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Crouching Tiger - Cycling Ireland's South West Coast

01 August 2001

by Fraser McLachlan

In the last decade Ireland has reinvented itself as the tiger economy of a brave new Europe. We were keen to experience the country's uniqueness before the perils of globalisation quashed its weird ways. Plus it appeared to be small, green and flat - always good attributes for cycle touring. So Max, our 11 month old son, Jillian and I flew into Cork with a couple of weeks up our sleeves.

We were keen to avoid juggling bikes on top of Max's baggage train while traipsing through airports. A short stint on the web uncovered an outfit called Irish Cycle Hire who had a selection of decent touring bikes. They also had a Burley trailer - Ireland's wet reputation suggested that this would be a necessary option for Max. To further reduce on-board weight we chose to indulge in B&B's rather than our usual camping mode. Gazing at a map of Ireland it is immediately obvious that there are roads everywhere. Essentially Ireland is an expanse of rolling green countryside stretching from one coast to the other - with many cows, white plaster houses and dry stone walls in between. The South West hogs the most dramatic landforms... pointy fingers jut out into the Atlantic and the rolling pasture is modified with harsh rocky headlands. It's the scenic highlight of all Ireland and has been swamped by tourists for hundreds of years. We opted to travel early in spring with the hope of avoiding the peak flow of aging Americans on golfing tours. Accommodation was no problem and we scored two weeks of still, warm weather. Even the locals assured us this was a rare occurrence.

So into County Cork we ventured - biking south west to Clonakilty and further west to Baltimore, almost the extreme south west tip of the Irish mainland. We rapidly figured out that dragging a metre wide buggy on the direct but narrow "main" roads was foolish - being overtaken by galloping lorries was all too common. Although more hilly and only vaguely sign-posted, the minor roads were blessed with little traffic, which massively enhanced our cycling experience.

County Cork is loaded with pretty fishing villages and multicoloured houses dotted around old stone wharfs. Quite picturesque but with plenty more to explore we pushed north up the West Coast - circumnavigating the three peninsulas of Beara, Kerry and Dingle. We spent a memorable night in Glengariff at the base of the Beara Peninsula. Guinness in hand, singing at volume with the locals downstairs while Max snoozed upstairs in his cot. The next morning, breakfast was served by the same barman who hadn't yet been to sleep. Some traditions die hard in the Irish heartland.

We avoided the extremity of the Beara Peninsula by climbing over Healy Pass and cutting into prime tourist land... the Ring of Kerry is a hundred mile loop that is most commonly completed as a day trip in a luxury coach. There's a procession of these diesel belching conveyances clogging the roads. By convention they all travel anti-clockwise, a fact we were unaware of but turned to our advantage as we pedalled clockwise against the flow. It transpires that there is a "signposted" cycle-touring route around the Kerry Peninsula. Despite repeated interrogation of staff at various information offices we were unable to obtain any details. However with the help of the occasional sign we ended up fluking about half our time on the less busy cycle route. Narrow coastal roads teetered around exposed cliff faces with big-sky views over the Atlantic. Spectacular. And with the luck of the locals we enjoyed plenty of sun and an absence of wind - even chancing the occasional dip in the ocean.

Coming off Valencia Island at the head of Kerry we gazed northwards across to the Dingle Peninsula. Another big day in the saddle and we cruised into Dingle itself. Nearby are many of the more spectacular archaeological sites - the Gallarus Oratory and various standing stones. With sheltered harbours, these headlands have been home to various Franciscan Monks, Vikings and Celtic tribes over the last few thousand years. Their remnants make inspiring viewing and good picnic stops. Climbing the Connar Pass we caught up with the Milk Rás - Ireland's only professional road tour. The peleton of 180 riders whizzed by and we gathered toots and waves from the spectators and support vehicles. It felt good to be on the bikes. We had intended to carry on up to Galway but time was pressing so we scooted back down to Killarney. This was our final stop but not before a pleasant day trip over the Gap of Dunloe. This has been a popular excursion since Victorian times and involved a two hour boat trip in an open dingy with our bikes, followed by a 30km ride over a spectacular pass and down a glacial valley. The only other traffic were horse traps carrying geriatrics - out en masse for a hit of fresh air.

Although Ireland has experienced huge economic growth in recent years, the only visible signs of this new wealth are heaps of new cars and a speculative property boom... the remote South West has become the darling location for get-away-from-it-all holiday houses. Thankfully, the fabric of Irish society appears relatively unchanged behind this façade. Of course our B&B hosts all loved Max and his toothy enthusiasm made each day's riding all the more rewarding.

Nitty Gritty

  • Ireland follows the usual European summer weather pattern but never gets overly hot. We travelled in May, which is springtime. Nice weather and you miss the tourist rush of July/August. 
  • A great starting point for planning a trip is the Irish Tourism (Bord Fâilte) web site. 
  • Raynair is the airline of choice for winging into Ireland from England/Europe. They are the acknowledged world leader in budget air travel - you just need to book well in advance to benefit from the obscenely cheap fares. 
  • One Irish Punt equates to around NZ$2.65. Most things cost about twice what they would in New Zealand. Not a particularly cheap travel destination but still less expensive than England. 
  • You can bike anywhere in Ireland but avoid the main roads. The inland countryside is only worthy if you are really into cows. Stick to the Coast particularly the South and West Coasts for mind blowing scenery. 
  • There are heaps of guide books, accommodation guides and maps available. A good road map (less the 1:250,000) and an area guide make travel planning a breeze. 
  • Accommodation is primarily B&B's at around IR£20 per person per night. Camping and hostels are possible but far less convenient or frequent.