I made my first journey to Europe in November, 2015. It was a whirlwind tour that crammed as much as possible into as little time as imaginable. Would I recommend this pace? Well, if you’re limited on time and motivated to see the world, go for it!
We flew from Tampa, Florida to NYC (JFK), for an overnight flight to Shannon, Ireland. It was an easy flight at 5.5 hours. When we landed at 6am, it was still dark but we sailed through customs with ease, collected our bags, picked up a rental car, and set out around 7:30 am. Dawn had barely broken, it was drizzling rain, we were hangry and jet lagged.
Day 1: Shannon to Adare
Our plan was to drive straight to Adare, in route to Killarney. What should have been a 30 minute drive turned into an hour of missed turns and wrong directions… The Google Maps above would have been quite useful, but alas, our phones didn’t work and we didn’t bother to get a GPS from the rental agency!
We rolled in Adare just as things were beginning to open and had quick breakfast at The Market Place Cafe. We had our first introduction to an Irish Breakfast and black pudding (not for the faint of heart), and I quickly opted for ‘pancakes’ which turned out to be more like crepes.
Afterwards, we strolled down to the Heritage Center, worth a stop, and by the thatched roof cottages for which Adare is so well known. We then attempted to drive onto the grounds of Adare Manor to see their ruins. The gateskeeper, in tails and a top hat, turned us away by saying only guests were allowed on the property. So instead, we crossed the street to an Augustinian Friary, often called the Black Abbey, which was founded in the early 1300’s. Thank goodness we did! We were the only ones at the abbey, which has a beautiful cloister and plenty of nooks for exploring. There is also a resident kitty, who was very friendly! On the backside of the abbey there is a small church auditorium, still in use, with regular services on Sundays.
Late morning, we continued onto Killarney where we were spending 2 nights. It was about 1.5 hour drive, putting us into Killarney in time to check into our B&B, the Algret House, and then head to Muckross House within Killarney National Park. The earlier rainy weather broke into a gorgeous sunny day, allowing us to explore the Muckross House Gardens and stroll down to the stunning Muckross Lake. I can’t emphasis enough how gorgeous the Muckross grounds are- a picture really is worth a thousand words.
That evening, after a very full day of travel and exploration, we had a delicious dinner at Cronin’s Restaurant, in the heart of downtown Killarney. The salmon was excellent! Being our first real meal in Ireland, we learned a lesson: most places, unless used to tourists, will not bring the bill unless asked. We sat in Cronin’s for quite some time before we finally asked, and then quickly received the check. After a discussion with our host at the B&B, we learned that’s how it’s done- they think bringing the check without being asked is rude, rushing guests.
Day 2: The Ring Of Kerry
Our second day in Ireland, we rose early and had a hearty and delicious breakfast (thanks to our B&B hostess!) and then set out on the Ring of Kerry.
We chose to drive the ring counter-clockwise, although many travelers advise going clockwise due to the tour buses. Being there in November presented no problems taking this direction.
Right out of Killarney, there is a turn off for Carrauntoohil and the Gap of Dunloe. I wish we had booked a guided hike for Carrauntoohil, which is Ireland’s highest peak. We didn’t make time for that, however, as it’s almost a full day activity. On our return trip in 2017, we did visit the Gap of Dunloe and it was stunning!
It didn’t take long to leave Killarney behind, and soon find fields full of sheep. Within half an hour, we saw a sign for Ballymalis Castle and became overly excited, as only American who’ve never seen a castle could be.
We followed the signs down a gravel road, through a field to the ruins. At the time (Nov. 2015), part of it was covered in scaffolding, and we were rather underwhelmed. It’s worth a look if you’re on the route, but there are much better ruins throughout Ireland.
Ten minutes later, we zipped through Killorglin, saw the goat and kept going.
It was pouring rain, so we didn’t stop, which disappointed me. However, on a return trip to Ireland in 2017, we drove to Killorglin to see what we missed. Don’t bother! It’s a modernized business town on the river, but lacks any of the character of Killarney, Kenmare or Sneem. The town does hold the Puck Fair every August, which is a festival centered around the crowning of King Puck, a wild goat.
For the next several hours, we drove the Ring, stopping at a few beaches, including Rossbeigh (slight detour off the N70 Ring of Kerry Road), which has gorgeous views on a nice day. We made quite a memory though, as the rain was driving sideways in near gale force winds. Refusing to miss a stop on account of that, my dad and I jumped out of the car and ran towards the beach.
The winds were so strong we literally couldn’t even get onto the sand!
Eventually the rain stopped and the clouds rolled away to reveal amazing scenery. I took countless photos of the cliff sides, ocean views, and waterfalls tumbling down the mountainside right by the road, too many to bore you. Here are a few, but go see it for yourself!
One of the Ring highlights is the Dark Sky Reserve. There are only 13 Dark Sky Reserves in the world, places where the sky & star quality are stunning, protected from air and light pollution.
If you have time to spare, I would recommend spending a night out there to see the night sky. The Kerry reserve extends from roughly Kells to Caherdaniel. For details, visit www.kerrydarksky.com.
Tours to the Skellig Islands depart from this area, out of Portmagee and Ballinskelligs. They typically run March or April through October, so we were unable to go. Of course, even during those months, the trips are weather dependent. I now understand why, having been whipped by the Irish wind and driving rains! If you visit during prime months, book tours early as they tend to sell out, especially now with the fame Star Wars has brought to the islands.
We stopped for a quick break at Waterville and walked down to the pebble beach for a few photos. The Charlie Chaplin statue is also in this town, if you’re a fan.
The Beenarourke Pass, shortly before Caherdaniel, has a lookout with views of the surrounding countryside and Ballinskelligs Bay. There is a statue of the Madonna as well. You can also see the Loher Stone Fort at a distance. We never did figure out how to get to that fort, but we were later told there is a small turnoff from the N70 before the pass.
In Castlecove, we stopped for Staigue Fort. If you’re not looking for it, you’ll miss the turnoff. If you’re passing through Castlecove headed towards Sneem, the turn is on the left and is marked by one of those helpful brown site marker signs. Follow the one lane, winding road (look out for loose sheep!), and the occasional sign to the end- about 7-10 minutes from the turn off. Funny story: when we turned onto the road, there was a rainbow which we seemed to chase towards Staigue. It actually ‘ended’ in a fenced field, but alas, I didn’t see any pots of gold!
At the end of the road, Staigue Fort is accessible through a gate, which has hours posted along with a donation box. The fort is in great condition and you can walk all around it, including into the center. It’s sitting in the middle of the pasture, so the sheep are free roaming but won’t bother you.
Across from the gate into the fort pasture, there is a tiny place called Curran’s Cottage that serves coffee and snacks. When we were there in mid-November, they were closed.
At this point, it was heading towards dusk, so we sped onward towards (and through) Sneem. It’s an adorable town, which we visited on our return journey in 2017. If you visit, look for the man and his billy goat, named Puck (not the goat crowned king in Killorglin!), in the town square! They’re both very friendly and you can hug Puck and take a cute photo.
Shortly thereafter, we reached Moll’s Gap. Numerous people told us it was not to be missed, best views around. I would disagree though- the views are ok, but nothing compared to those seen on the Ring, or even in Killarney National park.
There is an Avoca shop and tea room at the Gap, but keep in mind the tour buses love this stop. It was the only place we ran into a crowd or tour group on the entire Ring. Since we didn’t bother to eat while on the Ring, we had an early dinner here.
We stopped for a few photos at Ladies View, a pull off in Killarney National Park, with beautiful views of the valley and Killarney lakes, and then sped onto Ross Castle just as the sun set.
Ross Castle is in Killarney, on the lake, and has been fully restored. However, it is only open March-early November, so it was closed while we were there. It still made for lovely photos. Visiting it just at dusk, we were the only souls there.
On the race towards Ross Castle, you pass Muckross and Torc Falls. We didn’t stop at Torc Falls at this point for time’s sake, but the following morning my dad and I rose before dawn and drove back to the falls. It was literally my favorite highlight of that entire trip! That story is here.
In summary, we did the Ring of Kerry in about 10 hours, without a lunch stop. It was definitely worth it, but if you can do the ring with an overnight stop, it would be worth it. There are dozens upon dozens of ruined castles, abbeys, forts, scenic overlooks etc. along the route. You’ll never see all of them in a day trip.
Keep reading in Ireland at Lightspeed-Part 2!