Wild Atlantic Autumn: 10 top things to do on the Ring of Kerry
The Ring of Kerry is a tourist classic, but Stella Forte had yet to truly experience Ireland's southern peninsulas.
Have you ever driven through the Gap of Dunloe?
You shouldn't. Not during peak times, anyway.
I figured that out on an early morning drive, twisting and turning, sometimes reversing for oncoming traffic. Access is restricted for cars on the narrow, 11km route, so it's recommended to go early morning or late evening to avoid the droves of tourist-herding jaunting carts (better yet, get your bike or hiking boots out).
But anyway, I made it. Whatever way you traverse this spectacular section of the Killarney National Park, the giant boulders and glorious valleys make it worthwhile, eventually leading back on to the N71 and iconic Ladies' View.
It's an amazing start to an autumn staycation.
1. Climb Carrauntoohill
While I brushed up on my driving skills, my other half challenged himself to climb Ireland's highest peak, Carrauntoohil. A misty morning made an ascent look unlikely, but booking a guided climb with local expert Piaras saw him achieve his goal. A challenging six-hour round trip up the most direct route, the Devil's Ladder, was no mean feat. kerryclimbing.ie
NB: Carrauntoohill is a hard climb that should never be attempted alone.
2. Hidden histories in Cahersiveen
Nearby Cahersiveen is a town which could easily be passed by, but its Daniel O'Connell Memorial Church, Old Barracks and ancient forts make it more than a pit-stop. Local tour guide Gerry Enright is a fountain of knowledge... if you're lucky, he might even recite a verse from Sigerson Clifford's 'I am Kerry' to really help connect you with a time gone by. Contact Gerry on 086 858-7680, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. From May to September, there are daily tours from the Community Centre (10am and 12pm).
3. Skywalkers at Kells Bay
Known locally as the 'Jewel of the Ring', a leisurely stroll among the sub-tropical plants and waterfall at Kells Bay Gardens feels like you're in another world. A new sky rope walk stands 36 feet above the River Delligeenagh (it's said to be Ireland's longest rope bridge) - give it a whirl, before settling your pulse with the gardens' beautiful views across Dingle Bay. kellsbay.ie; €8/6pp or €25 for a family.
4. Island life
Cahersiveen is also a gateway to nearby Valentia Island (via the car ferry). Here, Geokaun Mountain and the Fogher cliffs offer breathtaking panoramic views across Dingle Bay, the Kerry mountains and the seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean. With heavy feet, the option to drive up to Valentia's highest point is a welcome one at just €5 per car or €2pp/cyclist. See geokaun.com for more.
5. Stunning Skellig views
A signature discovery point on the Wild Atlantic Way, Bray Head on Valentia's south west coast opens up unspoilt views of the Skellig Islands, Blaskets and the mammoth Kerry Cliffs. Perched on top of it is the 1815 Watch Tower, like a carrot on a stick. A way-marked 25-minute walk leads you towards it for stunning views of the surrounding peninsula.
6. The Skellig Experience
Valentia's Skellig Experience showcases the story of the UNESCO world heritage site offshore. 3D models display the Christian monastery founded in the sixth century, and explain how monks survived with very limited resources in such remote settings and the many Viking invasions they endured. Lighthouse keepers and their families lived on Skellig Michael too, until the lighthouses became automatic in 1981. A short documentary leaves you gagging to see the real thing. €5/€3pp or €14 for a family; skelligexperience.com
7. Take to the seas on a Skellig boat trip
After a night in the bustling fishing village of Portmagee, we were among the lucky ones that made it to the iconic islands. Boat trips operate from May to October, but are weather-dependent and sometimes booked out, so we counted our lucky stars when a last-minute scramble somehow saw us out on the ocean.
It came at a price, of course. Before boarding, we were told in no uncertain terms that we would be seasick (two buckets for me), and that it was 50/50 whether or not we would actually get to land. After a gruelling hour-and-a-half trip across 12km of rough sea swells, we eventually disembarked. How on earth did monks row 16 hours from the mainland?
Skellig Michael is no secret. It's caught the global imagination as a Star Wars location (watch out for it again in The Last Jedi this December). But a long-term dream came true that day for my husband, and it's an experience we'll never forget.
Climbing 600 steps up to the monastic hive dwellings, we were rewarded with a sense of being perched on the edge of the world. The seasickness and strain were worth it. I really did understand how the monks felt so connected to a divine existence on this amazing rock.
8. Catch a cliff view
Back on more solid ground, we got up close and personal with the Kerry Cliffs. At over 1,000 metres, they are awesome and offer the closet viewing point to the Skellig Islands. €4pp; kerrycliffs.com
9. Time travel in Waterville
Onwards to Waterville, a frequent holiday destination of Charlie Chaplin. Here, we recharged with a spot of lunch in his favourite Butler Arms Hotel, before a walk along the seafront promenade into the centre of the village (where there's a statue of the man himself). In summer months, visit the Sea Synergy Marine Awareness Centre and learn more about Ireland's fascinating marine life. lhmarine.ie
10. Renovations in Derrynane
Just off the tiny but mighty village of Caherdaniel is Derrynane House, the ancestral home of Daniel O'Connell. Now a museum showcasing the life of the iconic 'Liberator', many rooms are preserved with relics of O'Connell's life and career. Set in 300 acres of parklands and Derrynane Bay, it's no wonder O'Connell carted six days cross-country for his annual 'renovation', as he called it. It's a word I've since adopted to describe this magical trip in our beautiful country. A revelation and an overdue renovation. €4/2pp or €10 for a family; derrynanehouse.ie
What to pack?
Ireland's changeable weather can put a damper on things. If you're well prepared with good quality wind and rain-proof gear, however, anything is possible. Hiking boots, a backpack and plenty of layers for all weather conditions are essential!
Where to stay
Perched on the quayside at Knightsbridge overlooking Valentia harbour, The Royal Valentia Hotel is a family-run establishment combining comfort and casual (not to mention generous portions of delicious fish n' chips). Thirty rooms have been recently refurbished - treat yourself with upgrade to a deluxe four-poster with sea views. See: royalvalentia.ie
After our adventure, Parknasilla Resort and Spa in Sneem was just the ticket to rejuvenate in style. You can choose from luxurious bedrooms or self-catering lodges (ideal for families), and kick back in a spa and leisure centre overlooking Kenmare Bay. We ate at The Pygmalion - a gourmet dinner with great service - followed by a nightcap and live piano in the Doolittle Bar. Oh, and there's golf and a 500-acre estate, too. See: parknasillaresort.com
Into the wild: For more to see and do along Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way, log onto wildatlanticway.com.