Ireland Island Series: The Secret South

We’ve done the Ireland Islands of the mighty north, the efficacious east and now it’s time to migrate south for part three of our Ireland Island series. There are fewer to choose from but don’t think for a second that that takes away from the stunning, spectacular or stupendous sightliness of any of them. Buckle up for beautiful beaches, remote hikes and marine life and, of course, some pretty rare bird colonies.

1. Cape Clear, County Cork

Cape Clear Island

Ireland’s southernmost inhabited area of land exists in an isolated bubble that is called Cape Clear, 13km off the coast of County Cork. This Ireland island is simply oozing cultural heritage and secrets. From its unspoiled scenery of startling cliffs and wildflowers to its and sheltered harbours and pebbled beaches, this island is definitely not one to miss. In its isolation, the islanders have developed a fiercely strong culture that is notably different from the mainland that many locals refer to as the “island off the coast of Cape Clear”.  Guess that’s island humour for you. 

  • Hikes:  Surprise surprise, we’ve got some more loop walks for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming. No, but jokes aside we have some pretty fantastic walks on this island. Many of the hiking trails follow ancient “mass paths” which criss-cross the island. Check these out.
    • Gleann Loop walk: This walk is approximately 7km and should take the average walker 2-3 hours and the fitness level required is moderate to average. You can start this walk from the information office and follow the red arrows.
    • Cnoicin’s Loop: If you fancy something shorter, Cnoicin’s Loop is only 4km and should take you about 1.3– 2 hours. This hike is suitable for people of all fitness levels.  You can start this walk from the information office and follow the green arrows.
  • Things to Do:
    • Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival – this festival has been running now for twenty-five years and always occurs on the first weekend of September. It draws in hundreds of people every year for workshops, walks and traditional storytelling. Catch me there next year. There’s no other place to be. 
    • Marine Life Safari – Ever dreamed of witnessing a free whale jumping out of the waves in complete ecstasy or pod of dolphins frolicking in the surf? Well, Cape Clear is the place for that. Whilst different types of whales take residency in the waters at different times of the year (Check timetable here), dolphins are a permanent fixture here. It’s one of the perks of being so far out.
    • The Old Lighthouse – The Old Lighthouse was built high on a hill by the British, who apparently didn’t realize that the lamp’s beam would be invisible to ships in poor weather. The lighthouse is no longer in use. Nonetheless, the view from this hilltop is the perfect vantage point to spy on whales, dolphins and sharks.
  • How to Get There: The Cape Clear Island Ferry leaves Baltimore four times a day during summer, and twice daily in the winter. The journey time is 35 minutes, the fare is 16 Euro return, and there is no need for pre-booking. Get the full timetable here.

2. Heir Island, County Cork

Heir Island

This Ireland island is famous for its sustainable quirk that people travel for from far and wide: it’s gourmet food and cooking classes where local duck, lamb, shrimp, crab and seasonal wild salmon caught by island fishermen is what’s up. The population numbers around a meagre 25, but that just adds to this island’s incredible charm and enigmatic energy. Get caught up in Heir’s sandy beaches,  get your freak on with your birdwatching binoculars and have a roam around the beautifully preserved cottages surrounded by sea.

  • Hikes: Marked trails weave their way around the island, one of which starts at the Ferry Pier on the island. It is about 7.5km and should take you about 3 -4 hours to complete.  It’s a relatively easy walk.
  • Things to do:
    • Cooking classes – Island Cottage describes itself as probably the smallest cooking school in the world, but a place where you learn doing. 
    • Kayaking –  Heir Island is a gorgeous and safe place to explore the waters of Roaringwater Bay. Explore the unspoilt and preserved gems of this beautiful island that are best accessed and explored by sea-kayak. 
  • How to get there: Heir Island is a five-minute ferry ride from Cunnamore. Sailings are daily, year-round service. View the timetable here

3. Dursey Island, County Cork

Dursey Island

Whether you’re looking for a slice of paradise or just some serious alone time, Dusrsey Island is the place for you. With a population of a six – yes, there are six people out there who enjoy being away from people more than you dothis island really is the place to go for some peace and quiet. Its main activities include walking, birdwatching and the thrill of the ten-minute cable car (Ireland’s only cable car) that you can get there and back. There are no businesses (so bring a packed lunch), no traffic, no nothing. Maybe some dolphins though – you can see them from the cable car. Did I mention that Dursey Island has a cable car?

  • Hikes: Dursey is described as a walkers’ paradise, but as for waymarked routes you may need to get creative.
  • Things to do:
    •  The Cable Car – did we mention that Dursey has a cable car? Well, it does. It’s Ireland’s only cable car in fact. It can carry six people at a time, runs 250 metres above the sea and is a lifeline to the three villages on the island (yeah I’ll let you do the numbers)
    • Birdwatching During migration season Dursey Island attracts all kinds of rare birds such as Wilson’s Warblers, Ovenbirds and Red-flanked Bluetails. Just offshore there on Bull Rock is also a large Gannet colony where thousands of seabirds can be seen circling the sky.

How to get there: Ireland’s only cable car departs daily from Ballaghboy at the tip of the Beara Peninsula. The trip takes ten minutes. Get more information here.

4. Bere Island, County Cork

Bere Island

As far as the islands off the south of Ireland go, Bere island is pretty populated, with over 200 proud residents. Bere Island has also been voted the tidiest Ireland island for not one, not two, but five years in a row. That’s right, not the most accessible, not the only one with a cable car or has most birds, but the tidiest. It also has the deepest harbour in Europe. So take that, other islands! No, but jokes aside, this island has a lot going for it. It has an incredibly rich history both archaeologically and from a military standpoint. It also has a great tourism interface and the depth of its harbour regularly attracts the likes of killer whales, sharks and dolphins, making Bere Island a primary base for divers. And before you ask, yes, of course, there’s ample opportunity for birdwatching. 

  • Hikes: 
    • Rerrin Loop: You guessed it. Where there’s life, there’s a loop walk. This coastal loop is a great one if you want to see a handful of the historical sites, along with beautiful coastlines, this hike passes ruined British fortifications, Martello Towers, the Ardaragh Wedge Tomb and a Viking shipyard. The length is 7km and should take you about 3 hours to complete. It is worth noting however that dogs are not allowed.
    • Ardnakinna Lighthouse Loop: Here’s another loop walk for you guys, obviously. This particular one’s got its picturesque fishing villages, Ardnakinna lighthouse and panoramic views over Bantry Bay, the Beara and Sheep’s Head Peninsulas. The length is 10km and should take roughly 5 hours to complete.  Again, no dogs are allowed. I truly am sorry, I don’t make the rules. I guess you don’t win tidiest island five years in a row without making some pretty tough concessions.
  • Things to do:
    • Soak in the island’s prominent military history- Remnants of British Imperialism are visible throughout the island, with Martello and signal towers, barracks, trenches, fortification which still contains guns and various underground structures.
    • Bere Island Sea Safari: This island’s deep harbour makes it the perfect location for scuba-diving, sea safaris, deep-sea fishing and watersports. Their website seems to be under construction right now so check out their facebook here.
  •  Getting there: Ferries sail year-round from Castletownbere and the journey takes 10 minutes.

If you missed out on part one of our Ireland Island series: The Best of the North or part two: The Beasts of the East, be sure to check them out, you never know what gems may tickle your interest!

Leora Mansoor
Leora Mansoor

Leora is a freelance journalist who is currently working for Babylon Radio, covering all things current and cultural

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