Ring of Kerry
This 179km circuit of the Iveragh (pronounced eev-raa) peninsula pops up on every self-respecting tourist itinerary, and for good reason. The road winds past pristine beaches, medieval ruins, mountains and loughs (lakes), with ever-changing views of the island-dotted Atlantic.
The landscape of Northern Kerry is often dull compared with the glories of the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula. But there are some interesting places that merit a pause along the way. Tralee has a great museum while Ballybunion and the blustery beaches south of the Shannon estuary are worth a look.
Framed by its fishing port, the peninsula's charming little 'capital' manages to be quaint without even trying. Many pubs double as shops, so you can enjoy Guinness and a singalong among screws and nails, wellies and horseshoes. It has long drawn runaways from across the world, making it a cosmopolitan, creative place.
Although it's the county town, Tralee is often dismissed elsewhere in Kerry as an overflow for Limerick and its social problems. While that's unfair – there are some good restaurants and bars, a great museum and an interesting wetlands centre – it's certainly down-to-earth and more engaged with the business of everyday life than the tourist trade.
Kenmare (pronounced 'ken-mair') is the thinking person's Killarney. Ideally positioned for exploring the Ring of Kerry (and the Beara Peninsula), but without the coach-tour crowds and calculated 'Oirishness' of its more famous neighbour, Kenmare is a pretty little town with a neat triangle of streets lined with craft shops, galleries, cafes and good quality restaurants.
The late writer Bryan MacMahon said of Listowel: 'I harbour the absurd notion of motivating a small town in Ireland, a speck on the map, to become a centre of the imagination.' Listowel certainly has more literary credentials than your average provincial town, with connections to such accomplished scribes as John B Keane, Maurice Walsh, George Fitzmaurice and Brendan Kennelly.
This scenic and little-travelled 18km route links Portmagee, Valentia Island and Waterville via a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) area centred on Ballinskelligs (Baile an Sceilg). Many undertake it as a detour from the Ring of Kerry, but it's a wonderful destination in its own right. The area is wild and beautiful, with the ragged outline of Skellig Michael never far from view.
Castles, gardens and lake adventures are among the highlights of a visit to Killarney National Park, immediately south of the city. Just beyond, there's rugged scenery including the too-gorgeous-for-words Gap of Dunloe, with its rocky terrain, babbling brooks and alpine lakes.
West of Dingle
The signposted Slea Head Drive is a 50km loop that passes through the villages of Ventry, Dunquin, Ballyferriter and Ballydavid to the west of Dingle town, and takes in all the main sights. Including time for sightseeing, it's at least a half-day's drive or one or two day's bike ride.
Killarney National Park
Any cynicism engendered by Killarney's shamrock-filled souvenir stores evaporates when you begin to explore the sublime Killarney National Park. Ross Castle and Muckross House draw big crowds, but it's possible to escape amid Ireland's largest area of ancient oak woods, panoramic views of its highest mountains, and the country's only wild herd of native red deer.
The main town of the Iveragh peninsula, Cahersiveen (pronounced caar-suh-veen; from cathair saidhbhín, Little Sarah's Ring Fort) began life as a fishing harbour and market town but fell on hard times at the end of the 20th century – indeed, O'Connell St (north of Main St) still looks like a boulevard of broken dreams, lined with abandoned hotels and pubs.
Travelling anticlockwise from Killarney, the first town on the Ring is Killorglin (Cill Orglain, meaning Orgla's Church). For most of the year, the town is quieter than the waters of the River Laune that lap against its 1885-built eight-arched bridge, where salmon leap and little egrets paddle in the shallows.
The road between Waterville and Caherdaniel climbs high over the ridge of Beenarourke, providing grandstand views of some of the finest scenery on the Ring of Kerry. The panorama extends from the scattered islands of Scarriff and Deenish to Dursey and the hills of the Beara peninsula.