Go Where Few Tourists Have Gone Before.
I knew I was going to have adventurous good luck with Vagabond Ireland because I just kissed the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle in the village of Blarney, just outside of Cork, in southern Ireland.
I am not a big fan of organized religion or organized tours, there is usually always one annoying person on board. Because I am a vagabond myself, the 4X4 Land-Rovers tours to the back mountain passes of the green isle intrigued me enough to want to explore areas far beyond the reach of minibus or coach tours; so I emailed Rob, the owner of Vagabond Ireland.
I hooked up with the two 4×4 drivers, Mark and Dave, in the parking lot at Blarney Castle. The seven day tour has just kicked off with a run down the center of Ireland from Dublin where they have picked up the other passengers.
I stow my gear in the luggage trailer and meet my fellow party paddy wagon revelers: Mandy, a travel agent from England is with her friend, Lynn; Joanna, is a lithe and athletic blond and blue-eyed Irish beauty from Boston; the quirky Jonty is from South Africa, traveling with his mate, Adele, from the U.K. The other lorry, driven by Mark, the self described Adonis, is a more family oriented 4×4, comprised of the Kennedy’s, no not those Kennedy’s, and the young lad Sean and his traveling matron.
We all pile into our black specialized Land Rovers and Dave kicks in the tunes into the CD player as we all anticipate a tour of relaxation, fresh-air, scenery, and local culture — I mean pub crawling. I am amazed how comfortable the leather seating is and how roomy the interior is and how much fun the party mates are as we discover the three major peninsulas of southern Ireland, and in this order: the Beara Peninsula (County Cork), The Iveragh Peninsula (The Ring of Kerry in County Kerry), and the Dingle Peninsula (County Kerry). If you look at a map of Ireland, the three peninsulas look like worn fingers jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, in the region called Munster.
The only way to see the real Ireland
is with Vagabond 4×4 Land Rover Tours.
We are ready to leave the macadam crowded lanes behind and bounce down the sheep tracks and drive along beaches and swim in the surf and crawl up into the cool and foggy mountains. Even though beach camping and barbecues are offered by Vagabond, we are more agreeable to the comforts of traditional Irish guesthouses along the way.
Dave is a treasure trove of knowledge about his homeland, cutting in and out of the sound track to clue us in about political misdeeds, pirate queens, and ancient Celtic lore, all the while pointing out stone ring circles and castle ruins. Along the road the sun shines a honey glow on the Celtic crosses that served as a datum or gathering point for the ancient peoples across the rugged landscape long before there were 4x4s.
It’s time to play “name that tune,” announces Dave, ”but you have to name the tune and match it to the movie it is from.” One point is given for the correct tune, one for the movie, and three if you get both right. Over the next several days we try to match wits to win a nebulous prize that Dave never discusses!
We drive into the spectacular Beara Peninsula, often called the undiscovered peninsular because of its ruggedness of the Caher Mountains.
In the heart of Eire.
We cut across the back world through curving passes through some of Ireland’s highest mountain ranges. The air is comforting and cool even when we descend into Lee to the source of River Lee (which flows through Cork ) and along the beautiful Gougane Barra Lake. The landscape is stunning, nearly treeless, but not stark; we pull into the Gougane Barra Hotel for an overnight.
The hotel has been in the hands of the Cronin and Lucey family for generations. It was originally built by James Cronin on a site of a hunting and fishing lodge. This lodge was used in the 19th Century by the English Gentry; the Cronin and Lucey families still provide fine hospitality along with an atmosphere of good comfort and home based cooking.
Gougane Barra Hotel.
The National Forest Park, angling, and hill and road walking are the major activities at the hotel. Saint Finbarr started his hermitage on the island in the lake, originally know as Loch Irce. The fog rolls down from the hills of the Shehy and Derrynasaggart Mountain ranges. The lake has a natural reserve of native brown trout and angling by boat is complimentary to any guest of Gougane Barra Hotel. Coarse angling is also available in the area.
Vagabond prices their tours without food or alcoholic beverages or accommodations, which in a sense is great because then you have the choice of a la carte menus and upgraded accommodations. The food at the hotel was superb, and they have a modest wine cellar served with ample portions of lamb and beef and seafood.
The next morning we are served the traditional Irish breakfast before departing for a swift and peaked hike in the Gougane Barra Forest Park, past waterfalls and onto the hilltop vista overlooking valleys below and the Atlantic coastline at Bantry Bay , our next destination.
Taking the ferry.
For some it is lunch and a beer stop at McCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere, a sleepy seaside village along Bantry Bay, before we load the Land Rovers on to Murphy’s Bere Island ferry.
After the 15 minute ferry ride we debouch onto the island at Rerrin for more touring before heading to our HQ for the night — the Admiral’s House.
Bere Island (Bear Island) is anchored in Bantry Bay on the eastern side of the Beara Peninsula, an isolated island that is about 9.5km long by 3km wide, lying about 1.5km offshore from Castletownbere.
This undulating island is typical of the mountainous character of the Beara Peninsula. The southern side rises steeply from the sea, the highest point being Knockanallig, while the northern side sweeps gently down to the shore.
There are two lakes on the island, Lough Alimin and Lomanagh Lough. The island provides a suitable habitat for butterflies and birds, such as the Black Guillemot, Chough (a type of crow), and the Twite (a rare finch).
Celtic ruins, crosses, soltice circles,
and mystical sites are on the adventure.
Bantry Bay is one of the deepest harbors in Europe, with Berehaven Harbour (Sound), the body of water between the island and the Beara Peninsula , providing shelter for ships, fishing boats, and yachts. Castletownbere is home to the largest whitefish fishing fleet in Ireland . Until 1938, the bay was used as a base for the British Atlantic Fleet.
The island is rich in archaeological sites dating from the Bronze Age through medieval times. The majority of these consist of ring forts or cashels, often with associated souterrains, standing stones, wedge tombs, and burial sites. Many of the sites can be linked by a continuing story of defense, forts, exploitation of marine resources, and the power of the sea. I wish we had more time to discover the island by foot.
The buildings date from two distinct periods: the Martello Towers of the late 18th century and the batteries and associated buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The current population of Bere Island is about 200 permanent residents, with triple that number with summer tourists. Rerrin village is at the eastern end of the island, adjacent to the military camp; Ballinakilla is in the center of the island.
The Admiral’s House.
We have the entire Admiral’s House (more like a hostel) for our Vagabond party, located on Lawrence Cove along a country road. The period house was recently renovated, and my room has a panoramic sea view surrounded by peace and tranquility. All 22 rooms have their own en-suite baths with plenty of hot water. Peat is burning in the fire place downstairs, scenting the air, the gathering point for Irish cocktails (Guinness to you), after a home cooked dinner. In the early evening we walk down the rocky roadbed to try and close down O’Sullivan’s Bar in Ballinakilla Village. There’s not much going on in the bar, so the few locals get into a singing match and we could only come up with the lyrics for the “Brady Bunch” song. Needless to say; our tendons would have been worn out competing with the pints the pub patrons put away.
Hummer tackle the terrain.
The next day we take the ferry back to the Beara Peninsula for a mountainous short cut over an old pass and past played out and shut down copper mines and then visit the ancient Ogham stone in the small village of Eyeries . We stop along a caravan park for a little Vagaball, which is a variation of beach volleyball, but with Vagabond Ireland rules, i.e., no rules. The area is also one of the most pristine for sunbathing and swimming.
Often times we never knew where we were, but I will always remember the stunning Beara Peninsula coastline as we drove to the second peninsula in our itinerary — Iveragh.
We stop for lunch in the picturesque and beautiful Kenmare, a step up from a village, a step down from a town, and it will never be a city, at least let’s hope not. If I were to live in Ireland permanently, Kenmare would be one of my choices.
After grabbing sodas, water, and sandwiches at the popular and jammed Jam Café and Bakery we walk down the street to the outdoor market next to the church, where we all regroup with the rendezvoused Land Rovers.
Next on our agenda is a hike along the Old Kenmare Road through the ancient forest of the Killarney National Park. The hike is not overly strenuous after the first gentle to stiff ascent, and then it is flat or rolling ground to the pass that then drops down to the other side where Dave is waiting for us with the Land Rover. The track is a non-motorized track. I am left behind by the other hill walkers because I am awed by the sun opening through the clouds to reveal pastoral sheep scenes in groves of ancient oaks that I get on video, some of the last indigenous oaks in all of Ireland.
Once we hook back up with Dave, we are driving the scenic Ring of Kerry route on the Iveragh Peninsula . I always though that the Ring of Kerry was just another ring fort, but it is more like a drivable scenic byway, probably a tourism campaign to draw us into this wondrous and spectacular region, and if so, it worked.
We don’t complete the entire scenic ring that includes the villages and towns of Killarney, Kenmare, Sneem, Caherdaniel, Waterville, Cathiroveen, and Glenbeigh, but we did take the spur off the ring to Portmagee, a small fishing village that we drop down to for an overnight at the Moorings Inn, run by the Kennedy family, no not those Kennedy’s.
Portmagee is the gateway to the Skellig Islands.
It doesn’t take long to discover Portmagee, a town named after a notorious Irish smuggler, so it’s back to the Moorings Inn’s Bridge Bar to discover 2.50 euro pints of Guinness and then dinner at the Moorings Restaurant, home of Moorings Mussels and fine cuts of lamb and beef, with the au jus soaked up with home made soda bread.
I awake in the morning to the sea breezes blowing salty air through my window, stoking the appetite for the Irish breakfast at the restaurant; then we stock up on water and snacks for the anticipated nine mile boat adventure over to the Skellig Islands . Our unshaven boat captain pulls up at the antique stone pier as if just off a pub crawl, as if there were numerous pubs to crawl in the rural and remote region. We all hop aboard the boat that looks not unlike the African Queen in the Humphrey Bogart movie and then plow and churn our way across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Skellig Islands were an optional tour, not part of Vagabond Ireland’s packages, but an option that no one declined. The boat ride over is about 35 euros and the captain’s boat was arranged in advance by Vagabond Ireland. Click photo below for Skellig Islands feature.
Once off Skellig Michael we are back on track to our next Peninsula — Dingle, but first a stop for some horseback riding along Rosbeigh Strand. All the ladies in my Land Rover came back with tales of saddle sores!. Then we drove towards the Dingle Peninsula via Killorglin (Goat Fair) and Castlemaine (Wild Colonial Boy).
A Cool Brew From The South Pole.
We are somewhere up in the foggy Slieve Mish Mountains, the 2,000 foot range that forms the backbone of the Dingle Peninsula and then we later lunch in Tom Crean’s South Pole Inn in the mountain town of Annascaul, halfway between the county town of Tralee and Dingle town. Annascaul’s claim to fame is that it annually holds the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade, two blocks and between pubs!
Tom Crean is famous in these parts, the only Irishman to return from the ill fated Shackleton and Scott Expeditions to Antarctica in the 1890s. Many of his collections and memorabilia are still preserved in the pub he built and ran until the 1930s.
We stop along the three mile Inch Strand for another round of Vagaball, and then we arrive in Dingle town, a laid back village of 2000 souls and 55+ bars, which we check out later in the evening. But first it is a drive along the Slea Head with a stop at Europe’s westernmost point, and at Coumeenoule Beach where the blockbuster film, Ryan’s Daughter was shot, a film about Ireland struggle for independence. We also stop where the opening scenes were shot of the Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise film, “Far and Away”, with the lonely Blaskett Island’s in the distance, reached only by an occasional ferry.
With 50 pubs in Dingle, it is ripe for pub crawling, and we started the evening at Dick Mack’s pub, which is a leather repair and shoe store during the day and a pub all the time up to midnight when the pubs all close down in Dingle for the night. Dick Mack’s is on Green Street, across from the church, and the likes of Robert Mitchum and Sean Connery have bent the Guinness elbow here, so I know the two Hollywood hell raisers were a good testimonial. After a few more pub stops filled with traditional Irish music, the drinking stopped, unusual for Ireland, and we sprint back to the hotel.
In the morning the two Land Rovers split up, with Dave heading back to Dublin with most passengers, while Mark commandeered the other one for a private tour for Sean and his traveling matron, that included bog walking in the moors along the hills of Conor’s Pass.
Then it is swimming on the longest beach in Ireland before Mark drops me off in the small and historic town of Listowel. As I grab my gear Mark commented, “You really are a Vagabond,” and I can enthusiastically say that I am after this adventure with Vagabond Ireland. (Adele won the movie song contest!)
Departing on Mondays Vagabond Ireland is the only 4×4 tour operator in Eire offering scheduled and private adventure tours of Ireland, perfect for backpackers, surfers, FITS, family holiday groups, incentive and business travel or a private tour.
Vagabond Ireland Adventure Tours offers a 25% discount on any tour departing between 1st November 2006 and 28th February 2007.(excluding Christmas and New Year Trips), and there is a 10% discount on all scheduled departures during October 2006. For more info on these offers contact Vagabond Ireland at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.vagabond-ireland.com
By the sea.
— By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.