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The Ring of Kerry

Whether you’re setting out from Kenmare or Killarney, it’s best to follow the Ring of Kerry tourist route in a counterclockwise direction. This means that you’ll begin by heading west out of Killarney on the N72 road. (The road number will change to N70 for most of the loop as it circumnavigates the Iveragh Peninsula; it becomes N71 when you swing back through Kenmare.) About 22km (16 1/2 mi) northwest from Killarney is the next major stop: Killorglin, a smallish town that lights up in mid-August when it has a traditional horse, sheep, and cattle fair called the Puck Fair (see below). For the rest of the year, Killorglin is a pretty, quiet town, well worth a wander, with the River Laune running straight through the town center.

As you continue on what is now the N70, glimpses of Dingle Bay will soon appear on your right. Carrantuohill, Ireland’s tallest mountain at 1,041m (3,414 ft.), is to your left, and bleak views of open bog land constantly come into view. Along this coast, the Ring winds around cliffs and the edges of mountains, often with nothing but the sea below—another reason you will probably average only 50kmph (31 mph), at best. As you go along, you’ll notice the remnants of many stone cottages dotting the fields along the way. Most date from the mid-19th-century Great Famine, when millions of people starved to death or were forced to emigrate. This area was particularly hard hit, with the Iveragh peninsula alone losing three-quarters of its population.

Glenbeigh is next on the Ring, a sweet little seafront town with streets lined with palm trees and a sandy beach. Continue along the sea’s edge to Cahirsiveen, where you can branch off the N70 onto R565 to visit the lovely seaside town of Portmagee, which is connected by a bridge to leafy Valentia Island. In the 18th century, the Valentia harbor was notorious as a refuge for smugglers and privateers; it’s said that John Paul Jones, the Scottish-born American naval officer in the War of Independence, also anchored here quite often.

From Valentia you can hop a ferry to arguably the most magical site of the Ring of Kerry, an island just off its shore: Skellig Michael ★★★, a rocky pinnacle towering over the sea, where medieval monks built a monastery in exquisite isolation. Today, the ruins of their church, reached by way of rambling stone staircases up the sides of cliffs at the edge of the cobalt sea, still convey a sense of deep spirituality. Seabirds nest here in abundance, and more than 20,000 pairs of gannets inhabit neighboring Little Skellig during the summer nesting season. The crossing to the island can be rough, and will be cancelled in stormy weather, so you’ll want to visit on as clear and calm a day as possible.

Head next for Waterville, an idyllic beach resort located between Lough Currane and Ballinskelligs Bay. For years it was a favorite retreat of Charlie Chaplin; there’s even a statue of him near the beach. Here’s another rewarding detour: Follow the sea road north of Waterville (R567) to the Irish-speaking village of Ballinskelligs ★★, with its medieval monastery slowly rotting away. The scenic Skellig Ring coastal drive leads from here; a sandy Blue Flag beach is just past the post office by Ballinskelligs Bay, and at the end of the beach are the remnants of a 16th-century castle.

Continuing on the N70, the next point of interest is Derrynane ★★, at Caherdaniel. Derrynane is the former seat of the O’Connell clan and erstwhile home to Daniel O’Connell (“the Liberator” who freed Irish Catholics from the last of the English Penal Laws in the 19th century). From there, watch for signs to the prehistoric ruins of Staigue Fort ★★, about 3km (2 miles) off the main road in a farmer’s field.

Sneem, the next village on the circuit (see Blueberry Hill Farm ★★), is a colorful little hamlet, where houses are painted in vibrant shades creating a beautiful tableau. The colors—blue, pink, yellow, and orange—burst out on a rainy day, like a little touch of the Mediterranean. There’s not much to do here but it’s worth a stop just to see it. From here, you’re no distance at all from Kenmare, and you’ve made your way around the Ring.

SOS: GPS -- You can drive either way along the Ring of Kerry, but we recommend a counterclockwise route for the most spectacular views. Drivers of very large vehicles also stick to this direction in order to avoid bottlenecks on the perilously narrow bends. This all worked fine for years—until modern technology intervened with the spread of GPS technology. Now some drivers unfamiliar with the route are being sent by their devices in a clockwise direction, thus causing all sorts of chaos, including some of the worst traffic jams ever seen on the Ring. These problems don’t happen every day, but nonetheless, proceed with caution, and perhaps plan on taking a different route if you absolutely have to get somewhere on time.

Killorglin: The Puck Stops Here -- Sleepy little Killorglin wakes up every year on August 10, when the annual Puck Fair (www.puckfair.ie) incites a 3-day explosion of merrymaking and pageantry. One of Ireland’s last remaining traditional fairs, it’s technically an agricultural show; the apex of the event involves capturing a mountain goat (which symbolizes the puka or puki, a mischievous Celtic sprite) that is then declared King Puck and paraded around town on a throne, wearing a crown. It’s bonkers but quite a lot of fun. Nobody knows how it began, but one story dates to Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in the mid-17th century. English soldiers, foraging for food in the hills above the town, tried to capture a herd of goats. One goat escaped to Killorglin and alerted the villagers to mount a defence. Others say the fair is pre-Christian, connected with the Pagan feast of Lughnasa on August 1. As you cross the old stone bridge over the River Laune, look out for the whimsical statue of the goat on the eastern side—and know that it stands in honor of this town’s love for the puka.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.