In many ways the pandemic is a kaleidoscope. A diverse range of swirling, dancing colours, defining the rollercoaster of pandemic emotions. There are many dark moments of being locked down. So, to finally be able to break free feels like an explosion of brightness – or white light, an experience of recapturing freedom by venturing on to the open road once more.
Of all locations in Ireland, west Cork is, to this writer anyhow, one of the country's freest settings, with the area's craggy peninsulas stretching out into the Atlantic Ocean, almost as though they were fingers grasping into the waves, desperate to be unshackled from the mainland. The ideal location to attempt to shed the lockdown memory of the livingroom couch.
On the mainland
Gougane Barra Hotel, located on the mainland, close to two of those jutting peninsulas, Beara and Sheep’s Head, is a central base from which to explore the surrounding wild beauty.
Run by husband and wife team, Neil and Katy, the hotel has been in the family for five generations, and feels more like going to stay with extended family, such is the warmth and kindness of the hosts, who go out of their way to extend the hand of west Cork hospitality to those who pass through. Allied to this is Katy’s cheffing prowess: she runs the kitchen like a commando, serving up Irish fine-dining menus, focused heavily on Cork food provenance.
The hotel’s impossibly beautiful setting, on the shores of Gougane Barra Lake, is the kind of vista one daydreams about. It is also short walk to the Gougane Barra Forest Park, which has a road incorporated into its design – akin to the experience of driving around California’s Yosemite National Park. A number of trails lead off the road, which after a hike, offer stunning views out over the rugged terrain of the Shehy Mountains. It’s an ideal home from home for couples and families to explore from.
Another base option is Bantry, which serves as the beating heart of both peninsulas, and is located at the mouth of the two. The bustling fishing town has a cosmopolitan atmosphere, making it feel much larger than its circa, 3,000 population might suggest.
Bantry House, run by sister and brother team Julie and Sam Shelswell-White – descendants of the Earl of Bantry – caters for large groups. Renting the East Wing is €1000 a night for up to 14 people; the whole wing can only be booked by one group to cater for social distancing. And you could not ask for a more sophisticated setting in which to stay.
The original section of the house was built in 1690; the second Earl of Bantry travelled extensively, accumulating the art and artefacts that now adorn the house. Add in touches such as a Bluetooth record player in the library, and the house feels different to other period homes: more hipster-period vibes than any sort of stuffy constraints.
The town offers a number of dining options, none better than The Fish Kitchen, run by Diarmaid Murphy, which serves up daily, changing seafood specialities of the region, for degustation outside at high stools, akin to the way one might dine al fresco at a Spanish tapas bar, for takeaway or for collect and cook; social distancing means the sit-in restaurant is not open – for now.
Another standout dining option is Manning's Emporium in Ballylickey. Run by another husband and wife duo, Andrew and Laura, and also a multigenerational, family business, in existence since 1946, this road-side restaurant serves up charcuterie, cheese and pizzas, with local produce and diversity of toppings – think guanciale and nduja – both key.
The Beara Peninsula
To the south of Bantry, you can drive westwards down Sheep’s Head Peninsula; however, this writer opted for the route north of the town, down the Beara peninsula.
Along with the late Ennio Morricone’s Essentials playlist humming through the car’s speakers, the road evokes post-impressionist images of driving through a greener version of the Wild West, with lush fields, intertwined with rocky hills, on either side of the anfractuous roads.
The drive alone is a wonder, passing through Glengarriff and on through Adrigole and Castletown-Bearhaven. The long and winding road eventually leads to a location of quiet brilliance in the form of Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist retreat centre.
Founded in 1987, this centre is tranquillity in all its glory. It’s possible to stay in the centre in a number of lodging types: cliff-top cottages, private rooms – some with conservatories looking out over the ocean, and a budget hostel. However, just passing through Dzogchen Beara is worthwhile, with landscaped gardens offering gently meandering walking routes, and a café serving up vegan and vegetarian fare fuelled by the produce of the centre’s garden.
The west Cork islands offer even more disconnect and reflection. Drive past Dzogchen Beara to the very tip of Beara, and you will find Ireland's only cable car, connecting the mainland to Dursey Island. Built in 1969, the carriage cables branch out over Dursey Sound, with basking sharks often visible in the waters underneath, before you land on an island that conjures up remote existentialism.
Hike the perimeter of the island over a 14km trek or visit the remains of a now ruined monastery, as well as a signal tower located at the top of the island. A short walk leads halfway up an incline towards the tower, which lends views out over Skellig Michael – aka the Star Wars island, as its modern moniker might be.
Another day trip, island option is Whiddy Island, located a short ferry ride from Bantry itself. Tim O'Leary runs the ferry and the island's only bar and restaurant, the Bank House, and the same man is building a hostel in the old schoolhouse, due to open in the autumn. It's an ideal base for hikes around the island, which is home to a huge oil terminal. Its industrial design offers a stark contrast and in a way beauty, alongside the otherwise, largely untouched nature of the location. The views back to Bantry are stunning.
A third island option is Garnish Island. Located another short ferry journey from Glengarriff, the Harbour Queen stops at a landing jetty on this staggeringly peaceful and beautiful place.
The creative partnership of the island's then owner, Scottish businessman and Liberal politician John Annan Bryce, and architect and garden designer Harold Peto Garnish boasts a stunning collection of flora from across the globe. The sheltered, woodland nature of Garnish, gives it a microclimate that enables the many tropical plants to flourish amidst a landscaping job of epic classiness.
Between the mainland and the island, there is a third theatre to explore: the Atlantic. Having admired its views from the road and Bantry House, you can get out on to the water in a kayak with Bantry Bay Boat Hire, run by Aaron O’Sullivan.
The affable, secondary-school teacher conducts routes of varying length and – depending on ability – out towards Whiddy Island, but most notably, to visit the mussel boats that farm Bantry’s most famous product. Kayak up to the side of the boats and chat to the fishermen as they explain the process of how the mussel farm functions.
Ireland is a country of rare beauty, and within the 32 counties, west Cork is a towering example of that elegance. Its coastal views rival those found in the Central America and southeast Asia for their majesty; its food culture holds its own against many of Europe's great cities; and its people welcome you in, as though you were one of their own. Go southwest, and make sure you have Ennio Morricone ready for the journey.
Tadgh Peavoy was a guest of Fáilte Ireland, whose 'Make A Break For It' campaign is encouraging Irish people to explore their own country this summer. See discoverireland.ie