Sheen River Valley, Ireland

Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

Story and Photos by Carol Canter.

Part One.

To experience the coastal drama of Western Ireland, we took to the road in early October of 2015 to drive a bit of the legendary Wild Atlantic Way. Stretching 1500 miles from Kinsale, County Cork in the South West to Inishowen, County Donegal in the North West, this designated wild coastal route is said to be the longest in the world.

We drove the southern section from Kinsale to the Connemara over 4 Days in October, and were dazzled by the scenic splendor, palate-pleased by the farm-to-table and sea-to-shore meals, moved by the “trad” music, and impressed by heritage sites from abbeys to castles to monasteries. Yet it was always the local people whose warmth, humor and gift of gab — which at times would rise to eloquence — deepened the sense of the journey.

Kinsale, Ireland
Colorful Kinsale (Photo: Carol Canter)

CORK: The trip launched with a flight from Liverpool to Cork, where we spent our first two nights. Cork, like its sister city San Francisco, is youthful, cosmopolitan and a magnet for foodies, as a visit to the English Market will affirm.  This wonderful Victorian confection, one of the oldest covered municipal markets of its kind in the world, is Ground Zero for understanding Ireland’s food scene. The best way to do this is by chatting up the vendors selling artisanal jams, breads and cheeses, the fishmongers with their glistening catch of the day, and the butchers displaying their corned crubeens (pigs feet), drisheen (a type of blood pudding), and other items “exotic” to the untutored.

Cork's English Market, Kinsale, Ireland
Buying fresh fish at Cork’s English Market, Ireland (Photo: Carol Canter)

Cork’s compact city center is built on an island in the River Lee, upstream from the Cork Harbor, and a walking tour is the best way to see it. Stop in at the Cork city tourism office and pick up a free Audio Guide to the Cork Visitor Trail.  The tour begins on pedestrian-friendly St. Patrick’s Street, modernized in 2004 by Catalan architect Beth Gali.  The street curves to reflect the course of the river channel that still runs beneath it, and which was covered over between 1783 and 1789.  Nearby you’ll find the English Market, as well as the city’s oldest place of worship, the Unitarian Church dating to 1710.

Outside the city center but still in walking distance, the tree-lined University College Cork (UCC) campus is worth a stroll, to visit the Lewis Glucksman Art Gallery in its award-winning modern limestone building and to learn about Cork luminary George Boole, the self-taught genius whose invention of Boolean Algebra in 1854 forms the basis for modern high speed computing.

The well-located Metropole Hotel bountiful breakfasts overlooking the River Lee and access to the Leisure Centre  with lap pool, Jacuzzi, steam and sauna as well as a fully-equipped gym.  We found the service to be exceptional, as front desk manager Emmet O’Brien helped us plot out our drive to Killarney and our free time once there, sending us to the best pubs and eateries.  His dinner recommendation that evening at Isaac’s Restaurant across from the Metropole was a fine introduction to dining in Ireland’s Food Capital.

KINSALE TO KILLARNEY: Skipping the shorter direct route northwest from Cork to Killarney, we headed 18 miles due south to the coast, to visit the picturesque seaside town of Kinsale, launching point for the Wild Atlantic Way.

Though a week early for the annual Kinsale Gourmet Food Festival with its sweet lobsters, crabs and prawns pulled from the surrounding waters, we enjoyed the winding streets with houses, shops and galleries splashed in shades of mango, lime and raspberry, with a purple door here, an indigo window frame there – and colorful flower boxes everywhere. As Kinsale marks the start – or finish-of the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s a place to spend a night or two soaking up its maritime charms, sea kayaking through coastal caves, or golfing at the Old Head of Kinsale.

But we had miles to cover, peninsulas to skirt, and isolated islands to view, so drive we did, past towns with such musical names as Clonakilty and Skibbereen. Then there was the learning curve, as we began to master the challenge of driving on the “wrong” side of the- sometimes very narrow-road, not to mention keeping our focus when dreamy vistas vied for our attention.

The high point-literally and scenically as we looked out over the Sheen Valley-was Molly Gallivan’s 200-year old stone cottage, situated halfway between Kenmare and Glengarriff in the Kerry Hills. Though a commercial enterprise with much to sell, the charming complex of cottages is so well-situated that few pass by this inviting stop. The view is memorable, music lovely, tea warming and the handspun woolens and cottons well worth consideration.


Molly Gallivan's Stone Cottage, Kerry Hills, Ireland
Molly Gallivan’s Stone Cottage, Kerry Hills (Photo: J. Heyman)

The tea and sweets relaxed and readied us for our favorite part of the day’s drive –from Molly Gallivan’s to Killarney. The late afternoon sun lit up the rolling hills and valleys like the jewels that give Ireland its moniker, the Emerald Isle. The road at times narrowed to one-lane stone bridges and an arched tunnel, but by then we had found our rhythm.

And soon enough we were on the vaunted Ring of Kerry, pulling off the road at many a lookout, where we could let our gaze safely linger on the deep blues of the loughs, the lakes that shimmered in the golden light before dusk.

Ireland. Dapper John O'Neill, driver.
Dapper John O’Neill, poet, driver and wildflower lover. (Photo: Carol Canter)

DAY 2: RING OF KERRY AND KILLARNEY: We opted to forgo driving the Ring of Kerry on Day 2 of our trip along the Wild Atlantic Way, leaving it instead to O’Connor Autotours. This  decision gave us more than a respite from the rigors of the road. There were lullabies and legends and local lore to listen to, and history recounted with much passion and humor. Our driver John O’Neill, dapper in his cap and tweeds, could ease the bus around hairpin turns while reciting poetry and naming wildflower-strewn headlands.

Ring of Kerry Lake, Ireland
Ring of Kerry Lake (Photo: Carol Canter)

Ring of Kerry Lake

We expected an older crowd on the bus tour, but found independent travelers of all ages and countries of origin. What we all shared was a relief to have a day off from driving on the left, a chance to relax and laugh and leave the planning to someone else.

Who knew we’d become expert at identifying rare breeds of sheep at Kell’s Sheep Centre, where local farmer/trainer Brendan Ferris whistled commands to his border collies. They’d race up the steep slope in the morning sunshine to round up the herd and bring them bounding down the hill, where we attempted to distinguish a Wiltshire from a Hampshire from a Herdwick, and learn whose coat was destined to become a sweater or a carpet.

Kell's Sheep Centre, Killarney, Ireland
Kell’s Sheep Centre, Killarney, Ireland (Photo: J. Heyman)

We sipped Irish coffee through the whipped cream, ate seafood chowder at a cliffside restaurant 700 feet above sea level, and posed with a statue of Charlie Chaplin in Waterville, a favored holiday retreat of the legendary actor/filmmaker.

We looked out at Valentia Island, whose slate is said to cover the roofs of such notable landmarks as Parliament and the Paris Opera House. Farther offshore we could make out the Skellig Islands, where the closing scenes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens were recently filmed. Driving past an emerald patchwork of cultivated plots carpeting barren slopes, O’Neill shared stories of the terrible Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49, a watershed in Irish history that still resonates dramatically over a century and a half later.  View Part Two here:


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Click here for Part Two of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way; for more articles by Carol click to her page.







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