An alternative road trip in County Kerry, Ireland
The 180km Ring of Kerry drive in south-west Ireland is justly famous – with stunning panoramas of bays, inlets, lakes and mountains, and views to the Unesco world heritage site (and location of the latest Star Wars film) of Skellig Michael island (pictured above), 12km off the tip of the Iveragh peninsula. But there is a lesser-known alternative, that is original, eye-opening, and avoids the tour buses that clog the Ring’s roads, especially in summer.
This drive spins off from the western edge of the Ring. On day one, head north from Waterville on the N70, and after about 5km take the R567 south-west towards Ballinskelligs Bay. You are now on the Skellig Ring, where brown signs proudly proclaim “No Buses” and “Cars Only”. The occasional minibus driver will brave the rolling and twisting route, but mostly these are remote and narrow country roads, sometimes little wider than a single car, or tractor.
The Skellig Ring is in a gaeltacht, Irish-speaking, area and in places signposts will only be in Irish. Turn south on to the R566, and a short way along is the Cill Rialaig arts centre, at Dún Géagáin; stop off for free art exhibitions and organic salads (€9.50) in the cafe.
On a headland as the R566 heads towards Portmagee is a first sighting of “the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world” (George Bernard Shaw), Skellig Michael, and its sister Little Skellig, home to a substantial gannet colony. Depending on the light, the two islands can seem either swimmable – or halfway to Boston.
Just before the surf beach at St Finian’s Bay is, surprisingly, a chocolate factory – the high-quality, artisanal Skelligs Chocolate, with free tours and tastings, shop and cafe. Further north, the R566 climbs Coomanaspig Pass, offering one of Ireland’s finest views, to Valentia Island, Dingle and the Blaskets. A sign advertises a 10-minute walk to “Kerry’s Most Spectacular Cliffs” (adult €4, under-12s €2); the claim is justified.
Stay at “traditional yet contemporary” Moorings bar, restaurant and guesthouse (doubles from €90 B&B) in Portmagee, departure point for most boat journeys to the Skelligs. On day two, cross over the bridge to Valentia Island on the R565. Bypass the disappointing Skellig Experience Visitor Centre and take the first left, signposted to Geokaun mountain.
Valentia is 11km long, yet a day trip in itself, with 266-metre Geokaun (parking €5); the Tetrapod Trackway prehistoric footprints; a lighthouse (adult €5, under-12s €2.50); a fascinating heritage centre (€3.50, under-12s free); and likable Knightstown, with its cafes, bookshop and historic Royal Valentia Hotel (doubles from €89 B&B). Glanleam House nearby has subtropical gardens and B&B rooms from €110. Top place to eat is O’Neill’s The Point, a ferry-hop (car €8) away on the mainland (seafood from €8.95).
On day three, continue inland and rejoin the N70 south, completing the Skellig Ring. Turn left at New Chapel Cross for the drive to Glencar via Ballaghisheen Pass, which runs over the roof of the peninsula, towards Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrantuohill (1,038 metres). The view from Ballaghisheen across high plains is more reminiscent of the American West than Ireland’s West.
At Glencar, the Climbers Inn (dorm bed €25, doubles €80) has a shop, pub grub and rooms. A little further east, cross Blackstones Bridge to drive the winding shore of enigmatic Caragh Lake. Unless you’re staying at one of the swanky Victorian country house hotels by the lake – Carrig House (from €99 B&B) or Ard na Sidhe (from €210 B&B,) – the drive ends where the lakeside road rejoins the N70 Ring of Kerry route.