Story and photography by Sharon King Hoge
Discovering Ireland's West Cork
A Quiet Corner near Roaring Water Bay
The popular tourism sites -- Dublin, Belfast, Galway, Sligo, the Ring of Kerry -- are only highlights of all that Ireland has to offer. Driving the Wild Atlantic Way that meanders along the scenic coast from Cork to Donegal, focus on a portion of its southernmost section, Cork to Kerry. In this corner of West Cork, the environs of Roaring Water Bay, you'll find seaside attractions, cultural festivals, artisanal local foods, and vestiges of the idyllic farm life recounted in Alice Taylor's ongoing classic book "To School Through the Fields, An Irish Country Childhood."
Pause first in Skibbereen, a small town with charming shops lining the curvy streets and farmers markets held on summer Friday noon and Saturday mornings. Local artists display their paintings and collages in the West Cork Arts Centre and there's traditional Irish music every Wednesday night in Annie May's restaurant and bar.
The 19th-century famine was particularly harsh in this locale, and the hardships of its victims are recounted in exhibits and dramatizations in the town's Heritage Centre. Across the river in a solemn cemetery, stone crosses and monuments mark mass graves of those who perished. Stop by the classic Victorian Eldon Hotel on Bridge Street and browse through Michael Collins memorabilia. It was from here that the great patriot embarked on the motor convoy that ended in his assassination.
Rooms at the Lis Ard Estate on the outskirts of town vary from modern to Victorian, but even if you don't book an overnight, be sure to stop and see the Irish Sky Garden Crater installation by noted international artist of light and space James Turrell. Lying on its "Vault Purchase," look up through the crater at the sky.
Proceeding along the coast, pass the sign for Kilcoe Castle, ancient stronghold of the McCarthys, was recently restored by actor Jeremy Irons who lives nearby. Entering Ballydehob, stop to walk across the magnificent 12-arch bridge and drive by the Levis Corner House Pub. Until a few years ago, the combination watering hole and dry goods shop "starred" its late proprietresses Julia and Nell, who served up hot whiskies and pints of Guinness well into their '90's (Nell died in 2013 age 104). Full of local color, their pub was a perennial stopping spot for Sir David Putnam, JFK Library Director Charles U. Daly, and other international notables.
Proceed to Scull with its marvelous views of boats bobbing in the harbor, lined with stunted palm trees, amenable to the local mild climate, which is warmed by the Gulf Stream. Outside the harbor lies FastNet rock with the lighthouse that was called "Ireland's teardrop" when it was emigrants' last sight of the beloved country they were leaving. There may be a regatta to view, or you might charter a boat for fishing, sailing, or sightseeing. Be sure to stop at Pebbles, a shop on Main Street which carries a tasteful selection of apparel featuring Irish linens and woolens, soft-as-cashmere.
Drive out to visit the museum and signal station at the tip of the Mizen Peninsula, Europe's westernmost point, or turn north into the village of Durrus. Just outside town is Blairscove House and Restaurant, accommodations in contemporary stone guestrooms perched right on the water. Meals prepared by Head Chef Ronald Klotzer begin with an elaborate buffet of starters followed by rack of lamb, loin of tuna, Irish fillet steak grilled on the wood fire and served with chunky sweet potato chips, white onion puree, and blue-cheese steak butter.
Again you could follow the route out west to past Ahakista and Kilcrohane to Sheeps Head -- good places for sightseeing and hikes. Or merely head into nearby Bantry to visit Bantry House, a stately home that offers bed and breakfast accommodations, a tearoom, and "showabout" tours of its library, salons, historic artifacts, and magnificent gardens. Twice a year music festivals are held here -- chamber music in early July and traditional tunes in August. Other occasional concerts throughout the year give visitors the opportunity to enjoy beautiful sounds, while gazing at the spectacular garden stairway climbing to the heavens outside.
For dinner in Bantry, try to get a reservation at the Fish Kitchen. Lobster, mussels, and oysters are served Tuesday through Saturday when boats bring in cod, John Dory, and other fish fresh-from-the-harbor.
Further along, the Seaview House, is a country house hotel in the quiet village of Ballylicky. Rooms with views across Bantry Bay are fitted out with antiques and homey touches. Home-cooked meals are served in its elegant dining room. Nearby, for snacks, stop at Manning's Emporium with an extensive selection of local cheeses: Durrus, Gubbeen, Cashel Blue.
From here it's just a few miles up the road past Glengarriff, Maureen O'Sullivan's Irish home, before proceeding on to Kenmare which diverts to the Ring of Kerry. There is a lot of Ireland still to explore, but I've just taken you on a tour some of its remote treasures.
Wild Atlantic Way
Skibbereen Heritage Centre
Liss Ard Estate
Blairscove House and Restaurant
The Fish Kitchen
Seaview House Hotel
West Cork Music
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