How to ‘Do the Ring’
125 miles, which is the length of the Ring of Kerry, may not seem a long distance but even if you drove around the Ring, without stopping or traffic congestion, it would take well over 3.5 hours to complete. Stopping for an average of just 15 minutes at each place we suggest will add a good 4 hours more – so this really is a very full day tour.
Featured image by sterte
Where to start
We suggest that when in Kerry you stay in Kenmare rather than Killarney.
Why? Well, it’s a nicer town, less crowded and with good pubs and some truly exceptional restaurants. Plus it gives you easy access to the Ring of Beara as well as the Ring of Kerry.
But the main reason is because it means that when you set out on your tour of the Ring of Kerry your timing will be a little different that of most others on the same circuit and consequently you will be less bothered by the traffic and crowds that build up on the route, especially in high season.
Most tours leave Killarney between 8.30am and 10.00am – if you leave Kenmare at about 10.00am, after a leisurely breakfast, you will be at least an hour or so behind the crowd as you travel around the Ring and there will be fewer people at each stop. It will be MUCH more enjoyable.
We strongly recommend you follow this advice. If you are staying in Killarney this tour is easily adapted due to its circular nature, but again, leave late, let the crowds move ahead and you’ll have a much more pleasant experience.
Plan on taking a good 8 hours to complete the trip. This allows for a leisurely pace (the best pace around here), with regular stops for coffee or short walks and time to go a little off track if something catches your eye.
The video below will give you a good taste for what lies ahead!
Right, let’s go!
Kenmare (A) is a small and attractive town, set on a deep bay between the Macgillcuddy Reeks to the north and the Caha Mountains to the east, a situation that gives it its Irish name, Neidin, which means “little nest”.
It is one of Ireland’s few planned towns, originally built by the first Marquis of Lansdowne, which gives it a slightly English appearance, with limestone buildings and decorative plasterwork a feature of the townscape.
A feature of Kenmare, as with many towns and villages in South East Ireland, is the colourfully painted houses and shops, and there are several very good craft and gift shops in the town selling goods that are made locally and are a bit different to the usual gift shop fare.
Moll’s Gap & Ladies View
On the journey from Kenmare to Killarney you will pass through the Killarney National Park on a journey that takes you on steep and narrow roads, with magnificent views, through Ireland’s highest mountain range, the Macgillicuddy Reeks.
By evening crowds returning to Killarney will throng this place, but it is much less crowded in the morning and you will have plenty of time to pause along the way to take in the magnificent views.
At Moll’s Gap (B) you get a good view of the unusually rounded shapes of the mountains, formed by glacial movement many millions of years ago. You will see, if you haven’t already, some of the hardy and resilient local Kerry hill sheep here – they cling to the mountain side at impossible angles and seem able to thrive on nothing!
At Ladies View (C) there is a panoramic view of the Lakes of Killarney, probably one of the most beautiful sights in Ireland – photographs never really do it justice. Though the large gift shop at Ladies View is less than sympathetic to its surroundings it does offer a wide range of good value items and has decent coffee.
As waterfalls go, Torc Waterfall (D) is quite small, but, certainly among waterfalls, size isn’t everything.
In wet weather it is loud and spectacular as water rushes down from the wonderfully named “Devil’s Punch Bowl” and tumbles over huge rocks into Muckross Lake 70 feet below.
That said, there are two circumstances in which you should just drive by. First, if there are large crowds – tight lines of people trooping up and down the narrow path by the waterfall do, in all honesty, ruin the experience. Secondly if the weather is and has been dry and sunny as the waterfall becomes a bit of a sad trickle.
Killarney & Ross Castle
There is much to see in and around Killarney (E) area and a visit to Muckross House and its gardens and along the shores of the Killarney Lakes is recommended. There is a proviso though – while you could fit these in today, but it would be very rushed and we suggest passing through and sticking to the Ring for today’s tour, leaving these places for another day or another time.
Instead today, drive past the entrance to Muckross and take the road signposted for Kilorglin and then follow signs for Ross Castle (F).
Ross Castle is built into the rock by Killarney’s lower lake, Lough Leane, and dates from the 15th century by when it was a stronghold of the powerful local chieftain O’Donoghue Mór. Later the castle was a residence of the Earls of Kenmare. It is a typical tower house of its period, a small castle used as a residence but also well fortified against attack. You will see tower houses in various states of decay thoughout the Irish landscape. A few have been restored as modern residences, including one in West Cork where actor Jeremy Irons and his family live.
Each August during Puck Fair a wild mountain goat is crowned King Puck and elevated to a high perch where he overlooks three days of raucous celebration.
The fair certainly dates back at least 400 years but it is believed to have existed in some from much earlier than that and almost certainly has a pagan origin. If you arrive at fair time, you’ll find a town heaving with people and a large horse selling event in progress.
Glenbeigh & the Kerry Bog Village
Behind the Red Fox pub in just outside Glenbeigh (H) is the Kerry Bog Village where traditional cottage dwellings have been restored and give an excellent view of life in days gone by.
Traditional tools used on the bog are on display, but the most interesting aspect of a visit here is a chance to see some Kerry Bog Ponies.
This rare breed of small sturdy ponies, with characteristically thick and long manes and tails, were used to carry turf from the bog. Fewer than 20 of the breed remained at the start of the 1990’s.
It is largely due to the remarkable effort and dedication of the owner of the Red Fox, Johnny Mulvihill, that they survive and now number in the thousands.
Cahersiveen (I) is the main local market town and will be busy with both locals and tourists all year round.
An unusual 19th century building which looks like a German Schloss has been nicely restored and houses a heritage centre which has excellent displays and information about the locality. Previously a barracks, it was build primarly to guard the landing point of the first transatlantic cable, a feat of engineering which for the first time connected Europe and America.
A small park runs alongside and it’s worth strolling down to see the old railway bridge, a remnant of a line that used to run from Farrenfore (north of Killarney) to Caherciveen but was sadly closed in the late 1950s.
Close to the town Cahergal Stone Fort dates back to about 600 BC and with walls between 6 and 13 feet high and over 15 feet thick, it’s not much wonder that its standing still today.
A feature of Cahersiveen is its long main street with many traditional shop fronts. There is also an excellent Marina in the harbour.
It is worth detouring slightly from the main ring here to visit Valencia Island (J) and afterwards Ballinskelligs, especially if you have a sweet tooth! Access to Valentia Island is by a short car ferry ride to Knightstown. As you drive down the island look out for Valentia Ice Cream, a farm producing delicious ice cream and sorbets using fresh milk from their own cows.
Valentia Island was the landing point of the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. and until 1960s and the arrival of satellites Valentia remained a key point of communication between Europe and America. It’s certainly a wild and remote place to have had such a key role in international communications.
Look for signs for the Tetrapod Trackway, where in 1993 a geology student discovered 350 million year old fossilised tetrapod footprints preserved in rocks. Tetrapods were the first creatures to emerge from the sea and here you’ve a unique opportunity to literally walk in the footprints of these prehistoric creatures.
Ballingskelligs & Waterville
Head back to Ballinskelligs (K) on the mainland via the bridge to Portmagee. Leaving Portmagee the road begins to climb towards Coomakista Pass, one of the highest points you’ll reach today and with magnificent views on both sides, Particularly towards the Skellig Islands.
From the roads around Ballinskelligs you will get various views of the islands, the largest of which is Skellig Micheal, the site of a monastic settlement and a wild bird conservation area. It’s well worth calling in to the visitor centre to learn more about its fascinating history and habitat. Boat trips are available, but are a whole day undertaking so come back for that experience another time.
The small beach at Ballinskelligs is a mecca for surfers, with decent waves even when the sea is calm and enormous ones when there is a good wind.
If you’ve not had time to for the visitor centre use this as an excuse (if you need one!) to stop at the Skelligs Chocolate Factory where there are good wall signs with excellent information about the islands. Happily there is also lots and lots of chocolate, with free tastings, and a great cafe for lovers of cake, pie, cookies and puddings which are made on the premises using their own chocolate.
Waterville is a popular holiday destination for Irish people – it was also a long-time favourite of Charlie Chaplin – with lovely beaches, great angling and a world famous links golf course. However there is not much to see, so drive on.
Caherdaniel & Derrynane
Caherdaniel (L) was home to one of Ireland’s foremost historic figures, Daniel O’Connell, a lawyer and politician who was responsible for Irish Catholics getting a vote in elections to the British parliament in the early eighteen hundreds.
He is also known as the ‘Irish abolitionist’ and was a prominent voice in the British anti-slavery movement. He was a proponent of complete and immediate ending of slavery, repeatedly describing black slaves as the equals of free white men – then unpopular and radical views even among abolitionists.
His home, Derrynane House (M), is well worth visiting to learn about his remarkable story and also to enjoy its truly magnificent gardens. Part of the house and his private chapel have been restored and are full of his belongings, including some of the many gifts he received in appreciation of his achievements.
Don’t miss taking a look at the carriage on which he travelled in triumph through Dublin following a spell in an English jail, it is magnificent in itself and illustrates the great esteem in which he was held – a degree of regard of which modern day politicians can only dream!
As you approach the entrance to Derrynane House look out for the Ogham stone on your left, you can let yourself in though the small gate for a closer look.
There is a particularly good cafe which has excellent free wifi. The beach nearby is a great place for a walk, or swim, if you are feeling the need for some fresh air after so much driving.
Castlecove & Staigue Fort
Castlecove is a popular vacation spot for Irish families, with a number of good beaches in the area and many holiday homes and caravan parks. The Beach Bar is a good lunch stop, with excellent food which you can eat outside while looking over the bay towards the Caha Mountains.
Just past Castlecove (N) keep an eye out on your right for a series of derelict buildings, all that remains of a failed attempt by the redoubtable Victorian Lady Albinia Broderick to establish a hospital for the treatment of TB, of childhood disease and for the lying in of women. Her vision, on which she spent her entire fortune, met one obstacle after another and was never realised, but her work on teaching the impoverished local population about proper nursing and health care probably saved countless lives.
She died in her mid-nineties in 1958 and is remember fondly in the locality and buried in the churchyard at Sneem.
A short detour to the left a couple of kilomaters later takes you to Staigue Fort (O),one of the best examples in Ireland of a Ring Fort, dating back at least 2500 years.
The fort was not a military structure, but a protective enclosure for the houses and animals of an important local family. Inside the five metre thick walls, steps climb to the top and there are crypts set into the wall, presumably both for protection and to act as a cool place for food storage.
The views from around the fort are wonderful, and it is generally a quiet and unspoiled place as tour buses have difficulty negotiating the narrow access roads. If the farmer whose cattle graze the surrounding land is about (he often is) seek him out for a chat – he is very engaging and a mine of information about Lady Broderick and other local characters and places of interest.
Look out for the statue of Steve Crusher Casey, a local hero who reigned as Heavyweight Wrestling Champion of the World from1938 until he retired, undefeated, in 1947. He was one of a large family, all of whom had glorious careers in rowing, wrestling, tug-of-war and boxing, and that includes the girls!
An interesting exhibition in both of the villages small parks – in the North and South suares is well worth a look. Local people are pictured alongside their thoughts about their home town, Ireland and Europe, and how where they live effects their lives.
Finally, it’s time to return to Kenmare for a well earned dinner!