Cork Travel Guide
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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.
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.
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, 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 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.
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.
Around 10km southeast of Midleton, off the R629 Cloyne–Ballycotton road, lies Ireland’s most famous restaurant Ballymaloe House, serving exceptional modern Irish cuisine using local ingredients, with some nice traditional touches – you’ll be asked if you want second helpings and you choose your dessert from a groaning trolley. There’s much more to this grand enterprise than just a restaurant: accommodation in the vine-covered, originally fifteenth-century manor house and adjacent courtyard mixes country-house style with contemporary art, and there’s a summertime heated outdoor pool, five-hole golf course and a tennis court, plus bicycles for guests’ use and walks around the extensive grounds and farm. Attached to the house is a shop selling crafts and, of course, kitchenware, with an excellent daytime café; there’s also a seventeenth-century grainstore that’s been converted into a concert venue. The nearby cookery school runs prestigious twelve-week certificate courses as well as a host of short courses, and you can visit the school’s restored nineteenth-century gardens, featuring the largest formal herb garden in Ireland and a Celtic maze.
On the southern coast of Great Island, with extensive views of Cork Harbour, COBH (pronounced “cove”) makes a great escape from the city on a fine day. This historic and unpretentious resort, clinging onto a steep, south-facing slope, sports a stony beach, a promenade with a bandstand and gaily painted rows of Victorian hotels and houses. Much of the tourist traffic comes now from the dozens of huge cruise-liners that dock here every year, continuing a long tradition for this fine, natural harbour: Cobh was a port of call for the Sirius, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, in 1838, and for the Titanic on her disastrous maiden voyage in 1912. The port was also a major supply-depot during the American and Napoleonic wars, and became Ireland’s main point of emigration after the Great Famine. This long and often tragic seafaring history is vividly detailed at the Queenstown Story, a heritage centre in the former Victorian train station on the seafront (the town was renamed Queenstown after a visit by Queen Victoria in 1849, but its old name was restored after Independence). If your appetite for salty tales and memorabilia still hasn’t been sated, get along to the Cobh Museum, housed in a nineteenth-century Presbyterian church on the west side of the town centre.
The Republic’s second city, CORK (Corcaigh, “marshy place”) is strongly characterized by its geography. The centre sits tight on a kilometre-wide island, much of which was reclaimed from marshes, in the middle of the River Lee, while the enclosing hills seem to turn this traditionally self-sufficient city in on itself. Given this layout and its history, it comes as no surprise that Corkonians have a reputation in Ireland for independence of spirit, not to say chippiness. Indeed, in many ways, Cork sees itself not in second place but as a rival to Dublin. It produces its own national newspaper, The Irish Examiner, brews Murphy’s and Beamish, its own versions of the national drink, stout, and supports a vigorous artistic, intellectual and cultural life of its own. Even its social divisions match Dublin’s: here too the south side of the river is generally more affluent, while the north side has more public housing and a stronger working-class identification.
In colonial times, Cork also maintained its own strong links with London, through its role as a major port, proof of which can still be seen all around town. The main drag, curving St Patrick’s Street, was originally a waterway lined with quays, while you can still spot eighteenth-century moorings on Grand Parade. Though contemporary Cork doesn’t make the most of its long riverfront, much of which is now lined by major roads, the channels of the Lee, spanned by more than twenty bridges, break up the cityscape and pleasantly disorientate. The harbour area has Ireland’s largest concentration of chemical factories, fortunately downstream of the centre, while the city’s other main modern industry, computers, is linked to the prestigious university, to the west of the centre. All of this has spawned a widespread commuter belt, but the compact island is still the place for the many excellent restaurants, lively pubs and artistic venues.
The best of the city’s sightseeing options are the Crawford Art Gallery, with its fine collection of eighteenth- to twentieth-century art, Cork City Gaol, which vividly evokes life in a nineteenth-century prison, and the hi-tech cosmological displays of Blackrock Castle Observatory. In truth, however, none of Cork’s sights are absolute must-sees, though it’s a pleasant place to stroll around on a fine day. The city centre is essentially the eastern part of the island, with its quaysides, bridges, old warehouses and the narrow alleys of the medieval heart, plus a segment to the north of the River Lee that has MacCurtain Street as its central thoroughfare.
In the seventh century, St Finbarr established a monastery at Cork, on the site of today’s cathedral, to the southwest of the modern centre. Three centuries later, the Vikings created a separate settlement, an island in the River Lee’s marshes, which was taken over in the twelfth by the Anglo-Normans. They strengthened the defences of the central part of the island with the construction of vast city walls, leaving the west and east ends to the swamp and later developing suburbs on the slopes to the north and south. The fortifications were largely destroyed, however, in the successful Williamite siege of 1690, and became redundant when the marshes were reclaimed soon after. The next century witnessed great wealth, through the trade in butter and pickled meat and the development of the port for provisioning westbound sailing ships. Brewing and distilling plants were established, which persist to this day, along with glass, silver and lace industries, but the Act of Union and the introduction of steamships brought stagnation in the nineteenth century. At the start of the last century, Cork took an active part in the War of Independence and the Civil War, and suffered as a consequence. In 1920, the Royal Irish Constabulary murdered the Lord Mayor, Tomás MacCurtain, and as a reprisal for an ambush, the Black and Tans burnt much of the city centre to the ground in 1921. MacCurtain’s successor as mayor, Terence MacSwiney, was incarcerated and went on hunger strike, which after 74 days led to his death on October 24, 1920.
For those with a taste for it – and with shoe leather to spare – there’s plenty of Neogothic church architecture to see in Cork, mostly along the river banks. The highlight is William Burges’s St Finbarr’s Cathedral on Proby’s Quay, consecrated in 1870, whose three soaring, French Gothic spires are visible all over the city. The well-lit interior, which is elaborately decorated with red Cork marble, stained glass and Italianate mosaics, also impresses with its lofty proportions. Leading nineteenth-century practitioners Augustus Pugin and George Pain also worked in Cork. The Church of SS Peter and Paul, just off St Patrick’s Street in the centre, was designed by Pugin and sports some fine woodcarving. Pain was the architect behind Holy Trinity Church on Father Matthew Quay, with its handsome lantern spire, and St Patrick’s Church out to the northeast on Lower Glanmire Road.
Blarney, Blarney, what he says he does not mean. It is the usual Blarney.
So spoke Queen Elizabeth I, and a legend and its accompanying tourist phenomenon were born. Though supposedly loyal to the queen, the Lord of Blarney, Cormac MacCarthy, had been stalling her emissary, Sir George Carew, who had been sent to restore English control of Munster, sidetracking him with wine, women and words. MacCarthy, it was said, could talk “the noose off his head”, and over the centuries blarney came to mean “flattering, untrustworthy or loquacious talk associated with…Irish people” (The Encyclopedia of Ireland). This story of the word’s origin, however, may itself be blarney…
At some stage in the nineteenth century, with the beginnings of mass tourism to the southwest of Ireland, it became popular to kiss the Blarney Stone, part of the machicolations of Blarney Castle, a fine fifteenth-century tower house, set in attractive grounds, in the village of the same name, 8km northwest of Cork. The stone stands over a 26-metre drop, and planting a smacker on it is meant to grant “the gift of the gab”. Legions of the verbally challenged queue up in summer, when it’s best to turn up early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Cork hosts plenty of lively festivals, of which the largest and most prestigious are the midsummer festival, a wide-ranging celebration of the arts in late June (wcorkmidsummer.com), the jazz festival in October (wwww.guinnessjazzfestival.com) and the film festival in October or November, with a particular focus on short films (wwww.corkfilmfest.org). There’s also an international choral festival in late April or early May (wwww.corkchoral.ie), an early-music festival in late September, shared between the city and East Cork (wwww.eastcorkearlymusic.ie), and a folk festival in early October (wwww.corkfolkfestival.com).
If you travel from the mainland by road, you’re hardly aware that Fota is an island in Cork Harbour. Its main attraction is Fota House, built in the 1740s as a hunting lodge for the Barry family, whose main seat had by then moved from nearby Barryscourt Castle to Castlelyons near Fermoy. In the early nineteenth century, the house was substantially redeveloped and extended in elegant, Neoclassical style, and now lies a ten-minute walk from Fota train station. Excellent guided tours reveal plenty of telling details, with the highlights being the entrance hall, a beautifully symmetrical space divided by striking ochre columns of scagliola (imitation marble), and the ceiling of the drawing room, with its plasterwork doves, musical instruments and hunting implements and delicately painted cherubs and floral motifs. The tour also goes below stairs to the servants’ quarters, which include an impressive octagonal game-larder and such features as gaps at the top of the windows of the butler’s servery – added so that food smells would tantalize the poor servants rather than the house guests. For visitors, there’s now a nice little café in the long gallery and billiard room. Much of the estate’s formal gardens and its internationally significant arboretum, laid out in the mid-nineteenth century, are under the care of the Office of Public Works, with free access. At its best in April and May, the arboretum hosts a wide range of exotic trees and shrubs, with many rare examples, including some magnificent Lebanese cedars, a Victorian fernery and a lush, almost tropical lake.
KINSALE, 25km south of Cork city, enjoys a glorious setting at the head of a sheltered harbour around the mouth of the Bandon River. Two imposing forts and a fine tower-house remain as evidence of its former importance as a trading port, and Kinsale has built on its cosmopolitan links to become the culinary capital of the southwest. Add in plenty of opportunities for watersports on the fine local beaches and a number of congenial pubs, and you have a very appealing, upscale resort town.
St Multose founded a monastery at Kinsale in the sixth century, and by the tenth the Vikings had established a trading post. After the Anglo-Normans walled the town in the thirteenth century, it really began to take off, flourishing on trade, fishing and shipbuilding in its excellent deep harbour, which became an important rendezvous and provisioning point for the British Navy. The Battle of Kinsale in 1601 was a major turning-point in Irish history, leading to the “Flight of the Earls” to the Continent six years later which saw the end of the old Gaelic aristocracy: Philip III of Spain had sent forces to Kinsale to support the Irish chieftains, but communications were poor and Chief Hugh O’Neill, more accustomed to guerrilla warfare, was defeated by Elizabeth I’s army in a pitched battle.
In 1689 James II landed here in his attempt to claim back the throne, only to flee ignominiously from this same port a year later, after defeat at the Battle of the Boyne. His supporters fought on, however, burning the town and holing up in James Fort and Charles Fort. After a series of decisive attacks by the Duke of Marlborough, they surrendered on favourable terms and were allowed to go to Limerick for the final battle under Patrick Sarsfield.
During World War I, in May 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the passenger liner Lusitania off the Old Head of Kinsale, as it was sailing from New York to England. Twelve hundred of the passengers and crew were lost, and the sinking was a major factor in the USA’s eventual entry into the war.
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.
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.
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.