At the conclusion of our of time with Ann at South Reen Farm, we were faced with a pivot point in our Irish travels. We had a second WWOOF host lined up in the north most region of northern Ireland, but decided it wiser to save money on transportation north to spend time seeing more of the iconic southwest Irish scenery.
And so the next part of our journey begins…
At our last Friday night fish and chips at Maloney’s, we spent time thinking and discussing our next move. We had the general idea we wanted to explore the Ring of Kerry, but really hadn’t the time to do proper research and educate ourselves on the most economic and efficient way to see it.
Talking to quite a few locals and heeding their advice, we settled the best way to see all which was recommended was to hire a car and drive the peninsula rings ourselves. It must be said that upon initial proposal of this idea a slight twinge of anxiety rolled down both our spines. Probably (much) more Brit than Matt, but Matt had his hesitations.
The idea of traversing narrow, steep and windy roads through Irish countryside is one part majestic, two parts risky. Furthermore, the cost of an automatic transmission car was about three-times the price of a manual transmission car. That created a bit of a pickle. Neither of us really knew how to drive a manual transmission. We both understood the mechanics in theory, but had little-to-no practice in the field. Lastly, we’re ballin’ on a budget. So we opted for the most fuel efficient vehicle, which many know is always the tiniest vehicle. So in the end, we rented the smallest car which neither of us knew how to drive.
Then, we busted out Google maps, took all of the local advice into consideration and mapped out a three-day road trip through southwest Cork and Kerry, reserving cheap hostels and Airbnbs one night at a time. We hired our car at Cork airport and hit the road.
Road Trip Day One
Cork Airport > Blarney Castle > Killarney
Our hostel in Cork was both good and bad. It offered reliable wireless internet (an underrated commodity) but subjected us to relentless nighttime noise.
Here’s how the noise went down:
Traffic, live music, traffic, roommate moves in, hostel staff, roommate gets kicked out, traffic, keg deliveries to the downstairs bar, traffic, alarm clock.
We left Cork half-zombie, half-anxious. After double espressos, we put our game faces on. Time to get ready for a full day of Matt driving a manual transmission subcompact through the haphazard streets of downtown Cork and the Irish motorways. Our fist stop was Blarney, about 20 kms. Brit rode most of the way white-knuckled, shouting directions, traffic signs and a little at Matt. All were welcomed and warranted through Matt’s uncomfortable shifts and stalls.
We missed the motorway connection just once on the way to Blarney, finding the correct highway after a few minutes and one hill-start. Thankfully, Ann trained Matt on hill-starts the day before our countryside road trip. Ann’s training was essential to developing the skills needed to get through day one. This last statement cannot be emphasized enough.
Blarney castle and gardens were more than expected. It’s not often we are surrounded by such rich history. It’s humbling and surreal to stand at locations that have been heavily involved in the development of a nation and its people. Approaching the castle it started to drizzle, heavy and dark clouds loomed in the distance. We snapped a few photos and increased our speed toward the castle.
Arriving at the castle, we found a path that lead up a winding staircase, only wide enough for single-file, ultimately opening at the very top rim of the castle. The rain had just started to fall as we pulled our hoods on, stepping out onto the top floor, the gardens now 90 feet below us.The rain made each step on the weathered stones unpredictable. We were really getting soaked, unfortunately leaving both umbrellas in our car. It didn’t matter, we came here for a reason. It was time to sit on the edge of this rock, hang our heads toward the ground and kiss the stone.
Thousands, possibly millions, have kissed the Blarney Stone and it’s time we added our names to the list. Brit got down first, held securely by the tour staff, leaned back and smooched the stone. Just as quickly as she had sat down she was up and Matt sat in her place. Then, one passionate open-mouth kiss later they were on their way. Just kidding. Matt gave a regular kiss. Let’s not let that go any further.
Taking our time down the other spiral staircase, we waited out most of the passing rain under the eve of the giftshop. It finally subsided and we spent the rest of our time walking the path of the gardens. The castle grounds grow a poisonous garden that produce several volatile species of plant life. To quote their disclaimer, the plants “May either kill you or cure you.”
The Blarney Castle property was profound and peaceful. We walked the remainder of the property in bliss, thinking how lucky we were to be in this beautiful place, together, with now fortunate weather.
We then headed off to Killarney to find our hostel for the night.
Road Trip Day Two
Killarney > Dingle > Ring of Kerry > Sneem
The Neptunes hostel in Killarney allowed us our first full night of sound sleep since leaving Reen. We had called it an early night, FaceTiming with family after a cheap pizza from a nearby pub.
We awoke ready for the next leg of our road trip, excitedly cramming clothes in our packs and making the short walk to the car. The morning air was cold but the sky was clear. The forecast for the region of Kerry to which we were headed called for scattered showers with heavy rain expected in the late afternoon.
On this night we were staying at an Airbnb just east of Sneem, a small town on the Ring of Kerry highway. The Airbnb was just off the highway and we hadn’t very clear directions. Finding anything precise is very difficult without detailed maps or GPS. The idea of searching for a house in the dark compounded by pouring rain wasn’t appealing to either of us, so we were anxious to get started.
The first stop on our journey was Dingle. We shared several “berry” jokes the entire way. The road toward Dingle was of the typical Irish variety: narrow, unpredictably windy and extraordinarily scenic.
Dingle was a great town for lunch. We found several pubs and cafés full of Irish warmth and history. We’d been referred by our hostel host to grab a Guinness at Foxy John’s, a long-time Dingle pub. We poked our head inside to quite a scene. On one side, a tall wooden bar, on the other, a hardware service desk. Packed with old guys drinking Guinness shouting conversation to each other, it was right up our alley. Sadly, it didn’t serve food. We moved on.
Dingle would have been a fun place to spend a night, but our schedule and car rental didn’t allow.
The next leg of our drive wrapped around the southern Kerry peninsula, the views were indescribable. For quite awhile, the highway ran the very edge of the cliff, leaving lush pastures of sheep and cow on the right, with endless ocean against dark, jagged rocks to our left.
To add to the experience, we somehow found a classical music station on the radio about two-thirds through Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. We both remarked on the perfect timing of the situation, also because we had finally found something decent on Irish radio.
Tchaikovsky’s grand finale began just as a tremendous cliff face came into view. The ocean’s relentless swells racing upward each time the two would collide, all seemingly matched with the Overture’s crescendos.
A moment we’ll never forget.
Road Trip Day Three
Sneem > Ring of Beara > Dursey > Bantry
At the very tip of the Beara peninsula is Dursey Island, isolated farm land only reachable by ferry or cable car. During the winter the cable car operates on limited hours so we knew it was unlikely we’d make it to the island. However, we were told the drive to the tip of the peninsula was 1. Incredibly beautiful, and 2. An incredible adventure. Sign us up.
It’s scary to think during the tourist season there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of cars driving these roads at the same time. The roads that wind along the coast are narrow, similar to the size of bike lanes in the states. Often, the shoulders of the road encroach so much there’s only room for one car to squeeze through. More often, there aren’t shoulders.
Reviewing our maps we found a road branch off the highway that clung to the coast when the main road turned inland. We decided to take the branch. We didn’t regret it.
While we drove we admired the tireless work ethic of the property owners whose farmlands we passed. Everyday is a work day on the farm, which meant the farmers were in their fields or tending to animals on this beautiful weekend day. Who knows the funny things they thought watching two Americans cruise by in the tiniest car ever manufactured.
We were so happy with our decision to adventure through southwest Cork and Kerry. In general, our time in Ireland was more than anything we could have asked for, the people we met more fine than the legendary scenery.
Thankfully, we delivered our rental back to Cork airport safely without damages. We had completed our road trip just how it had been planned.
Next up, Scotland. We fly from Cork to Edinburgh. We’ve only secured two nights at a hostel, then who knows. Isn’t that the best part, though? We like not knowing.
Blondie and the Beard