5 Irish drives


Conor Powerchooses his favourite routes, all of which mix spectacular scenery with places to stop and stay.

I HAVE ALWAYS loved car journeys. There is, to my mind, something irrepressibly romantic about a good drive, the sense of an adventure unravelling, with moments that create lasting memories.

From the days of my childhood, I especially loved those sleepy, sandy, sea-washed journeys home from the beach on a warm summer's evening, and the many holiday journeys made through town and country with the caravan in tow.

In my early 20s I would drive for four or five hours from the southeast to the northwest of the country most weekends to visit my girlfriend (now wife), a journey that took me over the Vee - a V-shaped pass in the Knockmealdown Mountains that always reminds me of the sort of route that smugglers might have taken - across the mighty Shannon at Athlone and over the mysterious flat brown land of the Bog of Allen.

Later in life I was to become familiar with the last resort known to man to get his baby child to sleep: namely, driving around the countryside until he or she conks out. In the mind's rose-tinted eye there's a certain nostalgic allure even about those dead-of-night circular journeys to Hades.

It's not that we Irish are stupid, but we do have a talent for misdirecting those seeking directions. We all know from experience that if you stop to ask directions anywhere in Ireland, the first answer you're most likely to get is "Ehhm!" This may be followed by "Let me see . . .", "Do you know, I'm not sure . . ." or the classic "Well, I wouldn't start from here . . ."

Amusing and all as this might seem, I recently found myself on the other side of the fence when I was asked directions from a car park in Skibbereen, in Co Cork, to the not-too-distant town of Bantry.

My initial reaction was to stare at the sky around me. Then, even though I lived in Bantry for more than a decade and know both towns very well, I am ashamed (and shocked) to say that the first words out of my mouth were "Ehhm . . . Let me see . . . I'm not sure from here . . . Where did you come from?"

Although the litter problem seems to have moved clean out of town and into the countryside recently, the two main drawbacks to driving in Ireland have always been the lack of quality signage and the lack of quality road surface.

These twin terrors have stalked our land for many generations, and they are liable to turn up unexpectedly at any time of your road trip.

In fact, if one turns up, then so does the other, more often than not. Traditionally speaking, we're not ones to set standards of surface, as anyone who has driven on the roads of any other European country will testify.

If there was such a thing as a Eurovision Road-Surfacing Contest, then we'd be annual recipients of nul points.

It's fair to say, however, that there has been an all-round improvement in road surfaces (even on non-NRA roads) in recent years, and the problem with signage can be circumvented by the astute purchase of a satellite-navigation system.

Plucking five drives in a country that's renowned for its physical variety is not easy. I've opted for drives that won't take you the whole day to complete, so leaving ample time for pit stops and conversations.

As for tips, the best I got was from my brother-in-law, who told me to bring a pair of binoculars.


80km, one and a half hours non-stop

The important point about this trip is to do it out of season - that is, not in July or August, when you'll find a trail of camper vans and hire cars clogging up the highway like Mecca- bound pilgrims.

On a fine, clear day in June, however, you'll have just enough company for touristic atmosphere. It's a breathtaking parade of spectacular scenery from start to finish, on a decent road that takes you past chic and welcoming villages such as Ballylickey and

Glengarriff, past saltwater lake, freshwater paternoster lakes and mountaintop lake alike; past vistas of mountains and sea, through hand-hewn stone tunnels and herds of Cork and Kerry sheep.

Where to stay

As this route takes the N71, there is a fine choice of accommodation, from four-star hotel to BB. For camping, try Eagle Point campsite (Ballylickey, Bantry, Co Cork, 027-50630, www.eaglepointcamping.com), set on its own little peninsula. It could be the best-run and most spectacularly located campsite in Ireland.

Where to eat

Kenmare, at the end of your journey, is often referred to as the gourmet capital of Ireland. The bars and restaurants of the Co Kerry town cater for every taste, from modern Irish cuisine at Mulcahy's (Henry Street, 064-42383, www.kenmare restaurants.com/mulcahys/ main.html) to the understated subtlety of flavours at Packie's (Henry Street, 064-41508, www.kenmarerestaurants.com/packies).

Where to stop

It's hard to beat the timeless setting of Glengarriff, Co Cork, for a refreshment pause. Take your choice from the old-world veranda of the Eccles Hotel (Glengarriff Harbour, 027-63003, www.eccles hotel.com), from where you can survey the boats toing and froing from Garinish Island (Ilnacullen) or take a table in front of the Maple Leaf Lounge (027-63021).


120km, two and a half hours non-stop

This is a drive that's a bit of a microcosm of Ireland itself, with a mixture of some of the best mountain and sea vistas on offer.

There's also a good mixture of road types, from the narrow, twisty coastal and mountain routes to the fine, smooth Celtic Tiger of a road that is the N25.

The Copper Coast (so named because of the former copper mines along this stretch of Co Waterford shore) is the only designated geopark in Europe. It's delightful at every turn, running through charming villages, followed by a spellbinding succession of hideaway coves and splendid beaches.

Starting in Dungarvan, take the coast road east past Clonea. The coastline begins to beguile at this point, but the next real jewel is Stradbally - a neat, flowering village of medieval allure.

After Bunmahon, head northeast through Kill towards Waterford, turning left once you hit the N25.

After travelling west for about 15km, turn north towards Clonmel, on the R678, and around in a loop south through Ballymacarberry and on to Dungarvan.

The Nire Valley section contrasts with the coastal sections, feeling unexpectedly alpine.

Where to stay

Hanora's Cottage, in the heart of the Nire Valley, beside the gurgling Mahon River (052-36134, www.hanoras cottage.com) is more a large guest house than a cottage. Run by the Wall family for more than 20 years, this has become an institution in the area where huge breakfasts and warm welcomes are the order of the day.

Where to eat

When passing through Dungarvan, it makes sense not to miss the Tannery (058-45420, www.tannery.ie) which is a national institution. Delicious, cutting-edge food.

Where to stop

Although there are many beaches, coves and beauty spots along the way, there is something extra-special about Stradbally Cove. The beach is sandy, the river runs into it and the rocks that flank the strand make you feel privileged to have found it.


75km, two and a quarter hours non-stop

Another pure delight in terms of scenery, illustrating Ireland's talent for providing more of the same while being completely different.

Start on the north side of the Corca Dhuibhne Peninsula at Castlegregory, head west to Cloghane, then go south over the stunning Conor Pass. (There's nothing like a road sign warning of vehicular size and weight restrictions to whet one's appetite.)

After the briefest stop in Dingle, carry on west to Ventry and Slea Head and then Dunquin - the last parish until the US - before continuing north past Ballyferriter and the ancient monastic buildings at Gallarus.

Then turn right at Murreagh and head south again, past the ecclesiastic site at Kilmalkedar, and on down to Dingle, to complete the circle.

The journey brings out plenty of oohs and aahs,

from the scary moments wedging the car through the Conor Pass to the often precipitous negotiations of the road from Slea Head to Dunquin.

And the Dingle Peninsula is littered with ogham stones, with almost a fifth of the country's total concentrated on one peninsula.

Where to stay

When on the Dingle Peninsula, stay in Dingle. The Captain's House (The Mall, 066-9151531, http://tinyurl.com/5awde6) is a charmer of a place in the heart of the town, accessed via a footbridge through fragrant gardens. It has been operating as a BB for more than 120 years.

Where to eat

Out of the Blue. Waterside, Dingle, 066-9150811, www.outoftheblue.ie. It's seafood only in this award-winning restaurant, which turns out exciting dishes from fresh catches prepared by culinary geniuses.

Where to stop

Pause for a glass of refreshment at Krugers pub, in Dunquin (066-9156127), looking out at the sea, and drink to the memory of Peig Sayers, whose final resting place is in the local burial ground.


230km, two and a half hours non-stop

This is a jaunt through two counties, crossing landscapes that, on a bright and breezy west-of-Ireland day, give you the impression of driving through a Paul Henry painting.

Starting in Galway city, head northwest on the pleasantly straight N59 through Moycullen and Oughterard and on to Clifden. Then head north, continuing along the N59.

After Letterfrack the terrain becomes increasingly mountainous as you skirt Connemara National Park and the shores of Killary Harbour. Even if you don't have time to stop, drive around the centre of Westport, as it's one of the prettiest towns in the country.

From here go south along the N84, back towards Galway between Loughs Carra and Mask, before cutting west 10-15km later to take in a drive by Cong.

Where to stay

Quay House. Beach Road, Clifden, Co Galway, 095-21369, www.thequay house.com. Less than 10 minutes' walk from the town centre, this impeccably restored and decorated guest house dates from 1820. It was formerly the harbour master's house and a monastery.

Where to eat

For home cooking with beautiful views over Killary Harbour - Ireland's only fjord - it's hard to beat Blackberry Cafe (Main Street, Leenane, Co Galway, 095-42240).

Where to stop

Kylemore Abbey (Kylemore, Co Galway, 095-41146, www.kylemoreabbey.com) is very hard to simply drive by. The magnificent Victorian-era pile has an equally magnificent setting. It's an abbey, church, visitor centre, restaurant, garden and craft shop, all in one irresistible package.


60km, two hours non-stop

Although it has become very popular in recent years with devoted walkers, and has attracted the attention of some notable celebrities, this jewel of a promontory remains relatively undiscovered.

This is more like the real old Ireland of one's childhood, and it's relatively easy to drive around, even in the height of summer.

Starting just south of Bantry, on the north side of the peninsula, the road, which is devoid of villages, is constantly breathtaking in a craggy cliff-indented coastline.

You'll be made of stern stuff if you can prevent gasping as you turn south over the spine of Sheep's Head and down the hairpin bends into Kilcrohane.

Before turning left back towards Durrus, turn right and continue to the very end of the peninsula, where the road narrows to the width of one car, before retracing your route back through Kilcrohane, Ahakista and, finally, Durrus.

Where to stay

Hillcrest House. Ahakista, Co Cork, 027-67045, www.ahakista.com. This BB is on a working farm, overlooking Dunmanus Bay, where guests are welcomed with scones and a cup of tea.

Where to eat

Good Things Café. Ahakista Road, Durrus, Co Cork, 027-61426, www.thegood thingscafe.com. Located on the edge of the village, this fine cafe has been pursuing excellence since opening, in 2003.

Where to stop

Pause for refreshments at Arundels pub (Ahakista, 027-67033), which has a traditional mini-shop - and a lawn on the waterfront overlooking the harbour, pier and Dunmanus Bay. Within a couple of hundred metres is a shingly beach.