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September 17-26, 2009
Ireland, just the mention conjures up visions of rolling green hills dotted with sheep, towering castles, and a pint full of Guinness in a cozy corner pub—add to that collage images of tweed capped Irishmen, thatched roof cottages, jagged sea cliffs and megalithic tombs and you have the perfect picture of the Emerald Isle.
After a long flight across The Pond, we arrived in Shannon eager to start collecting our own images of Ireland—setting our sights on Killarney National Park, our trio of explorers made quick work of the narrow winding roads that lead to and encompass the Ring of Kerry.
A profusion of natural beauty has drawn visitors to Killarney and its surrounding lakes for hundreds of years—Muckross Abbey, Torc waterfall, and a trio of lakes (Lough Leane, Muckross Lake, and Upper Lake) combine to create the single most powerful magnet for hikers.
Sparkling Lakes, waterfalls, ancient yew forests, shy sika deer, the roofless ruins of Muckross Abbey, Ross Castle and the stately Victorian manor known as the Muckross House await the hiker that walks the trails within Killarney National Park—a paradise of glacially carved glens, mountains, and lakes.
The park, encompassing an area of 96 square kilometers, showcases the natural beauty and the history of Ireland’s County Kerry—strings of lakes bordered by forested mountains hide the ruins and manor house found along the path we describe. Three lakes or loughs, Leane (or Lower), Muckross (or Middle), and Upper make up the world famous Lakes of Killarney—along with the surrounding woodlands, the area is part of an environment so pure and unique that it was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
To explore the park on foot, simply park at one of the car parks found along N71—we parked at the lot located on the east side of N71 just north of the Muckross House. From the car park, cross the road and follow the signed path, a wide dirt trail that leads downhill towards the shores of Lough Leane—continue skirting the edge of the water, taking in the views of the small islands that dot the lake. The path soon crosses a small stream via a footbridge before reaching the road that leads to the impressive ruins of Muckross Abbey—a well-preserved fifteenth century Franciscan friary with an intact two-story cloister with a gnarled old yew tree at its center—approximately one kilometer from the car park.
Once you reach the abbey, take your time and explore the ancient ruins—the haunting grounds, which contain a graveyard, a vaulted bell tower, the cloister, a refectory and a sacristy are both serene and exhilarating.
From Muckross Abbey, take a short detour down the nearby bucolic pathway where you might glimpse sika deer, Irish hares, ravens, and huge bulls complete with nose rings. After the diversion down the leaf strewn path, return to the signed intersection and continue hiking another kilometer to the Muckross House—a nineteenth century Neo-Elizabethan estate.
Another highlight within Killarney National Park is Torc Waterfall, a picturesque 60-foot cascade along the Owengarriff River—to reach the falls, simply follow the yellow route from the car park, strolling along a wide path through a broad-leaved woodland to the base of the flowing cascade.
The walk takes approximately 35 to 40 minutes for the half-mile roundtrip journey, a relatively easy price to pay for such wonderful views—reaching the multi-tiered falls involves a short climb up a stepped path that parallels the cascading stream. Sycamore and Mountain Ash shade the path, providing the perfect environment for tiny mushrooms—watch for patches of the shrooms popping from the moss-covered trunks of trees. Once you reach the base of the falls, you can turn around and retrace your steps and return to the car for a short hike or you can continue climbing the flight of steps to the left of the cascade to reach the top of the falls and eventually the summit of Torc Mountain.
Killarney National Park had lived up to our expectations, providing an exciting and scenic first look at Ireland. As the day began to wind down and the hours of travel began to catch up with us, we left Killarney and settled in for a long drive to the coast of St. Finan’s Bay—a picturesque bay at the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula overlooking the Skellig Islands.
Destined for the Beach Cove Bed and Breakfast, situated on the scenic Skellig Ring between Ballinskelligs and Portmagee, we looked forward to a warm Irish welcome—thoughts of a warm cup of tea and a cozy fire kept us sane on the long, taxing drive through the hills and valleys of County Kerry.
Overcast skies and a slight drizzle filled the air as we arrived at the Beach Cove—tired, famished, and cold we made our way to the front door of the B&B. After a few knocks, the innkeeper Birdie appeared at the threshold wearing a big smile—it appeared the anticipated Irish hospitality was about to be realized. To our chagrin, that was not the case—without even inviting us in to her home, Bridie explained to us (outside in the rain) that despite the fact that we had reserved our bed and breakfast over a month ago, she would be leaving for Dublin and would not be able to provide us with any amenities that evening or with breakfast tomorrow. So, not only would we not be enjoying a cup of tea that evening, we were on our own—in the middle of nowhere—for dinner and breakfast. Oh, and we were then told by Birdie that if we wanted something to eat we should turn around, drive back over the hill from hell, and head for the town of Portmagee—and we had better hurry because all the restaurants would be closing in a few minutes! Really! Thanks for nothing lady!
Despite our disappointment and anger, we tried to make light of the situation—piling back in the car, the three of us performed our own version of Bridie’s deadpan delivery of bad news (a perfect SNL skit adaptation in the making) as we hauled our tired, jetlagged asses back over the mountain to Portmagee. Thankfully, we found a local pub that was still serving food—with our bellies full of fish and chips; we were able to see the bright side of the debacle and focused our thoughts on the adventures yet to come. Looking back, we should have just said “Bye Bye Bridie!”
The next morning, after a relatively restful night’s sleep, we awoke to rations of stale cereal and half-rotten fruit (provisions left in our cottage by our most accommodating host) and worse yet, more overcast skies—not exactly what one wants to see when you are hoping to catch a boat tour to an offshore island. Our destination for the morning, weather permitting, was the jagged rock known as Skellig Michael.
To reach the Skelligs, we booked a boat trip from Portmagee—the often rough, and for me terrifying, boat ride takes approximately an hour and the landing requires that you be agile. Small boats run out to the Skelligs between May and September depending on the weather—call a day ahead to book your trip. We booked through Murphy Sea Cruise, but several operators are ready and willing to whisk you away to the islands, and our captain assured us the weather was good enough to set voyage.
A voyage to the Skellig Islands, a pair of splintered rock pinnacles that have served for centuries as a haven from the rough Irish seas for humans and birds alike, is one of the most exhilarating and inspiring trips you can make in Ireland—jutting abruptly from the sea like shark teeth, the islands beckon visitors from nearly 8 miles off the Iveragh Peninsula.
The Skelligs are two massive slate and sandstone rocks, but they are more than just masses of natural rubble—both islands are important nature reserves, serving as bird sanctuaries that are home to populations of a number of seabirds, including Gannet, Atlantic Puffin, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Razorbill, and Storm Petrels.
Little Skellig, the smaller of the two, does not allow visitors but your boat driver will get you close enough to view the spectacle of over fifty thousand Gannets soaring above the guano capped peaks of the rock—the largest such community in Europe.
Great Skellig, or Skellig Michael, is also an important nature reserve but it is most renowned for the 6th century monastic ruins found at its 700 foot high summit—the impressive ruins of the Celtic monastery garnered the island UNESCO World Heritage Site honors in 1996.
As we set out across the ocean, the skies began to clear and bright blue replaced the gray—perfect conditions for hiking and photography on the island. Upon landing on Skellig Michael, a feat sure to get your heart racing—imagine leaping off a boat as it rises and dips with the action of the waves onto a set of stone stairs clinging to the side of a concrete pier—begin exploring the island by following the paved path approximately a half-mile to the base of the 1,000 year old steps. Take a deep breath, gather your camera, and set off on the steep uphill climb—the vertigo-inducing stone steps numbering in the 600’s take the hiker past sheer cliffs, unique vegetation, and nesting birds in season (thousands of puffins nest from early spring to August)—a word of caution, this hike is not to be taken lightly, just one day after our visit, a middle-aged American woman fell to her death in the very same spot as an elderly American gentleman earlier in the year. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of those intrepid travelers.
Upon reaching the 715-ft summit of Skellig Michael, you will be rewarded with an intimate look at the sixth-century beehive huts and tiny oratory chapels of the monks—the compact, incredibly well-preserved monastery reflects the ingenuity and devotion of its early Christian inhabitants. You are free to walk into and around the beehive huts, which served as the monks’ homes for nearly 1300 years, and the chapel and refectory—daytrippers generally have two hours to explore the island, so mind the time. One could easily spend hours admiring the ruins, high crosses, and spectacular coastal views from the summit, but alas, the boatman calls and we must return to the quay—simply return via the same path and prepare for the thrilling return back across the Atlantic.
With Portmagee and the Skellig Islands disappearing in our rearview mirror, we drove along the bottom of The Ring of Kerry towards Staigue Fort—stopping briefly in the town of Waterville. Waterville, located on the east side of Ballinskelligs Bay, is a beautifully refined little town—offering the traveler endless views of its pebble beach and adjacent grassy public walkway.
Arriving in town around lunchtime, we quickly decided upon one of the many restaurants available to hungry patrons—the Bayview Hotel, located across the street from the Charlie Chaplin statue, proved to be the perfect choice. The three of us dined on burgers, fish and chips, and seafood chowder while enjoying the sprawling seaside view—a few pints of Guinness topped off the meal perfectly.
A few miles down the road, we arrived at Staigue Fort—a shockingly well-preserved 1500 B.C. ring fort, set in a beautiful valley dotted with wandering sheep, roads lined with hedgerow fuchsia and blackberry bushes, and a quaint waterfall straight out of a fairytale.
To explore the ring fort, a worthwhile stop along the Ring of Kerry that is always open and free, drive to the car park located 2.5 miles off the main N70 road (signs point the way), then simply hike less than a tenth of a mile to the fort itself—the dry-stone ring is well over 100 feet in diameter, and nearly five meters high and four meters thick. As you explore the exterior and interior of the ring, followed by sheep as you hike, look for the stone steps on the inside of the ring that lead to the top of the thick stone walls—the high vantage point affords excellent views of the sea and surrounding mountains.
After exploring the stone fort, we continued driving along the Ring of Kerry enjoying the scenic views of the countryside—of particular interest were the occasional ruins of old stone cottages. Alas, we could not explore them all for we were hoping to photograph Ross Castle in the light of dusk and beyond. Ross Castle, located in Killarney National Park, is an impressive example of a medieval tower house—built around 1420; it was the last stronghold under Irish control to be taken by Cromwell in 1653.
We photographed the castle, which unfortunately the park did not light on this particular day, into the late evening hours before setting our sights on our home for the night—The Shores Bed and Breakfast in Castlegregory.
Our first experience with a bed and breakfast having been a bit of a disaster, we were nervous about arriving late to The Shores, but our fears were completely unfounded—our host, Annette, a most gracious and elegant woman, welcomed us into her home with open arms and showed us to our well-appointed room. After giving us a tour and making sure we were settled in, she offered to make us a pot of tea and/or something to eat—an offer we gladly accepted.
The next morning, after a wonderful night’s sleep in a beautiful and immaculate room, we enjoyed one of the best breakfasts we have ever eaten—the meal was elegantly presented and absolutely delicious. In fact, Annette’s cooking was not to be outdone for our entire ten day trip—The Shores Country House has to be the best bed and breakfast in Ireland—a must stay if you are touring the Dingle Peninsula.
Leaving The Shores Country House, we made our way to Brandon Bay Beach—a wide stretch of sand just across the road from the bed and breakfast. Strolling along the beach, we marveled at the rippled textures of the sand and the clouds reflecting in the pools of water—Pick and Hoops even found an old rusty horseshoe while beachcombing, assuring that the luck of the Irish would follow us for the rest of the trip.
Many highlights awaited us as we continued our driving tour of the Dingle Peninsula—dramatic mountain passes, beehive huts, and coastal splendors lie down the road from Castlegregory’s fine beaches.
Conor Pass, the highest mountain pass in Ireland and one of the highlights of the Dingle Peninsula, provides a dramatic and scenic way to enter or leave Dingle—this narrow, twisting road cuts through the lofty Brandon Mountains between Dingle Town and Kilmore Cross on the north side of the peninsula.
Views from the road are breathtaking—glacially carved mountains, including Ireland’s second highest peak Mount Brandon (3,123 ft), and corrie lakes tinged black with granite and peat, spread out across the landscape as far as the eye can see.
The dramatic landscape of Conor Pass, also known as Conor Hill Road, beckons to the hiker imprisoned in the confines of a car—when you hear the call, don’t fight the urge to park the car and set off on foot, several walking paths allow the adventurous to explore the Irish countryside. One such path, located just north of Conor Pass, can be accessed by parking in the cramped car park adjacent to the small waterfall clearly seen from the road—the cascade, fed by a stream running from Pedlar’s Lake to the Owenmore Valley, tumbles over a ridge of rock just feet from the road.
The waterfall attracts shutterbugs that capture one or two shots and then hop back in their car, but to the trained eye, it is obvious that an unseen lake exists above the rocky ridge from which the falls plummet—to access the shores of the lake, begin climbing the granite slabs that angle up from the road to the ridge. As you hike, mind your footfall—only 10,000 years have passed since the last ice melted here, and evidence of alpine glaciations and vegetation are everywhere. Classic U-shaped valleys, such as Glenahoo, and micro-striations on the corrie walls surrounding the lake are clear signs that a glacier masterminded the scenery laid out before you—breathtaking peaks and a crystal-clear lake remain just out of sight.
Continue climbing the unmarked path, choosing the route as you go, until you gain the top of the ridge—Pedlar’s Lake, a corrie or glacial lake, is now visible surrounded by huge glacial erratics and towering rocky peaks. You can now explore the small loch at leisure, noting the unique vegetation and lichen covered granite slabs that color the terrain—when you return to the car, watch for an interesting erratic that has been split in two by the forces of nature.
The road upwards winds along the base of huge mountain cliffs, topping off with incredible views of Dingle Bay and Dingle Town to the south—the views becoming ever more expansive as you spiral downwards towards the bay.
Dingle, An Daingean in Gaelic, is a compact town with narrow streets leading to the seafront—several shops, pubs, and boat tours out into Dingle Bay can be found within the city. We walked the streets, shopped the shops, and grabbed a bite to eat before setting off for Dunbeg.
Ringforts and Beehive huts are the most numerous and widespread field monuments in Ireland—the majority of which were enclosed farmsteads despite the defensive connotation implied by the name fort. The landscape along the Dingle Peninsula is dotted with several Iron Age (500 B.C.-A.D. 500) dry-stone forts, known as the Fahan Group, these huts were often found attached to each other with a doorway and are generally round like a beehive—erected in the form of a circle of successive strata of stone rising upward until only a small opening was left at the top, which was closed by a capstone. This method of building is called corbelling.
Dún Beg Fort, situated on a precarious cliff above the Atlantic, is most impressive due to its spectacular ocean side setting at the base of Mount Eagle—despite having partially crumbled into the sea below. Plenty of interest remains at the site, and you can walk a path down to the ruins for €3, but we opted to skip the admission fee and simply view the fort from the road.
Saving our Euros and our legs for the next grouping of Beehive Huts, we continued driving clockwise on Slea Head Drive (R559) east from Ventry—parking in the public car park one kilometer from Dún Beg Fort, where we then climbed the steep path that winds up the southern slope of Mount Eagle to the Fahan Group of clocháns (stone beehive huts). Entrance to the site is €2, and the small fee is used by the National Monument Group to cover maintenance—the site also offers WC facilities (loved the sign on the inside of the outhouse door-see photograph).
At the top of the incline, after a hike of about a tenth of a mile, you will find yourself in the middle of a group of beehive huts—explore the lintelled passageways, paved pathways, beehive interiors, and triple clocháns of corbelled drystone (without mortar) structures of this fortress-like grouping to your heart’s content.

Onward we drove along the splendid coast—to our left, sheer cliffs plunged into the ocean below as a robust wind carried the mist up and over the precipice. Unexpectedly, we ford a stream that runs over the road and then round a bend to the sight of a life-sized crucifixion—the statue is a weather-washed white, save for the rust stained areas on Christ’s hands and feet that resemble blood. Known locally as An Cross, the statue marks the Slea Head promontory—seagulls perch along the roadside stone wall and panoramic vistas of the Blasket Islands stretch into the horizon.

Gallarus Oratory, another impressive stop on the Dingle Peninsula’s Slea Head Drive (R559), is one of the finest examples of an early-Christian church in Ireland—built in the 700’s, the church is often described as resembling an upturned boat.
The 1300 year-old drystone oratory sits proudly in its field at the very western edge of Europe—a short 0.12-mile fuchsia-lined path leads directly to the gracefully corbelled structure.
When you arrive at the oratory, take time to admire the well-placed stones, now weathered to soft tones that blend with the Irish countryside—go inside the church to experience the atmospheric light streaming in through the single window opposite the doorway. The grounds of the oratory are enclosed by a stone wall and a cross-inscribed slab adorns the area adjacent to the church—explore at leisure before retracing your steps to the car.
At the crossroads of Murreagh, the R559 turns right, eventually passing Kilmalkedar—a 12th-century ruined church in the Irish-Romanesque style. Kilmalkedar, once a pagan center of worship, is home to the famous Alphabet stone, a holed Ogham stone (standing pillar carved with both Roman and Ogham characters), an early sundial, and a 7th or 8th century stone cross.
We could have spent hours photographing the architectural details at Kilmalkedar, but we had a long drive ahead of us—our next B&B, The Fergus View Guesthouse, was located many miles away in the town of Kilnaboy. Our trusty Garmin GPS, which we had loaded with road maps of Ireland prior to our arrival, proved to be indispensible at locating not only the Fergus View, but all of our destinations on the trip—we highly recommend purchasing this time saving software.
Once again, we arrived at the guesthouse late in the evening hours—Mary, our host at the Fergus View, proved to be yet another gracious Irish woman. She had a fire burning in the sitting room, where she allowed us to eat a meal we had bought during our long drive, and she served us a pot of tea as well—the three of us will forever remember the kind smiles and welcoming nature of Mary, and many of our other affable hosts.
Day four of our Ireland odyssey began with another delicious Irish Breakfast—nobody does breakfast like the Irish—and a look through Mary’s library of local guide books. Two intriguing sights, the Kilnaboy Church and Kilmacduagh Monastery, caught our interest—despite an already full itinerary, we couldn’t resist adding these destinations to our “must see” list.
Our first destination of the day, located literally just across the street from the Fergus View Guesthouse, is known as Kilnaboy Church—an interesting medieval church from the 16th century. Highlights of an exploration of the church include the remnants of a Round Tower, a Crucifixion relief dated to 1644, and a 13th century Grotesque carving known as a Sheela-na-Gig—depicting a hag-like female figure with exaggerated genitalia, these carvings are thought to be medieval fertility symbols.
Back on the road, we clipped off the miles, or rather the kilometers, on our way to O’Dea Castle—the Dysert O’Dea Castle, including the surrounding area that is dotted with over 25 places of historical and archaeological interest, is the perfect starting point for the 6km Dysert Archaeology Trail—the trail can be walked and/or partially driven and highlights impressive monuments such as Dysert O’Dea Castle, St. Tola’s Church, the 11th century Round Tower, and St. Tola’s High Cross.
We began our hike by exploring the castle—Dysert O’Dea, perched on a rocky outcrop north of the high cross, was built in 1480. The castle was badly damaged by Cromwell in 1651, but it has been repaired and now serves as an archaeology center—you can now climb the spiraling stone stairs to the roof of the castle, passing by several restored rooms full of artifacts along the way.
From the castle, we began walking west and then south on the gravel driveway towards the marked trailhead that leads across the field to the high cross, round tower, and abbey—an opening in the stone wall at the end of the road provides access to the historical monuments. After climbing over the wall, the path crosses fields of green grass where cows graze—set amid this pastoral scene is the White Cross of Tola.
The High Cross, also called St. Tola’s Cross, is a unique example of a 12th century monastic high cross—the illuminated cross depicts a representation of the crucifixion and the figure of a powerful looking bishop, thought to be St. Tola, carved in relief.
After admiring the elaborate carvings on the high cross, including the intricate style of Irish interlacing work, continue hiking in a westerly direction toward St. Tola’s Church—the abbey is visible from the high cross.
St. Tola’s Church, or Dysert Abbey, stands on the site of an earlier Christian monastery built in the 8th century, reputedly by St. Tola himself—the present building dates mainly from the 12th century. Several features make the abbey unique, but its most famous feature is the Romanesque doorway surrounded by an order of twelve human heads and seven animal heads. Nearby stands a round tower, badly damaged by Cromwell’s forces.
The Round Tower, built as a defense for church valuables and as a refuge for the monks from Viking raiders, stands on the northwest corner of the church—a good turnaround spot.
With yet another historic monument checked off our list, we aimed our car for the west coast of Ireland—the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s top visitor attractions, stand unyielding against the crashing waves of the Atlantic—rising from 394 feet at Hag’s Head to 702 feet at their highest just north of O’Brien’s Tower, the cliffs dominate the Clare coast for nearly five miles. From the cliffs, a contender for a place in the “New Seven Wonders”, one can see Galway Bay, the Aran Islands, The Twelve Pins, and the Maum Turk Mountains in Connemara—assuming the rarity of a clear day of course.
The remote cliffs and slopes harbor many species of wildflowers and provide breeding grounds for a wide variety of sea birds—visitors to the cliffs are likely to go away impressed by the landscape, but unaware of the wider significance of Moher as a natural habitat. Hikers will surely appreciate the raw forces of nature that are at work in this amazing place—even just a short trek on the Cliff Walk offers ample opportunities to admire the flora and fauna of the magnificent Cliffs of Moher.
To begin your exploration of the cliffs, head straight past the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre to the newly built steps that curve upwards towards the cliff-top—the walk to the top is only 200 yards. At the top of the steps, you can turn left and head south towards Hag’s Head or bear right to hike along the wall made from slabs of Liscannor slate, some intricately designed with patterns made millions of years ago by sea creatures when the slate was still mud on the floor of the sea, to O’Brien’s Tower. The tower, built in 1835, is perched on a promontory close to the highest point of the cliffs—spectacular coastal views overlooking the offshore stacks of Goat Island, Branaunmore, and the great wall of Aillenasharragh and Carrickatrial to the north are your reward for braving the wind and, believe it or not, sea spray that whips up from the ocean 700 feet below. We can attest to the power of the wind, which was so strong at points that it literally almost blew us over—Pick even managed to pull off a remarkable impersonation of the Heat Miser, a character from the children’s Christmas special The Year Without a Santa Claus (See photo gallery for visual proof).
After admiring the views from the grounds around O’Brien’s Tower, no need to pay to climb to the top as the views are equivalent, we retraced our steps back down the steps to the T-intersection—now continuing in the opposite direction towards Hag’s Head at this point.
As you hike, glance over your shoulder towards the north for incredible views of O’Brien Tower’s promontory, the large offshore sea stack known as Branaunmore, and the sandstone platform that hangs eerily from the side of the cliff—the overhanging slab, no longer accessible during open hours without a guide, soars 200 meters above the boulder beach below. Continuing south on the path, you reach Mothar a Thairbh (the Cliff of the Bull) and eventually the Signal Tower at Hag’s Head—all along the route there are excellent opportunities for bird watching. The Cliffs of Moher host one of the major colonies of nesting seabirds in Ireland with over 20 species of nesting birds, including 9 species of breeding seabirds and up to 30,000 breeding pairs—look for fulmar, storm petrels, gannet, kittiwake, razorbill, gulls, and puffins from March to August. Hike as far as you like along this path and when you are ready, retrace your steps back to the car park—mileage varies depending on your turnaround point.
Leaving the cliffs and driving towards Doolin, we came across the picturesque Doonagore Castle—overlooking Doolin and the Atlantic Ocean, the round 16th century tower house is surrounded by a small walled enclosure.
Our tour of County Clare continued with a view of Leamaneh Castle—this ruined manor house lies at the junction of the Ballyvaughan, Corofin, and Kilfenore Roads in the stark setting of The Burren.
Delving into The Burren, a vast limestone plateau in northwest County Clare, we made a beeline for its most recognized landmark—the Poulnabrone Dolmen. Solitary, austere, and yet strangely beautiful, the Poulnabrone Dolmen dominates the otherwise bare limestone rock pavement of The Burren—a dramatic karst landscape.
The dolmen, a Neolithic portal tomb dating back to somewhere between 4200 BC and 2900 BC, consists of a twelve foot long slender slab of tabular limestone, the capstone, supported by two portal stones that raise the capstone nearly six feet from the ground—the formation creates a chamber in a 30 foot low cairn. While it is one of over 150 dolmens in Ireland, the magnificence of Poulnabrone garners the rock structure the honor of being one of Ireland’s most photographed monuments.
To photograph this tomb, the final resting place for over 25 of the Burren’s earliest inhabitants, drive six kilometers northwest of Carran where a large car park provides access to the trailhead—from there, set off on foot along the gravel path. After a short hike, the gravel ends and the remainder of the walk is across the famous clint and grike formations of the Burren—grikes are the vertical fissures, formed by water dissolving the limestone along joints, seen running through the limestone and clints are the limestone blocks surrounded by the fissures.
Newtown Castle, a beautifully restored 16th century fortified tower house, is located in an area of The Burren known for its archaeological, geological, and historical significance—we stopped and photographed the unique castle before continuing on towards Galway.
Destinations such as Corcomroe Abbey and Kilmacduagh Monastery can be found on most maps of Ireland, but while traveling to these sights we came across an unmarked ruin near a sign that read simply “Bishops Quarters”—this jumble of rocks complete with tombstones, a church, and Celtic Crosses glowed in the late afternoon sun. We made a quick detour to photograph the ruins before resuming our drive towards Galway and the well-known sights mentioned above.
Corcomroe Abbey, a well-preserved 13th century Cistercian monastery, stands out against the gray hills of The Burren—it was once known as “St. Mary of the Fertile Rock”, a reference to the Burren’s fruitful soil.
The abbey is noted for its detailed carvings and rich ornamentation—groined entry arches, Romanesque rib vaulting, capitals decorated with lotus leaves, human masks and dragon’s head carvings, and the effigy of an Irish Chieftain (Conor na Siudane Ua Briain) can all be viewed at the abbey.
Kilmacduagh Monastery, located near the town of Gort in county Galway, is home to extensive monastic ruins—a cathedral, four churches, and a leaning round tower nearly 35-meters high grace this unspoiled setting.
From Kilmacduagh, we drove on towards Roundstone and the Errisbeg Lodge—stopping on the way for dinner at Paddy Burkes in Clarinbridge. Dinner left much to be desired, we say skip this joint if you have the choice—we were 99% sure the mashed potatoes were instant, sacrilege!
Arriving at the Errisbeg Lodge late in the evening hours, par for the course, we would have to wait until morning to see the incredible view from the lodge, but Shirley, the host, kindly showed us to our room and took our breakfast order.
The next morning we enjoyed breakfast and the views from the lodge—ensconced between Errisbeg Mountain and the beaches of Gurteen and Dog’s Bay, the setting is ideal. Adding to the appeal of the lodge are the resident Connemara Horses—Misty and Dawn, and their faithful companion Brightly the friendly donkey, who love to be fed by lodge guests. Errisbeg Lodge could easily be a place to spend several days, but our whirlwind tour had us back on the pavement bound for Connemara National Park—en route, we made a quick stop in Roundstone.
Roundstone, a picturesque 19th century coastal village, is just a few minutes drive from the Errisbeg Lodge—photographers will appreciate the fantastic views of Bertraghboy Bay, the 12 Bens, and conversing with the traditional Irish fisherman who will gladly pose for a picture.
As we made our way to Connemara, the landscapes of lush valleys, dark peatlands, and pristine lakes or loughs kept us enthralled—narrow, winding lanes flanked by colorful bogland, red fuchsia, and yellow gorse provided ample grazing for the many sheep that call the area home.
The very name Connemara invokes visions of lonely glens, cloud-veiled mountains, and moorlands dotted with mysterious loughs—Connemara National Park, established in 1980, protects almost 20 sq km of this unique Irish ecosystem.
Situated in the heart of the West of Ireland in County Galway, Connemara National Park provides hikers with miles of trails across scenic mountains, bog expanses, grasslands, heaths, and woodlands—one such trail, the 1.5km Sruffaunboy Nature Trail, allows glimpses into the park’s varied terrain as it loops around the lower slopes of Diamond Hill.
The trailhead, located near the park’s Visitor Centre, is well-marked with a sign detailing the route (you will also find the Ellis Wood Nature Trail nearby)—follow the track by climbing the surfaced path past grazing pure bred Connemara Ponies and colorful flora such as golden gorse, purple moor-grass and lavender ling, aka heather. The higher you climb, the more incredible the views become—Diamond Hill looms above the trail and a viewpoint near the apex provides a panorama of Ballynakill Harbor, Barnaderg Bay, and Tully Mountain.
From the apex of the trail, the path begins to descend back towards the Visitor Centre—looping past the intersection with the Lower Diamond Hill Walk, an old stone circle, a stream, and a grassy pond to complete the circular route.
Leaving the vast wilderness of Connemara National Park, we made our way to a more civilized destination—Kylemore Abbey. The abbey, wedged between the slopes of the Twelve Bens and the waters of Kylemore Lough, is one of the most recognized landmarks in Ireland—the Gothic Revival castle has graced numerous calendars, postcards, and travel brochures. The abbey/castle is now a girl’s school run by Benedictine nuns, but visitors can still stroll the grounds and, for a fee, can gain partial access to the abbey—a walk along the lakeshore is free and provides the perfect vantage points for classic shots of the Gothic fortress.
With the road rising up to meet us, we ventured forth on our epic journey—next stop, Westport in County Mayo. Upon arriving in the easy-going town, we immediately searched out a place to eat—Hoops, Irish born and prone to striking up a conversation, asked around town for a good local pub serving lunch fare—the unanimous answer, The Clock Tavern.
The Clock Tavern, a family run bar and restaurant, provided us with a meal never to be forgotten—dining on Limerick ham, Irish Stew, and Fish and Chips, we savored every yummy bite. Foodies will appreciate the locally sourced home grown comforts—when we think of Ireland, we will dream of our meal at The Clock Tavern.
Bellies full and back on the road, we set the GPS for Dungloe, a small town northwest of Donegal and the location of our home for three nights—the Termon House.
The Termon House, the former house of an 18th century land agent, is located on the seashore of Maghery in the heart of the Gaeltacht (Gaelic speaking) area and has been restored by the Irish Landmark Trust—boasting two double bedrooms, one twin bedroom, two bathrooms, a huge country kitchen, and two fireplaces, the house comfortably sleeps up to six people.
We could hardly contain our excitement as we made the approach to the Termon House—the piled stones of a Famine Wall slowly guide your eye to the L-shaped white-washed house that has been standing vigil against the waves of the Donegal peninsula for centuries. Weathering the howling offshore winds and a tumultuous history, the house has an air of mystery that immerses you in its duality of formality and suffering—a nearby mass famine grave and the presence of the austere Famine Wall bear contrast to the elegant period furniture and impressive high ceilings of the home.
Having arrived at the Termon House in the light of day, a first for the trip, we were able to absorb the surroundings and settle in to our home away from home at a leisurely pace—a representative of the Irish Landmark Trust prepared for our arrival by building a cozy peat fire and firing up the oil fired stove that heats the entire house. It was absolutely lovely!
Settled in and ready for dinner, we traveled back to Dungloe (6kms) to find a restaurant and a grocery store to stock up on food for the house. We found the Bayview Lounge and Bar, a restaurant serving a traditional menu with wholesome Irish cooking, located close to the bridge—we dined on crab claws, Greek salad, and chicken with mushroom risotto, yum!
Exhausted, we downed the last few sips of Guinness and piled back in the car destined for our cozy Irish property—oddly enough, the approach to the Termon House in the dark hours evoked quite a different reaction from our trio. Our earlier excitement had now given way to a feeling of trepidation—the cozy building we left earlier now appeared foreboding in the darkness.
Our imaginations running wild, we slowly turned the key to the front door, fully expecting the ghost of a Famine victim to greet us in the hallway—instead; we were confronted with a huge, dark, empty house, silent except for the howling of the wind. Afraid to go upstairs, we gathered around the fire in the sitting room for tea—our nerves calmed, we made our way upstairs. The wind off of the ocean literally rattles the windows and howls through the house like a Banshee—we laughed at our silliness and chose a place to sleep, considering for a moment sleeping all in the same bed—safety in numbers you know.
The next morning, having survived the night without any paranormal happenings, we gathered in the huge country kitchen for a self-prepared breakfast—it was so nice to eat at our own pace in what was for all intents and purposes, our own home.
Gathering our gear and heading out on yet another adventure, we set our sights on Northern Ireland—the Carrick-a-Rede Bridge, Bushmills Distillery, the Giant’s Causeway, and Dunluce Castle drew us northwards through rainbow shrouded farmland.
Islands and cliffs, seabirds and shorelines, and an exciting walk across a narrow rope bridge await the hiker who visits Carrick-a-Rede—derived from the Irish language, the most popular interpretation of this placename is “the rock in the road.”
A short 1km (0.5 mile) long coastal footpath leads from the car park to Carrick–a- Rede Rope Bridge—a shaky 48 inch wide, 67 foot long, 80 foot high rope suspension bridge connecting the mainland and Carrick Island. As you make your way down the coastal path, mind your footing as you admire the limestone sea cliffs of Larrybane and the beauty of the area’s flora and fauna, as the route contains steep steps (161 by most counts) that can be slippery when wet—as is often the case.
The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is the only means of crossing the windy gap between the cliff and the basalt sea stack offshore—originally the bridge consisted of a meager walkway with a single guide rope. Today, the bridge is engineered to support six tons, sports two guide ropes as railings, and is monitored by a warden who controls foot traffic and closes the bridge during dangerous wind conditions. Indeed, the National Trust has made the bridge more stable, but be warned, it still sways enough to send shivers up your spine and turn a few knuckles white.
The first few steps out onto the bridge, with the ocean waves crashing into the rocks 30 meters below your feet, are exhilarating to say the least. Eventually, you reach Carrick Island where you can explore the surroundings, take in the views of Scotland and Rathlin Island, and observe the diverse birdlife—guillemots, fulmar, kittiwakes, and razorbills share nesting spots on the west side of Carrick and the adjoining mainland. Soak in the view, admire our feathered friends and then prepare to return to the mainland—brace yourself for a second helping of adrenaline, because the only way off the island is back across the swinging bridge.
Back to the safety of our car, we decided we needed a drink—next stop, the Old Bushmills Distillery. Whiskey has been distilled at Bushmills legally since 1608, making it the oldest licit distillery in the world—visitors can tour the massive factory and sample the whiskey. We just made a quick walk around the grounds and a stop in the gift shop—buying up logo shirts and different Irish whiskeys for friends back home.
The next stop on the main road beyond Bushmills is the Giant’s Causeway—Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a natural pavement of an estimated 37,000 black basalt columns, each one a polygon with hexagons being the most common, projecting from the mainland into the Atlantic Ocean. Volcanic eruptions that occurred about 60 million years ago, give or take a few years, slowly and evenly cooled to form the otherworldly geometric shapes, forming a striking visual landscape that make the Causeway the major tourist attraction that it is today—thousands visit annually, but you can escape the crowds by taking to the Cliff Top Path.
From the Visitor Centre, resist the temptation to follow the masses down the paved roadway that descends directly to the Causeway—instead, follow the cinder path located behind the centre to the lofty Cliff Top Path. At the signed trailhead, continue hiking half a mile along the edge of several promontories with names like Weir’s Snout and Aird Snout until you reach a flight of 162 steps, known as the Shepherd’s Path, that steeply descend to a junction in the trail and then eventually to sea level—at the junction, you can head west to go straight to the Causeway, or turn right and head northeast around the bay to a series of rock formations.
We opted to hike the path towards the rock formations, the first of which is the 40-foot basalt columns known as The Organ Pipes—towering columns that resemble the pipes of a church organ. From The Organ, the Cliff Top Path continues for another 0.2-mile to a headland where a viewpoint looks into The Amphitheatre—the path is now closed beyond this point for safety reasons, but the viewpoint allows you to cast an eye on distant formations such as The Harp, and The Chimney Tops. Before returning to the intersection with the Shepherd’s Path, investigate the red cliffs at trailside for “Giant’s Eyes”—onion skin layers of weathered red laterite that resemble eyes.
Back at the intersection, complete the descent to Port Noffer and the amazing columns of the Causeway—the three promontories that comprise the Giant’s Causeway, Little, Middle aka the Honeycomb, and Grand Causeway, are accessed by hiking the path past the Giant’s Boot and through the Giant’s Gate. When you emerge through the Giant’s Gate, a wide opening between two large columnar formations, prepare to be overwhelmed with the beauty of the Causeway and Great Stookan jutting out into Port Ganny—an awesome sight to behold.
Place names such as the Wishing Chair, the Giant’s Boot, and the Wishing Well evoke the legend of Finn MacCool—the Irish giant believed to have created the Causeway as a bridge to Scotland. An entertaining story, but nothing compared to the real life adventure to be had by exploring the enormous seaside rock formations—hike among the Causeway at leisure and then return to the Visitor Centre by climbing up the paved roadway/footpath, watching out for the minibus service that carries other tourists as you make your way to the top.
The Giant’s Causeway, unquestionably the most renowned stop along the Causeway Coast, often overshadows the other attractions found along the North Antrim Coast—one such attraction is Dunluce Castle—the roofless ruin of a 13th century fortress.
Perched precariously on a sea cliff, the castle is slowly crumbling into the ocean—although roofless and ruined, it is still remarkably well-preserved. Twin towers, steep stairs leading to a gateway arch, and some of the original cobbling remain intact—trails allow hikers to explore the castle on foot.
The sun was slowly sinking into the Atlantic as we roamed around the eerie ruins of Dunluce Castle, and as darkness finally settled over the headland, we made our way back to the car for the long drive ahead—several hours later, we arrived safe and sound at the Termon House.
The following day, we set out to explore County Donegal—with an inland terrain of glens, rivers, and boglands and an intoxicating coastline of headlands and windswept peninsulas rising to the highest sea-cliffs in Europe at Slieve League, Donegal boasts some of the grandest scenery in all of Ireland.
Heading south from Maghery, we cruised past thatched roof cottages on our way to Glenties—a majestic village near the Gweebarra River. Passing through the small town, we drove southwest to Ardara—the weaving capitol of Donegal.
In search of hand-woven tweeds and a warm cup of tea, we began our walk around Ardara—a cool mist and cloudy skies made our pursuit even more pertinent. After window shopping several knit shops, we found ourselves drawn to Eddie Doherty’s—well known for producing crafted Donegal handwoven tweed products.
Eddie, who learned to weave by hand at the age of 16, now uses Donegal wool to hand weave pure wool blankets and tweed at his home in Ardara—he will even demonstrate his craft on his authentic loom.
Wool blanket and tweed vest in hand, we set off to find a warm cuppa—dodging raindrops, we popped into Nancy’s Pub. Even without a steaming pot of tea, we were instantly warmed by the cozy interior of the pub—a more than two-hundred year-old labyrinth of small rooms, warm woodwork, and inviting sitting areas near the glow of a fire.
Back on the road, we traveled southwest to Glencolumbkille via the dramatic Glengesh Pass—a steeply sinuous route flanked by rugged mountains. Climbing through the heart of the peninsula, we enjoyed spectacular views of the wild and deserted, except for sheep, landscape, ending with a scenic descent into the grassy valley of Glencolumbkille —a lovely village scattered with cairns, standing stones, dolmens and other ancient monuments.
Incredible vistas continued to spread out before us, as we made our way around the spectacular cape of Malin Head and onwards to Slieve League (Irish: Sliabh Liag)—Ireland’s second highest and Europe’s sixth highest sea cliffs are remote and incredibly dramatic—when first viewed from the car park at Bunglass, the view of the great multihued cliffs plunging thousands of feet into the sea below nearly takes your breath away. The cliffs of Slieve League, or more precisely, Bunglass, lie just outside the village of Teelin—Slieve League and Bunglass are often confused, but technically Bunglass refers to the cliff face itself and Slieve League is the mountain.
Considered off the beaten path, only the heartiest of travelers brave the precipitous and winding road to the car park at Bunglass, and even fewer intrepid souls, only those with a good head for heights, set off to test their mettle along the narrow One Man’s Pass—a knife edge route that leads to the summit.
To reach the trailhead, follow the signposts out of Teelin to Bunglass—soon you will find yourself confronted with a closed gate, pass through and then close the gate behind you. The first car park is located just inside the gate—if you park here you have access to both the Coastal Trail and the Slieve League Walk, but we suggest driving on to the second car park, Bunglass, situated higher on the mountain. From the car park at Bunglass, also known as Carrigan Head, a proper walkway complete with steps and a handrail leads to the higher more technical route to the top of the ridge—the three of us set off to explore this thrilling landscape, and as we climbed from the car park, a line of misty white clouds mirrored our actions by sweeping up the mineral stained amber, red, and white cliff face. Lavender heather, yellow gorse and rust colored ferns, their green color drained by the cold autumn days, added even more color to the surroundings—a palette straight from the canvas of a painting.
Fierce winds and a sprinkling of rain conspired to make our steep climb even more taxing, but we pushed on through the boggy wet track, which appears after leaving the proper walkway, making our way towards the higher rocky terrain—most hikers reach this point in approximately 30 minutes.
A ghostly line of clouds continued to drape the highest ridges of Slieve League, and the wind did its best to push us as far inland as possible—standing on the edge of the cliffs, we weighed our options—should we continue across One Man’s Pass to the summit or turn around? One Man’s Pass, a narrow knife edge path a mere one meter wide, tests all who attempt to cross by provoking a fear response when they are confronted with the vertiginous yawning chasms on either side of the path—not a place to be when powerful winds are blowing over the cliffs. Therefore, we opted to play it safe and return to the car park—turning around to retrace our steps, we were confronted with a dizzying view of the tiny parking lot off in the distance. As we walked down the cliff, we enjoyed second helpings of the fantastic vista—sharing the view with a small herd of sheep off on their own hiking adventure.
We arrived back at the car park just in time to see the summit of Slieve League briefly peak out from under the clouds—a ray of sunshine illuminating Bunglass, further enhancing the warm hues of the towering cliffs. From the perfect vantage point of the car park, the three of us recounted the amazing trek that we had just completed, and although we didn’t reach the summit, we were filled with a feeling of accomplishment—mission, trek across the most gorgeous cliffs in Ireland, accomplished.
Having worked up an appetite on our hike, we added a few more miles to the odometer and found ourselves back in Ardara at the Nesbitt Arms Hotel—a beautiful family run hotel built in 1838, the establishment features two restaurants. We dined at Weavers Bar and Bistro, a traditional wood style with old world charm, filling our bellies with the best Thanksgiving style meal this side of the Atlantic.
Day eight, our final full day in Ireland, started with breakfast at the Termon House and a last tour around the property before loading up the car for the LONG drive back to Shannon—broken, of course, by a few planned stops along the way.
Our first stop, Donegal Town, overlooked by the ruins of the 15th-century Donegal Castle, allowed us to stretch our legs—we strolled along the banks of the River Eske and through the narrow streets of town center before continuing south along the N15.
Journeying south, we entered County Sligo, a land of impressive Megalithic monuments, skyline dominating mountains, and gorgeous loughs.
Passing through Grange on the way to Drumcliffe, the massive silhouette of Ben Bulben—a distinct formation in the Dartry Mountains—rises abruptly from the plain to dominate the skyline.
In the shadow of Ben Bulben, lies the grave of WB Yeats—Yeats, inextricably linked with Sligo, drew great inspiration for his poetry from the surrounding beauty of the land. His gravestone in Drumcliffe bears the epitaph he penned himself: “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman pass by.”
Yeats’ gravesite isn’t the only interesting feature to be found at the Drumcliffe Cemetery—encompassed by the Drumcliffe Monastery, now divided by the main road, the site also highlights a Round Tower and Celtic High Cross.
With Ben Bulben disappearing into the distance, another colossal peak loomed over the horizon—Knocknarea Mountain, topped by the unexcavated tomb of Queen Maeve, dominates the landscape to the west of Sligo town.
The low-lying country west of Sligo, off the Strandhill road, is rich with scattered burial sites known as the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery—a collection of tombs that may date back more than 7,000 years to early Stone Age, making this the oldest and largest prehistoric burial site in Ireland.
There are an estimated 30 passage-tombs in varying states of decay scattered throughout the Cúil Irra peninsula—the peninsula is dominated on its western end by Knocknarea mountain, towering 328m above the countryside the summit is accentuated by the massive stone cairn believed to house the remains of Queen Maeve.
We began our exploration of the tombs at the Visitor Centre—located in the middle of the cemetery by the Seafield Road, across from the Sligo Riding Centre. The centre, housed in a renovated 19th century cottage, offers the visitor a book store, exhibition area, and restroom facilities. From the centre, we made our way along the mowed grass path towards Listoghil, or Tomb No. 51, the largest and most notable monument in the cemetery—it consists of a rectangular chamber at the center and appears to be the only tomb at Carrowmore covered by a large cairn.
Looping past Tombs 54, 52, 49, and 48, we paused to explore Tomb 51 before returning to the Visitor Centre—from there, we crossed the road for the remainder of our hike. Tombs No. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7, found in this area of the cemetery, together form a more or less straight line of megalithic monuments. The most impressive of these numbered tombs is by far Tomb No. 7—a large and commanding monument boasting one of the best preserved dolmens within Carrowmore.
Just down the road from Carrowmore, the seaside town of Strandhill remains remarkably off the beaten track despite its gorgeous position—the village, beach, and surf are set against the backdrop of Knocknarea Mountain. Taking full advantage of the setting, restaurants and pubs offer surfers, locals, and tourists alike, the ideal vantage point to grab a bite to eat or sip a pint of Guinness.
With daylight burning, we continued our pilgrimage towards Shannon, passing through the town of Claregalway—it was here that we made an unplanned stop at a roadside ruin.
The Claregalway Franciscan Friary, a medieval abbey featuring a cruciform church, crumbling cloister, and somber cemetery, caught our eye as we made our way through the center of town—quickly, as daylight began to fade, we explored and photographed the grounds before continuing on our way.
Keeping with our track record for the trip, we arrived at our final bed and breakfast—the Lakeside Country Lodge in Ennis—late in the evening. The warm welcomes we had received at the majority of our stays, was lacking once again, bringing back memories of nightmare Birdie and the Beach Cove B&B—tired and road weary, we were in no mood to explain our “tardiness” to Joan, the innkeeper.
For one last time, we trudged up several flights of stairs dragging our luggage behind us—with our things safely tucked away in our room, the three of us hustled off to Ennis in search of some Irish hospitality.
Once in the heart of Ennis, we ditched the car and set off on foot—trekking past a medieval friary towards the bustling streets, we found what appeared to be the perfect pub for our last night in Ireland—Mossy Sullivan’s Bar.
Mossy Sullivan’s, a lively Irish pub, proved to be the perfect place to enjoy a good drink and live Irish music—Hoops joined right in with the band, and Pick and I took pleasure in talking with the friendly locals, it was truly a night to remember. Click here for video
On our final morning in Ireland, we enjoyed our breakfast at the Lakeside Country Lodge, complete with views of Killone Lake and Abbey and the resident horses—just a few more images to add to our incredible Ireland series.
The long flight back to New York from Shannon gave us plenty of time to reflect on our whirlwind tour of Ireland—looking back at the castles, ruins, loughs, waterfalls, people, and landscapes of this beautiful country, we found it easy to place our journey in the top five adventures of our lives so far. Leading us to believe that the old Irish proverb— “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, then you’re lucky enough.” —sums up our trip perfectly.
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