Even visitors to Ireland who don’t believe in fairies and leprechauns become smitten by the inherent charms of the emerald isle. I’ve been travel writing for nearly 15 years and the question I receive most is, “what’s your favourite place.”

There are so many wonderful spots in the world it’s impossible to make a single choice; however, I usually respond with a top five and Ireland is certainly among them. Just 300 km wide and 500 km long, it’s a relatively small island but within the country separated from Britain by the Irish Sea, there are captivating cities and towns, castles, ancient historic sites, mesmerizing music, breathtakingly beautiful coastlines and last but not least, fascinating Irish folklore. My most recent trip to Ireland was spent exploring the famous Ring of Kerry, one of the country’s top tourist attractions.

Located on the southwest coast, the Ring is a 176 km circular route around the Iveragh Peninsula which can be driven in a day but this would mean minimizing the magic and the spectacular scenery it has to offer. One important thing every visitor who plans to drive the Ring should know: the roads are narrow and motorists are often obliged to share them with a bevy of behemoth tour buses.

One of my colleagues jokingly suggests taking a couple of valiums before hitting the trail during peak summer season when the buses are out in full force. I drove the route clockwise which resulted in meeting the buses head on. However, driving counter-clockwise would have meant being stuck behind them with nowhere to pass.

In spite of narrow roads and broad beamed buses, nothing can diminish the absolute glory of exploring one of Ireland’s greatest regions.

People who want to see a bit of the country before arriving at the Ring can fly Air Transat from Montreal to Dublin (May to October) and drive across the island in a day. Alternatively, Air Transat also offers Toronto to Shannon flights which put travellers just a short drive from the Ring.

The gateway to the Ring of Kerry is Killarney, a busy tourist town surrounded by lakes, mountains and forests. For many years it was Ireland’s top tourist centre only losing its crown to Dublin in the recent past. Killarney streets are filled with souvenir shops, lively restaurants and pubs and its from here the tour buses queue up for Ring tours. Before leaving the town and surrounding area seek out 14th century Ross Castle, a restored fortress whose ancient history includes a devastating attack by England’s Oliver Cromwell.

From Ross Castle, boats can be hired that take visitors across Lough Leane to Inisfallen Island where there are several monasteries, with the oldest said to be founded in the 7th century by St. Finian the Leper.

Heading clockwise along the Ring, the town of Kenmare is one of the trail’s most pleasant urban stops. This picturesque, pastel-painted town is an Irish gem that features more than 30 eating establishments, pubs, hotels and shops. In addition to the Heritage Centre, another not-to-be-missed attraction is the Kenmare Stone Circle, an ancient sacred site. Locally known as the Druids circle, it is over 3,000 years old and is the largest stone circle in southwest Ireland with 13 standing boulders and two lying prostrate.
Overall, Kenmare is a place that’s hard to leave; hence I stayed for a night at the Park Hotel, a century-old castle-like limestone building with terraced gardens, a fabulous spa and impeccable dining. It’s the kind of historically romantic place that is pure Ireland.

Golf enthusiasts have numerous excellent choices of places to play along the Ring route and among them is the Waterville Golf Links. This is a championship course surrounded by the sea where Tiger Woods and several other of the world’s top golfers came to prepare for the 1998 British Open.

Several of them returned the following year to become members of the club. In addition to Walt Disney, the resort town of Waterville has hosted other celebrities including comedic actor Charlie Chaplin whose photographs are posted on the walls of the Butler Arms Hotel in what the owners have named the Charlie Chaplin Lounge. On the town’s main street there is also a bronze statue of the distinguished entertainer who died in 1977. Waterville, however, isn’t the only Ring community to have entertained a celebrity. In 1969, the tourist town of Sneem (one of the prettiest in Ireland) attracted former French president, Charles de Gaulle.

While Ring towns have seen their share of celebrities, legions of ordinary folk arrive each year to explore their riches. They stop at charming communities that are hard to pronounce, like Cahirciveen and Caherdaniel, and with each encounter they delve a little deeper into the great Irish culture.

They marvel at breathtaking scenery, visit revered sites like the former home of famous Irish politician Daniel O’Connell. And sometimes they go inland to see historical attractions such as 2,500-year-old Staigue Fort, one of the finest examples of an Iron Age stone fort in Ireland.

Like the rest of the country, the Ring of Kerry is a magical place and those who explore it on a bus tour from Killarney will begin with Killorglin, the town famous for its Puck Fair, one of the country’s oldest festivals. This first of many bus stops marks the start of an Irish odyssey but because I did the route in the opposite direction, it was my last stop–but definitely not my last visit.

TRAVEL PLANNER

For Ring of Kerry and Ireland travel information visit www.discoverireland.com or call 1-800-SHAMROCK.
Fir Air Transat flights to Ireland information see www.airtransat.ca