The largest and most remote of Cork’s peninsulas, the Beara (w www.bearatourism.com) careers southwestwards for 50km between Bantry Bay and the Kenmare River. Patterns in the landscape are hard to distinguish here, and contrasts frequent. Indeed, the peninsula’s most popular tourist spot, Glengarriff, has built an industry on the stunning contrast between its lush subtropical setting and the irregular, barren rocks of the Caha Mountains behind. The mountainous spine is often augmented by ribs, and particularly in the awesome Slieve Miskish Mountains at the Beara’s tip, the coast road is forced to climb through whatever passes can be found. Round on the north coast, half of which belongs to County Kerry, the only settlements occupy occasional cups of green farmland beneath the stony ridges. This diverse scenery is linked together by two routes: the Beara Way, a 200-kilometre waymarked walk (9–11 days), following mostly tracks and minor roads from Glengarriff west (via Adrigole, Castletownbere and a ferry to Bere Island, which can easily be missed out) to Dursey Island, then along the north coast of the peninsula (via Allihies, Eyeries, Ardgroom and Lauragh) to Kenmare and back to Glengarriff; and the 138-kilometre Beara Way Cycle Route, which mostly follows the quiet main road around the peninsula. Route guides are available locally, and the Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 Discovery map 84 covers nearly the whole peninsula.
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The founders of GLENGARRIFF were perhaps having an off-day when they named it An Gleann Garbh, the “rugged glen” – or, to be charitable, maybe the climate has changed since then. It’s true that above and behind stands the magnificent backdrop of the wild, bare Caha Mountains, but the village itself sits in a sheltered oasis of balmy greenery. This picturesque juxtaposition, warmed by the Atlantic Gulf Stream, has attracted tourists since the eighteenth century, when the Eccles Hotel was built. The landscape – and the gift shops – still pull in the coach parties, but the village’s popularity also means there’s a decent range of places to stay, making it a good base for exploring some of Cork’s most beautiful countryside or for just hopping over to see the horticultural delights of Garinish Island. To the west, in the dramatic shadow of Hungry Hill, watersports and a pleasant hostel are on offer at Adrigole.
Garinish Island (Ilnacullin)
Garinish Island (Ilnacullin)
In 1910, the MP Annan Bryce bought Garinish (aka Ilnacullin) from the British War Office and, after shipping in all the topsoil, gradually turned the rocky inshore island into an exotic garden oasis. Having passed into public ownership in 1953, the island is now a delightful and accessible escape from the mainland, especially in summer, when colourful plants from around the world set the island alight against a backdrop of the sparse, jagged mountains just across the water. The island’s centrepiece is a formal Italianate garden, surrounded by a walled garden and wilder areas, a Grecian temple with magnificent views of the Caha Mountains and a Martello tower. There’s a coffee shop and a self-guided trail around the gardens, and serious horticulturalists should pick up the Heritage Service’s guidebook, which includes detailed plant lists. The ten-minute boat trip to the island takes you past the lush islets of Glengarriff Harbour, where you may see basking seals.
Looping round an especially harsh and rocky part of the peninsula on the R575, you’ll come upon ALLIHIES, its brightly coloured houses dramatically huddled together against the leathery creases of Slieve Miskish’s western flank and blessed with superb sunset views. In 1812, the Industrial Revolution descended on this most remote corner of Ireland with a vengeance, bringing state-of-the-art engineering and Cornish mining techniques to work the copper ore in the mountains above the village. At any one time, up to 1500 people, including women and children, worked for the mines here in desperate conditions, until their closure in the 1880s, when many of the miners emigrated to the huge copper lode in Butte, Montana. The story is now engagingly told at the excellent Allihies Copper Mine Museum, set up by a group of dedicated local enthusiasts, in a renovated Methodist church that was built for the immigrant Cornish miners. Highlights of the thoughtful displays include video recollections of local men who worked in the mines when they briefly reopened in the 1950s, bits of ore that you can handle and a small-scale reconstruction of a steam pump. In addition, a network of signposted trails has been laid out in the surrounding countryside, allowing you to take in ruined mine buildings and spectac- ular views. One of the trails leads down to Ballydonegan Strand (beware the currents when swimming), 1km to the southwest – this sandy beach is actually composed of crushed quartz produced in the copper extraction process.