Where do you normally envision you and your friends taking a trip on the open road? The vast deserts and planes of the USA? The lakes and forests of Canada? Through the Bolivian rain forest, perhaps?
There’s a place you should consider that may be a tad more realistic and closer to home. However, its every bit as breathtaking in the scenery and rich experiences it offers. Voted the best county in Ireland in 2015 by readers of the Irish Post, County Kerry finds its rolling green hills, rugged mountain ranges and glacial lakes nestled right next to the Atlantic Ocean. The spot on the west coast offers something for everyone, whether you want to chill on a beach, go for a hike or soak up that famous Irish nightlife (as long as you’re not the one driving the next day, of course!)
I can guarantee that if you decide to take the plunge, it won’t be your last. From the bigger town of Killarney to the tiny but lively fishing village of Dingle (which has almost as many pubs as it does inhabitants) Kerry is not only my favourite of the 26 counties in the Republic. Its one of my favourite places in the whole world. After being lucky enough to tour through the area in a rented car with my friends this year, I want everyone else to see just why “The Kingdom” should be at the top of every list of road trip destinations!
Before loosing myself in the details of what to see in Kerry, I will start by saying that having a car doesn’t just make the trip more enjoyable. It is in fact somewhat of a necessity. Transport links in the county are either poor or nonexistent, especially if wanting to reach some of the more beautiful, secluded locations. Tour buses exist of course; they mainly focus their attention around an area called the Ring of Kerry. Though beautiful and somewhere you should definitely factor in on your trip, there are many other places that are even more un-spoilt and harder to reach. To have maximum freedom and to get the most out of a trip to Kerry therefore, hiring a car is the way to go.
To do so isn’t difficult. All airports in Ireland will have a car hiring service, charging for the amount of days you wish to hire the vehicle. Things do become slightly more complicated if the driver is under 26. Some companies will apply an extremely expensive “young driver’s” insurance charge and some will not hire out to drivers under 26 at all. In this case the best company to go with is Dooley, whose extra charge for young drivers is only slightly more. A typical quote for four days with a standard 4/5 door car is 350 euros, or between five persons, 70 euros each.
The company has branches at all major airports. The ones to go for are Kerry Airport, which operates a limited number of flights from London Stanstead and Luton airports. If flying from elsewhere in the UK, head to Dublin airport, from which a drive to Killarney will take around four hours, or from Shannon Airport which will take around 2 hours. If you have your own vehicle, even better! Hop on the car ferry at Holyhead and set sail for landing in Dublin.
Now for the fun part! First stop, park yourself in the historic town of Killarney. Located in the centre of the county, it is right next to the aforementioned Ring of Kerry and the perfect stop over before heading to the coast later in the trip. In the daytime, hire a bike (or bring your own) and cycle around Killarney National Park. 22km may seem like a long trek but after soaking in the glorious scenery. the time will fly by. A UNESCO Biosphere reserve, the park boasts an abundance of oak and yew tree forest, mountain peaks and the Lakes of Killarney, complete with lakeside beaches. The three lakes meet at a photogenic spot called “Meeting of the Waters”, crossed by Old Weir Bridge. The bike trail takes a circular route around the park and on your way back, be sure to stop for lunch at the Muckross House tea rooms. The Victorian manor’s gardens have a variety of exotic trees and flowers on display, providing you with more natural beauty while you eat that well deserved slice of cake!
Meeting of the Waters Killarney National Park Credit: Loz PycockKillarney has a wide range of hotels and hostels, but for the best value for money book into the Killarney Railway Hostel. If you’re looking for a no frills, bohemian place to lay your head on the open road, this is the place. Beds in a mixed dormitory are as cheap as 10 euros (£8.75) a night, and a private four bedroom en-suite is just 15 euros per person. The rate includes a light breakfast. The hostel is just a five minute walk from the town centre, allowing you to park up and enjoy Killarney’s buzzing night life!
For the next day, Noelle’s on Old Market Lane is a quirky retro cafe that serves sweet and savoury brunch dishes, including homemade cakes. Highlights include the thick American pancakes and the variety of flat breads (each recipe being named after a famous rock star- my personal recommendation would be the “Yoko Ono” containing melted brie and roasted vegetables). Murphy’s Ice Cream is also a must. Made locally in Dingle, flavours range from the classics to the experimental- think caramelised brown bread, Dingle Gin or chocolate sorbet made from distilled Dingle rain water!
Killarney is great. However, as long as you’re not too full of food and beer, its time to move on. (Please note- if you have an awful hangover, remember that beds at the Railway Hostel are extremely cheap. Better safe than sorry). Just a short drive away from Killarney is the famous scenic route of the Ring of Kerry. Its official name is the Iveragh Peninsula; whatever you want to call the drive, you’re sure to find it amazing. Much of the route still centres around the views of Killarney National Park, and Ladies View offers a fantastic panoramic look at the Lakes of Killarney. Other highlights include the Gap of Dunloe, a narrow pass through the mountains which contains even more (yes, you guessed it) glacial lakes. The stunning but precarious passage can be passed through by car or, if you’d rather have a break from the wheel, by a hired horse drawn cart. The carts are all driven by local men who operate business on an old rotation system. It’s a great way to sample the everyday life of the natives, as well as to best take in that breathtaking scenery.
Next on the list, be sure to pull into the scenic fishing village of Dingle. It takes just an hour to get there from Killarney and on your route, I’d recommend making a stop at an amazing sandy peninsula called Inch Beach which is just 25 minutes from your destination. It may sound like a cliche, but Dingle really is like a scene from a postcard. Rows of colourful houses adorn the beach front and Dingle bay is encapsulated by green pastures. One of the town’s most popular tourist attractions is not in the town itself, but out in the bay. “Fungie” is a bottle-nose dolphin who has been spotted living in the bay since 1983, and to this day continues to regularly make appearances. Take a boat trip out to see him for 16 euros- your money is refunded if you don’t! The town is brimming with restaurants and pubs, and one of the most interesting spots is Foxy John’s, an establishment which is half pub and half hardware store! It’s a testament to how time has really stood still in this part of Ireland; pubs often used to function as shops also. A similar place is Dick Mack’s at the top of the hill. The owners still run a cobbler’s business, while the interior hosts many of the boots and belts made by the late founder Richard McDonnell. For a “mighty” session of Irish traditional music, the best spot is An Droichead Beag (The Small Bridge). Live music commences from around 9:30 every night of the year and as the Gaelic name suggests, its a great spot for an Irish experience that is truly authentic.
Due to its vibrant night life and fun filled attractions, Dingle is well worth making a stopover at. An elusive little spot right on the sea front is Lovett’s Hostel. Beds are 16 euros per night, or a private double room with a shared bathroom is 47 euros. It was the owner of the hostel who recommended to me the drive around the loop road at Slea Head, and she was darn right to. After the stunning views of mountains and forests, its now time to brace yourselves for the breathtaking coastal scenes that County Kerry has to offer. This is the westernmost point of Ireland; the glistening crystal waters would make you feel like you were anywhere else. If you go during the spring you may be lucky enough to hold a baby lamb, an attraction on offer at one of the farms on the peninsula. The road, while beautiful is very narrow; only experienced drivers should take to it. The drive loops back to Dingle, giving you one last look at the bay before the next leg of the journey.
While looking out from Slea Head you will notice a group of islands. These are the Blasket Islands, and the largest one is accessible by a ferry service from Dunquin, just a 22 minute drive from Dingle. The ferry operates from April until the 30th September, with ferries every half hour between September and August. Park up and board the “Laird of Staffa”, transferring into a rubber boat to actually land on the island. The harsh but beautiful landscape is no longer populated, though the residents used to be only Irish speaking. Today, it still forms part of the Kerry “Gaeltacht” (an area in which the inhabitants first language is Irish). Some of the remaining Blasket population include a number of Donkeys and you can stay among them at the Blasket Island guest house. A family room with 4 beds starts from 110 euros per night, or a private house is 120 euros.
If you’re not too worn out, there are a few more places you should go to on your trip. From Dingle, head past the previously mentioned Drochiead Beag and onto Conor Pass road. Again, only attempt this route if you are an experienced driver and only in good weather; it is one of the highest roads in Ireland, narrowly passing through mountains with extremely sharp drops. Nevertheless, if you do attempt it you may find that its the most beautiful scene on your trip. There is a clearly marked viewing area, where you can pull over and admire the vast expanse of green fields and iridescent lakes in the valley below. Just across the road from the viewing area is a steep, but no where near impossible rocky climb to Peddler’s Lake. Even if you’re sick of seeing lakes after the trip, this is definitely worth a climb up to. The large lake, formed from glacial melting in the ice age offers a completely unparalleled tranquil setting. The extremely peaceful spot also allows you to get an even better view down into the valley from above. If there was ever a scene more befitting of the “breathtaking view” cliche, then this is it!
For someone who has travelled around the world, I consider the multifaceted natural beauty of County Kerry to be some of the most beautiful scenes I have witnessed. Its ancient landscapes have escaped tainting by the modern world. Of course, narrow and sometimes un-kept roads mean that a road trip here requires responsible drivers. However if you and your friends feel up to taking on Ireland’s westernmost county, it is an experience you will never forget.