Barnacles. Who would have thought? Those dark, rock-clinging crustaceans ignored about our coastal shores can make for a tasty feast. We tilt our kayaks towards the sun in Glengarriff harbour and slowly prise a handful of them off the boulders, bagging them for tonight’s starters – more on that later – before paddling through some of the most stunning scenery in Europe.
What is it about the Irish? We will shout from the rooftops about the outdoor glories of New Zealand or the Rockies, or paddling the Baja California coast or scaling the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, yet rarely even ask about similarly rewarding but far more accessible and affordable adventures in our own beautiful land.
Our young family is on a sea-kayaking safari with Outdoors Ireland, an outdoor training, adventure and bushcraft company. Its founder, and our guide today, is the cheery Nathan Kingerlee, who steers us through the historical, cultural and geological strata of the locality – a story here, a rumour there – as we cut leisurely past Bush, Bark, Otter and Garnish islands.
The striations of rock across the Beara peninsula are like nothing I've seen elsewhere in the world, as if each cone of geology was poured by some primordial Mr Whippy
Like some sheltered slice of Monterey, this island-spattered bay is tacked to our hard-bitten island while remaining protected from the punishing swell of the Atlantic.
Beneath the afternoon sun we stop for a flask of tea and some of Nathan’s home baking before kayaking around Garnish, where herds of seals are strewn about like it’s the morning after the night before. The striations of rock across the Beara peninsula are like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere in the world, as if each cone of geology was poured by some primordial Mr Whippy.
It’s hard to know where to begin with west Co Cork. The fields are so magnificently green that they seem to sing to you. Then there’s the intimate little villages, and the woodlands, the rivers, the islands.
One such magical woodland is the 300-hectare Glengarriff Nature Reserve. With sessile oaks cloaked in moss and a river winding through it, it's one of the last slices of semi-natural oceanic woodland left in the country.
The purity of its nature would rival the valley floors of Fiordland. It's a rare snippet of how this land might have presented itself to the nation's first settlers, now offering up some gorgeous 1km to 5km trails, as well as an unhurried 10-minute hike up to Lady Bantry's Lookout.
Projecting from the fingertips of the Beara peninsula, the Dursey Island cable car – the only one in Ireland, dating from 1967 – must be seen to be believed. Whether you're in it or gaping at it from below, in this health-and-safety-obsessive century it appears delightfully ill fitting in its functionality, like a treehouse suspended between two lands. The first minute inside it is akin to being on a roller coaster's slow-motion ascent, only here the Atlantic is swirling below you like a nest of snakes.
Dursey Island has just two full-time residents, although 16 houses are “used frequently throughout the year”, one local tells us. It’s a cracking location for a walk. There’s an easy to moderate gradient, and it should take about five hours to walk to the western reach of the island and back. But come fully equipped: the sea views may be stunning, but there are zero visitor services here, or even shelter, just a snack stand at the cable-car terminal during the warmer months.
Almost 30 years ago the government declared the coastal waters of Ireland a whale and dolphin sanctuary, the first of its kind in Europe. Since then some 24 species of whales and dolphins have been recorded in Irish waters, making our Atlantic seaboard the spot for some of the continent’s best whale-watching opportunities.
Twelves species were recorded in recent years in the unpolluted waters off west Cork. If you climb aboard with the wonderful Nic Slocum of Whale Watch West Cork, you might, depending on the time of year, see minke, fin or humpback whales, or basking sharks, common dolphins, Risso's dolphins or harbour porpoises.
From a strong seafaring tradition, Nic resettled with family from England to west Cork in 2001, and soon set up his award-winning ecotourism business in Baltimore.
A zoologist with a delivery uncannily close to Jules Holland, Nic has an infectious enthusiasm for whales and dolphins. His insights to the sea life that surround our island are fascinating and entertaining, and he has a sixth sense about what might surface from the depths.
Minke whales breach so close to the boat that we not only hear them exhale through their blowholes but actually smell their bad breath
On our trip, 8m-long minke whales breach so close to the boat that we not only hear them exhale through their blowholes but actually smell their bad breath. Then there are the half-dozen playful short-nosed common dolphins surfing the swell before the boat, as well as some antisocial porpoises and what-the-f***-are-you-looking-at? seals.
The trip takes four hours, staying within a couple of kilometres of the coast, and stopping for tea and sandwiches on the Gaelteacht Clear Island.
The Eccles Hotel, on Glengarriff's waterfront, is a doyenne of Irish country hotels; dating from 1745, it was once frequented by WB Yeats, William Makepeace Thackery and George Bernard Shaw, and it is the perfect antidote to homogenous modern hotels. The welcome is genuine, the food is excellent and the rooms are old-world comfortable, with superb views through gorgeous sash windows.
In the hotel’s Garinish Restaurant the head chef, Edward Attwell, is passionate about sourcing the best local produce from their own garden and polytunnels and from local artisan producers – not to mention from their guests, should they happen to have harvested any. For starters we eat the barnacles, sumptuously cooked, that we had prised from the rocks hours earlier. I have never been so pleasantly surprised by a meal in any Irish restaurant.
Sea kayaking with Outdoors Ireland (2-5pm) costs €60 per person, including all equipment provided; beginners welcome
Whale watching from Baltimore costs €55 per person
Dursey Island cable car costs €10/€5 return, cash only; check website for times, which vary by season
We enjoyed staying and eating at the Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff; if you're visiting Baltimore to watch whales, we'd suggest checking out Cassidys Cottage in Ballydehob, which can sleep five for €130 a night; you can find it and other local places to stay on Airbnb