The Ring of Kerry-Ireland’s Wide Green West

Ireland’s  greatest  tourism  cliché  is  the Ring  of  Kerry,  a  177km  (110-mile)  route around   the   Iveragh   Peninsula,   where scores of tour buses thunder every day in summer.  But  taking  your  own  car  makes all  the  difference:  Follow  the  road  clockwise (the buses go counterclockwise) and you’ll  have  the  road  less  traveled,  with room  to  enjoy  the  postcard-perfect  seacoast  views  that  made  the  Ring  a  tourist draw in the first place.

Without stops, the circuit takes 4 hours; plan  for  twice  that  so  you  can  stop  and explore,  not  just  snap  photos  out  your window. Driving south from tourist-choked Killarney  on  N71,  you’ll  enter  spectacular Killarney   National   Park,   where   the mountain scenery has an almost Wild West grandeur.  From  the  road,  you  gaze  north over   the   memorably   named   range   of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks; Ireland’s tallest mountain,    Carrantuohill,    at    1,041m (3,415  ft.),  crops  up  in  the  distance.  Stop to savor it at Ladies View, a scenic over-look,  where  Queen  Victoria’s  ladies-inwaiting  raved  about  the  panorama  on  a royal vacation (thus launching Kerry’s tourism industry). Detour south to Kenmare, a neat little town on Kenmare Bay, where a Bronze  Age  stone  circle  stands  intact around a dolmen tomb. At Kenmare Pier, from  May  to  October,  Sea-Fari  Cruises, runs 2-hour excursions to spot dolphins, sea otters, gray seals, and herons.

Wind  on  down  the  coast  to  Sneem, Ireland’s  most  colorful  village,  literally—the  kids  will  be  delighted  to  see  all  the houses painted in vibrant shades of blue, pink,  yellow,  purple,  and  orange.  A  few miles past Sneem, signs point to Staigue Fort, 3km (1 3 / 4  miles) off N70 on a narrow one-track road. A huge hit with my youngsters,  this  circular  fort  was  built  around 1000  B . C . of unmortared rough stones, big enough to shelter an entire Iron Age clan. At  the  western  end  of  the  peninsula, Waterville  is  an  improbably  Mediterra-nean-looking  resort  town,  where  Charlie Chaplin  often  summered;  there’s  a  super beach  here,  a  good  (if  windy)  spot  for a   picnic.   Detour   from   the   main   road to  Portmagee,  where  a  bridge  leads  to Valentia  Island  and  The  Skellig  Experience  .  Its  displays  and  audiovisuals  delve  into  local birds  and  plant  life,  in  particular  those  of the two tiny offshore islands known as the Skellig Rocks. These are Skellig Michael, a  rock  pinnacle  towering  over  the  sea, where  medieval  monks  built  an  isolated monastery; and neighboring Little Skellig,where  vast  flocks  of  gannets  and  other seabirds nest in summer. Cruises out to the Skelligs are available from Valentia.

Continue  on  N70,  with  Dingle  Bay  on your right. On this north side of the peninsula, open bog land constantly comes into view, a terrain formed thousands of years ago from decayed trees. The atmospheric Kerry  Bog  Village  Museum,  in  Bally-cleave,  was  our  favorite  stop:  a cluster of thatched-roof cottages showing what  life  was  like  in  Kerry  in  the  early 1800s, from the blacksmith’s forge to the roof-thatcher’s dwelling to the turf-cutter’s house  (for  centuries  local  residents  have dug up the peaty turf to burn in their fireplaces).   The   life   behind   the   postcard views—that’s what we were after, and we got it.