Beautiful Beara: Is this peninsula Ireland's best-kept secret?
From bracing walks to baristas and Buddhist retreats, Pól Ó Conghaile reboots on the Beara Peninsula
A boreen on Bere Island.
We're pottering up from the ferry, plucking the odd blackberry as we try to decide which way to turn at the top of the road. Right starts us off on the Ardnakinna Lighthouse looped walk. Left leads to a heritage centre set in the island's old school building. I'd like a look at the latter, to get our bearings, but don't know if it's open.
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Just then, a lady powers around the corner, pulled towards us by a very determined dog.
"Is the heritage centre open, do you know?"
"It probably is," she says, catching the query on the hop, like a Gaelic footballer in full flight, and gesturing back up the hill. "It's about a mile up that way."
Somehow, we seem to have both gained information and lost it. Welcome to Beara, I guess.
"Hardly anyone knows what we have down here," I was told a couple of weeks earlier. I'd taken to Twitter, asking for tips on what to do and see on this off-radar peninsula. We were coming on a holiday - a multi-generational group of grandparents, parents and kids. But we wanted a particular kind of holiday, somewhere we could slow down, hit the reset button and spend time being where we were, rather than racing where we needed to be.
The Ring of Kerry we know, and love. So exquisite is its scenery, so magnetic its mountains, that tour buses are regularly strung along it like sausages. The Beara, one outrageously beautiful outcrop to the south, is a different story. Here's a peninsula straddling Cork and Kerry, yet named for a Spanish princess (Beara was the wife of High King Owen Mór). It's home to countless Wild Atlantic wow-moments but, beyond Glengarriff and Kenmare, just a single hotel. Place names like Allihies and Eyeries sound like they should be in songs, a Buddhist retreat clings to its cliffs, roads get spindly as spaghetti and weather whips from moody mists to blue skies to showers of soaking rain in the time it takes you to shed a layer.
And yet almost everyone driving through Kenmare or Glengarriff drives straight past. Hardly anyone turns off on to this big, beautiful, recalcitrant lump of land.
We decided to take the turn.
Scouring the internet for self-catering, I booked one of the cottages overlooking Bere Island at Berehaven Lodge, about 5km outside Castletownbere. It would be our base for breakfasts, showers, clothes washing and a couple of meals in... if we felt like cooking. Our plan was to prepare for all kinds of weather, schedule some outings and leave others to chance. The adventures went from there.
Bere Island was one. Shortly before meeting our power-walker, we boarded the boat in Castletownbere. My dad, my two kids and me, shared a cabin with a couple carrying SuperValu shopping bags, two French tourists with their baby in a back carrier, a string of locals, and a few families in walking gear.
And now we're at the top of the boreen.
'Probably' isn't enough to plan on, so we turn right, setting off on the coastal loop. The 10km trail is a section of the Beara Way, whose yellow arrows roam the peninsula like a Celtic Camino. It takes us past hedgerows fiery with orange montbretia, past dank old coastal defences and up to the lighthouse itself, where we stop for a sambo under skies swarming with seabirds. When the weather worsens and the track gets steeper, grandad digs deep for a good story. When the mist is at its thickest, we round a bend to find a white horse staring at us in the near distance. It's a spectral thing, like something out of Tír na nÓg. Later in the week, back in Castletownbere, we walk into another legend, albeit a cosier one.
"What day is it?" asks the lady at MacCarthy's bar.
"Tuesday," I confirm.
"Ah yes. Chess is in the back room."
The black-and-red pub famously provides both title and cover photo for Pete McCarthy's travel book McCarthy's Bar. "Never pass a bar that has your name on it," is one of the author's maxims, and it leads him to an all-night hooley in Castletownbere.
We're here for chess night, which is a little less rock 'n' roll, but we score a spot in the snug by the front window. The interior is just as McCarthy describes, in parts like a grocery shop squished into a bar, in others like a bar squished into a grocery shop. Barry's Tea, Mr Sheen, Weetabix and other essentials line the shelves; there's a ham slicer on the counter and a samurai sword behind it (Dr Aidan MacCarthy, whose daughters run the bar, was a prisoner of war in Japan - just one of many surreal stories on the peninsula). I pay €4.30 for a pint, and settle in to watch my nine-year-old play chess with a couple of locals who've arrived in from the countryside with their boards and pieces.
"Even at seven o'clock in the evening, damp, friendless and without a plan, I can sense that this place might be a contender in the Best Pub in the World competition I have been privately conducting since 1975," McCarthy writes.
Castletownbere is as close as it gets to a hub town on the Beara, but it's not at all touristy. This is a working harbour, with a dozen or more brightly coloured trawlers backed up against its harbour wall. Spanish fishermen clump through town with cigarettes on their lips, locals go about their business, and visitors seem restricted to the odd camper van, peloton of cyclists or rental car. Shops like Wiseman's Drapers, with its till in a glass booth, or O'Sullivan's garage, opening on to the main street, feel like time capsules. When we stop for tea and Victoria sponge at Evie's cafe in Eyeries, the owner recalls cycling the five miles or so to school between the two towns.
"It was easier going downhill," she smiles.
One morning, we rise early for the drive to Dzogchen Beara, a Tibetan Buddhist retreat overlooking the ocean between Castletownbere and Allihies. Daily, 45-minute guided meditation sessions are free to attend here, and we join a motley crew of residents, locals and blow-ins by picture windows overlooking the awesome Atlantic below.
In three short sessions we are encouraged to be present, to feel our feet on the ground and our bums on the seats, to be aware of the sounds around us - a gurgling tummy, a voice outside, a punch of wind against the window - but to gently bring ourselves "back to the moment".
I instantly think of the thousands of emails gathering in my inbox, but manage to park the thought. It's another little tug away from the rat race.
The Beara has its big moments, too. Did you know the Dursey Island cable car is the only one in Ireland? It provides a nail-biting 10-minute ride over the sound. Daphne du Maurier set her 1943 novel Hungry Hill, based on the Puxley family who ran the copper mines at Allihies, on the peninsula - naming it for the dramatic mountain lurking on the county border behind Adrigole. And Neil Jordan filmed parts of his movies Ondine and Byzantium here - the latter, starring Saoirse Ronan, includes scenes for which the Mare's Tail waterfall was dyed red.
Most stunning of all, perhaps, is the Healy Pass. Passing from Kerry to Cork (or vice versa) along the R754 over the Caha Mountains, you could see the back of your head on its bends. Stopping at the grotto for a photo, the road towards Adrigole looks like tangled twine; a scattering of sheep like they've been marked by farmers playing paintball. It reminds me of Trollstigen, the 'Troll's Road' in Norway; driving here is for not for the faint-hearted. At one point, a cyclist comes barrelling around a bend, wobbling scarily as he reacts to avoid us.
This is Ireland's wild west, so the weather does what the weather does. A stroll through the woods at Glengarriff is amongst the wettest I've taken. But we get lucky, too. A short loop from Dunboy Castle, the original O'Sullivan-Bere stronghold, brings us to a sunny bout of beach-combing at Bullig Bay, where we find a heron preening and the tide peeled back like a blanket. Another walking trail, the North Engine Loop, takes us from the candy-coloured village of Allihies towards Ballydonegan Bay, the quartz sands of which came from the copper mines that once dominated the area. We loop past a jagged coast (Allihies, or na hAilichí, means 'the cliff fields'), spotting plenty of birds, bugs and butterflies before climbing a stile and rising into the mountains with their old mining husks and the eerily abandoned engine house itself (today cordoned off for safety).
Eight kilometres later, we return to a little blue caravan by the beach. The Beara Barista's menu has caught my eye, with choices ranging from a Macroom Buffalo Burger with smoked Milleen's cheese (€5.50) to a Gubbeen Smokehouse hotdog (€4.50), alongside coffees, ice cream and hot chocolate for foot-weary walkers. A queue snakes back from the hatch; growing with campers caught out by appetites after swimming on a rare sunny day.
Local food appears on menus elsewhere, too. There's baked 'Camembeara' cheese at the Beara Coast Hotel. Beara Ocean Gin & Tonic takes pride of place on the drinks menu at Berehaven Lodge, where South African chef Mark Funston serves up the best meal of our trip. A seafood medley of local monkfish, prawns, mussels and squid is smothered in butter, herbs and wine for €24; a lobster risotto is expensive at €29, but comes with half of a lobster. Super-friendly staff and atmosphere seduce us into booking a second meal later in the week.
"Have you ever been to the Beara?" someone asks Pete McCarthy in McCarthy's Bar.
"I never have... a piece of news which is greeted by sighs of pity and incredulity all round," he writes.
Beara is slowly bewitching us, too. One day, the kids in the lodge next door knock in with the offer of some mackerel they've caught. I cook it under the grill with a little pepper and lemon. I'm enjoying the aimless chats on our walks, still delighting in brilliant place names like Hungry Hill and Tooth Mountain.
Like much of West Cork, the Beara has a tug on artists, and we pass several gorgeous little galleries on our trip. In the Tea Rooms, a cosy Castletownbere café with an Insta-friendly counter of cakes, I meet a crime writer who has re-located from Dublin. In Castletownbere, artist Sarah Walker (sarahwalkergallery.com) has repurposed a carriage house at the end of the harbour - if the tide's in, a sign says, we should take our shoes off. We drop in to find a surprisingly bright, white space where Walker's paintings of wild flowers and meadows pop alongside eclectic books, photos and work by other artists - Jenny Richardson's driftwood pieces, for example. There's a little desk for kids to draw at, and Walker herself is happy to chat.
In Adrigole, we pull over to investigate the Hungry Hill Gallery (hungryhillgallery.com), where musician Gerry Bruton runs a gallery, venue, café and little shop selling craftsy goodies and gifts like shawls, jewellery and Burren Perfumery cosmetics. Cakes are laid out on the counter, a friendly Labrador lies at the top of the steps, and we browse West of Ireland scenes painted by Jo Ashby and Padraig McCaul. Bruton is setting up for a gig upstairs, and though we like a couple of the works, we figure we'll mull things over. Until we sit in the tea room and see a country scene sing to us from the wall, that is.
We take it. The moment feels right.
Over a week, we see no large tour buses. On one drive, on to the anvil-shaped spit of land between Kilcatherine Point and Ardgroom, we pass a couple of cars, a camper van with German plates, two hikers and a pair of motorcyclists on Africa Twins. We stop to see An Cailleach Béara, the 'Hag of Beara', who legend says lived seven lifetimes before being turned to a stone now peppered with coins, medals and beads overlooking the coast.
Driving on, signs for local honey and pottery blip by among hedgerows blushing with raspberry-pink fuchsia and bright yellow gorse. Passing though a gap in the rocks, we suddenly emerge to an explosive view of Kenmare Bay and the Iveragh Peninsula, with a lone trawler cutting a bobbing path towards the open ocean. It's hard not to imagine big buses and busy hotels just a couple of miles away.
For a moment, the coast feels like ours.
Hungry, we push on towards Helen's Bar at Kilmacalogue, on the Kerry side of the Beara. Here, a fading sign sits over baskets brimming with flowers and a group of German motorcyclists has paused for a pint by a bay where low-tide waters lap over coffee-brown and olive-green seaweeds and a shoreline flanked by wind-blasted trees.
"Helen says she'll take half a dozen," says a man on the phone under the porch. Inside, four pumps are lit under fluorescent lights at the bar, a black-and-white photo shows how little the place has changed and Helen herself glows with the warm aura of an Irish mum. After a few minutes, she delivers our order, a plate of Castletownbere crab on brown bread, together with a bowl of mussels plucked from the brisk waters outside.
"Nothing has touched a freezer," she tells me, nodding towards the bowl of black shellfish. "A touch of white wine. Shallots. A bay leaf. That's the secret. They'll cook in their own juice. And don't leave them in too long."
Is the Beara Ireland's best-kept secret?
Castletownbere is a 4.5 hour drive from Dublin, or two hours from Cork. Roads are less crowded than the Ring of Kerry, which makes driving — or, even better, cycling and walking — an easier option. For more info, see bearatourism.com or wildatlanticway.com
Where to stay
Dzogchen Beara (dzogchenbeara.org; above) has hostel beds from €20pp, or three-bed cottages from €115 per night.
In Castletownbere, the Beara Coast Hotel (bearacoast.com) has two nights B&B with dinner from €220pp, while the Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff (eccleshotel.com) has a similar deal from €135pp.
For self-catering, check airbnb.ie or Berehaven Lodge (berehavenlodge.com), where three-bed cottages start from €560 per week, or €350 over weekends.
Take three: Castletownbere eats
The Tea Room
The cakes in this Castletownbere café will have you reaching for Insta. Veggie and brunch menus are yum, but get there early for the best tables. theoldmedicalhall.com; €
Here's your special-occasion spot, especially for seafood. On Sundays, the South African chef takes things up a notch with a braai (barbecue). berehavenlodge.com; €€€
Stop here for the best bowl of chips on the Beara - skinny, twice-cooked, flaked with Irish Atlantic Salt. Family run, with solid seafood and friendly service. 7 Main St; €€
What to pack
Prepare for all seasons, no matter when you travel, packing sunscreen, layers, wetsuits for swims, walking boots and rain gear. Several places we stopped at didn’t take cards, so have cash to hand, too.
Souvenirs? Take home Beara Ocean Gin, Milleen’s cheese and Irish Atlantic Sea Salt.