Secret Ireland: Wild West Cork
Pól Ó Conghaile unearths old mining towns, foodie delights and a real lost world in Cork.
The old mining town
Approaching Allihies from north or south, the first thing that catches the eye is an old grey tower peering down like a policeman over the town. Visit the local Copper Mine Museum and you'll learn the story behind it -- one of the finest Cornish man-engine houses still in existence.
Back in the 1800s, Allihies was home to a thriving copper mining industry. This engine house dropped men in and out of the ground, and was the only one of its kind in Ireland.
Old drills, boots and lamps, historical panels and engineering explanations -- not to mention a list of gruesome deaths -- illustrate how the discovery of copper deposits changed a small fishing village forever.
In truth, even without its mining skeletons, Allihies would be intriguing. Its remoteness, brightly painted houses and the sandy beach at Ballydonegan feel like a real discovery as you emerge from Beara's hairpin bends.
Oh, and the museum also sells fossilised dinosaur poo for €1.
Details: €5/€2. Tel: 027 73218; acmm.ie.
The Ring of Beara
You know you're in a special corner of the country when you pull into a petrol station to find a café offering local mussels and organic house wines.
But Harrington's of Ardgroom, where copies of 'National Geographic' are laid out next to blue banquette seating, is only the start of it.
The Ring of Beara loops from Kenmare to Glengariff, taking in the wildest nooks of West Cork. Melodic-sounding villages, such as Eyeries and Allihies, are linked by a corkscrew route carved into the north-western edge of the peninsula. In the middle of it all is the gnarly backbone of the Caha Mountains.
You can walk, cycle or drive here, taking in stops such as Castletownbere, beaches such as Garnish, or diversions such as Bere Island and the Healy Pass.
Hedge-rows are blasted with fuchsia and gorse and, when the sun shows its face after a spray of rain, I can see as far as the Blasket Islands.
Details: Tel: 027 74003 (Harrington's); discover ireland.ie/westcork.
The West Cork Food Trail
The 35th Kinsale Gourmet Festival is in full swing this weekend.
If you don't fancy sharing the town with legions of foodies taking the Mad Hatters Taste Trail, however, don't fret -- there's a West Cork Food Trail that takes you from Kinsale right out onto the Mizen Peninsula.
The trail takes in restaurants such as Deasy's in Clonakilty and Kalbo's in Skibbereen, as well as artisans such as Sally Barnes' Woodcock Smokery, or Gwen's Chocolate Shop in Schull.
You may come home a stone or two heavier ... in fact, it would probably be rude if you didn't.
Details: See viewer.zmags. com/publication/9db59f6b (West Cork Food Trail).
A cable car at the ends of the earth
I've taken a lot of transport in my time, but the Dursey Island cable car takes some beating. Hopping on board, the steel capsule rattles and sways, a wooden door is latched shut, and my fellow passengers and I are cranked out across the thundering sound below.
The cable car is necessary due to the unsafe waters between Dursey and the Beara Peninsula. The hay sticking from its seats, not to mention the cattle gates alongside the embarkation point, give a clue as to its practicality. It can carry six people, one cow, or a dozen sheep.
My own journey is shared with a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, two dogs, and a couple of Australian tourists.
Pulling past a rusty pylon into blue skies and buffeting winds has all the excitement and nervous thrill of a fairground ride -- it's definitely not for the faint-hearted, with thin windows offering dizzying views over the ocean 250 metres below.
After several minutes, we land on the stony hump of Dursey. The island boasts just a single road and six residents . It's the dictionary definition of escape -- no business, no traffic, no hassle.
Details: Mon-Sat 9am-10.30am, 2.30pm-4.30pm, 7pm-7.30pm. Sun 9am-10am, 1pm-2pm, 7pm-7.30pm.
€8 return adult; €4 child
The Lost World
Named for St Finbarr, who built a monastery here in the 6th century, Gougane Barra actually dates back more than 100,000 years, when it was first carved out by a glacier.
Today, West Cork's finest forest park looks like a slice of Yosemite, with its sheer bluffs, trickling waterfalls and walls of sandstone.
St Finbarr's oratory stands on a little isthmus stretching into the lake, with votive candles inside.
There are six walking trails, but a 5km driving loop means you can also see it all without shedding a calorie (just bring €5 in coins for the barrier).
Details: See: gouganebarra.com; coillteoutdoors.ie.
The cheese and charcuterie board
I must have driven past Manning's of Ballylickey dozens of times. Until now, however, I've never actually stopped. To be honest, I never even knew it was there.
I've been missing out. Manning's, as West Cork's foodie fraternity will tell you, is an emporium unlike any other.
Beyond the awnings and hanging baskets sits a deli counter flowing over with farmhouse cheeses.
Wine is displayed in old suitcases, artisan treats range from Pónaire coffee to Ummera smoked chicken, there are hypnotic amounts of fudge and chocolate, and the service is chipper.
Here's the genius bit, though -- instead of offering a menu where everything is good but nothing is great, Manning's only serves cheese and charcuterie boards (€7pp).
Mine comes on a violin-shaped board, with Hegarty's cheddar, Cooleeney brie, Gubbeen smoked chorizo and more laid out alongside a little bowl of relish, a hunk of salted butter and several slices of bread.
It's a simple idea -- after asking what kinds of meats and cheese you like, Val Manning and his family let the produce do the talking. I wash my hands, and get stuck in.
Details: Tel: 027 50456; manningsemporium.ie.
The starlight kayak
When daylight dims, a remarkable phenomenon sparks into life off the West Cork coast. All it takes is a stroke of a paddle, or a flick of a finger, to set it off -- like a watery northern lights.
The bioluminescence is omitted by plankton that glow briefly when disturbed -- due to a chemical reaction designed to protect them from predators. At sunset, I join Atlantic Sea Kayaking in Castlehaven Bay to seek out the phenomenon -- best-viewed up to the end of October.
You don't need any great ability or experience to paddle a kayak. Old runners and warm clothes are covered up with overalls and a waterproof spraydeck, and a few basic tips get our group of ten out onto the water. It's a calm night, and high-vis vests keep our slinking shapes visible.
Overhead, a cloudless sky is pinpricked with stars. A fellow paddler tells us the stories behind constellations like Cassiopeia and Orion, and three shooting stars zip through the blackness. The cherry on the cake is the International Space Station, which races across the heavens as we speak.
The darker it gets, the brighter the plankton become. Sitting there, stirring my paddle about, sparking off swarms as green as the glow-in-the-dark planets on my son's bedroom wall, is a matchless sensation. It feels like there are constellations in the water too.
Jim is a pioneer of coastal experiences, from night kayaks in Cork City to foraging trips with Sally McKenna of Bridgestone Guides, but this is a knock-it-out-of-the-park humdinger.
Details: €45pp for two-and-a-half hours. Tel: 028 21058; atlanticseakayaking.com;
The overnight suggestion
Skibbereen's West Cork Hotel is buzzing on a Friday evening, with guests milling around, a happening bar and locals landing in for dinner all creating a good old-fashioned bustle.
Its riverside location and cast-iron balcony add impact, and black and white pictures in the refurbished lobby spaces give the aura of a family-run hotel very much at the heart of the town.
Several bedrooms have recently been given refurbs (I stayed in No. 17), so I'd recommend booking one of those if you plan on an overnighter -- the rain showers, fresh fabrics and spacious sleeping quarters are a cut above the standard rooms.
It's encouraging to see local suppliers, such as Gubbeen, listed on the breakfast menu too, and the receptionist is helpful and smiley despite the crowds.
On the downside, the fish and chips (€13.25) I order at the bar comes in a batter that is crisp outside but soggy and bread-like inside, and the exit route from the car park is an uncomfortably tight squeeze -- it has the sensors in my rental car beeping like a techno track.
All told, however, it's a solid, three-star base for exploring the Mizen.
Details: Two nights' B&B, plus one dinner, costs from €104pps. Tel: 028 21277; westcorkhotel.com.