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So You Think You Know the Haven Coast?



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When you think of Ireland’s southernmost coastline, what comes to mind?

For many, it’s the gentle pace of life and winding roads traversing field and stream. For others, the very mention of the Haven Coast conjures tantalising daydreams of the freshest seafood plucked straight from beneath the waves, enjoyed in the company of the friendly folks who call picturesque, colourful towns like Kinsale and Skibbereen home.

 

But there is so much more to this region than meets the eye – or palate. A must-explore destination for visitors of all ages, this stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way between Bantry and Kinsale is packed with iconic sights, sounds and experiences that make it a downright haven for everyone from food and drink connoisseurs to art, literature and outdoor adventure aficionados

And while the 97km route can easily be traversed between breakfast and lunch, to stay on the main drag would mean missing all the delightful finds hidden in nooks, crags and bends in the road throughout the region.

Some of the Haven Coast’s most iconic experiences – from a visit to the evocative Baltimore Beacon and the chance to sample some of the finest grass-fed milk and cheese in the world to watching for whales off the south coast and even poking around the remains of megalithic sites – can only be found at the end of rural routes and on detours you might otherwise have missed entirely.

So to really get to know the Haven Coast, be sure to slow down, get off the beaten track, and hear what the locals have to say about what makes this place sing.

 
  • Flavours of West Cork
 

FLAVOURS OF WEST CORK

Beating off strong competition from the likes of Dublin and Galway, West Cork was recently named as the top foodie destination in Ireland, and it’s not hard to see why.

In this temperate Atlantic microclimate fed by the invigorating Gulf Stream, you can find artisan producers churning out everything from mozzarella made from the milk of free-ranging Macroom buffalo to sides of award-winning smoked salmon courtesy of Sally Barnes' smokehouse in Skibbereen.

The latter is a multiple award-winning producer who has attracted high praise from some of the biggest names in the food game, including chef extraordinaire Richard Corrigan, who has hailed Sally’s salmon as his very favourite food gift.

A Scottish ‘blow-in’ and wife of a commercial fisherman, Barnes began smoking fish in a tea chest, eventually expanding her talent and passion for great food into a sustainable business. Today, she welcomes not only students of the craft but also a steady stream of curious visitors who come for the one-day fish smoking workshop and, of course, to sample some of the freshest seafood they are likely to ever taste.  

Amid the smoking machines and whole glistening fish laid out in preparation, guests get their hands dirty gutting, salting and smoking exclusively wild-caught salmon and haddock, never fish that have been farmed. It’s a method of quality control that has served Sally well since the inception of her business and, combined with that famous West Cork hospitality, is the secret recipe that keeps visitors coming back time and time again.

 
 
The Baltimore Beacon at the entrance to the harbour at Baltimore, County Cork
 

BALTIMORE & LOUGH HYNE

Take the turnoff towards Durrus after Bantry and head south towards one of the Haven Coasts’ true hidden gems: the beautiful fishing village of Baltimore. Part of Ireland’s southernmost parish, Baltimore is bound on one side by a buzzing, scenic harbour and on the other by the Atlantic, where the last craggy outposts of land take on the full brunt of the crashing ocean waves.

Baltimore Beacon, known locally as Lot’s Wife, is the star attraction here, an emblematic white lighthouse perched atop a jutting, heather and gorse-covered cliff at the edge of town.  Built in 1849, it’s a Wild Atlantic Way Signature Discovery Point that rewards intrepid climbers with 360-degree views out to Sherkin Island and Cape Clear and all the dipping, soaring seabirds you could wish for.

The elemental landscape and bracing sea breezes here are not only ideal tonics for the stresses of everyday life; they’re also the colours and flavours of true Haven Coast adventure, and savvy walkers can find great opportunities for exploring on foot year-round in the stunning surrounds. Just a short hike from the harbour, Lough Hyne, Ireland's first marine nature reserve, offers a lovely forest hill walk with views of the sea that will invigorate even the most jaded traveller.

Offshore, the islands of Sherkin and Cape Clear, accessible via a short boat ride, offer up even more ways to get out and get hiking.

Rianne Smith, a local who runs guided tours as part of an annual walking weekend in October, thinks it’s all about getting to grips with the surroundings on your own terms. “Walkers can really appreciate the vistas, a little bit of history,” she says, “and they feel they can come back and do the walks independently at another time as well.”

 
  • Humpback whales off the coast of Ireland
 

WHALE WATCHING

If bold excursions on the high seas are more your speed, the Haven Coast has you covered with an array of open water activities, perhaps none more exciting than a trip aboard the good ship Holly Jo with Colin Barnes of Cork Whale Watch.

With 50 years experience at sea, first as a commercial fisherman and later as a whale guide, Barnes says the waters off the Haven Coast rival any in the world for great whale watching opportunities.

“People go to Iceland, Newfoundland and New Zealand to see these creatures but you can see the exact same here,” he explains. The three species most often spotted – fin whales, humpback whales and minke whales – can make an appearance anywhere between the shoreline and ten miles out, and sometimes bring their friends along for the fun.

“Fanatics, who have followed these creatures all over the world, say it’s some of the best whale watching they have seen right here on the Wild Atlantic Way, as not many places have all three species, as well as porpoises and dolphins. They come right up to the boat and show off,” he says. “They’re a delight.”

It’s a popular activity for young and old alike – Barnes has accommodated a gentleman of an impressive 102 years on the Holly Jo – and a once-in-a-lifetime experience worth taking advantage of the next time you’re in the area.

 
 

“I’ve always been adamant we have a fantastic product; we do some of the best grass-fed milk and cheese in the world” 

 

DOWN ON THE FARM

Back on dry land, on a dairy farm outside Glandore, Denis O’Donovon invites visitors of all stripes to come and experience what life is really like on a working farm.

Offering an interactive experience and an alternative look at life for folks in built-up areas, farm visits are becoming increasingly popular, and, in West Cork, many working farms have come together under the West Cork AgriTours umbrella to showcase the wide range of  world-class products made in the region.

O’Donovon, who can cater for groups of 10 or 15, brings visitors to the heart of farm life by tractor and trailer, over hill and field, to greet the real MVPs – his herd of rare Fresian/Jersey cross-breeds. Grazing placidly in green fields with haunting views of Coppinger’s Court, a ruined four-storey fortified house dating from 1616, these black and brown beauties produce high quality milk that then goes to the Carberry Group, makers of the unmistakably flavoursome Dubliner cheese.

“I’ve always been adamant we have a fantastic product; we do some of the best grass-fed milk and cheese in the world,” says O’Donovan, pointing to sustainability as the magic ingredient. He says that while Californian cows use, on average, 44 litres of water to make one litre of milk, on his farm in beautiful West Cork, only seven litres are needed.

And, if you needed any more proof of the quality of his product, O’Donovon is quick to offer up a taste; back at the farmhouse mugs of hot tea and scones await the hungry visitor, served up with a proper Irish welcome from the whole family. 

 
  • ‘Ireland’s answer to Stonehenge’ - Drombeg Stone Circle
 

STEP BACK IN TIME

Just over the road, one of the more mystical experiences you can have on the Wild Atlantic Way awaits at the Drombeg Stone Circle, a megalithic site perched on a hillside plateau overlooking the vast Atlantic.

‘Ireland’s answer to Stonehenge’, it’s one of the most visited stone circles in the country, attracting visitors in droves, which makes an early morning visit – when you can have the place more or less to yourself – incredibly powerful.

Most of Drombeg’s seventeen pillar stones – some as large as 2 metres in height – still stand tall despite the centuries, and its nearby cooking pit and remains of stone huts evoke a time when these lands were still ruled by majestic rulers, myth and magic. After a day spent learning about the folks who make the modern-day Haven Coast so unforgettable, retracing the footsteps of those who came before makes for the perfect end to a journey here.

So the next time you’re planning a trip to the Haven Coast, remember to mark out a little extra time to take that detour, follow that sign, or stop in to that inviting pub or café. The locals you’ll meet here show their love for the communities in which they live by keeping their doors open, their home fires burning, and by sharing first-hand, authentic experiences that will offer you a true taste of Haven Coast life.

North of the Haven Coast, five more Wild Atlantic Way regions are just waiting to be explored. Find out more and get planning your next authentic adventure.

Orginally featured as Whales and Wonder along Cork’s Haven Coast. 

 
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