By Jim Ferri
Drive around Ireland’s Ring of Kerry, and you’ll quickly discover why it’s one of the most popular trips in Ireland.
Beginning and ending Killarney on the southwest coast of Ireland, it’s an easy drive with beautiful inland and coastal views.
The drive itself is only about 125 miles in length, but don’t let that fool you. You’ll be driving on a winding two-lane road, and you’ll likely find yourself stuck behind a few tour buses. And, of course, you’ll want to stop numerous times for photos or to grab a pub lunch. Most likely it will be a very full day.
Begin in Killarney
If you’re renting a car at Shannon airport, you’ll need to make a 1½-hour drive to Killarney. Alternatively, you can make a 4-hour train trip from Dublin and rent a car in Killarney. Either option you choose, you’ll likely enjoy the journey through some pretty Irish countryside en route.
While many people overnight in Killarney to explore the town and Killarney National Park, others stay in Kenmare to the south to get a head start on the tour buses. The truth is you’ll always encounter some buses anyway. It’s just a game of numbers depending upon the season when you’re visiting.
There’s also a difference of opinion on which way to make the drive, clockwise or counter-clockwise. I’ve done it three times and found going counterclockwise seems to provide a more dramatic view. It’s due to the way the sun strikes the scenery.
Whichever way you choose, start out early to avoid the traffic and have more time to stop along the way.
Vintage Ireland: Hills Speckled With Sheep
If you’re starting out from Killarney, head northward towards Killorglin on route N72. It will take you about a half-hour to get there. At Killorglin turn west onto route N70, the road you will follow all the way around the ring to Kenmare.
If you’re driving in the spring or autumn keep your car window cracked a bit. Every once in a while you’ll get a sweet whiff of peat burning in fireplaces of homes along the way.
The scenery starts out slow at first, before morphing into spectacular vistas of the sea and verdant mountainsides. The countryside all about is speckled with sheep and cows.
Charlie Chaplin, Then a Great View
You’ll go through Glenbeigh and then skirt along the ocean, turning inland past Cahersiveen to cross the hills to Waterville. A little coastal town, Waterville’s claim to fame is Charlie Chaplin, who vacationed here annually for a decade or so. Stop for a photo next to Chaplin’s statue on the sea-side of the road.
Beyond Waterville, the highway becomes even more winding. Every once in awhile oncoming lorries and buses hug the center line just enough to give you pause. But there are also cutouts along the way so you can pull over and take pictures of the spectacular views.
As the road climbs the hills past Waterville, about 10 minutes out N70 turns eastward. It’s the highest point on the route.
Watch for a large cutout big enough for the tour buses on the west side of the road. It’s a great place to stop since the view along the coastline here is spectacular. A bonus is that at times you’ll find an itinerant musician or two there, serenading those who stop.
Moll’s Gap and Killarney National Park
When you leave the viewpoint, continue for another half hour to Sneem, a colorful little town. You might want to stop and walk about a bit, visiting its small shops. After Sneem, the road turns northward and leads you towards Moll’s Gap.
The drive through the Gap to Killarney National Park will take you through hills and valleys that are dramatically beautiful. They contrast vividly with the softer beauty of the coast. Be careful driving since you may find free-range sheep sharing the road with you.
Be sure to spend some time in Killarney National Park and see Muckross House, a 19th-century Victorian mansion. It’s so beautiful it could have been plucked off the cover of some trashy romance novel.
Tour the house and walk about its gardens and enjoy the vistas of the lake and vast forest all around you. Be sure also to visit nearby 15th-century Ross Castle before continuing back into Killarney.