I had the privilege of spending 3 weeks in Ireland on my first trip there in August and September this year.
Passionate about travel I always love the destination but Ireland was every bit as pretty and dramatic as I hoped it would be. We were very fortunate with the weather and enjoyed fantastic view after view as we drove around. The winding roads were much smaller than I'm used to particularly in the coastal areas. I am glad I wasn't driving as I have no idea how people can drive so quickly when they don't know what's around the corner but it all seems to work, I don't recall seeing one accident while I was away.
The scenery changed constantly but there was absolutely a lot of lush, green, landscape, making it clear why Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle. There were regularly lots of trees and wildflowers along the sides of the road and the contrast of the stark white, stone or brightly coloured houses seen against the green and blue landscapes was spectacular.
If you're planning a trip around South West Ireland it would be wise to allow a lot more time than you think you'll need. We did almost all the Ring of Kerry and saw quite a bit of the Wild Atlantic Way but there is still a lot more that could be seen on future trips.
20 MUST SEE DESTINATIONS
1) Cork City
After flying Sydney to London via Dubai and London to Cork I genuinely surprised myself when I was up past midnight on my first evening there but then again I was keen to visit my first Irish pub!
That evening reignited my interest in a gin and tonic. Gin is extremely popular in Ireland with many places having menus to choose both your gin and tonic from, they also have lots of amazing local brands. Supporting one of the local brands Dingle Gin became a favourite as did combining it with elderflower tonic, something I did not know existed before this trip. Adding to the experience was how they were served as they were poured into large balloon glasses like those normally used for red wine.
Hotel Montenotte is a lovely boutique hotel with a fantastic view over Cork. The restaurant and bar areas are beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed dinner (quality food and large portions) and breakfast (great buffet with hot and cold selections). We only spent the first night there but could have happily stayed longer.
Situated on a river with lots of traditional architecture Cork is a very pretty city. When exploring the city take a stroll through the English Market and if you are looking for a nice spot for a drink and some food try Soho. For some well-priced and very tasty Indian try Eastern Tandoori. I was recommended Tiramisu as a great Italian option but didn't get there this trip.
At the end of the trip we had another 2 nights in Cork, this time staying at the Imperial Hotel Cork which was beautiful and right in the centre of the city. It is a stunning hotel, with several different places to eat and drink. There is also a spa linked to the property which we visited twice to enjoy the heated jacuzzi.
We went to The Oliver Plunkett one evening for the Traditional Irish Dinner and Show. We had a good evening but found the show a bit disappointing and the food choices were very limited. We'd definitely recommend the pub as a great place to visit for a few drinks and next time we see live Irish music we'll go where the locals would go to hear it.
2 & 3) Gougane Barra & Glengarriff
Gougane Barra is a nice place to visit for lunch to see picturesque views of the lake and the beautiful, old church. Glengarriff is a lovely seaside town with nearby walking trails providing great harbour views and the opportunity to see many seals happily resting on rocks near the coastline.
4) Dzogchen Beara Buddhist Meditation Centre
As another great day out we had lunch at Dzogchen Beara before walking around the grounds and the views are simply incredible. We walked along the edge of the coast to the nearby donkey sanctuary.
5) Dunboy Castle
Although it was great to see the ruins of the old castle the magical part of this experience for me was the beautiful views we keep encountering on our walk around the castle and surrounding areas.
6, 7 & 8) Beara Peninsula Towns: Eyeries, Castletownbere and Ardgroom
Local towns are nestled into the landscape and the brightly coloured houses come as a surprise. Many houses are painted in the brightest colours I've seen on houses, yet incredibly they all seem to work in with their surroundings.
For a truly traditional Irish pub experience Maccarthy's in Castletownbere is a must to visit. The pub has been in the family for many years and they won Irish Pub of the Year in 2016. We had homemade vegetable soup and soda bread for lunch that was fantastic and a version of this became our favourite pub lunch for the trip. I decided to try Guinness unsure whether I'd tasted it before or not. I thought it tasted like a combination of beer and vegemite, which will no doubt horrify Guinness drinkers as a description. Although I didn't try it again this trip I expect to try it again at different stages in the future.
9) Healy Pass
Healy Pass was the first of two stunning mountain passes we were fortunate enough to travel. We were stopped at one point by an older man who we thought was going to ask us for a ride but he just said hello and asked us a few questions. As he appeared to arrive out of nowhere and disappear much the same way, I couldn't resist hoping I had perhaps met a real leprechaun for good luck :)
10, 11 & 12) Kilmakilloge, Kenmare and Moll's Gap
Taking the scenic drive options there are constantly beautiful places to stop and take pictures. On the way into Kenmare we stopped at Helen's Bar for lunch near the water and in Kenmare we stayed at the Lansdowne Arms Hotel. There was no shortage of pubs to choose for dinner and we picked Foley's for an early dinner opting for the fish, chips and mushy peas and yes, I like the mushy peas. The next day we travelled through Moll's gap the second amazing mountain pass of the trip with impressive views of the lakes.
13, 14, & 15) Lakes of Killarney, Torc Waterfall & Killarney
Seeing the lakes and waterfall that are part of Killarney National Park are highly recommended for nature lovers and the town of Killarney is a great place to stop and stay. However, after being recommended a venue by fellow travellers at the waterfall, we decided to stay just out of Killarney at Killeen House. It is a truly beautiful venue with fabulous, friendly owners, a nice bar and excellent restaurant. I believe the Irish Coffee was the best I've ever had and for those that love golf it is a dream destination, one of the golfers we spoke to has gone there every year for the last 26 years!
16) The Kerry Cliffs
When we went to the visit the Kerry Cliffs it was pouring with rain, it was very heavy rain and we were soaked. If we'd been able to come back another time we would have but we knew this was the only opportunity this trip we'd have to see what we could of the cliffs.
As we walked from one lookout location to another we only saw a couple of other tourists as they were leaving, the place was almost deserted. We were disappointed as we could tell that the views would be great if you could see them. As we walked to the third lookout area which would be our last we experienced a mini-miracle, as we stood there the mist lifted and the most incredible views opened up to us to experience as the only people there, which became the highlight of the trip for me.
Funnily enough the Cliffs of Kerry as a tourist spot is still new for locals. We were telling some locals where we'd been and when we said we'd seen the Cliffs of Kerry some thought we were mistaken as they hadn't heard of them before.
That night we drove into Sneem which is a gorgeous little town for dinner and we stayed out of town at Staigue Fort House. The house was 102 years old and Sheila has been the owner for over 30 years. If you are looking for a budget friendly, welcoming place to stay it is a great choice and Sheila's breakfast is fabulous.
17) Dingle Peninsula
The drive around the Dingle Peninsula via Inch, Dingle and Ventry is stunning. We stayed overnight at the Ceann Sibeal Hotel where we had a beautiful big room and a lovely bar and breakfast area downstairs. The next day we drove to Tarbert and caught the car ferry to County Clare.
18) Kilkee Beach
Driving through Clare towards the Cliffs of Moher were more scenic coastal locations including Kilkee Beach and Quilty.
19 & 20) Ballinalacken Castle & Cliffs of Moher
We stayed at Ballinlacken Castle Country House Hotel on the recommendation of the same travellers we met at Torc Waterfall. We were fortunate enough to arrive in time to do the exclusive guest tour of all that remains of the original castle, which was much more than first meets the eye. We got to see how the different floors were constructed and it was a very special experience. In the Country House Hotels the rooms were beautiful and there was a lovely restaurant and bar on site.
We expected the Cliffs of Moher to be a highlight but they were better than expected, possibly in part due to the brilliant weather we had on the first afternoon. We opted to do the boat cruise the next morning to see the cliffs from the water as well which was definitely worthwhile, although I wouldn't recommend it if the weather was unfavourable as the sea can be quite rough. The cliffs were formed over 300 million years ago and there are about 8 kilometres of cliffs. For me, the best views were from the top, had we had more time we would have walked a longer section of the top trails as the views we saw were breathtaking.
Below are some of the places that I didn't get to see in my first trip that I would definitely like to see on a future visit.
Skellig Michael and The Blasket Islands in Puffin season
Wicklow National Park