The Gap of Dunloe is a narrow, scenic mountain pass in County Kerry, a perfect seven-mile walk for those who want a close-up look at western Ireland’s green beauty. It’s nothing short of entrancing, and I’m grateful to our Irish friend Dan for arranging an outing through Gap of Dunloe Tours. Another great way to see this stunning area would be to rent a car in Ireland. That way, you can stop and take in all the stunning vistas along the way. My husband John and I had visited Ireland, but this was our first time at the Gap, which lies between MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and Purple Mountain. Within it are five lakes connected by the River Loe. Every turn of the serpentine road – and it is a paved road, not a dirt path – open to another idyllic farm scene or dramatic mountain view. We could have gone by car, bicycle, or horse and cart, but hiking is a special way to see Ireland.
We began with a ride in a vintage bus that picked us up at Kingfisher Lodge, our bed-and-breakfast in Killarney, and drove to a lakeside boat landing. Our group of about twenty donned life jackets and boarded motor boats for the trip across Lough Leane, a beautiful half-hour ride. On the shore we caught a brief view of Ross Castle, a 15th century ruin, though a tower has been restored and furnished in period style. We sailed past green fields, under stone bridges, and near reeds and mossy rocks before docking at a shore where a path led up to Lord Brandon’s Cottage. Lord Brandon’s provides lunches to visitors, with quick counter service; my two companions and I bought and ate sandwiches and were out walking in short order.
“Jaunting cars” were available, offering rides through the Gap. A horse and cart is a step back in time and a good choice for those who aren’t up to a longish walk or bicycling. Killarney Horse and Carriage Tours has about 25 carts and operates seven days a week. They’re said to have the oldest jarvey (jaunting car operator) in Killarney; he has 50 years of experience. The carts and horses are guided by men from local families, using a rotation system to determine who takes the next customers. They’ve used this “turn” system since the 1920s, passing it on through generations.
You don’t come to Ireland for the weather, as the local folks say, so we were prepared with rain gear. But we hit it lucky, with only a few clouds, cool fresh air and fields sparkling in flashes of sunshine. Sheep browsed on rocky hillsides, light smoke curled from farmhouse chimneys, tiny white and yellow wildflowers bloomed by the roadside. Crows and ravens flew overhead. In the rocky cliffs we saw evidence of the natural forces that created the craggy landscape millions of years ago–glacial movements, eroded sediment, and colliding earth plates. When fractures moved under great pressure, faults formed, and many of the steep gullies in the Gap are such faults. Some show white quartz and chlorite, a green mineral.
Heather and bracken are abundant along the Gap walk, as well as some less familiar plants. An interesting example of symbiosis is the crustose lichen growing tightly attached to rock. The plant is actually a mixture of alga, which manufactures food from sunlight, and fungus, which takes material from the rock that the alga can use. Each part needs the other.
We wound up hiking through the hills and over streams and bridges to “Ladies View,” the panoramic view that enchanted Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting in1861. One of the ladies was so taken with the sight of steep cliffs, ravines and clear lakes, she declared it “the finest view in all the realm.” On the descent from the mountain pass, we came to grassy marshes and the stone arches of the Wishing Bridge, a picturesque spot where, they say, wishes made on the bridge will come true. I didn’t need to make a wish; mine was right here, a stunning day in lovely Ireland.
Toward the end of the hike, Dan hurried ahead, knowing the bus would not wait a minute past 4 p.m. Sure enough, when John and I arrived at the meeting spot promptly at 4, our bus was idling and ready to go. We had only a moment to peek into Kate Kearney’s Cottage, a white pub dating from the 19th century and still a place for a drink and a bite to eat, though today it’s also a gift shop.
A pleasant bus ride took us back to Kingfisher Lodge for a rest before dinner at Flesk. This lively, popular Killarney restaurant has a varied menu of steak, seafood, and traditional Irish dishes. It’s open daily and we found the service excellent, with the friendly Irish charm we encountered everywhere in this lovely land.
Written by and photos by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com