The beautifully rugged landscape of the Ring of Kerry in western Ireland gave me one of the most dramatic drives of my life. Here's my guide to the highlights along the way
I’m sitting in The Red Lobster, a comfy little pub in the charming seaside village of Waterville, about halfway around the Ring of Kerry, and Pat’s pitching me her fish chowder. ‘You won’t find a better one anywhere,’ she modestly announces. So I went for it. And she was right - it was truly delicious.
The Red Lobster was the perfect lunch interlude for my day trip around the Ring, a 170-kilometre round trip from Killarney that is simply an assault on all your senses. Kerry’s spectacular landscape is often compared with the rugged beauty of New Zealand, and it’s very easy to see why, when spectacular mountains and valleys come to a screeching halt at the mighty Atlantic ocean.
Although you can drive around the Ring from either direction, it’s best covered anti-clockwise, so you can watch the beauty build to a grand climax. Setting out from Killarney, you’ll be on the well-marked Ring Route in no time but you’ll be stopping off here and there to enjoy a worthy diversion or two along the way.
From a fairly languid beginning, rolling through some pleasant moorland countryside, the route starts to get interesting once you hit Cahersiveen, the birthplace of Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s famous political campaigner for Catholic emancipation. Visit the church in the centre of town named after the great man (interestingly, the only one in Ireland named after a lay man) and the heritage centre of the Royal Irish Constabulary Barracks, a very unusual turreted structure built in the 19th century. Ballycarbery Castle ruins and Leacanabuaile, a 9th-century stone fort just outside town, are also worth a visit if you’re keen on historic structures, and the directions to get to them are clearly marked. Before you leave, keep up your strength and grab a home-made scone at Helen’s Coffee House on West Main Street, a great little homely café.
Past Cahersiveen, the drama really begins to build, because soon you hit the coastline at Waterville, where there are some wonderful views to be had. The town, and in particular the Butler Arms Hotel, was a favourite of Charlie Chaplin and his family, and on the promenade you’ll find a bronze statue in his honour. In 1884, Waterville was also where the very first telegraph cable was laid between Ireland and Nova Scotia. Irish cable stations subsequently became highly significant players in the whole global information revolution - sort of forerunners to today’s information superhighway!
Once you’re past Waterville, the route snakes around magnificent canyons and cliffs and there’s a Kodak moment wherever you look. A little further on, you’ll come to Daniel O’Connell‘s ancestral home at Derrynane House. It’s now a national park, and whilst the house is worth a quick view, it’s the 320 acres of gardens that are worth a longer look. Laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries, they are a veritable paradise for botanists and ornithologists, with plantations, woods and nature trails featuring some stunning flora and fauna from all over the world. You also get exclusive access to the fabulous Derrynane Beach and miles of beautiful sand dunes.
Continuing on, you’ll be passing through a couple of interesting towns now, like Sneem, with its colourful little houses and Dan Murphy’s pub, made famous in a traditional Irish song that talks of singing around an old stone slab outside the pub door. Conveniently, there is a large stone still there today. Perhaps it’s the same one? Who knows. And then there’s Kenmare Town. If you are in shopping mode, this is the place to stop. It was the centre of lace-making years ago and you can still buy hand-made lace there today, but there are also some very high-end outlets for top quality cashmere, linen and knitwear.
We’re now about three quarters of the way around, and the Ring’s main feature awaits you: the Killarney National Park. You enter it from way up in the mountains and there are simply outrageously fantastic vistas all around you. The road is very narrow here and the steep drops are gut-wrenchingly tense, particularly when you see Killarney’s magnificent Great Lakes lying spread out below you in all their glory. Make a point of stopping at Ladies View to catch your breath and admire the same view that Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting experienced when the great monarch visited the area in 1861. You’ll then continue down a spectacularly steep valley and drive around the lakes on the way back to Killarney.
Kerry’s riches are more than enough for a long weekend, and can certainly be stretched to a week’s worth if you add some golf or fishing. And one thing’s for sure: travelling around the Ring may not be as dangerous as Frodo’s journey, but I can assure you it is just as memorable.
Killarney is the perfect town to base yourself for a weekend stay. Only a short drive from Kerry airport, and home to some memorable pubs, restaurants and hotels, it's a town where you can just stroll around and take in the local sights. Most nights in the pubs, you'll find the locals jamming traditional Irish music way into the small hours. Try the Danny Mann on New Street for some excellent live music every night, or Buckley's Bar on College Street, another magnet for local traditional tunes.
Where to stay
The Malton Hotel is a beautiful four-star mansion set in its own grounds. It has an illustrious history as one of the famously grandiose railway hotels of the 1800s and the place where most of the movie Ryan’s Daughter was edited after a day’s shooting around Kerry. It’s got a great spa, really comfortable lounges (roaring fires and overstuffed sofas) and spacious bedrooms. Expect to pay around €130 per night including breakfast.
The Killarney Plaza Hotel and Spa is perched at the end of College Street, just a stone's throw from the Killarney National Park and the Ring Route. It's the flagship property of private owners who have two other hotels in the town, and it's this independence that makes such a difference. You will feel a little bit special there, a quality often so lacking in global chains.The rooms are comfortable and spacious, and after all that walking, the spa is an absolute godsend! Expect to pay around €100 per night including breakfast.
Where to eat
Chapter 40 is one of Killarney’s upper-end eateries. Top notch service backs up a delicious menu that more than justifies the price.The food is what I would call trendy international fare, a mixture of ethnic and European dishes although the suppliers are all local producers. Try the Duo of Pork with Chorizo and Scallops. A meal here costs around €60 per person plus wine - well worth forking out the extra Euros for.
40 New Street, Killarney; www.chapter40.ie.
At Peppers Steak and Seafood Grill, a favourite for carnivores and fish-eaters, I had probably one of the finest steaks I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Portions are generous and the atmosphere transports you to those old-fashioned American Grill rooms. A typical meal costs around €40 per person plus wine.
The Malton Hotel, Killarney Town; www.themalton.com.
Murphy's Bar is the place for some tasty Sunday lunch (there's always a roast on the go) and a pint of the black stuff. It's an old-fashioned bar that screams traditional at you. A roast lunch and a pint might cost around €30 for two of you.
College Street, Killarney; www.murphysbar.com.