If you have ever been to Ireland, you may have flown into Dublin, visited Temple Bar, toured Trinity College, and raised a pint at the Guinness Storehouse. Maybe you drove across the country to marvel at the Cliffs of Moher or wound your way through medieval castles. All of these activities are perfect for a trip to the Emerald Isle, but you need to make another visit and see some of the spectacular areas of Ireland off the beaten path.
For a completely different Ireland adventure, try heading down south where the Atlantic Ocean crashes against jagged rocks and the winding roads always lead you to spectacular views.
Here are the top eight places to visit in Southwest Ireland:
To visit Southwest Ireland, fly into Shannon Airport on the west coast and often touted as an easy, low-key way to enter the country. Depending on your arrival time, you could stop in Limerick for breakfast on your way south. Maybe take a half-day pause to drive along the River Shannon and admire the Georgian townhouses or visit the medieval St. John’s Castle.
You have a two-and-a-half-hour drive ahead of you, so meander and admire the scenery. Remember: you drive on the left here!
Arriving in Bantry you will find a charming town on the headwaters of Bantry Bay, a deep-water gulf that extends close to 20 miles from the northwest of town. There are a few hotels and B&Bs to choose from, a large grocery store, auto repair shop, and a small town square with cafes and local shops to peruse.
The most famous attraction is Bantry House, a grand estate purchased by the White family in 1765 and still lived in and managed by them today. It was used as a hospital for five years during the Irish Civil War and opened to the public in 1946.
There are six rooms available to reserve, all including a full Irish breakfast and access to gardens, a tearoom, and private function accommodations. After exploring for a bit, settle into your lodging and enjoy the peaceful ambiance of this small town.
The Ring of Beara
Many people have heard of the Ring of Kerry, a delightful drive past marvelous villages and towns along the Wild Atlantic Way. The tour operators also know Kerry, and on many websites, travelers are advised to get going before 9 a.m. and to remember to make the trip clockwise around the ring to avoid getting stuck behind slow-moving tour buses.
There is a better strategy: forgo the Ring of Kerry and drive along the Ring of Beara instead. The same spectacular cliffs and crashing Atlantic, the same wildflowers on the side of the very narrow roads, and even stone circles from the Bronze Age and castles to visit.
In fact, there are over 500 historical sites along this 55- to 80-mile loop.
From Bantry, you could drive the 47 miles to Kenmare and start your loop going along the coast that way. If you choose this route, you will be closer to Dunboy Castle and a few towns to stop in if you want to stretch your legs.
For a route along the south side, leave Bantry and head for the closer Glengarriff. Taking this route south, you will pass through undeveloped land with breathtaking views along the side of the road. There are many places to pull over for pictures and to soak it all in. The first town you will see is Trafrask, then Rodeen, but keep driving.
At the end of the road is the Dursey Island Cable Car in Lacharo. Now, if you want to get a ticket and take the cable car over to Dursey Island, plan to spend a bit of time waiting. The cars only hold six passengers and combined with the slow traverse over the churning water below, it can make for a long process. If you choose not to ride, simply walking around this little piece of heaven at the end of a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic should be enough to get your heart racing.
It is quite mesmerizing to sit and watch the power of nature in such a pristine and unspoiled setting.
After absorbing as much natural beauty as you can handle, you have a choice of either continuing around the whole ring or going back the way you came. It all depends on how much time you want to spend and how adept you are at driving a tiny stick shift car around narrow curvy roads with stone walls and hedges on either side.
Baltimore is the main village in the parish of Rathmore, the southernmost parish in Ireland, and the final stop on the Wild Atlantic Way.
A harbor town, Baltimore’s tiny 400-person population swells in the summer with visitors to the various weekend festivals from May to September. Depending on when you are there, you could partake in the Wooden Boat Festival, which shares a weekend with the Seafood Fest; the Pirate Week-end, a tongue-in-cheek ode to the pirates who once plied the shores of the harbor; or the always exciting Baltimore Regatta sailboat race.
It is a small enough place to see everything there is to see, especially if you are not there on a festival weekend, in a short period of time. And yes, Baltimore, Maryland is named after Ireland’s second Lord Baltimore of the Irish House of Lords.
15 minutes’ drive north of Baltimore is the larger town of Skibbereen, meaning “little harbor.” This is a charming mid-sized town on the Ilen River.
The river is known as one of the best rivers in Ireland for salmon fishing, and even maintains a fishing area for anglers with disabilities. The local rowing club is the top rowing club in Ireland, with 181 Irish National Rowing Championships since its inception in 1970.
There are pubs and restaurants, shops lining the narrow streets, and a heritage center where you learn all about the history of the town. The Ilen River meets the sea at Baltimore’s harbor, making these two towns close enough for a fun day trip. There is enough to see and do when you combine the two.
Visit the more tourist-centric Blarney Castle, where you will partake in the perennially popular kissing of the Blarney Stone. The castle is near Cork, the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland (and the third largest on the island of Ireland after Belfast). If you have purchased your tickets in advance, head to the castle and get in line.
There’s a steep climb to reach the area where you kiss the stone, and some sections are quite narrow. If you are claustrophobic you may not enjoy this part. Luckily, there are many interesting things to look at on your way up, and several landings have small windows with a view of the castle grounds and town beyond.
When it’s your turn, follow the directions of the guides at the top. You’ll lie down fully on your back, grasp two metal handrails on either side of your head, and lean back in the direction of the wall behind you. There you will hopefully see what you are kissing, give it a quick peck, and sit up.
At least you aren’t being held by your ankles and lowered head first over the battlements as was the practice in previous centuries!
Your reward? Since you have just kissed the Stone of Eloquence, you will never again be at a loss for words; some call the reward the gift of gab, but whatever you call it, you worked hard for it and should be proud to say you have kissed the Blarney Stone.
Head back down to the first floor and take your time walking the grounds of the castle. The estate is filled with fascinating plants, well laid out for the novice or expert.
One especially interesting section is the Poison Garden, boasting plants such as wolfsbane, mandrake, and opium in cage-like structures to keep curious visitors from touching their lethal leaves. Eight additional garden areas could keep you busy for some time, as well as various paths that circle the castle grounds and bring you to areas like a fern garden and a horse graveyard.
Once you’ve explored the grounds, relax by sipping tea at the Stableyard Cafe and browsing for a souvenir (besides the photo of the stone kissing) to commemorate this lovely day.
Cork City Gaol
There are numerous tourist attractions in the city of Cork proper. The first stop could be Cork City Gaol, once touted as the “finest in three kingdoms,” meaning the finest prison. At its inception, both males and females who committed crimes within the city limits were sent there.
By the 1870s the prison had transitioned to a female-only facility, and by the early 1900s, it was no longer used as a prison but as a broadcasting station.
After its stint as a radio station, the buildings and grounds sat empty and decaying for decades, until it was finally restored for use as a museum and visitor attraction. Now a bustling venue, the Cork City Gaol hosts guided tours, school groups, evening events, and even catered weddings and corporate team building events.
On your tour, make sure you visit the weighing chair. This replica of the original, which is housed on Spike Island, was used from the 1800s to weigh each prisoner upon arrival and departure of the prison. If the prisoner gained weight it was assumed he or she was stealing food from others. Visitors are allowed to sit in the chair, perhaps alerting family members to an overindulgence in Irish beer?
As you may guess about a building that traces its construction to 1601, Fort Elizabeth has been transformed many times over the last several hundred years. After the death of Queen Elizabeth, the city of Cork revolted and the fort was attacked by over 800 men.
By 1624 it had been rebuilt of stone in the current shape, and over the years many iterations of the fort were realized. Everything from housing prisoners awaiting deportation to Australia, to a food depot feeding thousands during the famine, to an air raid shelter during WWII, has taken place inside the stone walls of this fort.
You can visit this attraction daily for guided tours, and no advanced reservation is required. You may also secure a group tour by emailing ahead.
Be advised that due to its ancient structure there is not reliable disabled access.
St. Patrick’s Street
If you’re feeling tired after absorbing all of the history Cork has to offer, you could always go shopping. Make your way to St. Patrick’s Street, affectionately referred to as ‘Pana’ by Cork natives. There you will find a historic street that was originally laid out in 1690 after the siege of Cork.
The residents began reclaiming the marshes and areas of the marshy islands around the channel of the River Lee, and the streets were eventually developed on both sides of the river channel.
By 1783 the present-day street was formed. In the prosperity of the 1800s, more marshes were drained to form new streets, and merchants and residents alike flocked to the newly named St. Patrick’s Street to window shop, visit friends, or have a drink.
In the 1990s there was too much vehicle traffic on the street, and to make pedestrians safer and happier, the area underwent an extensive redesign between the years of 2002-2004. Now there are fewer cars, wider sidewalks, and a festive atmosphere on the street, which has been awarded Ireland’s Best Shopping Street several times since the redesign.
Special to BookCottages.com by Cynthia McKnightseasidesmall town