Also common were ancient monuments and stone circles along the way. West of Ardgroom I found the Ballycrovane Ogham stone, the tallest such stone in Ireland, which sits in a farmer's backyard. For $2, passersby can visit the 17-foot-tall inscribed stone, accompanied by the owner's happy collie. Archeologists still do not know what to make of the many ancient stone monuments in the region but believe they were either solar calendars or religious sites.
Nighttime found me in the loveliest and arguably most friendly town on the peninsula. Allihies sits on a hill above the sea in what was previously a copper mining region. The Village Hostel in the center of town was renovated and enlarged, with beautiful hardwood floors, skylights and a large, comfortable courtyard. Unfortunately for the owners, tourists had yet to fully materialize. This was the second of three consecutive nights in which I would have a whole dorm room to myself.
Below the town, families frolicked on a sandy beach, and those brave enough swam in the sea. Bowing to journalistic duty, I took a swim myself, though three minutes was all I could stand in what I considered bone-chilling water.
Back in town, Elaine at the Lighthouse Pub was happy to make me a "Toasted Special" ham sandwich for dinner while I had a pint and talked to the only other customer, who explained the virtues of Murphy's Irish Ale over Guinness. This very friendly farmer was also a part-time musician.
"What instrument do you play?" I asked.
"I play the box," he replied. "Sometimes I play here in this pub."
"Too bad I'm not here on a night when you're playing," I said, vowing to return. After dinner, I ventured next door to bright red O'Neill's pub for its weekly offering of traditional live Irish music.
Day 3: Allihies, cable car, then Castletownbere
My third day brought me to the tip of the peninsula and an island considered one of the most remote areas in all of Ireland.
Dursey Island begins less than half a mile off the coast and is reached on Ireland's only cable car. The car goes over in the morning, until 11 a.m., and returns in the afternoon from 2:30 until 6. The first downpour of the trip almost kept me from going, but the weather finally cooperated, clearing up just as the last car was about to head over for the morning.
The 3 1/2-mile-long island has about 60 inhabitants. More than twice as many homes are in ruins as are in use. It seemed that island life had changed little in hundreds of years. I saw many ancient stone cottages in ruins beside identical homes that were maintained and occupied.
At the island's high point sits a tower fortress, commanding a breathtaking view of green hills rolling down to the sea on all sides. The site of a brutal slaughter of local soldiers by the English, the tower today is left to the sheep and the occasional passerby.
Day 4: Castletownbere to Glengarriff, 20 miles
West of Castletownbere I found my way to Dunboy Castles, where I had both of these amazing sites to myself. "Please leave money in the box," a sign at the gate said of the $1 entry fee. On the grounds inside was what remained of a 17th century fort and the eerie shell of a spectacular 18th century mansion, Puxley's Manor, which was ransacked and destroyed by the Irish Republican Army in 1912. As I wandered through the ruins, I could only imagine the splendor of the place at its peak. A three-story entryway with giant arched stone window frames and red-and-black marble pillars towered over a floor of mud, grass and an occasional block of upended stone.
Nearby Castletownbere is the largest town on the peninsula, owing to its busy fishing pier, though it largely consists of just one main street running along the water. After a few days on the sparsely populated peninsula, the few banks, restaurants and supermarket gave the place an almost cosmopolitan air.
A 20-mile ride to Glengarriff found me back at last in the land of the souvenir shop and tourist bus. But it is a charming little town in its own right, and its harbor is home to the well-known gardens on Garinish Island.
I caught the ferry to Garinish from the Blue Pool, near the center of town. The pool is actually a small inlet reminiscent of the lagoon on the sitcom "Gilligan's Island." The little ferry itself was a bit like the African Queen.
An eight-minute ride through the harbor provided a great view, and the skipper kindly slowed the boat each time we passed a group of seals sunning themselves on rocks.
Financier Annan Bryce built the gardens for his family in the early 1900s. Fifty years later the family bequeathed the gardens to Ireland. Perhaps the best-known section, the Italian Garden, includes carefully manicured flowers and plants surrounding a lily pond, with Italianate facades on either side.
The rest of the island displays plants from all over the South Pacific in a more natural area known as the Jungle. Crowds were light throughout the gardens, and again I found myself daydreaming, this time about how life might be as the owner of my own garden island.
Day 5: From Glengarriff back to Killarney
Waking up on the fifth day, I felt satisfaction with my week off the beaten path. My only wish was for a few more days of exploration, but it would have to wait for another trip. Instead I headed up the winding road over the first of two mountain passes that I had to climb that day.
Again the views were spectacular, and the road was never terribly steep. Once past Kenmare, I was back in familiar territory. This time as I passed through Killarney National Park I stopped to admire the massive Muckross House, a 19th century manor and gardens similar to the house at Dunboy Castles yet still intact.
Nearby, I wandered through the remains of Muckross Abbey, a church and cloister built in 1448 and destroyed by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century.
Finally I was back in Killarney.
I returned the bicycle to Mary, had a quick shower at my hostel and headed out for my final Irish dinner.
It was the end of a fabulous trip, with little rain, friendly locals, charming towns and stunning scenery. "If the Ring of Kerry crowd only knew," I thought, as the waitress brought my pint of Guinness and a bowl of Irish stew.