When you see lists of Ireland’s hidden gems including the likes of the Cliff of Moher (which saw over 1.4 million visitors in 2016) then you know that the term ‘hidden gem’ has become a cliche and is in danger of losing all meaning. However that doesn’t meant that the 2500km of the Wild Atlantic Way aren’t fertile ground for hidden gems – places of interest that aren’t very well known or might be over shadowed by better known neighbours – and with this series of posts I would like to reclaim the phrase.
In this post, the third in the series about the Wild Atlantic Way’s hidden gems (the first covered Mayo, the second Galway), Richard Creagh (co-author of Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way) takes a look at his home county of Cork.
Cork is the largest county in Ireland and its coastline is reflected in this fact. Between the sheltered shores of the south coast to the wild, open Atlantic in the west is a vast and varied stretch of land meeting sea. West Cork is no secret to Irish holiday makers, especially to those from elsewhere in the county. There are plenty of well known, well deserving hotspots but given the huge area in question it’s easy to find places to avoid the crowds.
I grew up in Cork city and was one of the suburban summer holidaymakers. Every year when school finished our family used to head to West Cork to a house my grandmother owned. Most years I never set foot in the city until school started again. The freedom of the place instilled a love of the outdoors and a fascination with the natural world that has shaped my life since. No doubt this history makes me biased but there’s little doubt that the coast of Cork will have something to offer everybody who makes a visit.
1. Seven Heads Peninsula
Strictly speaking the Seven Heads Peninsula shouldn’t even be on this list – the Wild Atlantic Way cuts straight from Timoleague to Clonakilty, bypassing this little-known corner of West Cork. But maybe that was done to help keep the place a secret, for a great deal of its charm is in the quiet nature of the place. It would be a different place altogether if hardcore tourism descended here.
The biggest town in the area is Courtmacsherry, a pleasant village along the sheltered waters of the estuary. Though popular with Cork holidaymakers it’s quiet here for most of the year – avoid bank holidays in summer time if you’d like to have the place to yourself. The Fuchsia Walk is a fantastic trail taking in old woodland, coastal paths, farmland and rural roads. In May the woods are adorned with a carpet of bluebells. Starting at the car park at the east end of the village the walk can take less than an hour for the fast paced, or be enjoyed for longer by those taking the time to stop and soak up their surroundings.
The rural nature of the area means many of the roads and boreens are suitable for walking and cycling. The Seven Heads Way is a multi-day walk that takes in the best of the surroundings, but it’s quite easy to make shorter loop walks from the waymarked trails. See www.sevenheadspeninsula.ie for more information.
The best beaches in the area are the two stretches of sand at Dunworly. At low tide the northern beach is huge and great for walking. Swimming here is best done at high water as the bay is quite shallow. The southern beach is only accessible at low water. It’s a beautiful beach and a great place for a swim, though it can be exposed in rough weather.
2. Whale Watching
Over the past fifteen years West Cork has gained notoriety on the world wildlife map. The reason? World class whale watching. It may not be as consistent as some of the better known areas around the globe but when it’s good in West Cork it’s about as good as it gets.
In earlier years winter was the peak season for big blubber – a dozen fin whales and a handful of humpbacks wasn’t terribly uncommon, all amongst hundreds of common dolphins, thousands of seabirds and a healthy supply of seals. But the patterns seem to have shifted in the past few years, with big whales appearing earlier in the year. At the end of the day anything can turn up at any time, and this is part of the excitement of going on a tour – you never know what you’re going to get. Basking sharks are early summer visitors and turtles are sighted every year too.
Such a richness of wildlife off the Irish coast should attract attention but many people in Ireland are still surprised to hear, or see, that it can be so good. Wildlife tourism is still a tiny sector of the Irish tourism brand. I’ve seen an official Wild Atlantic Way Facebook post that enthused about Irish wildlife, except all but one of the pictures was of a domesticated farm animal (and the one wild animal was Fungie the dolphin, arguably an exception to the rule).
We’ve a long way to go yet in Ireland when it comes to embracing our wildlife and wild places, but if this sounds like you’re thing then you could do worse than go whale watching in West Cork. The most experienced operators are Cork Whale Watch, near Union Hall, and Whale Watch West Cork, who sail from Baltimore.
3. Sherkin Island
Possibly the worst kept secret on this list is Sherkin Island, but it’s a place where it’s easy to feel like you’re getting away from everywhere else. Though the gateway town (Baltimore) can be thronged in high summer a feeling of relaxation settles in once you’ve landed after the fifteen minute crossing. Any crowds at the pier soon dissipate into the network of peaceful country roads. There is a taxi service from the pier but walking is the best mode of transport out here.
Beaches are Sherkin’s strong point, Silver Strand and Trá Bán being the best. Both offer safe swimming and good snorkeling, as well as plenty of room to throw down a towel and soak up some sunshine. Sunshine?! Yes, that’s possible here! This corner of the country enjoys a gentler climate than most of the west coast.
The best way to enjoy the island is to stay the night. Once the day trippers have left the real feel of the place settles down. Whether you’re camping behind the beach, self-catering in a cosy cottage or living it up in one of the two hotels it’s hard to go wrong.
4. Garinish, Beara
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to put the whole of the Beara Peninsula on this list but it’s better to be specific. This is one of the least visited areas in Ireland’s south west, but not for a lack of any natural beauty.
Garinish (not to be confused with the island of the same name in nearby Glengarriff Bay) is one of a few beaches on Beara. It’s often very quiet and it’s generally safe for swimming, except maybe in winter when northerly storms send waves over the small islands off the coast. It’s also the starting point for a nice loop walk that crosses over the hill to pass the famous cable car at Dursey Sound, before following the spectacular coastline back to the beach.
5. Eyeries, Beara
Eyeries is a small village on the north coast of Beara. The multicoloured house fronts might seem like the only noteworthy part of the town but there’s more going on here than exuberant paintwork. The village is the starting point for two waymarked walks suitable for all abilities. The trails take you out along a stony and rugged coast with a fantastic backdrop of craggy mountains behind and Coulagh Bay ahead. Whether enjoyed among the coastal wildflowers of summer or the wild weather of winter it’s a fantastic, lonely stretch of shoreline. Once back in the village there are plenty of places for a quiet drink and some good pub grub.