It may be named for the sheep, but the people and the trails make this a fabulous destination.
Ireland’s southwest coast is a series of finger-like peninsulas extending into the wild Atlantic Ocean. One of the slimmest is Sheepshead Peninsula – extending from Bantry on the north, past Ballymoor Mountain, to a lighthouse that sits precariously on a cliff at the very southernmost tip. While it’s a beautiful sight, you’ll only be able to see it from land if you take a walk…a long walk.
The Sheep’s Head Way was named the Best Walk in Ireland shortly after it was opened. It’s easy to see why. No matter what your ability level, you’ll find plenty to enjoy along the Sheep’s Head Way. Mountains, flats, sheer cliffs and sea vistas combine to create a walker’s dream. Be sure to take a bottle of water, as you’ll probably want to linger much longer than you expected.
Why Sheep’s Head?
Before even leaving for Ireland, David Ross from Top of the Rock introduced me to Siobhan Burke with the Sheep’s Head and Bantry Tourism Co-operative. Learning about the place on their website: Living the Sheep’s Head Way, I knew this was a place I had to add to my itinerary.
Since I was unfamiliar with the area, I met up early one morning in Kilcrohane with James O’Mahony and Tony Cumberpatch to get a sense of what Sheep’s Head Peninsula is all about. James has lived his life on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, was instrumental in founding the walking loop, and is a wealth of information. Tony now leads guided walks and was kind enough to show me the way to the lighthouse.
Turns out, the path is actually better marked than most and rarely will you be walking without being able to see one of the numbered and labeled sign posts as you hike the hills. The whole peninsula loop is 150km and now connects with eastern extensions so you can hike all the way to Drimoleague and Gougane Barra in West Cork. If you include all the additional smaller loops on the peninsula, it adds up to 250km of marked paths to be enjoyed.
Only having time to complete a small part of the overall trail, James drove Tony and I to Tooreen where there is parking and the wonderful Sheep’s Head Cafe for supplies and refreshments. Homemade pies, scones and cakes are not to be missed. You can also pick up your hiking maps here.
We headed out to the lighthouse via the southern route with fleeting sights of Mitzen Head and Dunmanus Bay. We returned on the northern side of the peninsula with a great view of Bear Island and Bantry Bay. Maybe it’s just me, but walking in Ireland seems to be so much easier than anywhere else I’ve traveled. The ground has a soft, almost bouncy feel to it, making a walk in hiking boots feel more like you are wearing slippers.
Don’t get me wrong, we hiked up and over many boulders and stones the size of my car, but when walking on the grass, there was a certain bounce to my step. It’s ideal for long hikes.
Tony said it would be an hour or two out the lighthouse and back, but that turned into more like 3-1/2 hours with stopping to chat and taking pictures along the way. Oh yeah, it was actually the sheeps fault, as we had to wait one time for a whole herd to pass on a single lane path. James was patiently waiting, so it was great not to have to hurry.
The lighthouse itself is nestled into the rocks at the southeastern tip of the land, and is easily accessible with a set of steps from the top of the rocky outcropping. It’s not open for tourists, but you can walk around it and enjoy its bird’s eye view of the Atlantic. Looking straight down at some of the cliffs on the way back, it’s easy to see why it’s called the Wild Atlantic Way.
Arundel’s by the Pier
We finished the morning walk just in time to meet Suzanne Whitty at Arundel’s by the Pier, a local pub in Ahakista that’s been in the family since 1890. Shane Arundel and his wife now run the place and offer a menu large enough to make it difficult to pick just one for lunch. I opted for the local’s favorite – whole baked Breem after a whopping bowl of seafood chowder, and both were phenomenal.
Suzanne is a former American, who’s been living on the Sheep’s Head peninsula for years now, keeping things lively at town meetings and rarely short for words.
With people like James and Suzanne to share a meal with, I realized I had once again not allowed enough time for this destination. There were so many more things I would love to have seen and conversations I would have enjoyed having before I headed off to my next stop, which is the next article – Bantry and Whiddy Island.
A Guide to the Sheep’s Head Way – second edition by Tom Whitty
A Map of the Sheep’s Head Way – second edition
Next article in the Wild Atlantic Way series: Cork County
Doug Bardwell, based in Cleveland, OH, writes about travel destinations, photography and tech topics across the country and around the world at DougBardwell.com. Feel free to drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with suggestions for future stories. To get his stories delivered to your inbox, click the RSS feed or the "Subscribe" button above or follow him on Facebook , Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+. To read Doug’s disclosure notice, click here. For travel ideas in Cleveland and around the world, check his Calendar of Events. To see his travel photo collection, see BardwellPhotography.com.