SKIBBEREEN (often shortened to “Skibb”, the lively administrative centre for this part of west Cork, is a good spot to take a break and recharge your batteries, with plenty of restaurants and accommodation options and an excellent heritage centre. To the south, it gives access to a rich coastal landscape where green pastures begin to alternate with the scrubby, rocky slopes so typical of more westerly parts. If you have your own wheels, you shouldn’t miss the uniquely beautiful lagoon of Lough Hyne, while regular buses run down to the animated resort of Baltimore, which is connected by ferry to the contrasting islands of Sherkin and Clear.
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West towards Skibbereen
Between Kinsale and Skibbereen, the main route west along the coast – the R600 and then the N71 – carves its way across the top of successive peninsulas, touching the sea only at the estuary towns of Timoleague, Clonakilty (often shortened to “Clon”) and Rosscarbery. With names such as the Seven Heads (between Timoleague and Clon) these jagged-edged peninsulas are worth exploring with your own transport and no set destination in mind – crisscrossing minor roads will reveal sheltered coves, wild cliffs and balmy beaches. Clonakilty is the main base here, with the small coastal villages of Courtmacsherry and Glandore, which is handy for one of the country’s finest stone circles at Drombeg, providing picturesque and tranquil alternatives.
If you head out of Skibb on the Baltimore road and take a left turn after about 3km, you’ll come upon Lough Hyne after a further 3km or so. Ireland’s first marine nature reserve, this tidal lake is joined to the sea only by a narrow channel, known as the rapids, but reaches depths of 45m in places. A combination of warm waters from the Gulf Stream and diverse habitats – sea caves, whirlpools, shallow and deep areas – supports an astonishingly rich variety of saltwater species here, over a thousand in less than a square kilometre. Many are rare species that are generally only found in the deep ocean or the Mediterranean, such as the triggerfish and the red-mouthed goby. Sheltered by varied slopes of gorse, woods and bare rock, the placid waters are also popular among swimmers and kayakers. To make the most of a visit, see the exhibit at the Skibbereen heritage centre first, where you can also pick up a brochure for the Knockomagh Wood Nature Trail. Beginning where the road from Skibb meets Lough Hyne, at its northwestern corner, this two-kilometre trail zigzags upwards and westwards past fine viewpoints of the lake, ancient sessile oaks and bluebell meadows, to the 197-metre summit of Knockomagh Hill, which affords a panorama of the coastline stretching from Galley Head in the east to Mount Gabriel above Schull.
Though isolated at the end of a stubby peninsula to the southwest of Skibbereen, BALTIMORE comes as a lively surprise, bustling with fishing and pleasure boats and ferries to Sherkin and Clear islands. In fine weather, there are few pleasanter spots in Cork than the small, sun-trap square above the harbour, filled with café and bar tables. Overlooking the square stands Dún na Séad, a thirteenth-century tower house that was the chief residence of the infamous pirates, the O’Driscolls, but fell into ruins from the end of the seventeenth century until its painstaking recent restoration as a private home. It’s worth a visit in summer (June to mid-Sept daily) to see the imposing great hall on the first floor and to take in the commanding views of the harbour and Roaringwater Bay from the battlements. Basking in the shelter of large inshore islands, the port is particularly busy during the regatta held in early August, but there’s also a fiddle festival in early May (wwww.fiddlefair.com) and a combined food and sailing festival during the last weekend in May (wwww.baltimorewoodenboatfestival.com).
Guarding the west side of Baltimore Harbour, Sherkin (Inis Arcáin, “Island of the Porpoise”) is a tranquil, pretty island that shares the mixed scrub and pastoral landscape of the mainland hereabouts. On a half-day stroll around the boot-shaped island, you could take in the highest point, Slievemore, to the southwest on the toe of the boot, and the best beaches, Trá Bawn, Trá Eoghan Mhór and Silver Strand, to the north of Slievemore. Ferries from Baltimore land at the easterly pier, behind which stands a plain fifteenth-century Franciscan abbey, with its fifteen-metre tower intact; you can still see the outline of its cloister and the walls of a curious seventeenth-century fish “palace”, where pilchards were salted and barrelled for export to Spain.
Ireland’s most southerly inhabited point, Clear Island (Oileán Chléire, also known as Cape Clear) is an isolated outpost of the Gaeltacht, which welcomes teenagers from all over the country to learn Irish during the summer, and generally reaches out to visitors, with plenty of facilities and information available. The island also holds a traditional story-telling festival, with concerts, workshops and music (wwww.capeclearstorytelling.com), over the first weekend of September. Clear describes a very rough figure-of-eight, just six kilometres square, with North Harbour, where ferries dock, and cliff-girt South Harbour almost meeting in the middle. Its landscape of steep, rolling hills of heather and pasture is crossed by narrow, hedge-lined roads and paths, affording fine views of Roaringwater Bay and of Fastnet Rock to the west in the open sea, where whales, dolphins and sharks can sometimes be spotted. The island is most famous as one of the best seabird-watching sites in Europe, with breeding colonies of black guillemots, choughs and rock doves and an important bird observatory at North Harbour (t028/39181, wwww.birdwatchireland.ie; April–Oct). Late spring and October are the best times for twitchers, who can take field courses and stay at the observatory.
Whale watching and kayaking
The seas off Skibb, rich feeding grounds for herring and sprat, are earning a reputa- tion as one of Europe’s premier whale-watching sites, with minke (roughly from April), fin (from June or July), more rarely, humpback (from September) and occasional killer whales, as well as scores of dolphins and porpoises, coming remarkably close to shore; September to November is the peak time. For further information, consult the website of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, iwdg .ie. Along the coast here, there are also sea-kayaking trips, ranging from half-day and starlight outings to two-day expeditions.