The Ring of Kerry is Ireland’s best-known road trip route, but the more hidden Beara Peninsula may very well be the Emerald Isle’s best-kept secret. The picturesque peninsula in Ireland’s southwest stretches out into the Atlantic Ocean and spans two counties — passing into both County Cork and County Kerry.
The best way to discover the untouched area is to follow the 92-mile-long Ring of Beara. The network of roads takes visitors through charming towns and to white sand beaches, as well as historic gardens and gorgeous countryside.
Ready to explore? Here are the best things to do on the Beara Peninsula.
Explore the Colorful Village of Eyeries
A rainbow of houses awaits in the bright village of Eyeries in County Cork. Located overlooking Coulagh Bay, the cheerfully painted town is free from crowds but still has plenty of pubs and restaurants in which to take a break while driving along the Wild Atlantic Way. The town is well placed for short walks through the Irish countryside and also has the historic ruins of a 7th-century church. Catch up on local folklore with a trip out to see the Hag of Beara near Kilcatherine. According to Irish myths, the hag (Cailleach Béara in Irish) could control the winter and was turned into stone while waiting for her husband, the God of the Sea, to return to her.
Take the Cable Car to Dursey
One of the most unique waymarked sections of the Beara Way trail loops around the tiny island of Dursey. Even if you aren’t undertaking the long-distance hike to see the Beara Peninsula on foot, Dursey is well worth a short detour for the day because of the unique way visitors can access the island. Dursey is the only island in Ireland that is connected to the mainland by cable car. The somewhat rickety cable car opened in 1969 and takes day-trippers across the fast currents of Dursey Sound in a suspended carriage that was originally designed for sheep. The car can only take six passengers at a time but the wait for the 15-minute journey is worth the effort. There are only four full-time residents on Dursey Island so be sure to pack a lunch because the sparsely populated island has no real shops or pubs.
Walk Through Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve
The nature reserve at Glengarriff forest park protects some of the most important coastal woodland areas in Ireland. The name comes from Gleann Gairbh, which is a fitting title because it means "rugged glen" in Irish. The public land covers more than 300 hectares and is famed for its old oak trees and winding forest paths. The green space on the Beara Peninsula was once owned by Lord Bantry but is now managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The different trails lead visitors down relaxing riverside strolls or offer more challenging climbs to the top of a hill known as Lady Bantry’s Lookout.
See the White Sand Beach in Ballydonegan Bay
Aim for the western tip of the Beara Peninsula and drive through the charming town of Allihies to reach Ballydonegan Bay. Past the brightly colored buildings of the town’s main street lies the shimmering Atlantic which laps against a white sand beach. The water temperature might not be warm enough for a swim but there are tidal pools to explore along the shore. The area was once known for its copper mines but today it is the untouched Irish scenery that tends to attract newcomers. Standing on the quartz beach and looking out at the rolling hills, the beautiful bay feels like a secret retreat when compared to the traffic and crowds on the Ring of Kerry.
Admire the Gardens of Garnish Island
Leave the mainland behind and catch the small ferry from Glengarriff to spend the day on Garnish Island (also known as Ilnacullin). The small island was once the private home of John Annan Bryce, a politician from Belfast. When not in Parliament, Bryce had a passion for gardening and worked with a famed designer to create a retreat filled with exotic plants and elegant pavilions in the center of Bantry Bay. Luckily, the private island was donated to the people of Ireland in the 1950s and the Italian-inspired gardens are now open for visits between April and October.
Explore the Great Outdoors in Gleninchaquin Park
Gleninchaquin Park is technically a working sheep farm, but the livestock are not the only ones who get to enjoy the beautiful craggy scenery. For a small entrance fee, visitors can pass through the pastures and continue on through bogs and hills to the top of a lovely bridal veil waterfall. For those less inclined to hike the varied terrain, there are also farm visits that can be arranged as well as more easily accessible picnic spots.
Shop at the Market in Castletownbere
Castletownbere is the most happening stop on a drive around the Beara Peninsula because the subdued village happens to be the biggest town in the area. The busy port is usually the center of activity but the town is most animated on the first Thursday of every month when the popular Castletownbere market takes place. Expect to find food stalls, farm products, and knickknacks, plus lots of happy locals catching up with friends at the seasonal market.
Look Out for Fairies in Derreen Gardens
Every spring, the decidedly verdant landscape of the Beara Peninsula becomes dotted with the pink and purple blooms of rhododendrons. None, however, come close to beating the rhododendrons that grow in Derreen Gardens. The 19th-century gardens outside of Kenmare cover 60 acres and have more than 7 miles of paths for walking through woodland and exploring the collection of rare plants which grow here. The enchanting garden is full of exotic greenery which can survive the Irish winters thanks to the warm Gulf Stream. After admiring the bamboo, tree ferns and flowers, keep an eye out for Derreenies — fairies that have supposedly been spotted among the plants in the garden.
Drive Through Healy Pass
The Beara Peninsula has maintained its status as one of Ireland’s best kept secrets in a small part because its winding rural roads are too narrow for tour buses. The rural roads help keep the crowds away but are also one of the best parts about the landscape. Each turn must be taken slowly, and that leaves plenty of time to enjoy the views. For the best vista of all, drive through Healy Pass on the R457 outside of the village of Adrigole. The serpentine road twists down a tranquil valley between two of the highest peaks in the Caha Mountain range.
Step Back in Time at the Derreenataggart Stone Circle
Stone circles are symmetrical arrangements of standing stone pillars which were created as ceremonial sites during the Bronze Age (about 3,000 years ago). The Derreenataggart Stone Circle can be found about a mile walk from Castletownbere, though it is also possible to drive to the ancient location and park nearby. The quiet prehistoric monument was once made up of fifteen stones but only twelve survive today. Surrounded by countryside and ringed by the Caha Mountains, the ancient monument feels remote even though it is tantalizing close to town. There is no evidence for what this particular Irish stone circle was created to commemorate, but the peaceful and isolated setting is truly a special experience, even three millennia later.