Cape Clear Island
With its lonely inlets, pebble beaches, and gorse- and heather-clad cliffs, Cape Clear Island (Oileán Chléire), is an escapist's heaven – albeit one that is only 5km long and just over 1.5km wide at its broadest point. But that's just as well, as you'll want time to appreciate this small, rugged Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) area, the southernmost inhabited island in the country.
West of Schull to Mizen Head
On a clear day the undulating coastal route from Schull to Goleen enjoys great views out to Cape Clear Island and the Fastnet lighthouse. The landscape becomes wilder around the hamlet of Toormore. From Goleen, roads run out to the impressive cliffs of Mizen Head and to the harbour village of Crookhaven.
Glandore & Union Hall
The picturesque waterside villages of Glandore (Cuan Dor) and Union Hall burst into life in summer when fleets of yachts race in the sheltered waters of Glandore Harbour inlet. Union Hall, southwest of Glandore across a long, narrow causeway, was named after the 1801 Act of Union which abolished the separate Irish parliament.
Sheep’s Head Peninsula
The Sheep's Head Peninsula has a rugged charm all its own – and yes, there are plenty of sheep. The road west from Durrus passes through Ahakista (Atha an Chiste), which has a couple of pubs including the charming, tin-roofed Ahakista Bar, aka the Tin Pub. At the back, it has flowering gardens which tumble down to the waterfront.
Midleton & Around
Aficionados of a particularly fine Irish whiskey will recognise the name Midleton, and the main reason to linger in this bustling market town is to visit the old Jameson whiskey distillery. The surrounding region is full of pretty villages, craggy coastline and heavenly rural hotels such as Ballymaloe House – precisely why you should visit the town but stay elsewhere.
Located in the Blackwater Valley on the main N20 highway, Mallow (Mala) is the county's largest town after Cork City. Visitors to its spa in the 19th century christened it the 'Bath of Ireland'. The comparison is far-fetched these days, though the architecture in the town centre hints at its former grandeur.
Just a 10-minute ferry ride offshore from Baltimore, Sherkin Island measures just 5km by 3km, but until the Famine had a population of over 1000. These days Sherkin is a magnet for artists and day trippers; there's not much to do except wander the fuchsia-fringed lanes, seek out little coves on the west side, and gaze out to sea.
Onwards from Goleen, the westerly outpost of Crookhaven feels so remote that you imagine it's more easily reached by boat than by road. And so it is for some people – in summer there's a big yachting presence. Outside summer, it's very quiet. In its heyday Crookhaven's natural harbour was an important anchorage and communications hub with a population of 700 (today it's 30).
Gougane Barra Forest Park
Gougane Barra is a truly magical spot, with craggy mountains and pine forests sweeping down to a mountain lake, the source of the River Lee. St Fin Barre, the founder of Cork, established a monastery here in the 6th century. He had a hermitage on the island in Gougane Barra Lake (Lough an Ghugain), which is now approached by a short causeway.