Cork is far and away Ireland’s largest county, though nearly all visitors simply ignore its massive hinterland of dairy farms, dotted with low mountains and evergreen plantations. The coast’s the thing, and in an east–west spread of over 170km it unfurls an astonishing diversity. Based around an island near the mouth of the River Lee, Cork city, the capital of the self-styled “rebel county”, is renowned for its independent spirit, and packs a good cultural and social punch in its compact, vibrant centre. With its excellent restaurants, cafés and specialist food market, the city also sets a high culinary tone, which much of the rest of the county keeps up. Further reminders of a prosperous seafaring past can be seen hereabouts in the ports of Cobh, Youghal and especially Kinsale, each of which has reinvented itself in its own singular way as a low-key, pleasurable resort.
Though it meanders wildly through inlets and hidden coves, the coastline west from Cork city as far as Skibbereen remains largely gentle and green, with a good smattering of sandy beaches and a balminess that has attracted incomers and holiday-homers from the rest of Ireland and Europe. Facing each other across the shelter of Roaring Water Bay, the good-time ports of Baltimore and Schull are popular with a cosmopolitan, watersports crowd, but the offshore islands of Sherkin and Clear presage wild country ahead. Mizen Head is the first of Cork’s and Kerry’s five highly irregular, southwesterly fingers of folded rock, which afford spectacular views of each other and the Atlantic horizon. The next, narrow Sheep’s Head, is perhaps the most charming, where – especially if you slow down to walking pace – you’ll feel as if you’re getting to know every square kilometre of gorse, granite and pasture and just about every inhabitant. Shared between Cork and Kerry, the Beara Peninsula is especially dramatic, epitomized by mild, verdant Glengarriff’s backdrop of dark, bare rock and lonely mountain passes.