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.
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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.
East Cork (w www.eastcorktourism.com) occupies a blind spot in the eyes of many visitors, their focus set on the more spectacular coastline to the west, but several interesting places are worth considering, all of them served by public transport. A suburban train service makes possible an excellent, varied day-trip across the Lee estuary to Fota Island, with a sensitively restored Neoclassical hunting lodge and a wildlife park in its surrounds, and on to the attractive harbour town of Cobh on Great Island. Now isolated between Fota and the N25 at Carrigtohill, Barryscourt Castle makes for a fascinating visit, while further east lies Midleton, the traditional home of Jameson whiskey and a culinary hub. In an expansive setting at the mouth of the River Blackwater, the historic, easy-going resort of Youghal, some 40km east of Cork, marks the border with County Waterford.
YOUGHAL (pronounced “yawl”) enjoys a lush, picturesque setting on the west bank of the River Blackwater’s estuary, the border with County Waterford. It was one of Ireland’s leading ports in the medieval era, with a scattering of ancient buildings to show for it, and later became a centre for the carpet industry, but today it is popular with holidaying Irish families, who take their leisure on the long, sandy, Blue Flag beach to the southwest.
The Mizen Head Peninsula
Mizen Head is a wild and beautiful peninsula, projecting southwestwards around the substantial mass of copper-rich Mount Gabriel. The whole of its empty northern coast presents sheer cliffs and stupendous views. The south coast is more populous, sheltering safe harbours, the large village and resort of Schull and the remote, sandy beaches of Barley Cove, while the only tourist attraction of any note is the signal station at the very tip, the Mizen Head Visitor Centre.
The peninsula’s main settlement, SCHULL, is a congenial harbour town that’s not only popular with yachties but also has an artistic bent, with crafts shops, galleries and a weekly food and crafts market (every Sun morning from Easter to Christmas; wwww.schullmarket.com). It shelters in the lee of 407-metre Mount Gabriel, to the north, topped by an aircraft-tracking station and blessed with fine views. The walk up there (about 8km there and back) is detailed in a very useful, annual booklet, Schull Visitor’s Guide, that’s available around the town; since the mountain was actively mined for centuries, take care on the way that you avoid uncovered mine shafts.
The Sheep’s Head
The Sheep’s Head, a precarious sliver of land between Dunmanus and Bantry bays, is the quietest and smallest of the major southwestern peninsulas. Gorse and heather sprout from its long granite spine, leaving room for narrow pockets of green pasture on its north and especially its south coast. With magnificent views of the larger peninsulas on either side, it can be best appreciated by pedalling the easy-to-follow, 90-kilometre Sheep’s Head Cycle Route, or by walking the 88-kilometre Sheep’s Head Way, both of which are waymarked circuits from Bantry; the latter is relatively easy walking, avoiding the round-peninsula road for most of the way, and is covered by OS Discovery Series map number 88. It can be done in four days, with two nights in Kilcrohane after two long days’ walking and a night in Durrus; the last day is missable, so you might want to catch a bus back to Bantry from Durrus.
BANTRY enjoys a glorious location, ringed first by lush, wooded slopes and then by wild, bare mountains, at the head of 35-kilometre-long Bantry Bay, one of the finest natural harbours in Ireland. The prime viewpoint is naturally occupied by Bantry House, which with its sumptuous interior and garden is one of West Cork’s few unmissable historic sites. At the junction of several important roads, Bantry is also a substantial market (Fridays) and service town, with plenty of amenities for visitors.
Bantry House is one of Ireland’s most compelling country houses, both for its lavish art works and for its magnificent setting, among formal gardens overlooking the bay. Built in the early eighteenth century and extended a hundred years later, it was spared destruction during the Irish Civil War, when it acted as a hospital for the wounded of both sides. Many of its beautiful furnishings were gathered by the Second Earl of Bantry on his nineteenth-century grand tour and boast name-dropping provenances, such as the gorgeous Aubusson tapestries made for Marie Antoinette on her marriage to the future Louis XVI. The highlight is the dining room, which resembles an extravagant stage-set: rich, Chartres-blue walls, a marble colonnade and vast seventeenth-century sideboards carved with cherubs and classical scenes. There’s a very attractive café, with tables under the house’s west balcony, which serves tea and simple lunches.
The Beara Peninsula
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.
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)
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.