Hiking to the Gougane Barra Lake is one of the highlights of the tour. // © 2015 Vagabond Tours of Ireland
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In mid-flight, as I plunge 15 feet into the frigid Atlantic Ocean from a quay along Ireland’s Ring of Kerry, the thought that maybe this was a bad idea flashes through my mind. My travel companions and I had just finished a sea kayaking excursion in the sheltering bays near the pocket-sized village of Sneem.
Since we had all avoided tipping over our small crafts, someone suggested we stage a North Atlantic baptism. Bobbing to the surface (I was at least smart enough to keep my wetsuit on) to hoots from my crew, it became clear that jumping feet first into the adventures offered here and in the rest of Southwest Ireland was absolutely one of the best things I had ever done.
My journey had started off a few days earlier outside Dublin Airport, where we were met with ready grins and impromptu lessons in Irish slang by Rob Rankin, the owner of award-winning travel outfitter Vagabond Tours of Ireland. We loaded our gear in customized Land Rovers equipped to take on everything from major highways to boggy farm roads. Then we hit the M7 motorway, bound for the peninsulas of Eire’s southern outlands.
The small-group journey I selected is called Tour to the Edge of the World for good reason. In centuries past, this westernmost edge of Europe was considered the end of the known world. Today, travel insiders consider the neighboring counties of Cork and Kerry fertile ground for adventure and discovery, filled with rivers, mountains, ancient history and, of course, a stunning coastline that includes the iconic Ring of Kerry.
Our first few days consisted of active adventures such as sea kayaking around the Iveragh Peninsula, careening down forested trails that make up the world-class Ballyhoura Mountain Bike Park outside Cork and hiking in the wildflower-covered Sheeffry Mountains that look down on the tranquil Gougane Barra Lake.
But it wasn’t all singletracks and muddy boots. There were plenty of chances to soak up local culture — and sip on it as well — thanks to stays at thoughtfully chosen inns such as Gougane Barra Hotel, a postcard-perfect three-star inn run by the same family for five generations. Drinking a local stout while lounging in the property’s intimate bar proved to be the type of authentic Irish experience clients today are seeking.
There were also misty Irish landscapes filled with castles, all chosen with the intention to keep us off the beaten path. Our two Land Rovers were usually the only vehicles dotting the landscape at spots such as the ancient Celtic stone circles, which are located off a lonely road on the drive to the bayfront town of Kenmare.
As our trip wound down to its final full day, we found ourselves pulling into the seaside hamlet of Portmagee, just about as far west as one can go in Ireland, and the former home of smugglers and pirates. As the luck of the Irish would have it, we found ourselves in the middle of the annual Sea Shanty Festival.
Locals decked out in long frocks and tricorn hats were gathered on the quay, and as we got out of our vehicles, they burst into song. Was it some centuries-old shanty once sung by ancient mariners? Not quite. I did a double take and then joined in once I realized they were singing The Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B.”
It was the perfect closing anthem to an Irish adventure in which I had come to expect the unexpected. The only thing I knew for certain was that memories of my travels here would always leave me with a smile on my face.