Updated on March 2nd, 2020
“This is the perfect itinerary for a 3 day road trip around the Ring of Kerry on the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. If you are interested in stone forts, rainbows, castles, abbeys, cliffs & some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere in the world then look no further!”
The Ring of Kerry, Iveragh Peninsula, Ireland
As part of my epic 50th-year celebrations I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, took a tour of the Galapagos Islands & lived on Antigua in the West Indies for 6 months. However, these were mainly solo endeavours. In addition, I wanted the chance to celebrate with my wonderful friends. I opted for hiring a house over a November weekend in Killarney, Ireland. In my usual vein, while I was there I wanted to make the most of the visit by getting to know the Emerald Isle a little better. I chose to take a road trip on the Wild Atlantic Way, specifically, the Ring of Kerry. Subsequently, this was followed by 3 peninsulae in Cork: Beara, Sheeps Head & Mizen. I was joined by the lovely Nicky who has been a friend since we met at university, over 30 years ago.
“Reading articles about the drive I understood that you can complete the Ring of Kerry in a day. I spoke to people who had done it in half a day. But I wanted to experience & discover this stunning part of the world at my own pace, slowly. So, we chose to take our time. Three days to be precise. It’s Ireland, why hurry?”
We were not disappointed & I would recommend anyone to do the same & make the most of your time in this lovely country. If you would like to do some walks, museums, visit Skellig Michael or any tours then you will need even more time.
What do you need to know?
The Ring of Kerry is a circular route of 179km (111 miles). In essence, you can start & finish anywhere, but most popular is to begin in Killarney. You can drive the Ring of Kerry non-stop in 3 ½ hours, but why would you want to when you can take 3 days? The closest airport is Kerry (20 mins drive), I flew to Cork (1 hour 15 mins) or there is Shannon (1 hour 45 mins).
I chose to do a self-drive tour so we could go at our own pace, stop where & when we wanted & be independent. There are many coach tours to choose from if you decide to go this way, but availability would depend on the time of year. Coach tours only have access to the larger roads, so some of this itinerary will not be possible by bus.
If you decide to drive yourself, the next question is, which way round?
“Most coaches tend to go anti-clockwise, so recommendations are to do the same, if you visit during the busy summer months. I went clockwise as this wasn’t a consideration when I visited.”
I cannot recommend having your own car enough. The roads are small & windy so drive carefully but also take a few of the sidetracks if you have time & go on a little adventure. You will not be disappointed!
When to go?
I have it on good authority that the summer months are incredibly busy. The small roads are swamped by coaches & all the attractions are crowded. We went in November & again I would recommend it if the scenery is your number one priority. There was hardly any traffic on the road, giving us the whole route practically to ourselves. Concern at this time of year would be for the weather. However frankly, if you are hoping for blue skies & sunshine all the way then I would not visit Ireland!
“On our first morning, the lady at our Bed & Breakfast said that Ireland is actually more beautiful with angry skies. I couldn’t agree more. We were lucky to have rain as we were driving & for some reason every time we got out to explore, the sun came out.”
There was also a lot of wind which made for some hilarious & challenging video commentary but did mean that some of the hikes were just too cold/windy to be pleasurable. You can see this for yourself on my latest Video Diary.
If you do decide to visit outside the peak summer tourist season however, many of the attractions are only open at the weekends, so check ahead. I have included links everywhere possible so you can easily find out the most up to date information prior to your visit. If you plan to go during these busy times, you will also need to book accommodation well in advance. We phoned around when we stopped for tea/Guinness (it is Ireland after all!) each afternoon & didn’t have any challenges in this department.
At the end of this post, there are links to where I stayed, ate & drank.
So, without further ado, here is my suggested itinerary:
Day 1: Killorglin to Waterville
As I had a girl’s weekend to explore Killarney we decided to get on the road & stayed in Killorglin for the night before we started the drive. From there, these were my highlights…
Rossbeigh is a rocky beach with incredible views out to the bay. It is a fairly isolated stretch, & we were the only ones on the beach, as the wind blew & the rain began. I was already in awe of the wild seas & the sun highlighting the hills of the Dingle Peninsula across the bay. Not a bad start! From here we took a single-track road up the hill to admire the view as we climbed.
Cahergill & Leacanabuile Stone Forts
Driving past the ‘fairytale’ castle that is Cahersiveen Barracks & over the bridge, next stop for us were these 2 stone forts. We first visited Cahergill & it blew me away. The stone forts in this area are very difficult to date & could have been built any time between 500BC to 400AD. Cahergill is a totally intact drywall stone circle. Once you enter the doorway & examine the walls, you start to identify stairs built in around the circle. These enable you to climb to the top for a better view of the surrounding countryside & the smaller structure within. They don’t know the specifics, but it is believed that 1000 years ago, this fort was home to a very important member of society.
Leacanabuile was built in the 9th century & this fort lies a couple of hundred metres away. It is smaller, but with more defined ‘rooms’. For those with a vivid imagination, it gives a greater sense of life back in the day.
From here, we headed to Valentia Island. You can get a ferry out to the island between April & October which takes 5 minutes & leaves every 10 mins. However, there is also a bridge from Portmagee. The first structure you encounter if you drive over the bridge is the Skellig Experience where you can learn all about the history of this atmospheric & historic island. You can also organise a boat tour of the islands, should you wish.
Skellig Michael & Small Skellig lie 13 km from the southwest coast of Valentia Island. The larger island is home to an impressively preserved 6th Century Monastic Settlement & a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“However, tours here have increased exponentially in popularity since the island was featured as the home of Luke Skywalker in the latest series of Star Wars films.”
If you choose to venture onto the island you can climb 600 steps on a stairway built 1000 years ago. You will be rewarded with stone beehive huts where monks once lived & prayed, along with a cemetery & church. If you visit the island between April & late August, you may also encounter thousands of puffins who come here to breed & fatten up their chicks. Small Skellig is also famous for its birdlife, including 23,000 pairs of gannets.
The cruise of the Skelligs is usually 2 hours long & runs between April & September. If you would like to visit, then make sure you book in advance at busy times (sometimes 6 months prior to arrival). Be aware that the boat trips are also dependant on the weather conditions so may not be running every day (even if you do book). We were not able to get out to the islands due the time of year of our visit & the swell of the ocean. They don’t call this the “Wild Atlantic Way” for nothing!
Valentia Island itself is one of Ireland’s most westerly points, with amazing views & interesting history. For me, the highlights included:
- Bray Head at the end of the peninsula which has great views across the bay & out to the Skelligs.
- Fogher Cliffs are worth the short walk for a view of the wild waves crashing below.
- Geokaun Mountain is the highest point on the island with amazing 360 degree views.
- Tetrapod Trackway is a set of footprints from 385 million years ago. It is the first evidence of four-legged creatures leaving the water to live on dry land.
- The Lighthouse & 17th century Cromwell Fort occupy a spectacular point at the top of the island with great views across the bay & along the Wild Atlantic Way.
- Knightstown is the main village on the island & a good stop for refreshments before you head back to the mainland.
“We were also told that we could go & chat to some people in town & may be able to pick up a private lift out to the Skellig Islands from here. The swell & cold temperatures, however, put us off trying to get much further with this information!”
I saw this title on a blog post & got frustrated as I wanted to know which cliffs they were referring to. Then I saw the excellent signposting & followed these to find them. So yes, they are actually called “Kerry’s Most Spectacular Cliffs”!
This is a ‘must-do’ stop (€4 entry) & we made it just as the sun was setting & the rain was trying to start. It gave for one of the most stunning rainbows I have ever seen & we were tempted to search for the infamous pot of gold. It looked so close. But the cliffs themselves beckoned louder, especially in the glow of the sunset. They certainly lived up to their billing. Truly spectacular!
Although we hadn’t completed as much of the ring as we were expecting, we then headed for a night in Waterville before returning to finish the rest of this section in the morning.
Day 2: Waterville to Kenmare
As we had bypassed the road from Portmagee & were loving the journey so much, we retraced our steps back to the cliffs & began day 2 of our expedition from there. We decided to take the mountain pass.
“The road was one lane wide with hairpin bends. Not the most relaxing journey! But there were spectacular views across the hills, resplendent in the autumn colours. We were again the only car on the road.”
St Finian’s Bay
This makes a delicious pit stop for tasting everyone’s favourite confectionary & is a great place to stock up on treats for the journey. They have a café & there is an opportunity to see how the chocolate is made as the shop & factory are both open plan.
Ballinskelligs is another access point to the Skellig Islands, but again the boats weren’t running when we visited. Instead, we chose to take a walk along the spit of land which led us to the iconic ruin of McCarthy’s Castle. You can take a track from here to the Priory/Abbey with its atmospheric graveyard. We were there under tempestuous skies which only highlighted the ruggedness of the scenery surrounding us. Again, the beauty of the area took my breath away!
Derrynane is the former home of Daniel O’Connell who was a lawyer, politician & important historical figure in Ireland. He was known locally as “The Great Liberator”. The house sits on 120 hectares of beautiful & well-maintained parkland. His home is open to the public during the summer months, but as per usual closed in November.
“While searching for a toilet we did, however, get a sneak preview, just trying to find someone who could help us find one! The gardens are beautiful & it’s worth a stop just for these.”
Alternatively, you can follow the nature trail or see the gorgeous beach & atmospheric Abbey & graveyard nearby.
As we were now on the south coast, we noticed a distinct difference as the ruggedness of the rest of the drive changed. The land to the south is naturally sheltered from the wildness of the Atlantic. The area is clearly wealthier & the trees & vegetation creates a very different aspect to the drive.
Kenmare was the perfect stop for our second night on the Ring of Kerry. A walk around the pretty town rewarded us with a Bronze Age stone circle comprising of 15 stones placed around a central ‘Boulder Dolmen’ (unique to this part of Ireland). Kenmare is the biggest example of over 100 circles in south-west Ireland. It is believed that the monument was built & orientated around solar & lunar events for ceremonial purposes.
Day 3: Kenmare to Killarney
Molls Gap & The Gap of Dunloe
The only disappointing aspect of this drive is that there are just not enough viewpoints to stop & stand in awe of spectacular scenery! You ascend the mountain on a small, winding road towards Molls Gap. Once through a literal gap in the rock, you will find a car park with a stunning view & a shop, the Avoca store & café. It’s well worth a break to admire the vista from the café window & sample the delicious selection of cakes (the carrot cake is particularly recommended!). From here, there are loads of options to explore further either by car or hiking on foot.
Killarney National Park treats those who visit to a rugged landscape & Irelands highest mountain range in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks at 1038m. The park is dominated by 3 lakes; Lough Leane, Muckross Lake & the Upper Lake & in total occupies over 10,000 hectares of land.
“It was breath-taking to see the lakes looking like mirrors & evoked feelings of surveying a work of art. The display before us really showed the best nature has to offer. It truly took my breath away once again.”
This was also when our choice to visit in November really came into its own. I have no doubt that in summertime the park is beautiful, but also swamped with tourists. While we were exploring, we were pretty much on our own. It felt like we were the only people who knew about this spectacular place!
We started with Ladies View giving us a panoramic outlook of the park before stopping at a few viewpoints by the side of the lake as we followed the road towards Killarney. The blue skies & lack of wind meant the few clouds which peppered the sky reflected perfectly in the water. This was my highlight of the whole trip, made more special as it felt like nobody else knew about it.
The Meeting of the Waters is where all three of Killarney’s lakes merge together & is marked by an Old Weir Bridge. It is a peaceful, picturesque spot. From the car park, it’s a 15-minute walk to reach this landmark, with a handily placed tea room nearby. The fickle Irish weather meant the skies had darkened & the clouds were trying to rain. The reward for the tempestuous weather was more spectacular rainbows over the lake.
Nestled in the base of Torc Mountain, it is well worth the short walk to this 20-metre high waterfall. It is at its most wild after heavy rainfall. Moreover, the trees along the rugged river also cast a photographic silhouette, covered in moss.
On the outskirts of Killarney sits Muckross House which is an impressive Victorian mansion. You can only access the house on a guided tour which takes you through the contrasting worlds of the Gentry & servants’ quarters. However, if you don’t fancy the full tour, then the gardens are an impressive alternative. This is also home to the Muckross Traditional Farms where you can get a flavour of rural life in the ’30s & ’40s on a self-guided tour.
“Nowadays it still stands, roofless but eerie with its carved statues on the walls & is surrounded by an atmospheric graveyard.”
Ross Castle is just outside Killarney & sits on the banks of Lough Leane. It was built in the 15th century & originally home to an Irish Chieftain. The castle is open for guided tours between April & October but is just as impressive to admire from the grounds. In addition, you can also take a boat trip to the monastery island of Inisfallen. For the full experience, why not try the local transport, a Jaunting Car, to visit the castle?
The main town of Killarney is also worth a day in its own right & is a great base if you have missed anything along the way. In order to sample the Irish nightlife, do not miss the opportunity to stay overnight here.
Where we stayed, ate & drank
Rivers Edge Guest House, Killorglin was in a great location by the river. They offer a fantastic breakfast & have very helpful & informative staff. A perfect place to start the journey!
Bunkers Pub, Killorglin was the location of our first pint of Guinness & a delicious meal. They had a local music group practising there which added to the perfect introductory atmosphere.
The Royal Hotel, Valentia was a great stop for a cup of tea & a bite to eat.
O’Dwyers The Villa was an interestingly decorating place to stay for the night. It is essentially a shrine to the owner who is a local Gaelic Football hero (he also has a statue next to Charlie Chaplin’s).
Dooleys was a good restaurant with friendly service.
Kenmare Bay Hotel is a large hotel with plenty of rooms, a good location & with friendly staff.
P.F. McCarthy’s is one of the oldest bars in Kenmare & offers live music & great food. I recommend the meatloaf!
Avoca Café has fantastic views over Molls Gap. It is a great place to shop & the perfect vista to enjoy a slice of carrot cake & a cup of tea.
J.M. Reidy is a master of many trades. The venue offers a café, restaurant & bakery during daylight hours. At night it is transformed & quickly became my favourite spot, ending up here every evening in Killarney. If you enjoy live music & want to experience the ‘craic’ in Ireland, then this is the place for you. It looks small when you first enter but keep walking & you will discover room after room of Irish hospitality! Try the Expresso Martinis…they are delicious!
Killarney Brewing Company is an independent craft brewery & a great place to have a local beer & good pizza.
The Laurels Pub is a traditional family-run pub serving excellent food.
Murphys Bar serves good traditional Irish dishes & claims to have the best pint of Guinness in Kerry. Judge for yourself!
Dinis Cottage Tea Rooms is a cute, peaceful spot for a break at the Meeting of the Waters.
Where next time?
From the Ring of Kerry, my road trip along the Wild Atlantic Way continued into Cork with an exploration of the Beara, Sheeps Head & Mizen Peninsulae. In all, my experience led me to raise Ireland to one of my favourite countries in the world, just topped at the moment by Cuba. The rugged beauty of the coastline & friendly nature of the island’s inhabitants has gone hand in hand to make me desperate to return. Watch this space to learn more about my journey through Cork in the coming weeks.
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In addition, if you would like to see this adventure for yourself then please check out my Video Diary which will be available on YouTube in the coming days.
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