Along the perimeter of the Iveragh Peninsula, the dramatic coastal road from Kenmare to Killorglin known as the Ring of Kerry is probably Ireland's single most popular tourist route. Stunning mountain and coastal views are around almost every turn. The only drawback: on a sunny day, it seems like half the nation's visitors are traveling along this two-lane road, driving, packed into buses, riding bikes, or backpacking.
The route is narrow and curvy, and the local sheep think nothing of using it for a nap; take it slowly. Tour buses tend to start in Killarney and ply the Ring counterclockwise, so consider jumping ahead and starting in Killorglin or following the route clockwise, starting in Kenmare (although this means you risk meeting tour buses head-on on narrow roads). Either way, bear in mind that most of the buses leave Killarney between 9 and 10 am.
The trip covers 176 km (110 miles) on N70 (and briefly R562 and N71) if you start and finish in Killarney;
the journey will be 40 km (25 miles) shorter if you only venture between Kenmare and Killorglin. Because rain blocks views across the water to the Beara Peninsula in the east and the Dingle Peninsula in the west, hope for sunshine. It makes all the difference.
The Ring can be explored in as little as a day, either by car or on a guided tour, but most of the Ring's best sites are found on spontaneous detours and winding back roads—the sort of pleasant traps that take time to fall into. You can bike the Ring, but to do it full justice, you'll need a minimum of two days.
Though the Ring of Kerry is one of Europe's great drives, the common wisdom is that it suffers from its own popularity. There's more than a grain of truth to this reputation, but that doesn't mean you should scratch the Ring from your itinerary. Instead, plan to turn off the main road and get out of your car. You'll make a blissful discovery: the Iveragh Peninsula—one of the most beautiful locations in Ireland—remains largely unspoiled. It's full of fabulous places to hike, bike, and boat—and best of all, there are views the tour-bus passengers can only dream of.
Hiking the Ring: Option number one for getting outdoors around the Ring of Kerry is to go by foot. There are appealing walking options for every degree of fitness and experience, from gentle, paved paths to an ascent of Ireland's tallest mountain.
The Kerry Way: The main hiking route across the peninsula is the Kerry Way, a spectacular 214-km (133-mile) footpath that's easily broken down into day-trip-size segments. The path winds from Killarney through the foothills of the MacGillicuddy's Reeks and the Black Valley to Glencar and Glenbeigh, from where it parallels the Ring through Cahirciveen, Waterville, Caherdaniel, and Sneem, before ending in Kenmare. The route, indicated by way markers, follows grassy old paths and unpaved drovers' roads at higher elevations than the Ring—meaning better, and more tranquil, views.
Hiking the entire Kerry Way can take from 10 to 12 days. Numerous outfitters organize both guided and unguided tours. For a great day trip, hike the 10 km (6 mile) section from Waterville to Caherdaniel, which has great views of small islands and rocky coves. In the Glencar area near Blackstones Bridge, a series of shorter signposted walks, from 3 km (2 miles) upward, put you in the shadow of Carrauntuohill, Ireland's highest mountain.
A copy of the Kerry Way Map Guide, available from Killarney Tourist Office, is invaluable. For organized tours of the Way, try Outdoors Ireland (www.outdoorsireland.com).
Climbers should check out the Mountaineering Council of Ireland (www.mountaineering.ie).
Muckross Park (or Demesne) in Killarney National Park is a car-free zone with four signposted nature trails. Try the 4-km (2½-mile) Arthur Young's Walk through old yew and oak woods frequented by Sitka deer. You can also take an open boat from Ross Castle to the head of the Upper Lake, then walk back along the lakeside to Muckross House—about 10 km (6 mile).
The trails in Derrynane National Park, a 320-acre estate, run through mature woodland, bordering on rocky outcrops that lead to wide sandy beaches and dunes. At low tide, you can walk to Abbey Island offshore.
Even in high summer, Valentia Island is a peaceful spot for walking, with little traffic. Walk the road from Knightstown past the subtropical vegetation of the Knight of Kerry's estate, to the historic Slate Quarry (3 km [2 miles]), 900 feet above the sea, with views of the Skelligs offshore.
Cycling the Ring: The Ring of Kerry Cycle Route follows the main road for about a third of its 213 km (133 miles), but the rest is on deserted roads, including a long, scenic loop through Ballinskelligs, Portmagee, and Valentia Island. There are significant climbs and strong winds along the way, so good fitness is a prerequisite.
Easy Rides: From Killarney, the N71 road past Muckross Park and the Upper Lake takes you through ancient woodlands to Ladies' View (about 12 km [7½ miles]). From here you have one of the area's best panoramas, with the sparkling blue lakes backed by Purple Mountain. The scene will be in front of you as you make the ride back.
From Glenbeigh, escape the traffic by riding inland to peaceful Caragh Lake through a bog and mountain landscape that's rich in wildlife. You might spot a herd of long-bearded wild goats, or a peregrine falcon hovering above its prey. The full circuit of the lake, returning to Glenbeigh, is about 35 km (22 miles).
You can rent bikes in Killarney. Along the Ring at Glenbeigh, bikes are for rent at Glenross Caravan & Camping Park (www.killarneycamping.com/glenross.html). For an organized tour, contact Irish Cycling Safaris (www.cyclingsafaris.com), which has trips along quiet back roads with local guides and support vans to carry luggage.
Boating Around the Ring: Kenmare Bay is the best spot for boating expeditions. Kenmare Angling (www.kenmareanglingandsightseeing.com) offers customized tours, on which you can see castles, seals, dolphins, and salmon farms. Boats can take up to 10 people, and cost €300 for a full day, €200 for a half-day. Seafari (www.seafariireland.com) at Kenmare Pier has a two-hour eco-nature and seal-watching cruise and also is an outfitter for kayaking, sailing, and windsurfing. The Cappanalea Outdoor Education Centre (www.cappanalea.ie), 11 km (7 miles) west of Killorglin, near Caragh Lake, offers windsurfing, canoeing, rock climbing, and guided hikes.