With wheels, Ireland is your playground
Car touring in Ireland is a joy. It´s merely a matter of deciding which part to explore... If you’re looking for a raw, natural beauty experience of the Emerald Isle, then put a drive around the awe-inspiring Ring of Kerry on the must-do, must-see list. This 170km circular route in the southwest of Ireland is the home of some of the most breathtaking scenery you will ever encounter.
Prepare to be beguiled by the beauty and wonderful culture of this special place. Its incredible mountain vistas, dramatic coastlines, rich history, myths, legends and colourful towns and villages have lit up song and poetry, postcard and film for generations. Driving around the Ring of Kerry feels like you have been invited to attend a symphony of nature.
The most popular starting point is Killarney, itself considered one of Ireland’s most beautiful destinations. You drive the route in an anti-clockwise direction, through twisting and winding hills and valleys and passing through the picturesque main towns of Killorglin, Cahirciveen, Waterville, Sneem, Kenmare and back to Killarney again.
The run from Killorglin to Cahirciveen flirts continuously and outrageously with the magnificent Dingle Bay, and this means you’re tempted by the swoosh, roar and energy of the Atlantic Ocean. At many places you can discover sheltered coves and secluded golden beaches that bat back massive Atlantic waves – just right for a spot of surfing, a stimulating swim or a lazy barefoot stroll.
One absolute must-take detour on the Ring of Kerry is the perfectly preserved ancient monastery situated atop the spectacular rock island of Skellig Michael, an impossibly dramatic location, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and nature reserve.
Take the ferry from the Skelligs Experience Centre (it has a fine exhibition, restaurant and craft shop) at Portmagee. The reward is astonishing views of the mainland from the 200- metre high rocks and encounters with puffins, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots and the like.
Back on the Ring, remember you are in rural Ireland. So you’ll be meeting locals who’ll be ready to chat like an old friend and to regale you with stories of their luscious landscape.
In Waterville for instance they’ll happily tell you about the bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin. He loved this seaside golf and fishing village and spent every summer with his family there for almost 40 years. His daughter liked the place so much she settled permanently and has now helped inaugurate the first Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival (25–28 Aug). There is a big clamour for it. Oh, the statue? It overlooks the seafront – photo opportunity awaiting.
If you stop at just a couple of attractions on the Ring of Kerry you’ll want to set aside a full day to get round – any more and you’ll be wanting at least one overnight. And this is not a problem as there’s plenty of B&Bs along the route.
Book in. It’s an authentic Irish experience. Your host will welcome you like family and give you the insider knowledge on the best nearby food and entertainment. Head out for some soul-stirring traditional Irish music or the lively local nightlife. Just set off again in the morning.
There are no wrong turns in Ireland. Down that winding road a local waves hello; over that hill and a farmer greets you warmly and gives the directions you need – after a chat. A puncture? No bother, somebody will help you. On the road in Ireland you’re painted into the picture, written into the story.
Music is essential to that story. And the car is the perfect vehicle to explore the traditional musical heartlands of counties Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal – the wonderful West of Ireland.
For example, from April to September you’ll find a traditional music festival virtually every week in the towns and villages of the west. Get talking to the musicians and the locals –they’ll draw you in anyway. Then take their lead. It’ll take you to out-of-the-way places with strong musical heritages, where people connect with tradition and each other.
The West of Ireland does not merely make magical music though. If the hum of an engine chimes with the roar of the ocean to your ears, the beaches of the west coast will leave you purring like a Ferrari.
Motor across the western counties hugging the coastal routes and you’ll discover a wondrous array of dramatic seascapes, gorgeous coves, beautiful strands, fishing villages, rock pools and piers. The constant Atlantic Oceanframed scenery leaves you feeling physically and spiritually reborn.
Endless driving choice
The choice in Irish car touring is practically boundless. All the more so, because in recent times new themed routes and ideas that take in distinctively Irish experiences are jostling for attention alongside the established scenic drives.
Head for Kilkenny (100 km out of Dublin), for instance, to explore the heart and soul of medieval Ireland, then combine the car with experiences of ancient Celtic monuments around the county, some that pre-date the pyramids.
A smarter choice might be to point the car towards Cork. Queen Elizabeth’s recent visit showcased the city as the jewel in Ireland’s culinary crown. But there are a series of car-friendly food tours covering the best restaurants, markets, co-ops, food and drink related attractions and shops throughout the county of Cork.
St Patrick was a well-travelled soul, and your GPS can also set you on the road between and to the foot of the holy mountains in Ireland dedicated to the patron saint. You will have to climb, though, to follow in his footsteps up Croagh Patrick in County Mayo or Slemish in County Antrim. Well worth it. From Slemish it’s easy to pick up the 148 km St Patrick’s Trail, a cultural tour-de-force.
World-renowned road trip
Most people say the Irish car tour worth taking most time over is in Northern Ireland. The likes of Lonely Planet and UK newspaper the Guardian have ranked the Causeway Coastal Route as one of the most spectacular road trips in the world.
Beginning in Belfast and finishing in the historic walled city of Londonderry, the 130 km route is easy to follow. Its highlights are Ireland’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, the famed Giant´s Causeway, the unique and terrifying-in-anice- way Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, the promontory fort of Dunluce Castle (perched on the edge of sheer cliff faces), Glenariff (one of the nine Glens of Antrim) Forest Park, White Rocks Beach and the city of Derry itself.
It’s all situated within three designated areas of outstanding natural beauty and the opportunities to pause to enjoy the natural world, the hospitality, the history and heritage, the activities – golf, water sports, equestrian, cycling, walking, touring – are about limitless.
The first town you hit heading of Belfast is Carrickfergus. Its twelfth-century castle is one of the best preserved in Ireland and yet another great stopping point. Mark Livingstone runs a car hire business there. “If you were to drive the whole way, stopping just a couple of times to enjoy the views, you could do the Causeway in five or six hours,” he says. “But why would you? You’d be far better to make a real holiday out of it. I’d recommend three to five days. Minimum.”
One section – from the seaside town of Ballycastle to the Giant´s Causeway – is a fantastical blend of sea cliffs and sea stacks, contrasting black basalt and white chalk, picturesque harbours and broad sweeps of sandy beaches all nestling against the wondrous coastline. And yet there is better to come.
A time-honoured dare
Stop in Ballycastle and ask for some of the famous local delicacies dulse (an edible seaweed) and yellowman (a toffee-like honeycomb). Take your treat and then consider if you’ll put a time-honoured Irish dare on your list of achievements – crossing the Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge.
First erected by salmon fishermen 350 years ago, the picture postcard suspension bridge is a link from the mainland and the tiny Carrick Island. Walking across leaves you exhilarated – but, eh, don’t forget you have to come back. It’s a double dare.
The iconic Giant’s Causeway and a walk in the steps of mythical giants is but 20 km away –and a little further on are the lively seaside holiday towns of Portrush and Portstewart, and Bushmills, the home of Bushmills Whiskey, tours, restaurant and accommodation. Much more lies beyond this.
So you’ll need to make time for sightseeing and relaxation; the Causeway Coastal Route isn’t a journey to rush. And neither is Ireland.