West Cork has got a special place in my heart. I have been going there for over 30 years. I have grown up with this stunning coastline before it was given the name Wild Atlantic Way. My kids have grown up learning to sail accompanied by dolphins! We have all made friends for life from our times down in the area. West Cork has some of the best beaches anywhere in the world, some of the most spectacular coastlines and the most friendly, lively and fun-loving people. For me, it is also the clean air and the stunning light that you get in this part of the world which keeps bringing me back. Don’t forget that you can end your day by admiring a spectacular view or enjoying some Irish music with a few jars of the local black stuff!
West Cork is a large area of South West Ireland. It stretches roughly from the Kinsale (just outside Cork City) in the East down to the Mizen Head and up to Lamb’s Head and Dursey Island in the West. It is easily accessible from Cork Airport (which has really expanded and modernised in recent years). It takes about 90 minutes to get to Skibbereen from Cork Airport. It’s not too bad via ferry either, taking 3 and a half hours from Rosslare to Skibbereen.
I could talk for hours about this area, but I am going to limit myself to the Watt Travels Top 10 places to go and see in West Cork (although even with this, it was hard to stop myself from going on!):
1. Glandore and Union Hall
I thought I would start with my spiritual home, where I have spent so many hours in the Summer. Glandore is a picture-postcard village, where you could spend hours taking Instagrammable pictures of the view. Is there any finer way of relaxing Irish-style, than sitting on an outside table at the Glandore Inn (http://www.glandoreinn.ie) or Hayes Bar (http://www.hayesrestaurant.ie) and eating some fresh seafood and/or drinking a pint of the black stuff or a chilled glass of rose, whilst looking out to your left at the Adam and Eve Islands and the opening to the sea or looking straight/right across the bay to Union Hall. In the Summer, as I have done many times, you can also sit and watch the very excellent Glandore Harbour Yacht Club (http://www.glandoreyc.com) doing their junior sailing programs. Completely idyllic. Down at the bottom of the hill is the lovely small harbour (very busy with sailing dinghies in July and August), overlooked by the small but perfectly situated Christ Church.
Across the bay or round the pretty water-hugging road and across the one lane Poulgorm Bridge, lies the fishing village of Union Hall. For a small village, there are plenty of brightly coloured pubs and there is a small shop which stocks pretty much anything you could want. There are plenty of B & B’s which are fully booked in the summer. The main focus is the fishing though, with a working quay which has its own ice plant. The local fish shop run by Glenmar has some of the best fresh produce in the area.
It is well worth exploring the area around Union Hall as well. There are a number of fantastic picturesque walks with fabulous views. It is well worth a trip down to Reen Pier which is about 3 miles away and where there is a spit going out into the estuary and where you can look across at the village of Castletownshend (see below). I highly recommend renting kayaks from here (http://www.atlanticseakayaking.com) for a memorable experience exploring the coastline and maybe even seeing seals or dolphins!
Baltimore is another of West Cork’s beautiful coastal towns. It is very busy in the summer and acts as the gateway to the Carbery’s Hundred Isles of which, some of my favourites are Sherkin, Cape Clear and Heir Island (see below for more details).
Baltimore has got a great seafaring atmosphere. The little clutch of bars/ pubs and restaurants above the harbour is a fantastic place to spend an evening watching the sun go down in the West. There is even a superb pizza restaurant sandwiched between two bars. It is one of my favourite ways to spend an evening. Although it can get a bit chilly sometimes with that offshore breeze.
Baltimore has got a rich history. Its most (in)famous incident was the sacking of the town by pirates in 1631. Many locals were sold into slavery. There is a strong pirate theme in the town and the Castle, which has an interesting pirate exhibition, flies the skull and crossbones above it. Another Baltimore landmark is the Beacon which sits above the eastern entrance to Baltimore. There is a good walk up there from the town and you get some more amazing West Cork coastal views.
A lot of the activities in Baltimore revolve around the sea. There is a very active sailing school, Whale-watching and power boat trips (I recommend http://www.baltimoreseasafari.ie), Ferries to Sherkin Island (across the water), Cape Clear and Heir Islands (slightly further away) and scuba diving.
In short, land or sea, you won’t be short of things to do and see in Baltimore.
3. Heir Island, Sherkin Island and Cape Clear
As mentioned above, these island are part of what is know as the Carbery’s Hundred Isles. These three are some of the easier ones to get to and ones that I have visited many times. These islands are like taking a big step back in time. There are not many houses and hardly any cars. There is a sense of peace and tranquility and escape when you visit these islands.
My own personal favourite is Heir Island. It is the third largest of the Carbery’s, after Sherkin and Cape Clear. It is still pretty small though at just 2 miles long and one mile wide. The whole island can be walked comfortably. The best way to get there is the little ferry boat which goes regularly throughout the day from Cunnamore Pier (a few miles outside Skibbereen) and takes just 4 minutes. However you can also get to Heir Island from Baltimore. One of the best day trips for me in the Summer, is to drive to Cunnamore Pier, taking a picnic, then one arrival at Heir Island, walk for about 10 minutes to the beautiful Sandy Beach. Its a great spot to relax and eat and drink and get annoyed by the increasing number of ribs arriving in from Baltimore! After eating and taking a swim (brief one obviously as it is pretty bracing), then I would take a walk to the far end of the island which is about 30 minutes. From there you get some great views out to Cape Clear and with the Fastnet Rock in the far distance. Heir Island is also famous for local artists, and you can often see them displaying their paintings. You can even stay on the island as the Roaring Water Lodge has been opened up for 7 bedrooms (http://www.roaringwaterlodge.com) or you can rent a few self catering options on the island such as Heir Island Retreat which has set itself up as a yoga retreat (http://www.heirislandretreat.ie).
Sherkin Island is a larger island directly across from Baltimore. There is a regular ferry that goes to and from there all day. A trip to Sherkin also gives you a great view of the Beacon as you approach the island on the ferry. Like Heir Island, it is easily walkable. It is about 3 miles long and about 1.5 miles wide. It has some fabulous beaches as well as 2 pubs, a church, a B & B and a coffee shop! Almost the first thing you see when stepping off the ferry is the remains of the 15th century Fransiscan friary. It’s worth an explore and a good starting point for your Sherkin adventure. It is a lovely island for a walk and has quiet roads hemmed in with dry stone walls and surrounded by the distinctive red fuschia. The best walk is to stroll along to Silver Strand which is a fantastic beach where you can swim and look out towards Cape Clear. There are rooms to stay at Sherkin House or at the Jolly Roger both of which have fabulous views looking back towards Baltimore. However personally I think Sherkin is better as a really good day out from Baltimore.
I love Cape Clear. It is remote but still inhabitable. It is Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island. Like the others above, it is not particularly large at just 3 miles long and 1 mile wide. It located 8 miles off the coast and can be accessed by ferry from Baltimore (40 minutes) all year round and from Schull in the summer only. Cape Clear is also only 3 miles from the (in)famous Fastnet Rock with its iconic lighthouse and which is known as the teardrop of Ireland. To the Northwest stretches Mizen Head, the most southerly point of the mainland. It is a fantastic place for spotting birdlife and wildlife, with regular sightings of whales, dolphins and seals. It really feels like a proper escape. There are plenty of places to stay, whether you want a B & B, self catering or even a yurt! Although you will almost certainly need to pre-book in the popular summer months. At the end of the Summer, at the beginning of September is the Cape Clear International Story Telling Festival which is a great event and becoming more popular http://www.capeclearstorytelling.com. I highly recommend staying at Ard na Gaoithe B & B http://www.capeclearbandb.ie and I also advise paying the nominal 5 euro to join Club Cleire where you can listen to some great Irish music.
4. Three Castles Head
Shhh don’t tell anyone! Three Castles Head is a favourite secret place of our family. To be honest, we are not the only ones, but it is a bit of an undiscovered gem. It is a truly stunning headland at the northern side of Mizen Head. You can find some incredible aerial photography of Three Castles which is worth getting hold of after you have been there.
It is usually a bit of a drive to get there, from wherever you are staying, but it is well worth it. They owners of the land have developed some small self catering accommodation options at the foot of the path up to Three Castles Head http://www.threecastlehead.ie.
However it is once you get over the top of the small hill that the beauty of Three Castles Head appears. There is the remains of the 12th Century Dunlough Castle, perched on the edge of cliffs dropping away into the Atlantic on one side and a beautiful freshwater lake on the other. What a location for a castle! It must have been inpenetrable. The views on all sides are remarkable. You can look south back toward Mizen Head (the most southwesterly point of Ireland) and its spectacular lighthouse and walkway, you can look north towards the end of the next peninsula which is Sheeps Head. You can look West straight out across the Atlantic. One of my favourite things to do it to walk/ scramble to the end of the Three Castles Head peninsula, above the freshwater lake, and again look down some sheer cliffs and across to the North East towards Bantry Bay and the Cara Mountains.
5. Play Golf in West Cork
As you may know by now, I always include golf in my lists! Golf in West Cork is not as widespread and varied as in some other areas of Ireland. However it has got some lovely courses and one stand-out course which is on most people’s bucket list of courses to play.
The star of the show is undoubtedly Old Head Golf Links (http://www.oldhead.com) on the Old Head of Kinsale. It is one of the most spectacular golf courses in the world. It is perched on a 2 mile piece of headland jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. It truly is a breathtaking course with several holes running alongside cliffs where the drop off is several hundred feet down to the sea. Then of course, there is the famous black and white lighthouse at the end of the headland to give you something else to aim for! There is even luxury accommodation on site, so that you can stay the night before or afterwards.
There are some other lovely and scenic courses to play in West Cork. My own ‘home’ course is Skibbereen and West Carbery (http://www.skibbgolf.com), which is a lovely little parkland course with a very friendly clubhouse and some great Irish scenery as a backdrop. I like Bantry Bay Golf Club (http://www.bantrygolf.com) which although by the sea is a parkland layout which has fabulous views over Bantry Bay. 14 holes overlook the sea with great views of the Beara mountains in the distance. It is also worth considering Clonakilty Golf Club (which used to be known as Lisellan) http://www.clonakiltygolfclub.com. It is only 9 holes but it is very picturesque, with holes meandering through trout-filled rivers and where you even have to take a small raft to the green on one hole!
6. Skibbereen and Lough Hyne
‘Skibb’ is a personal favourite of mine. I have been going there regularly since I was a teenager. Some times know as the Capital of the Carberies or the Capital of West Cork, it is a lovely, friendly, fairly small market town located at the head of the Ilen River. Skibbereen is a classic Irish town, with plenty of brightly coloured houses and shops. It has a couple of supermarkets (Fields is a great place to meet anyone and everyone!) as well as some lovely small boutiques. There is a great farmer’s market every Saturday morning, with loads of food and crafts to buy and loads going on. I recommend buying the famous local Gubbeen Cheese. I actually bumped into Jeremy Irons (who lives in the area) the last time I was there! And of course there are loads of great pubs and bars! The best place to stay if you want to be in a hotel is the famous West Cork Hotel, situated on the banks of the River Ilen http://www.westcorkhotel.com.
One place you should definitely pay a visit to is the Skibbereen Heritage Centre located in the restored Old Gasworks Building next to the River Ilen, where you will find a number of interesting Exhibitions including a fascinating one on The Great Famine Commemoration Exhibition and also The Lough Hyne Interpretative Centre. Skibbereen was devastated by the Great Famine of the 1840s. One million people died and at least another million and a half emigrated during this terrible period of Irish history. The infamous Famine Burial Pits at Abbeystrowry hold the remains of up to 10,000 unidentified victims.
The other exhibition at the Heritage Centre is full of interesting facts about nearby Lough Hyne, which is Ireland’s first marine nature reserve. Lough Hyne is a stunningly beautiful lake, located about 10 miles form Skibb. It is a fully marine sea lough which is fed with tidal currents from the Atlantic. It is famous for sustaining an incredible variety of plants and animals. Lough Hyne is also very popular for swimming and kayaking in the summer. Atlantic Sea Kayaking (see Glandore and Union Hall section) offer an amazing night time kayaking expedition which is highly recommended. I also love the walk up the nature trail of Knockomagh Hill, which offer superb views of Lough Hyne and all the way out to Baltimore and the island beyond, when you reach the top.
7. The Beaches of West Cork
When you think of Ireland, you don’t always think about beaches. However with West Cork, there are some truly amazing beaches. There are small hidden pieces of sand as well as huge expanses of beach. In the summer, with the sunlight and the green surrounds, these beaches can be amongst the most beautiful in the world! Admittedly the water might not be quite as warm as the Caribbean or the Med, but some of these beaches are more visually stunning.
Here are my favourite 6 West Cork beaches:
- Inchydoney Beach, near Clonakilty – A beautiful unspoiled beach which is quit often voted one of the best beaches in the whole of Ireland. Good for surfers (there is a surf school located here), but also a lovely place for a walk or a swim or just a day out.
- Barley Cove Beach , near Mizen Head – This is one of the more famous beaches in West Cork. You can walk onto it via a floating pontoon bridge and there are great sand dunes to play in as well.
- Tralispean Beach, near Skibbereen – I would call this a hidden gem and a personal favourite of mine. We used to spend time here when we were younger and staying near to Tralispean. It is well protected from the elements and has lovely views.
- Sandy Cove, near Castletownshend – I love this little beach. It is small and sheltered but quite a sun-trap. It has perfect soft sand and is surrounded by tall rocks and cliffs. It also has stunning views out across the bay.
- Long Strand, near Rosscarbery – This is the best beach for a long walk! But is also a popular place for kite surfers and has the famous Fish Basket cafe on one end. There is also the Gothic-style Castlefreke estate behind the beach which is well worth discovering on a walk.
- Sandy Beach – Heir Island – As I have mentioned above when talking about Heir Island, this is a fantastic tranquil and secluded beach which is just lovely to spend the day on with the family.
Keep going south west from Skibb and after about 20km you will reach the pretty village of Schull. It is located at the beginning of the Mizen peninsula – Ireland’s most south-westerly point. It is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty and has a real charm to it. Like many of the coastal villages in West Cork, it is a haven for sailors and watersports enthusiasts. However there are also art galleries, a planetarium, restaurants and bars (of course!), an array of accommodation options including campsites, a weekly country market and some lovely boutiques. I recommend Hackett’s Bar for some great live music and some interesting local characters!
One of the best trips is to take a ferry boat out around the Fastnet Rock. There are also all sorts of other watersports available from powerboating to kayaking and of course, sailing. If you like walking then there are some great walks up and around the nearby Mount Gabriel. There is a great circular walk from Schull going up Mount Gabriel which gives amazing panoramic views from the top.
Schull has also gained notoriety recently with the release of the celebrated West Cork Podcast. It is concerning a murder in Schull in 1996. This is a fantastic and gripping listen. It paints a vivid picture of Schull and the surrounding area and the impact that this murder has on it. I highly recommend it. Download it on Amazon Audible.
Castletownshend is another personal favourite of mine. It is not necessarily on everyone’s hit list, but has got a unique charm to it. It more or less consists of one very steep street with some gorgeous Georgian houses, going from the top of the hill where there is the grand entrance to Drishane House, down past the Sycamore Tree in the middle of the road, past Mary Ann’s (see below) and ending up at the Church and the Castle and the lovely harbour.
There are plenty of houses for rent and you can stay at the Castle as well. The Castle has recently been converted into boutique accommodation and there are few better places to stay in terms of location, being right down by the sea (http://www.castle-townshend.com). The Castle also has a really nice little cafe restaurant where you can sit by the harbour and have some tea or sandwiches. You can even rent cottages in Drishane House. This beautiful Georgian-style house was built in 1780 and is well worth a visit (http://www.drishane.com). The Church of St Barrahane is a large building overlooking the town and the harbour. It was built in 1826 and is famous for its stained glass windows.
The number 1 must-do activity when in Castletownshend however, is to to go to Mary Ann’s! It is a fantastic place, with a cosy little bar area and the most friendly service. However you really have to eat there, because the food is exceptional and it is all presided over by the larger than life character of Fergus O’Mahony. It is probably my favourite place to eat in West Cork. I love the atmosphere and the food and also the local art which is on show and on sale upstairs. It also has a nice little garden area where you can sit outside if preferred. In the evening in the summer you will probably need to call in advance to book, such is its popularity. Don’t miss it!
There is something about the light and the peace and quiet at Castletownshend as you stand or sit by the water’s edge looking across to Reen Pier or far out to Horse Island to the right.
10. Sheep’s Head
Sheep’s Head is one of the fingers of South West Ireland that stretches into the Atlantic. Like all of these peninsulas it has some quite breathtaking views. It is a very popular walking route with plenty of trails that are easy to follow. In fact, the whole Sheep’s Head Way (http://www.sheepsheadway.ie) is about 88km but it is very easy to walk smaller sections, if you prefer. There are also 20 Loop Walks which encompass coastal ways, high peaks and lots of fantastic photo opportunities. From the end of Sheep’s Head where there is a nice little stroll/scramble around the lighthouse, you get incredible views across to the North and the Beara Peninsula and to the South towards Three Castles Head and Mizen. There are also various cycle routes that are well worth doing.
Sheep’s Head peninsula has three villages which are worth visiting. I love Ahakista. It is a very picturesque wooded village on the coast with a secluded harbour, a small sandy beach and some lovely houses. In fact, Graham Norton has a large house here. They hold a small sailing regatta in August which I would recommend taking a look at whilst admiring the view.