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Explore the Stunning Landscapes of Southwest Ireland

by Contributor

Oct 31, 2017

© Patryk Kosmider | Dreamstime

Destinations / Europe

By Donna Tabbert Long

A critical scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes viewers to a mystical and magnificent mountaintop far, far away that rises from a sparkling, dark blue sea.

 

It turns out the location wasn’t in a beautiful remote galaxy. It was on Skellig Michael, an island approximately eight miles off the coast of Southwest Ireland in County Kerry. In a video release by the Irish Film Board, the film’s director, J. J. Abrams, stated he wanted a place that was authentic and looked “out of this world.”

 

County Kerry, along with County Cork, makes up this part of Ireland long renowned for its authentic, other worldly, scenery-rich terrain. Cliffs and crashing waves, lakes and craggy mountains intersperse with picturesque villages, ancient stone forts and old castles dotting the bright green countryside. Road signs feature Irish Gaelic names. The pace is slower in this rural region, and people are friendly. Whether you’re with a significant other or the entire family, it’s a stunning and memorable region of Ireland to explore for a few days after a business trip.

 

Bridge from Portmagree to Valentia island in Ireland

Photo: Frank Bach | Dreamstime

 

Luke Skywalker fans can now catch a private boat from Portmagee, a small seaside village on the Iveragh Peninsula in Southwest Ireland, for the 40-minute trip to Skellig Michael. There are no ferries, only numerous small independent companies that provide transportation (weather permitting). Whether you’re a Star Wars aficionado or not, don’t miss the chance to visit this incredible UNESCO World Heritage site. Landing tours allow visitors to disembark on the island and climb the 640 steps to the top of the mountain and see the sixth-century monastic site where the movie scenes were filmed. Other boats simply make a circle tour around the island. Book well in advance in either case.

 

Ring of Kerry, Ireland

Ring of Kerry, Ireland. Photo: Darkeaster | Dreamstime

The tiny port town lies just a few miles off Southwest Ireland’s most famous tourist trail and one of Europe’s greatest scenic drives: the Ring of Kerry. This means even if you don’t make it to Skellig Michael, there is plenty of superb sightseeing to enjoy right on the peninsula. Numerous turnouts on the 112-mile loop provide amazing vistas and gorgeous backdrops for budding photographers or those taking selfies from seascapes over the open Atlantic in the west to rugged overlooks of Dingle Bay in the north.

 

Beautiful beaches include the Blue Flag Beach near the village of Glenbeigh, a popular destination for families on holiday. At the Derrynane National Park, a nature trail leads to another of Ireland’s outstanding beaches. A paradise for bird lovers, the park also features Derrynane House, the ancestral home of Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s most famous politician, lawyer and statesman. Today visitors can tour the house, designated an Irish National Monument. In its sheltered courtyard, Ahamore Tearooms serves up delicious tarts and tea, crumbles and coffee.

 

Besides beaches and overlooks, the Ring of Kerry proves a fantastic place for history buffs to explore three of Ireland’s prehistoric stone forts, built without mortar or cement. Located a few miles off the main road, Staigue Fort is among the biggest and best-preserved of these ancient sites.

 

Remnants of Stone Age man and early Christian settlements also exist on Southwest Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula. Follow the scenic Slea Head Drive to find the Gallarus Oratory, an early Christian church near the village of Ballyferriter. Built more than 1,000 years ago and shaped like an upturned boat, its drystone walls are still waterproof.

 

While Slea Head Drive is less than 30 miles long, it proves slow going. Along with dramatic coastline and sandy beaches that compel you to pause, it includes hairpin switchbacks as well as an occasional narrow roadway where drivers may need to pull over for oncoming vehicles. There’s also the possibility of traffic jams when a flock of sheep occupies the road.

Main street of Dingle, Ireland

Main street of Dingle, Ireland. Photo: Daniel M. Cisilino | Dreamstime

The lively little fishing port of Dingle lies east of the peninsula’s tip and offers a good place to stop or spend the night. It’s loaded with shops, traditional music, pubs and award-winning restaurants serving fresh seafood along with the artisan cheeses, honey and renowned Southwest Ireland local produce. Indeed, this area of the country earns the favor and regard of food lovers.

 

Kinsale, a charming and lovely harbor town 18 miles south of Cork, has long attracted the gourmet set, while Cork — often the starting point for travelers visiting the area — is the home of the famed Ballymaloe House and Restaurant, a mecca for culinary aficionados, offering cooking classes along with lodging and dining. The city’s historic and beautiful covered English Market remains another favorite foodie destination. Nearby, Ireland’s iconic Blarney Castle is a must-see for thousands of tourists who visit yearly to kiss its stone, believed to bestow the gift of eloquence.

Ross castle. Killarney National Park. County Kerry, Ireland

Ross castle. Killarney National Park. County Kerry. Photo: Luca Roggero | Dreamstime

 

Far less touristy, Ross Castle in County Kerry boasts its own legend (not to be confused with the Ross Castle in County Meath). Built in the 15th century by O’Donoghue Mór, it sits in the lakes district of Killarney, where the world-famous glittering waters cover approximately one-third of Killarney National Park. The park’s focal point, Muckross House and Gardens, can be reached through woodlands by a horse-drawn jaunting car if desired, and numerous hiking trails include one to pretty Torc Waterfall. Boat rides on the lakes are also available, and should you visit on the first of May, you might see the ghost of O’Donoghue. Every seven years, legend says, he rises from the waves on his white horse. Better yet, should you get a glimpse of him, in true Irish fashion you’re assured good luck for the rest of your life.

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