Singalonga Cork and Kerry

by Andrea.McVeigh

A driving tour of Cork and Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland, takes in breathtaking scenery, magnificent vistas and cosy pubs. Plus, you've got a ready-made soundtrack to sing along to as you go...

It makes for a great Facebook status update. Joe Bloggs… is going over the Cork and Kerry mountains. Of course, it's a damn good holiday destination, filled with wild, rugged scenery and friendly, welcoming people, as well as excellent pints of stout and fabulous food. But it also gives you an unlimited chance to sing Whiskey In The Jar - the unofficial national anthem of Ireland, covered by everyone from Thin Lizzy to Metallica - for the entire trip.

Believe me, you won't be able to get it out of your head as you, you know, go over the Cork and Kerry mountains. So, that's your soundtrack sorted. Next, you need flights to Cork Airport - the most accessible starting-off point for any tour of these two adjoining counties in the southwest of Ireland.

Then you'll need a car. Public transport is available and reliable, but not always that frequent. So if you want to set your own itinerary, hire a set of wheels from the numerous car hire desks in Cork Airport (I pre-booked with Avis and hte whole process couldn't have been easier). After that, the road (even if it's a road that sometimes narrows down to just the width of your wheels) is all yours. Don't be tied to any fixed notions of what to do when; just go with the flow. The whole area is easily accessible by car and the signposts are plentiful.

Look out for signs showing places of historical interest and even if you do get lost, that wrong turn could turn out to be the most serendipitous part of your trip, when you find yourself caught up in a traditional Irish music session as the Guinness flows in a local pub, or spend the afternoon exploring an ancient stone circle or ring fort.

If you must make a list of 'things to do', make sure Blarney Castle is on it. Just 8km (road distances and speed limits in the south of Ireland are measured in kilometres) from the city of Cork, it's famous for its stone - those who kiss it, it is said, are bestowed with eloquence, or, in local parlance, the gift of the gab.

Most visitors end up on the route known as the Ring of Kerry, a 170km circular road, which starts (and ends) in the bustling town of Killarney and follows the coastline of the Iveragh peninsula. It makes for a great day trip, or you can spread the journey over a couple of days, depending on how many photo stops you make. You'll be following in some famous footsteps: Charlie Chaplin loved the area so much there's a statue of him in the coastal town of Waterville.

The entire landscape is breathtaking and it's quite hard to take in its scale as you drive on what feels like the top of the world, past huge, still loughs and towering mountains. You can drive for miles like this, only slowing down to avoid the occasional roadside sheep. You'll also pass numerous guest houses and B&Bs, which is handy if you've no fixed timetable and want to spend the night wherever the mood takes you.

En route along the Ring of Kerry, visit the Kerry Bog Village at Glenbeigh, with its replica 18th-century thatched village, and take in the International Sculpture Park in Sneem. Or take a boat trip to Great Skellig island (Skellig Michael), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its 6th-century monastery.

Yes, there are all the tourist clichés you would expect to see, from groups of American tourists researching their Irish roots to quaint thatched cottages, the ruins of old churches and those famous 40 shades of green. But modern Ireland is also at the forefront of a lot of current trends, not least when it comes to healthy eating. Most small towns, not to mention the big cities such as Cork, boast vegetarian eateries and organic options. Organico in Bantry, West Cork (Glengarriff Road), is a great find - there's an impressively well-stocked health food shop selling freshly baked bread and cakes downstairs, with a busy organic café upstairs, selling a yummy vegan chocolate cake that goes down a storm with non-vegans too.

The heritage town of Kenmare, with its cosy pubs, gourmet (but very affordable) restaurants, tourist shops and high quality guesthouses makes a great base on the Ring of Kerry. The big hitter in the area is Sheen Falls Lodge, a privately-owned country house hotel 10 minutes away from the town, which looks like a stately home but has the ambience of a home away from home.

Budget choices include Virginia's, a family-run guesthouse on the town's main street, boasting clean, large ensuite bedrooms (from €30 per night, per person, sharing), a fantastic three-course breakfast (try the organic porridge with whiskey cream) and a well-stocked library. The super-friendly owners, Neil and Noreen, couldn’t be more helpful, whether you're looking for a restaurant recommendation or somewhere to buy postcards.

Nearby is another of Kenmare's welcoming spots, Foley's, which offers accommodation in its townhouse or self-catering holiday homes. The rooms are good and well furnished and there's free wifi, but perhaps the best feature for many guests is that Foley's also has its own pub.

Then, of course, there's Cork itself, which you can take in either as a starting-off or departure point. Rich in history, lively and vibrant, it's a cultural capital (and, indeed, was an official European Capital of Culture in 2005) that is bursting with charm. Whether you're interested in jazz or literature, there's a festival to cater to your needs. People take their culture seriously here, but they know how to have fun with it too.

But big tourist attractions - such as Cork city and the archaeologically-rich Dingle Peninsula's most famous resident, Fungi the dolphin - aside, it's often the simple act of stopping off for a seafood lunch and a pint of beer or glass of whiskey in a family-run pub that will really make your trip. Altogether now: "As I was going over…"

Getting there

There are flights to Cork Airport from Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, London Heathrow, London Stansted, Bristol, Cardiff and Southampton.

Andrea.McVeigh

With many years of experience in journalism under her belt and a well-stamped passport in her back pocket, writer, broadcaster and DJ, Andrea McVeigh, thinks that any time spent at home is time wasted when there's a whole wide world of fun, culture and adventure to discover. Whether it's climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, sipping cocktails in West Hollywood, eating fried silk worms in Korea, or giving visitors the low-down on her home city of Belfast, Andrea has been there, done that and bought the tourist T-shirt (not to mention the key-ring, bumper sticker and souvenir pen).