After leaving Galway, our next destination in Ireland was Killarney in the far southwest of the island. We ultimately wanted to embark on the Ring of Kerry, which I’ll get to later, but our first afternoon in the area was spent exploring Killarney National Park, which is just on the outskirts of town.
Killarney National Park is huge - especially for such a small country. The park encompasses lakes, waterfalls, forests, bogs, grasslands, and the tallest mountains in Ireland...and it even has its own castle. It’s probably possible to spend weeks exploring there, but we only had one afternoon, so we took a late afternoon hike around the Torc Waterfall, one of the most popular sites in the park. The waterfall itself shows up early in the hike, and the rest of the path leads through vast stretches of ancient oak forests and along the shores of some of the park’s many lakes, with Macgillycuddy’s Reeks (the aforementioned highest mountains in Ireland) as a backdrop.
This place is magical. The entire forest feels like it hasn’t changed at all since humans first discovered Ireland in prehistoric times. Walking through the mossy trees, listening to the birds chirping and observing a million different forms of life exist around me, it was easy to see how the legends of ancient magic arose in this place. Everything felt so powerfully alive and I felt totally connected to it. I have loved my whole experience in this country so far, but here, in this park...that’s what I always dreamed Ireland would be like, and I was stunned and mystified to experience it with my own eyes.
Sadly, Killarney Town is not nearly as magical as the park that shares its name. The whole town seems to be catered to tourists of the big-box, tour-bus variety. Don’t get me wrong: the whole of Ireland is chock full of B&B’s and there are tourists everywhere you turn, but nowhere was this more apparent than in Killarney, where it seemed like every other business was a gift shop selling stuffed sheep and shamrock shirts, and fake-friendly restaurant owners encouraged us to leave positive reviews on Tripadvisor as they rushed us out the door to turn over the table as fast as they could. I get that tourism is the biggest source of income in Killarney and other small towns like it across Ireland’s scenic southwest, but the vibe felt more forced, more jaded, and more generic here than in any other place we visited on our trip.
Despite our disappointment with Killarney Town, we had bigger things ahead: the entire reason we ventured this way was to explore the Ring of Kerry, a scenic driving route around the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula at the far southwest of the island. tt’s one of the most well-trodden tourist paths in the country, but the vast majority of visitors make the trip in massive tour buses, stopping at predetermined sites along the way. Having our own car gave us the freedom to stop and explore to our heart’s content.
All tour buses have to travel the Ring in a counterclockwise direction, starting from Killarney and heading west and then south along the coast. This is because the roads are incredibly narrow, with tons of blind turns and tight curves, and there are many spots where two tour buses would not be able to pass each other in opposite directions. Since we were driving a tiny car, we decided to drive the Ring clockwise against the flow of tour bus traffic. We knew going into it that we were going to experience some hairy moments, but we wanted to go at our own pace and avoid the crowds without running the risk of being stuck behind a slow-moving coach bus. We figured it was worth the trouble.
Luckily it turns out we were so, so right. Yes, at times the drive was nerve-wracking. There were a million hairpin turns high up in the hills with little to no guardrail - not to mention sheep casually grazing right along the side of the road at improbable angles. And yes, there were definitely a few moments where we had to slow to a crawl - or completely stop - in order to let a tour bus pass along a particularly tight stretch of road. But we never felt endangered, and we were rewarding with possibly the most stunning views either of us has ever seen (so far at least). Mountains, cliffs, farmland, the Atlantic Ocean, tiny islands out in the distance...the Ring of Kerry has it all.
But the best part of the drive, by far, was visiting all of the tiny little villages along the route. There are dozens of small farming communities - some with only a few hundred people - and not all of them are as touristy as you might imagine. We stopped for a quick pastry in one village and at a charming French bistro in another, and were wowed by how friendly and welcoming everyone was. In those areas, we didn’t see a lot of other tourists - perhaps because we got an early start and did the Ring in the opposite direction - which was refreshing after the disappointment of Killarney.
After we finished the Ring of Kerry, we drove on toward Cork knowing the scenery would change and that our roadtrip through the most dramatic bits of Ireland’s varied landscape was over. Even so, Cork would offer us a different view of the country, and we’d still have lots of new experiences in our last days in Ireland.