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Travel Guide: Southwestern Ireland

Seeing Ireland Painlessly & Less Expensively

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By Jennifer Miller

Everyone likes to go to Ireland. It's so lovely. However, there's that large word … "everyone." When I go to Ireland I like to go where tourists are at a minimum. And I have my special likes as well … good home cooked, preferably organic, a cozy cottage, a small rental car and my own two feet -- in order to explore where most of the tourists don't bother to go -- because it is too much work, or not in the standard guidebook.

Deciding Where to Go

If you are like me, start by looking at the itinerary of bus tours (see Ireland in 10 days for only $$$) to note the places you'd think about avoiding. You may be able to live without standing in a line with 100 others waiting to kiss the Blarney Stone. Even though you've heard the Cliffs of Mohr are stupendous, you don't have to share them with everyone who is touring Ireland.

The first thing to do is to decide what places can you not live without? You've seen photos, looked at the online travelogues, read books … you have some general idea. Most people find the eastern part of the country more beautiful, and figure they have to go to Dublin, since that's where they arrive. Right? Wrong!

Here's an overview:

  • The East: Mellow, very green, lush, lots of people, lots of urban things to do, great food, great theater…
  • The SW: Incredible views on the peninsulas (and everyone knows it). Completely overlooked wonderful scenery, historic sites, and gardens.
  • The NW: Rock! Awesome, austere, and lovely. Great climbing and hiking.
  • The NE: War zone, right? Wrong!

If you avoid the major, major tourist destinations - the ones that are on every bus tour itinerary, you'll have a more relaxing time. This is especially true if you are able to travel in September, while the weather is still nice and most of the tourists have gone home. You can still avoid the long lines and lots of company if you plan your days so that you can arrive at popular places, such as the Cliffs of Mohr, early in the morning. Most of the tours get going at a moderate hour, and don't arrive at the destination spots until about 10 am. Take a look at one way to plan your trip along with relevant tips

Getting There

You don't have to fly into Dublin.

If you fly into Shannon its often cheaper (even though you may stop in Dublin). There is less traffic to deal with as you learn how to drive on the left side of the road. And you are very close to countless B&B's. You can comfortably arrive in mid-morning and by late afternoon be well on the way to where you are going.

Accomodations

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There are hotels and hostels in Ireland. Some feature breakfast, some feature dinner also, and some feature rooms only. They range from minimalist to luxuruous.

And then there are bed and breakfasts. I haven't met a B&B that I didn't like. The owners of the B&B will know the best hiking trails around them.

We like cottages the best. We enjoy savoring the uniqueness of each, the owner's (and past visitors') reading tastes, the comments left in the guest book by previous visitors. We enjoy being on our own steam, not having to dress for breakfast, not bothering our friends if we choose to stay up late reading or (god forbid) watching TV. Mostly, we really enjoy the feeling of coming home after each outing.

Here's our particular technique for finding a great cottage. And we've really batted 100% on location. To our way of thinking, its location, location, location - and we like locations with little traffic, quietness, and a great view. Here's how we find them. (link to organizing)

Food

Restaurants? The days of terrible food in Ireland are on their way out. We found great food - both simple and gourmet in many locations. As may be expected, the more popular the area, the better the food. In the pubs we found that fish chowders with excellent, without exception. Fish and chips, the Irish standard, with vinegar & salt rather than catsup, and a pint of ale, were always great.

With a few exceptions, we ate at home both for simplicity, economy and comfort. We bought groceries in the local markets, always found fresh bread and dairy products. There were good butchers, and we usually found good fresh vegetables.

A few tips about cooking:

  • I found that making up a couple of baggies with spice mixes and taking them with me made it very easy. Ie, cinnamon-cloves-nutmeg for cakes/cookies; savory: majoram, oregano, basil for soups; some curry spices for a variation. Most cottages have an abundance of salt and various odds and ends from previous visitors - but you never know what you'll find.
  • We were able to find some organic grains and produce even at the supermarkets
  • Be sure the agent or local person who lets you in tells you specifically where the various switches are for hot water ... it once took us two days to find the switch.
  • The outlets, and the power for the stove, washer, etc. have switches at the outlet, or at the connection to the wall. If the stove won't turn on, that's why.
  • You'll find that any cookbooks in the cottages use weights rather than our western cups and tablespoons - be forewarned
  • Also be forewarned that the stove will be centigrade. So figure out your major temperatures before you go.

Car Tours

We feel that the ideal vacation structure, anywhere, is to have a cottage for a home base and then determinedly tour the area within 30 or so square miles. Check out every little road. Here's where the 1:50,000 maps come in handy so you can explore your own backyard. We feel that trying to cover the entire country in a week or two brings exhaustion and to some degree, an inability to recall what you've seen. Even if you are certain you'll never be able to return, you'll get more from a rich close exploration of one area rather than a hasty rush through the whole.

Irish single-land roads are narrow. Hint: two small tour buses cannot pass each other. The smallest are single lane, period. You can explore a goodly amount in the morning, and reserve your afternoons for hiking (also on the detail maps). Make a point of taking the tiniest roads over the tops of passes. The views are incomparable.

Hiking

Every area has walks. You'll find them on your detail maps. Your landlady will know. And the local tourist information offices (without exception, very helpful) will know.

A Tour of Western Ireland

Here is one great choice - one focuses entirely on the south and south west. Allow 2 1/2 weeks.

  1. Well ahead of time, arrange for:
    • 3 days at a B&B on the coast west of Shannon, down near Kilrush;
    • A week (Saturday to Saturday) at a B&B or self-catered cottage between Limerick and Cork, but off the main road. You want to be within reach of the SW peninsulas;
    • A week (Saturday to Saturday) out near the end of the Iverage peninsula (not Watertown!). Caherdaniel is good.
    • 2 days around Ballybunnion, west of Limerick.
  2. Arrive in Shannon and get your rental car. Drive out to your B&B and explore the area in detail from Loop Head to Milltown Malbay. There's some great walking in the area.
  3. On Saturday morning, drive to your cottage south of Limerick.
  4. Explore down around Cork - skip Cork, but go to Cobh and Barryscourt Castle.
  5. Another nice day trip is past Mitchelstown, on the little road going over the Knockmedown Mtns to Lismore - with its rather extraordinary gardens.
  6. Our favorite garden in all of Ireland was Anne's Grove, a particularly lush and exquisitely laid out woodland garden with great walking, near Castletownroche, Mallow.
  7. The entire area around the Galty Mountains, the Ballyhoura Mountains and the Mullaghareirk Mountains is fantastically walkable and explorable. But be sure to take the smallest roads. Plan on short trips on tiny roads rather than going for the distance.
  8. Early in the morning on Saturday, head for the Iverage peninsula (the Dingle peninsula is also a great choice.
    • The tour busses leave Killarney in the morning and head counterclock wise around the Iverage Peninsula, touring the famed "Ring of Kerry."
    • The thing to avoid is driving the stretch from Kenmare to Sneem or Waterville between 2 and 5 pm.
    • The N70 is seriously narrow, and when you encounter a big tour bus you usually have to head for the ditch. Except there isn't one. There's only a rock wall, or if you are incredibly lucky, a fuschia hedge and a deep pothole.
    • So if it's not too late, what you do instead is to drive from Kenmare to Moll's Gap, then head west on R568 - the busses will stay on the main drag. You'll miss an awesome stretch of coastal highway, but you can get that on the return.
  9. We recommend staying at Caherdaniel. You can climb, or drive if your car is hardy, high up on Cahernageeha Mountain for an panoramic view of the coast. There are several pretty incredible restaurants in Caherdaniel, not least the pub.
  10. Another rather amazing, little visited relic is the Staigue Fort, a preshistoric ring fort—it's close by.
  11. There's a magnificant trail running parallel to the coast along that SE side of the peninsula. Make time for that.
  12. Also in the Caherdaniel area is Derryshane House. Visit it early in the morning before the tours arrive. Both the house and garden are astonishing.
  13. On Saturday, bright and early, head for your B&B up west of Limerick. This time, take the shore road between Sneem and Kenmare. There won't be as much traffic and you'll be able to enjoy the view. Your passenger may not appreciate your enjoying the view, so be sure to stop at an overlook. This time head back over Moll's Gap again, but continue north on the N71 to Killarney for lunch, or a picnic lunch in the extensive park area around Lough Leane.
  14. Now you'll have several days to explore the area west of Listowel, but you'll be relatively close to Limerick and Shannon for your return home. Depending what time your flight is, you can safely get up at the crack of dawn and drive to the airport, or for a little more mind-ease, stay at a hotel or B&B near the airport.

Have a great trip!

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