Last updated on September 12, 2023
My Nissan Micra rental car was tiny. Whatever you’re thinking, think smaller. Perhaps for this reason, the decision to sleep in said car for an evening wasn’t my brightest idea.
But for all of the plan’s faults, it did show me just how far the Irish will go for the sake of some friendly hospitality.
Leaving from Cork (after having successfully kissed the Blarney Stone), another backpacker from the hostel hitched a ride with me and we decided to travel the Beara Peninsula together.
This section of Ireland is best known for the Ring of Kerry, but I had time and many locals indicated that I should drive the Ring of Beara as well. The Beara landscape is rugged and rocky, with lush green valleys, tall rocky cliffs, and flowered hillsides. There are also passingly few tourists!
Suffice to say that it was stunning. As we navigated tiny, pot-holed Irish roads, Curtis and I discussed our options for hostels that night. Curtis was backpacking around Europe in a decidedly different manner than myself—he was camping and hitchhiking the whole way.
With that in mind, he pointed to a spot on the map—the very tip of the Beara Peninsula—and suggested we camp there for the night, so we would wake with stunning ocean views of the ocean on three sides in the morning.
Which Direction Should You Drive the Ring of Beara?
While many/most itineraries take you counter-clockwise around the Beara Peninsula, considering the truly tiny winding roads, I felt far safer on a clockwise route.
Imagine you’re setting out in the morning light; the anticipation tingles in the air, much like the taste of the sea. As you proceed in a clockwise manner, you’ll find yourself on the inner lane, granting you easier access to those captivating viewpoints and turn-offs that would be challenging to negotiate from the outer lane.
Driving clockwise, you are also in better sync with the natural flow of traffic, thus reducing the stress of oncoming vehicles on the narrower parts of the road. This is particularly beneficial during the tourist season when motorhomes and fellow explorers are also journeying through this emerald dreamscape.
But beyond the logistical ease, there’s an intangible, almost poetic, reason for this direction. Moving clockwise, you start with the raw, untamed beauty of the Beara Peninsula, the mountains acting as stoic guardians of ancient lore. Then, as you weave through the roads, you gradually meet the Atlantic—first a glimpse, then a full panoramic view as if the curtains of a grand theater have been pulled back for the final act.
How Long Do You Need for the Ring of Beara?
You could book it around the peninsula in a few hours flat, but why on Earth would you do that!
To fully experience the Ring of Beara, including its key attractions like Healy Pass, Garnish Island, and various picturesque villages, a full day is often recommended.
However, if you wish to include additional activities such as hiking on Dursey Island or more in-depth exploration, consider extending your trip to two days.
The drive itself is around 85-90 miles (137-145 kilometers), but the winding roads and frequent stops for photos or walks can make it a lengthy journey. There are a good number of accommodations you can easily book along the way.
Driving the Ring of Beara in One or Two Days
Curtis’ plan sounded incredible! So we set off to explore this little visited part of Ireland’s southern coast. En route to the tip, we hiked many slopes around Beara and drove many tiny, winding roads, and stopped in many charming fishing villages. The landscape is truly breathtaking and worthy of a drive.
Yes, it’s a tad similar to the Ring of Kerry, which I drove in the following days, but there is far less development. It is, in a word, worth visiting. Embarking on a two-day journey around the Ring of Beara affords you the privilege of savoring its less trodden paths, without the ticking clock compelling you to hurry.
You explore the mainland’s tucked-away corners, but you also have ample time to set foot on Dursey Island, breathe in its history, and even indulge in a hike.
Start in Kenmare
Most Ring of Beara drives will start from Kenmare, a culinary town par excellence. You don’t need to stay there, but instead can drive in from places nearby, as we did from Cork. If you haven’t had breakfast yet, start your day with a hearty Irish breakfast in this vibrant town.
Set out toward Glengarriff (which is where you can really start if you’re driving from that direction). But get ready for the Ring of Beara adventures to already start.
Spend an Hour at Bonane Heritage Park
Just 10 miles from Kenmare is Bonane Heritage Park. You’ll have the chance to walk through 5,000 years of history, exploring ancient stone circles and early Christian settlements.
Allow about an hour or so here; it sets the historical tone for the day ahead.
Visit Bamboo Park or Garnish Island
Once you arrive in Glengarriff, take some time to meander through Bamboo Park. The exotic gardens make an ideal setting for a peaceful stroll.
If you’ve got time (maybe you skipped the Heritage Park, or you’re taking it slow as you explore the Beara Peninsula), head to Garnish Island, Ireland’s hidden horticultural gem nestled in the placid waters of Bantry Bay.
Italian gardens flirt with a rugged Irish landscape on this unique island.
Accessible by a short ferry ride from the harbor town of Glengarriff, this journey feels like you’re stepping into a scene from a storybook. As you ride the ferry, keep your eyes peeled for seals basking on the rocks, and perhaps even a white-tailed eagle soaring overhead.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream’s warming touch, this island boasts a unique microclimate that allows for a diverse range of exotic flora to flourish. We’re talking about everything from bamboo groves to palm trees! It’s like walking through a garden wonderland designed by a landscape artist with a flair for the dramatic.
Don’t miss the Italian Gardens, with their meticulously crafted terraces, or the Grecian Temple offering panoramic views back to the mainland
Ascend Healy Pass
Ascend the winding roads of the Healy Pass, a summit that could’ve been crafted by the gods of old, for vistas that simply defy adjectives.
The roads zigzag through the mountains in a way that feels like you’re ascending to another world. The views at the summit stretch both Cork and Kerry counties and they’re nothing short of soul-stirring.
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Sleep in Castletownbere
End your day in the fishing town of Castletownbere if you’re spending two or more days on the Beara Peninsula. You can enjoy locally caught seafood before retiring for the night. This town makes an excellent stopover for the night; it offers various accommodations and has a charming, local feel.
It also offers free campervan parking, which is a huge plus for those touring Ireland in an RV or campervan.
Take the Cable Car to Dursey Island
Catch the first cable car of the day to Dursey Island. It’s a short, unique ride that may have you sharing space with local sheep rather than tourists. Then prepare for a hike to explore this unique island.
The island is a canvas of untamed landscapes, sprinkled with historical points of interest. Hiking here is like wandering through the pages of an unwritten folklore. Follow the way-marked trails that lead you to ruins whispering tales of yore and viewpoints that challenge the sea to a staring contest.
Admire the Cottages in Allihies
Take the cable car back to the mainland and make your way to Allihies, a village radiant with the vibrant hues of its cottages. Consider visiting the Copper Mine Museum to add a layer of understanding to the area’s history.
If you have the time, you could drive a short distance to the village of Eyeries, a burst of color with its pastel-painted houses and panoramic views of Coulagh Bay.
Listen to Traditional Irish Music at a Pub in Allihies
Depending on how spent you are, you may choose to head back to Kenmare or spend another night in Allihies, perhaps taking the opportunity to indulge in some local music at a village pub.
Dive the Coast to Gleninchaquin Park
If you have more of a drive in you, aim your steering wheel towards Kenmare. The drive itself, curving along roads fringed with wildflowers and cliffs that fall into the ocean, is mesmerizing.
After winding through roads hugged by hillsides, you’ll reach the sprawling sanctuary of Gleninchaquin, which is marked by an undeniable shift in atmosphere. The air grows denser with the earthy perfume of wet soil and foliage. Pick one of the walking trails suitable for all levels, and wander through forests, meadows and past streams.
The crescendo is the waterfall. While not the grandest in the world, the setting is serene and a good spot for a picnic lunch or snack if you’ve packed something.
Take in the Uragh Stone Circle
If Gleninchaquin provided a sense of Mother Earth’s grandeur, Uragh whispers the ancient tales of mankind’s eternal quest for meaning. A short walk from a modest parking area will bring you to this Bronze Age stone circle dramatically set against the backdrop of a lake and hulking mountains.
Stand among the stones and feel their silent but potent energy. For a moment, you’re not merely a traveler; you’re a link in an ageless continuum, toeing the line between the known and the inexplicable.
Ring of Kerry vs Ring of Beara
Ideally, you have enough time to visit both of these pretty peninsulas that jut into the wild Atlantic Ocean. The Ring of Kerry and the Ring of Beara offer different, yet equally compelling, siren calls to the soul in search of Ireland’s quintessence.
While both routes are feasible to drive on consecutive days, the question really boils down to your personal travel ethos: Are you the sort to devour a place, sampling its every nook and cranny in quick succession, or do you prefer to sip slowly, savoring the intricate flavors of each individual experience?
The Ring of Kerry is the more popular of the two, teeming with tourists eager to capture its celebrated panoramas and iconic Irish landmarks. It’s like a well-orchestrated symphony with each turn revealing a new melodic vista or cultural note. If you’re of the sort that finds energy among fellow travelers and loves to hit the high spots, then the Ring of Kerry can be an exhilarating prelude or grand finale to your Ring of Beara adventure.
Conversely, the Ring of Beara is the quieter, perhaps more introspective sibling. It’s like a lingering folk tune played in a dim-lit pub. The roads are narrower, the towns smaller, and the experience more intimate. If you’ve just done the bustling Ring of Kerry, the Beara Peninsula offers a peaceful respite to reflect upon the collective beauty you’ve absorbed.
Given their contrasting natures, it’s often a matter of pacing and personal preference as to which you’d like most. I vote that you drive both, but dedicate two days to one or the other. And if you have the time, the Dingle Peninsula’s Slea Head Drive is well worth the trip a little further west.
Go Slow and Discover True Irish Hospitality
On my own drive of the Beara Peninsula, the first time I visited, we had a bit more of an adventure. We made it to the tip of the peninsula with a plan to camp for the night, but there was nowhere to park and set up the camping stove for dinner.
After reworking our game plan, we turned the car around and approached one of the houses along the bay.
As we slowly pulled into the driveway of one of the houses, a weathered face popped around the back corner of the house and threw a distracted but welcoming wave our way.
Or new plan made me nervous, but as I stepped out of the car a yapping puppy tore around the corner and bee-lined straight for us. The puppy jumped on me, eliciting much laughter, then he ricocheted off of my legs and pounced on Curtis. The man matching the face followed the dog’s path around the corner, wiping dirty hands on his pants.
In the way of the Irish, we got a heartfelt hello from Mighty and a wee bit of talk about the weather before he sent us a questioning look about why we had parked in his driveway.
Curtis took the lead and asked Mighty if we could park in his driveway for the night. He was taken aback but also curious.
He laughed deeply and nodded his ascent while openly wondering just who in their right mind would want to sleep outside in this rainy, cold weather.
But the Irish are a friendly lot. Once we had a place to park, the only thing left was to chat some more. Mighty’s neighbors wandered over to see the fuss, and all of them were amused by the young’uns planning to sleep outside in the car.
As the conversation wound down, Mighty indicated that he had to start dinner for his mother. As he headed over to the nearby garden he asked us if we would like a few potatoes?
The correct response to this would have been yes. And I am still kicking myself that we said no. Honestly, I kinda thought that Mighty was pulling our leg with the offer of potatoes: I mean, come on, how cliché to have a potato garden, right?!
But he was serious. He waved us off with another amused chuckle and invited us up to breakfast in the morning if we made it through the night. As we made our way back to the car, Mighty picked up his garden hoe and continued digging up his dinner.
Neither Curtis nor I slept particularly well—it was incredibly cold and not altogether comfortable to sleep in the cold on the tip of a peninsula jutting into the chilly Atlantic.
But all of that was forgiven when, at the crack of dawn, we stepped out of the car to a cold dewy morning with sunlight creeping up over the horizon, lighting the bay and highlighting the many fisherman leaving the harbor for a day at sea.
Mighty called down from the house for us and we headed inside to a sunny kitchen with the warm scents of fresh Irish soda bread. Mighty offered to cook up some fresh mackerel for breakfast, and was outright speechless when I indicated that though the offer was so kind, I don’t eat fish.
He was shocked, and after a lot of laughter he asked me what on earth I eat to keep myself from starvation?
With a straight face I responded, “grass.”
His guffaws shook the roof.
As his laughter settled into a chuckle, Mighty prepared tea, bread, jam, and fish for breakfast. As I tucked into the dense brown bread, a four-year-old head crept through the door.
Little Nisha plopped down at the breakfast table, followed minutes later by her dad, one of the neighbors we had met the previous day.
We all shared a lovely breakfast and everyone was warm and gracious. After they had us fed and warmed up with the tea, Nisha’s dad offered us his spare bedroom if we were planning to stay in the area for a second night.
Since Curtis had a plane to catch a few days later, we couldn’t take them up on it, but all I had ever heard about Irish hospitality had certainly proved true. And my conclusion at the end of a fun and memorable couple of days in rural Ireland: I should have said yes to the potatoes! ;-)
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