Ireland: A Week in the Southwest

Jan 12 - 2018

Day One. We arrived at Shannon Airport on a cloudy, windy day in October. As neither my husband Greg nor I had visited Ireland before, we were looking forward to experiencing all it had to offer. Rental car collected, we drove south to Tralee to begin our cycling tour of County Kerry in the south-west. We expected a countryside similar to England, but were greeted by a far more rustic surrounding, less development, and wide-open green space everywhere.

The route from Tralee to Dingle was a well chosen first day for a cycling holiday – relatively flat to start, allowing us some adjusting room and then a steady climb over Conor Pass; a renowned local road that twists up a climb, offering continuous panoramic views across the craggy moorland, culminating in a sweet 5-mile descent into Dingle Bay.

Our evening in Dingle was really special; seafood caught right there in the harbor, followed by drinks and live music in a local pub. This was where our introduction to the heart and soul of Ireland really started. Everyone we met wanted to talk to us, find out what we were doing and why we were doing it. I chatted to Maz, (she is pictured below playing the guitar with a local group) for a good half hour about the area and her recommendations for places for us to visit.

The local band

She has enjoyed cycling vacations around Ireland, Holland, and Spain and had plenty of experience and stories about her biking adventures. The atmosphere and the music were incredible; something I had not expected. This particular group meets every Sunday evening to play together and during the summer many pubs have live music every night.

At around 11pm we managed to drag ourselves away from the pub, which seemed to be getting busier and livelier, and headed back to our B&B so we’d be well-rested for our second self-guided cycling day around Dingle.

The following morning, after a monumental full Irish breakfast with options of black and white pudding – not for the faint-hearted, and a calorie count that put most European offerings to shame, we were full and ready to ride the Slea Head loop. The weather was absolutely beautiful; blue skies, white, fluffy clouds, and barely any wind (something not to be consistently expected).

Coastline on the Slea Head Loop

The views of the coastline throughout the entire ride were unforgettable. The route offered an abundance of things to do. A visit to a whiskey distillery, with samples! We additionally had the opportunity for farm visits and an opportunity to pet a sheep (really!) or a boat trip to the nearby Blasket Islands: now abandoned, having been evacuated in 1953 by the Irish government due to a declining population and the harsh living conditions. We had lunch en route in a café full of locals, again keen to advise us on where to ride next.

Coastline on the loop from Dingle

Day three of our cycling vacation was completely different. We had an early lunch at Inch Beach where we sat inside eating various delicious stuffed-sandwiches, and watched the clouds flow in up the bay. We took our time rolling along the coast to Milltown before turning onto quiet lanes through rugged farmland and picturesque villages. The weather was more challenging than on previous days. It rained. A lot. However, we still managed to appreciate the raw beauty of the route inland, passing Lough Leane, the largest of Killarney’s three lakes before entering Killarney itself; a real pleasure to ride into; a beautiful old town and home of the 19th century St Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney National Park with the 15th century Ross Castle and the 7th century early Christian monastery ruins.

Our hotel in town also made the day of wet riding worth it – the Great Southern Killarney is a grand old hotel right in the center of town. And it has a spa and pool! It made our schlep through the rain seem even more monumental to arrive to such luxury. After we’d congratulated ourselves with an afternoon in the spa, we headed into town to explore and find food. Killarney town is vibrant with great choices of shops and restaurants. We chose a simple, quirky burger joint with seating that faced the street to watch the world go by whilst refueling.

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney

The fourth day was one we’d both been looking forward to – The Gap of Dunloe; a craggy pass with stunning views in all directions. The weather was kind to us – light rain for the first few kilometers before clearing to a bright, if somewhat breezy, day. The Gap did not disappoint, it was surprisingly busy with “traffic”. It felt like we’d been taken back in time as the favored mode of transport along the pass seemed to be horse and carriage, or cyclists like ourselves. Walkers used the café car parks at the start of the pass (where we’d stopped for a coffee) and then rambled up and along the road as far as they fancied, taking photos of the scenery and animals.

I was also pleasantly surprised at the road surface – I was expecting a rough and ready mountain pass and instead found myself gliding along on smooth tarmac. The way up the pass was a challenge but we stopped at the top to take some pictures and then the descent was magnificent. The route led us up another climb to Moll’s Gap where we rewarded ourselves with lunch at the top. Huge filled sandwiches with homemade cakes for dessert and we were set. The only difficulty after that was mustering the enthusiasm to get moving again! Luckily the rest of the ride back to Killarney was downhill and then flat through the forest into the town.

Gap of Dunloe

We’d known our route was going to challenge us today so we had organized massages in the spa for our return – probably one of my favorite planned extras. So, thoroughly worn-out, the massages felt like heaven and all that was left for the day was to meander into town for dinner and a celebratory drink.

We had planned for day five to be a quieter ‘rest’ day on the tour. We chose to explore the 20-mile loop east out of Killarney and then lunch back in town. The route was surprisingly different to the other days, much quieter roads and simple, country lanes. It was a great ‘leg-spin’ that we took at a leisurely pace. No races were won today. Back in town we explored the shops with local specialities galore. We probably bought way too many local strawberries but managed to eat them on our walk to Ross Castle to enjoy the lake. I even managed to persuade Greg to buy a beautiful, locally-made woollen blanket that I saw in the window of a shop. I thought it might be a problem to pack and I would end up wearing it on the plane home. (Thankfully not, though.) After our afternoon exploring we chose to eat at the hotel; another culinary delight. The servings were relatively small but as there were five courses we still ended up completely full and satisfied. Once again, the food was local and a mixture of seafood courses and meat. Luckily, we didn’t have far to go after dinner!

A lake near Kenmare

Our route to Kenmare was different again: lots more country lanes and we hardly saw a soul on our way south. The climb out of Killarney was steady as we made our way past Moll’s Gap, it was cool to do the ascent as we’d descended it a few days before. However, the best part of the day was the ride down to the bay – pure descending! We were clocking up the miles but were stopped in our tracks by a herd of sheep seemingly also on their way to Kenmare. We accepted the delay as all part of the rural experience – especially playing ‘miss the sheep droppings’! The final part of the route was flatter, along the bay, into the town. Kenmare, as a town, was pleasantly unique. Smaller than Killarney and beautifully located at the head of the Kenmare River. It was very easy to navigate and we found the way to our hotel without difficulty. An enthusiastic welcome from the front desk and we were guided to our room clutching town plans, restaurant recommendations, hiking routes, biking routes, the best pubs for live music and so on. We chose one of the recommended fish and chip restaurants for dinner that evening and it didn’t disappoint. Once again, the food was exceptional; local caught fish with homemade chips, mushy peas flowed by a decadent chocolate pudding. During dinner, we both decided that although the food in Ireland had been a pleasant surprise, our favorite thing about our evening meals was the atmosphere. The table next to us had a group of tourists and locals enjoying the local brew who cheered us as we sat down to our meal. The whole evening was pure entertainment from the tables surrounding us and we left with very full tummies, and sides aching from laughter.

The waterfall at Gleninchaquin Park

It had been an excellent week’s cycling vacation in Ireland, the weather was generally kind to us, the routes offered a variety of cycling challenges, some days harder than others. The people we met were kind, generous and very eager to chat, the food and hospitality were of a high standard and the scenery was un-spoilt and at times breathtaking. This location offers so much to do and see in a week, we hardly scratched the surface.

Vicki and her husband, Greg, rode around Ireland as a part of designing the perfect route options for our 2018 trips. Vicki and Greg live in France and manage all of LifeCycle Adventures’ European destinations.