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This post, the fifth in the series about the Wild Atlantic Way’s hidden gems (which includes Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim, Mayo, Galway, Kerry and Cork), David Flanagan (co-author of Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way) takes a look at county Kerry.

There is nowhere else in Ireland that does tourism like Kerry does. Gifted with some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, as well as a rich history and cultural heritage, this county has been welcoming visitors for a long long time. The obvious drawback to this popularity is, well, the popularity. Many areas have now lost that ‘genuine’ feel that many tourists crave, and the rural roads in much of Kerry barely cope with the summer traffic, making travel quite stressful for some during the high season. Still, this is a large county with plenty of lesser-known beauty spots, and one simple trick will have most places quiet for your visit – avoid high summer!

1. Kerry Dark Sky Reserve

Photo: Michele Cati

Owing to the lack of light pollution the western end of the Iveragh Peninsula (or the Ring of Kerry as it’s better known) has been designated an International Dark Sky Reserve. The long, dark nights of winter are the best time for stargazing, though the typical weather at that time of year often blocks out the upward view. But if you do get clear weather and can cope with the cold the show is indeed spectacular. Bring a flask and bundle yourself up in as many layers as possible and try to keep away from any outdoor lights. The longer you stay out the better your eyes will adjust, and once they have you’ll be counting constellations and shooting stars long into the small hours.

The Perseid meteor showers passes Ireland every year around the middle of August, a time that probably suits most people better for staying up late. While the nights aren’t as long, and hence not as dark as in winter, the show can still be very special, and usually lasts for a few nights.

2. Culloo, Valentia Island

Culloo Rock2

Far from the crowds on the Ring of Kerry is a stretch of coast called Culloo on Valentia Island. Though it’s a lonely and exposed place it’s beautiful on a sunny day in May when the tops of the cliffs are covered in sea pinks and the swell crashes below. It’s a popular spot with shore fishermen, who cast from the rock at the eastern end of the highest cliffs, but few other people go past the car park here. A short loop walk can be made from the car park. Head towards the holy well and two stone crosses and from here take a straight line out to the shore. Local legend has it that St. Brendan sailed to here and climbed the cliffs just in time to baptise and anoint two dying pagans, and so the well is named after him. Following the cliffs east brings you to Culloo Rock (the fishing spot), where a stream-side track will bring you back to the car. Be extremely careful near the cliffs here – the area is remote and open to very big swells in rough weather. Rogue waves have washed people from the cliffs in the past.

To get to Culloo follow the northern road on Valentia Island east until a signpost to the left for Saint Brendan’s Well. Take this turn and follow the rough road as far as your car can make it. The road ends at signs for Culloo Rock, though the potholed nature might mean you’d rather walk to get to this point from further back along. With a bit of luck the road won’t be paved any time soon, helping keep the place that bit quieter!

3. Cosán Cuas na nEighe

Cuas na nEighe

The road to Dingle is well worn and finding some place that feels distant from heavy tourism on this peninsula can be difficult. Once described by National Geographic as the most beautiful place in the world, and with a knack for marketing that would rival that of any large multinational company, Dingle does tourism on a massive scale. It’s quite something for a small town out of the way of everywhere else but the industrial nature of it all can feel like a circus at times.One decent place to get away from the crowds is quite close to where plenty of people flock to – Clogher Strand. This beautiful beach situated in the northwest of the peninsula is a well-known stage for big storms. When heavy northwesterly seas hit it’s not uncommon to find the car park full of cars plastered in salt spray as wide-eyed watchers take in the stormy scenes. Less well known is the walk that starts from the car park here, Cosán Cuas na nEighe. Marked by blue arrows, the 3km trail follows the rugged coastline to a small rocky cove (a nice sheltered spot for lunch) and back to the beach through some muddy farm lanes. Living just a few miles from here I walk this route at least once a month and rarely meet anybody else out doing the same. Though it’s not a very long walk there are plenty of places to linger and enjoy in themselves.

4. West Kerry Marine Wildlife

Killer Whale, West Kerry

Everybody knows about Fungie, the bottlenose dolphin that’s been living around Dingle Harbour for over 35 years, but he steals the show when it comes to marine wildlife in West Kerry. The seas around the Blasket Islands are some of the most productive on the Irish coast, a fact reflected with the abundance of wildlife to be found here. The islands are a winter resting ground for about 2,000 grey seals and tens of thousands of sea birds flock here to breed in the summer months. One of the islands, Inis Tuaisceart, is the largest colony in the world for storm petrels, and other ocean going birds such as the Manx shearwater breed here in such numbers that if the islands disappeared the world populations of these birds would suddenly be in dire straits. The stars of the show for most people though are the cetaceans (whales and dolphins) that make annual migrations to feed in the waters off the peninsula. Over the past few years West Kerry has become the place to go in Ireland if you want to see humpback whales, a worldwide favourite in the list of ‘charismatic megafauna.’ Six different species of cetacean have been recorded close to shore in the same day, a very impressive tally of diversity anywhere in the world.

But being the west of Ireland there is a catch – the weather. The seas here are often too rough for trips out, even (and some years especially) during the summer. The wildlife too can be capricious, though that’s not really a fair word to use. After all, it’s not there to entertain tourists (despite what Fungie might lead some people to believe) and superb encounters can be replaced the following day by total no-shows. Still, natural history lovers will enjoy a trip around this superb archipelago on any day, and if you get lucky you’re likely to have a trip you won’t ever forget. Blasket Island Eco Marine Tours run dedicated wildlife trips out of Ventry. Great Blasket Islands and Dingle Bay Charters also run tours from Dingle.

5. Bromore Cliffs

Bromore Cliffs

Way up in the north of Co. Kerry is a corner of the region that sees a tiny fraction of the tourism the rest of the county experiences. While it may not have the dramatic scenery of the more mountainous peninsulas to the south North Kerry has a charm of its own, and Bromore Cliffs is a place that represents the region well – beautiful scenery and interesting history without the crowds. Situated a little north of Ballybunion, the cliffs here can be accessed through a local landowner’s farm for a small parking fee. The landowner, Michael, is a bottomless pit of local knowledge, from shipwrecks, to wildlife and most other subjects. The walking paths above the cliffs are marked here and there by interesting information boards should you fail to meet the main man.

The cliffs themselves are composed of three different types of rock spanning hundreds of millions of years of geologic time. The softest of this rock, known as Clare shale, has been carved by heaving seas into a fantastic coastline, the centrepiece of which is The Devil’s Castle, the tall sea stack off the coast. This was supposedly the last place the Sea Eagles bred in Ireland before their recent reintroduction in Killarney National Park. Nowadays there are peregrine falcons (the fastest animal on the planet), kestrels and coughs (a rare species of crow) using the cliffs for breeding. The sea-level view of this area is maybe even more impressive than that from the top but you’ll have to read the Clare chapter of this series to find out how to experience that…

For more information about these and other similar areas check out Exploring Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.