“Now, you have to do the Ring of Beara”, Maria said sitting up on a tall bench behind the small wooden counter of Charlies Auld Sweet Shop in Killarney. The fierce intensity that she spoke with contrasted with her petite frame and gentle manners. “The Ring of Kerry is beautiful but boring; everybody does it.”, she kept going while handing me some lemon sherbets.
Located in the west part of the country, the ring of Beara starts in the colourful village of Kenmare, in County Kerry, spanning all the way to Lamb’s Head and Dursey Island in County Cork. The rugged coast, narrow mountain roads and vast swaths of green pastures are a favourite of locals looking to escape the coachload tourism of the famous Ring of Kerry. And, according to Maria, Ireland’s best-kept secret.
Driving the Ring of Beara
From the head of Kenmare Bay, where the homonymous small town lies, a tapered 30 mile-long finger of land extends out to sea, as if pointing the Irish immigrants of yesteryear to the land of opportunity across the Atlantic. Perhaps this is why driving through Beara comes with a sense of isolation.
Following the long road west, through Ardgroom and past Eyeries, the landscape continuously metamorphosed before my eyes. From green pastures dotted with white sheep into highly indented and sculpted cliffs and steep mountain ranges. And as the afternoon mist started to descend into the vales and plains, a deep sense of longing dawned upon me. But of what, I couldn’t say. My daze broke as two cyclists pedalled past us along the road to Allihies. It was the first human encounter in more than 10 miles, and as fate would have, it came at the precise moment that the Allihies’ rock bowl came into sight.
I first heard of this rock formation through Norman McCloskey, a landscape photographer based in Kenmare, focused on capturing the striking scenes of West Ireland. From his body of work, it was the depictions of Allihies’ rock bowl that caught my eye. “You really can’t miss it from the road” I remembered him saying.
On a low tide, the bowl invites the traveller to jump in and shuffle through the rock path all the way to the top. This daring act of balancing on precarious and slippery ground rewarded me with a familiar sea scent. It would have been easy to linger, to watch the monotonous movement of the waves coming while breathing in the bracing Atlantic air, but Lambs Head called for us.
The Ring of Beara features an elongated figure of eight crossing from Kenmare to Castleberetown through Heady Pass, before reaching the tip of the peninsula and looping back to Ardgroom all the way to Glengarriff. But a missed crossroad saw us take The Wild Atlantic Way all along the coastline of the peninsula instead. “It makes no sense to not go to all the way to the end of the promontory”, Edgar remarked as we turned into the road that leads to Lambs Head and the Dursey Island cable car.
Dursey might not be inhabited but it is popular with hikers wanting to embark on the eight-mile loop along the island, and its cable car — Europe’s only ropeway traversing open seawaters — is the only way to reach it. But as walked up to Lambs Head viewpoint, the fog had settled in its entirety, and Ireland’s only cable car was not running. Not because of the low visibility, brisk wind and light rain, but because the ropeway takes a break from 11.00am to 2.30pm. When did Ireland adopt siesta hours?
The rough, rugged and untamed coastline of the peninsula calls to it a particular type of adventurer. Those attracted to places that allow for reflection, hippies, artists, eco-warriors. So it was not surprising to find Dzogchen Buddhist Meditation retreat hidden between cliffs just off the road down to Castletownbere. Acting as a meditation centre, a vegetarian café and Ireland’s first Buddhist temple, Dzogchen was the perfect place to find lunch and a cosy atmosphere to relax before continuing to Glengarriff.
The last leg of the Ring of Beara went through Castletownbere, the area’s unofficial capital and Ireland's most significant white fish port, along with the road overlooking Bere Island and its distinct Ardnakinna lighthouse. Connected to the mainland by a ferry departing from Castletownbere, this rich archaeological island has plenty of walking routes through ring forts, burial sites and standing stones.
The town of Glengarriff, 35 minutes east, sits on a small enclave of Bantry Bay and is one of Beara’s jewels. Surrounded by high rugged mountains, Glengarriff forest with some of the oldest oak and birch groves in Ireland, felt like a scene from Lord of the Rings. At any point, I would have expected young hobbits coming out behind the moss covered rocks to run down through the woods.
As we drove back into the Kenmare — and onwards to Killarney — it occurred to me that a landscape untainted by human touch makes everything seem so far away. Beara felt like a return to the source. A feeling of total isolation, offering a chance to clean the mind and soul of the trivial problems imposed by society.
DRIVING THE RING OF BEARA: RECOMMENDATIONS
- Coming from Killarney, the Ring of Beara starts in Kenmare. If driving from Cork there’s an option to start either in Glengarriff or Kenmare.
- Starting from Killarney, it is possible to stop on a couple of Ring of Kerry viewpoints such as Torc Waterfall, Ladies Viewpoint and Molls Gap.
- We rented a car in Killarney with Budget.
- While it is possible to drive the Ring of Beara in a day, there is plenty to see in the peninsula. Castletownbere and Kenmare are good options due to the high offer in accommodation and amount of interest sites around.
- Bere Island and Dursey Island are great additional activities to do while on the Ring of Beara. Plan accordingly by checking the ferry and cable car times.