelligs Priory, Ballinskelligs Castle and Siopa Chill Rialaig, which all make for interesting stops. However, we were already getting behind schedule and still had some things to see.
The next town you will encounter is Waterville, a kind of beach town and everything that comes with that. It’s small and charming, though, and it does have great beaches. At the seafront there’s a statue of the most famous person that has ever visited the town, and maybe ever will: Charlie Chaplin.
The stretch between Waterville and Caherdaniel is arguably the wildest and most spectacular of the entire Ring of Kerry. It’s not very long, but it’s rather windy (and very windy – as in the type of weather). There are plenty of stops along the way, where you can admire the views and snap some photos.
Caherdaniel was the home of Daniel O’Connell, one of Ireland’s heroes and also known as ‘the liberator’.
If you’re into history, then Derrynane National History Park should definitely be on your list. Derrynane House is the family home of Daniel O’Connell.
The following part of the Ring of Kerry will take you along the quieter, but still stunning, coastline of the south of the peninsula before heading inland, through forests and towards the towns of Sneem and Kenmare.
We stopped for dinner in Kenmare, the last town before Killarney National Park and the end of the loop. It’s a pretty, small town, as only an Irish town can be. The houses are colorful, the streets are full of shops and pubs and the setting is just beautiful. Kenmare Bay is where three rivers flow into the ocean, the Finnihy, Roughty and Sheen.
Unfortunately for us it was already getting dark when we finished our dinner. And we still had Killarney National Park ahead of us, one of the most popular places among tourists in the whole of Ireland. I can tell you now that we didn’t see any of it, except for dark, narrow and windy roads, our own headlights, trees and one deer that crossed the street in front of the car. It’s a pity that we missed it. The road went up and down constantly and I’m sure the views must have been phenomenal.
Absolutely no regrets though, the drive around the Ring of Kerry was amazing. We knew we only had one day and we definitely made the most of it.
It might actually be my favorite thing that we did in Ireland so far.
Nothing beats the freedom of a car, that’s for sure!
Have you ever been to Ireland? Do you like road trips as well?