Sneem in County Kerry was our next destination. We knew nothing about it except that there was a cottage there with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Three hours after leaving the Rock of Cashel, we were keen to see if our accommodation lived up to expectations. The ten minute drive from Sneem itself had postcard-worthy views – stone bridges, rugged hills, newborn lambs and rushing streams. The road (lane really) got narrower and narrower and with the owner’s detailed directions, we arrived at The Valley of the Hare.
It turned out to be the perfect place for us, a haven in the hills. It was cleverly created by combining two ancient stone farm buildings and a more recent house. Its plain facade gave no hint of the luxury inside. The hosts had thought of everything: underfloor heating, high quality linen, five star hotel type bathrooms, beautiful toiletries, a fantastic kitchen and delicious provisions for the first few breakfasts. Highly recommended! http://www.kerry-cottages.com/ourcottage.asp
The surrounds were beautiful with only lambs to keep us company. We spent time walking in the hills behind, enjoying the absolute silence.
Sneem turned out to be a very pleasant village set around two village greens. We read that it was busy each afternoon as the One Day Ring of Kerry tour buses passed through, but we avoided that time and found a colourful quirky place. There were a few sculptures, including ‘Crusher’ Casey, a local who was a world champion wrestler, a panda donated by the Chinese government and a statue commemorating the visit of Charles de Gaulle. There was stone bridge over a waterfall, a river walk to a small pier and several pubs. We enjoyed D O’Shea’s, the pink one, recommended by our hosts.
Instead of racing around the Ring of Kerry in a day, we took our time exploring different sections over our five day stay. After a few days on the move, we all enjoyed staying in one place and not packing and unpacking. Some people had commented that this area was very touristy, but, as we have found elsewhere in the world, places are popular for a reason – in this case the gorgeous scenery. We hoped that by getting off the main Ring, we would find peace and quiet and our plan worked. It also helped that we travelled in May – it could be a different story on those narrow roads in July and August.
One day we set off towards Waterville, clockwise against the general recommendations. We stopped to have a quick look at the rocky beach and Charlie Chaplin statue, but after that saw very few buses as we turned off onto the Skellig Ring, where big buses can’t go. We definitely recommend this route. We hardly saw a soul at Ballinskelligs. The 12th century ruins of the abbey were surrounded by more modern graves. Looked a nice place to end up!
The road to Portmagee was on one of our maps, but not the other. It did exist and was spectacular with great views of the Skellig rocks. Having heard of the Skellig Chocolate Factory, we had to stop at this unexpected manufacturer in the middle of nowhere. It was lunch time and we were hoping for some sustenance as well, but alas they only served sweet treats. We did a bit of sampling and can vouch for the quality and variety of their offerings.
With our newly bought confectionary gifts (couldn’t resist!), we continued to charming Portmagee and found the newly opened Skellig Rock Café, recommended by one of the chocolatiers. We had soup and sandwiches in the open air, before crossing the bridge to Valentia Island.
The bridge was only built in 1971. While we were reading about the ferry boat that until then was the only way across from Portmagee to Valentia island, a woman started chatting to us telling us about her cousin who built the boat. She had often travelled in the boat. Conversations like this enriched our Irish travel many times.
Valentia Island was wonderful. We first went to Bray Head, then the spectacular Geokaun Mountain, described as the only mountain top in Ireland accessible by car. It was €5 per car admission and we judged as well worth it for the four of us. Standing on the top of the highest point of the island, we had 360 degree views that were amazing, if a bit blustery! There were interesting plaques describing the views, the slate mine and the first cable across the Atlantic which went from here in 1858. Amazingly they met their Canadian colleagues halfway across and spliced the cables together. We enjoyed the walking paths but not the picnic tables which would have been perfect for a non-windy day.
Calling a place “Kerry’s Best Cliffs” was a clever drawcard, so after a hot chocolate at the fairly unexciting ‘Skellig Experience’ visitors’ centre, we headed back to these rugged cliffs. We couldn’t disagree with the name – they were high and wild (and very windy). We spent another hour admiring Mother Nature’s work before returning to Sneem.
Another day, we saw places closer to ‘home’, starting with Staigue Fort. Depending on where you read about its origins, it is from either 1500 BC or 300 AD, but either way it’s ancient. We loved this well preserved and not too busy stone fortress with intact circular dry stone walls. Climbing the walls and getting a sea view made me ponder who had been there before us. €1 donation to enter, with a simple honesty box.
Not too far away was Derrynane House, former home of Daniel O’Connell. Interestingly, he was ‘given’ to his uncle who did not have an heir, a common practice in those days. We toured the house (included in the Heritage card) after watching a video about him. He is mainly remembered for gaining rights for Catholics, but was also interested in equal rights for all and religious tolerance. The house was lovely as were the gardens and adjoining sandy beach. Unfortunately we had reserved elsewhere for dinner and did not have time to go to much recommended Blind Piper pub nearby.
Killarney was another destination. From Sneem, the inland road was very quiet. The scenery was stunning yet again. We stopped briefly at Lough Barfinnity where a few people were fishing for trout.
We rejoined the Ring of Kerry at Moll’s Gap which was busier, though thankfully it was too early to meet the ROK buses going the other way round. We admired Ladies’ View though did not quite think it was the best view ever as Queen Victoria’s Ladies in Waiting had proclaimed, hence the name.
Muckross House was our destination. Friendly and knowledgeable guide Eileen took us around the house (included with our Heritage card – we really got our money’s worth). It was a stately home similar to others we had visited over the years in the UK, but what made it interesting were all the details about the owners and Queen Victoria’s visit. With six years notice, various alterations were made to accommodate her visit. We were amused to hear that she only stayed two nights! The house was bought by wealthy Californians in 1911 and given to their daughter as a wedding present, before being given to the Irish state in the 1930s.
Walking around Muckross Lake was listed on our brochure as a two hour walk so we set off enthusiastically, not realising that it was 10 km and was going to take us a little longer. A stop at Dinis Cottage for scones and tea was the perfect break about halfway round.
While staying in the cottage we ate several meals in, given that we had a fabulous kitchen and great views. One night we ate at The Boathouse at Drumquinna Manor, near Kenmare, recommended by Irish friends. An excellent meal in sublime surroundings. An artisan platter to share, fish pie full of delicious seafood and a bottle of French wine while looking out over the water in the long daylight was perfect.
Reluctantly leaving Sneem after 5 nights and heading back towards Dublin, we stopped at Ross Castle (yes, the Heritage card again). It’s a 15th century tower house on the lake near Killarney. We just made the 11 a.m. tour and had an interesting time, including hearing descriptions of all sorts of deterrents to intruders – like holes to pour boiling oil down, murder holes and staircases making it difficult for anyone going up with a weapon. There are boat trips from here to a nearby island but we had no time as we wanted to get to Dublin at a reasonable hour.
A short stop in Adare confirmed that while some call it ‘Ireland’s Prettiest Village’ it has been well and truly discovered, dare I say overrun, by tourists and tour buses. We were lucky enough to get a parking spot, so had a 30 minute stroll past the thatched cottages and were on our way.
Having said “Never again!” after an experience years ago when we were racing to catch a plane after a three hour drive, we were spending our last night back in Dublin, before our lunch time flight the next day. The M7 freeway had a 120 km speed limit so we made good time and returned the car at the airport with a minimum of fuss.
Having spent a week in Dublin itself, we didn’t mind being a bit out of the centre, somewhere towards the airport and Clontarf Castle seemed a perfect choice. Though not much remains of the original castle, the hotel plays up the castle element with castle type furniture and armour. Coming from a young country, staying in a ‘castle’ was a fun experience for us. We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary in the restaurant, mutually toasting a newly engaged couple at the next table.
The long Emirates flight home was comfortable and we were settling back into our normal lives when I was struck down unexpectedly with a serious illness. Two months later (and almost back to normal) I am very thankful that we had a great trip to Ireland, blissfully unaware of what was to come.