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Rolling through Ireland

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"So you'll be riding the Ring of Kerry, right?" asked Mary at O'Sullivan's Rent-a-Bike in Killarney.

"No, I'm planning to go around the Beara Peninsula. Can you tell me anything about that?" I answered.

"I don't know anything about the Beara. Everyone does the Ring of Kerry," Mary said.

"That's why I'm doing the Ring of Beara," I answered.

"Good enough," said Mary, as she outfitted me with a bike, panniers, pump and lock for what would be an unforgettable week last July exploring verdant landscapes and pastel towns tucked away above the sea in southwest Ireland. And I did this trip for less than $45 a day.

Every summer, throngs descend on County Kerry to visit Killarney National Park and take a tour around the Iveragh Peninsula, called the Ring of Kerry because of the circular route. Tourism is big business as buses and rental cars ferry a stream of visitors to the quaint towns and numerous souvenir shops along the way. What many visitors do not realize, however, is that a similar peninsula stretches into the Atlantic just to the south. I'd heard that the Beara Peninsula was as beautiful as its neighbor to the north, with none of the crowds. I was out to investigate.

I had come to Ireland at the suggestion of a friend in Los Angeles who was taking time off from his law firm. Darius thought Dublin sounded like a good place to unwind, and because I had been laid off from a high-tech job, I decided to join him. When we got to the capital city, though, I couldn't get him to venture any farther.

Dublin was fine, but I wanted to get to the heart of the country, to experience more of what the Emerald Isle has to offer and view the panoramas for which it is so famous. After taking guided bike trips in France and Vermont, I knew there was no better way to feel the pulse of a place than on two wheels. This trip would be the first on my own.

Some research on the Internet quickly identified the ideal location; I wanted to keep to a leisurely pace, without too many hills. It had to be stunning yet off the beaten path. The Beara Peninsula seemed perfect. With bicycle rental just $12 per day and hostels about the same, the trip was definitely not going to break the bank. In fact, that less-than-$45-per-day figure included food and miscellaneous expenses.

Those wishing to stay in bed-and-breakfast lodgings could be almost as frugal, as the average cost was just $20 to $25 per person, double occupancy. And so many hostels and B&Bs dotted the route that reserving a place to stay was unnecessary.

To make the peninsula even more cycle friendly, the local tourist council created what is known as the Beara Way Cycle Route, maps of which can be purchased at the tourist information offices in Killarney, Kenmare and Glengarriff. Well-posted signs lead cyclists around the peninsula, often on smaller, less traveled roads. Instead of the sounds of automobiles, it was the bleating of sheep and goats that echoed across the hills, and farmers out walking their collies were always eager to stop for a chat.

Day 1: Uphill and down from Killarney to Lauragh

My first day on the road found me leaving Killarney and heading up through the spectacular Killarney National Park in a light drizzle. Luckily the rain stopped shortly after I entered the park and began my meandering ascent through the mountains. The landscape here is as green as one might expect in Ireland, and even though it is part of the Ring of Kerry route, goats greatly outnumbered tourists, or even people for that matter.

From the pass known as Moll's Gap, nearly the entire park was in view, with rocky green peaks on either side and a string of lakes below. A pack of bicycles waited outside the restaurant on top as their riders rested before the long descent down one side of the pass or the other.

A quick downhill to the east led me to Kenmare, another quaint but touristy town on the Ring of Kerry route. Just past it began the beautiful Beara Peninsula.

It did not take long before Beara Way signs led me off the highway and onto my first gloriously quiet side road, which rolled through the hills before ducking down to follow the coast. Before I reached my first destination, I stopped off at O'Sullivan's Pub for a bite to eat.

"Are you staying in Lauragh?" the proprietress asked. When I answered in the affirmative, she invited me to their annual festival honoring St. Kilian.

When I returned to the pub later that night, the place was packed, as was a barn out back, and the Guinness flowed freely. This was definitely a local event, with nary a tourist in sight. The town itself is limited to a post office, a fishing dock and the pub. Apparently everyone for miles around was in attendance. As a Californian, I felt honored when the keyboardist and singer in the barn kicked off his set with a Beach Boys tune.

Day 2: Pastel villages from Lauragh to Allihies

Pedaling out of Lauragh, it was a little more than an hour to my first real town on the route. Ardgroom, with its row of pastel buildings, was all of one block long -- large enough for a convenience store, however, and a few small restaurants. The individually colored buildings formed a theme I would see repeated in every town along the way.

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.

A few miles from the stone lies another site, known as the Hag of Beara. This 4-foot-high rock, which vaguely resembles the face of a woman, supposedly is the fossilized face of a supernatural figure, or corn goddess, who lived for several hundred years. Apparently her spell still haunts visitors, who leave offerings of coins, rings and other trinkets spread around the base of the rock.

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.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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