The Skinny: The Beara Peninsula has spectacular scenery, great hiking, wonderful restaurants and loads of activities. It’s also still an unspoiled and relatively unvisited area, making it perfect for those wanting to get off the tour bus byways.
Our car rose and fell along ribbons of road threading through the Emerald Isle, glades of shamrocks and saints falling away like castles crumbling into the history-rich loam of potato fields and famine, road-kill leprechauns leaving little Rorschach splotches in front of pubs spilling out ruddy-faced drunks and fiddle music, a blood-warm Guinness in my right hand as I drove on the left and watched wondrous rainbows arching over red-headed sheep gamboling around pots of gold.
There. I think we’ve dispensed with most of the stereotypes about Ireland, so now we can get on with the meat of the matter. But dammit, there were rainbows and waterfalls and sheep and emerald-green hillsides and charming pubs and all the rest. How do you give advice on travel in Ireland without all the clichés? I’ll give it a go, but if I fail, well, go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat.
And first we’ll go to Beara, the largest peninsula in County Cork and far less-touristed than its neighbor to the north, the famed Ring of Kerry. Beara is, like much of western Ireland, a rugged and windswept place, but here it’s wilder, the Caha Mountains lumping down the middle giving it the aspect of a ragged mossy hunchback lurching into the sea. Prettily.
A four-hour drive from Dublin brings you to Glengarriff, a one-lane village of some 800 souls that sits at the top of Bantry Bay. Glengarriff is well worth a visit for a number of reasons. It has some good restaurants, which I’ll go into in the ‘Where to Eat’ section.
It also has some excellent shopping, including Quills Woolen Market and the Glenaran Irish Market, both brimming with, of course, absolutely gorgeous sweaters.
Glengarriff is the stepping-off point for ferries to Garnish Island, a private botanical paradise bequeathed to the people of Ireland in 1953. You board your boat in the Blue Pool, where the Glengarriff River drops in a series of small falls into a protected cove. There are short trails around the point which have lovely views of Bantry Bay. On the way to the island you’re sure to see seals, seabirds, and herons fishing in the shallows.
The Glengarriff Nature Reserve has one of the very few remaining stands of old-growth oak forest in Ireland (the country is, in fact, the most denuded in Europe, with only about 6% of its original forest), and has several marvelous trails for every ability. There is a very short but lovely walk along the river, or you can combine connecting trails as we did, making a full day of the park. Kevin Corcoran’s ‘West Cork Walks’ is an excellent resource for hiking in the region.
After you turn left in the town onto R572, you enter the Beara Peninsula proper, and the landscape becomes more mountainous, craggy peaks rising above sheltered valleys where sheep – lots of sheep – graze in ovine complacency. It’s a stunning drive and one which you’re likely to have pretty much to yourself – in a week there we never ran into another foreign tourist, let alone a bus full of them.
In the tiny town of Adrigole you’ll see a turnoff for the Healy Pass, a serpentine strip of road that rises 1095 feet (334 meters) to pass between Beara’s two highest peaks before descending to County Kerry and the town of Lauragh. On the winding ride up you’ll pass waterfalls and cross stone bridges and very nearly plummet to your death as you look at both. There are very few places to stop for photos or a stroll along the way, but as you crest the summit you can pull off to admire the view over Glenmore Lake and the enshrouded peaks of the Iveragh Peninsula to the north.
At that point you can either turn back, perhaps stopping at Don’s Mountain Cabin for souvenirs or refreshment or taking the short – but steep – path up to the summit, or descend to the towns of Lauragh and Derreen. Turning right will take you on a loop through Kenmare and back to Adrigole through Glengarriff, a trip of about two hours.
Roughly halfway between Lauragh and Kenmare there is a turnoff on the right to Gleninchaquin Park, where a 460-foot (140 meter) waterfall cascades from the lip of a high ridge to the valley below. There are 6 walking routes at the park, ranging from an easy 40-minute stroll to a serious 7-hour scramble. The park itself is absolutely splendid, and there’s a special Eye-Spy trail with a list of things for the kids to spot and check off along the way. The family who runs the place is lovely.
Or you can follow the Ring of Beara along the north coast of the peninsula, down to Killough and through Castletownbere, which, without stops, will also run around two hours. But you’ll want to stop, or course, at every picturesque village, evocative ruin, and sweeping vista along the way.
A word about driving times – ignore what you find on Google Maps, for example. Those times are calculated according to the posted speed limit of 100 kph. One hundred kilometers/hour isn’t inadvisable on these narrow roads – it’s suicidal. It will take you longer. Much longer. But with scenery like this, you’re in no real hurry.
Castletownbere is a bustling fishing port and the peninsula’s major town, and the place you’ll likely go to replace a tire when, because you’re not used to driving on the left and so overcompensate by driving too far on the left you crash into a roadside boulder, sending the car suddenly lurching and you shouting things the kids probably shouldn’t hear and leaving your tire absolutely shredded. You know, hypothetically speaking.
If you’re staying in a self-catering cottage you’ll probably do your shopping at the SuperValu in Castletownbere (whose address is, and I love this, SuperValu, The Bridge, Castletownbere, Cork, Ireland), but there are a lot of fun, funky shops on the main street that are worth checking out. You’ll also want to pick up some seafood at the local fish market near the pier. The town also offers ferries to Bere Island, a wonderful place for walking, although be aware that some of the hikes are quite strenuous and services are few and far between. The island, sitting as it does in Bantry Bay, offers spectacular views of the peninsula and nearby coast.
Where to Stay:
The Beara Tourism site has great information on both B&Bs and self-catering cottages along with an interactive map. Shamrock Cottages has listings for the entire country, and a perusal of the cottages alone is enough to inspire a trip to Ireland. Prices are in GBP, which is something of a pain. We stayed in the tiny hamlet of Trafrask, at a place right on the water’s edge, which ran us about 600 USD for the week. Staying on the water meant that there was nearly endless entertainment for the kids right outside the door, from fishing to shell collecting to tidepooling, which makes life easier.
Where to Eat:
The Old Bakery in Castletownbere serves up an eclectic menu heavy on the seafood. A good choice if you’re in town. Recommended.
In Glengarriff the Park Bistro has excellent pub food in a welcoming and kid-friendly atmosphere; as soon as our server saw we had kids she busted out the crayons and coloring pages. Very highly recommended.
I try to avoid negative listings here, but unfortunately in this case I feel I must. We had our most dismal meal in Ireland in the Rainbow Restaurant in Glengarriff. I could slag it off in detail, but let’s just leave it at this: avoid at any cost. Very much truly not in any way recommended.
If you’re in Bantry for the day definitely try The Fish Kitchen. Directly above an excellent fish market, the restaurant specializes in, well obviously. They’re very nice folks, too, committed to local products and sustainable fishing. Very highly recommended.
We didn’t visit the Ring of Kerry and its environs, but I’m sure they’re absolutely breathtaking. If you’re looking for something a little more out-of-the-way, though, a little rougher and a little less ‘Erin go bragh,’ head for the Beara Peninsula.
Well, I think we’ve managed to avoid most of the cloying phrases associated with Ireland. And in case you were wondering, the Irish Gaelic expression at the beginning of this article means “May the cat eat you and the devil eat the cat.” I don’t know precisely what it means or how you would slip it casually into conversation, but I think it trips easily off the tongue. In an Irish sort of way.