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Walking adventures in West Cork, Ireland

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I've been following the Wild Atlantic Way down the west side of Ireland and worked my way to lovely County Cork and into Drimoleague, where I have been invited to visit Top of the Rock – Pod Pairc & Walking Centre. Drimoleague is 20km from Bantry going due east on R586.

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Top of the Rock Pod Pairc

Following the signs north on the well-marked route from town center, I worked my way up the hillside to Top of the Rock, owned by David and Elizabeth Ross. This is a small working farm in an idyllic location with marvelous little cabins (pods), perfect for travelers, walkers and families. The farm is a restoration of his grandfather’s farm who settled here in 1920.

David and Elizabeth are the perfect hosts - with hospitality a-plenty and a wonderful knowledge of the West Cork area. Looking for places to walk or visit - just ask. There are walks of all lengths with sights to suit anyone. Hiking books and maps are available to purchase in the guest center as well. David’s separate Top of the Rock Walking Tour’s website has more information available on the walks starting from the Pod Pairc.

The guest center serves as a dining area upstairs as well as a reception area. Downstairs you'll find a game room with pool table and ping-pong table. There's a large laundry room as well as men’s and women’s shower facilities. For anyone who wants to prepare their own meals, there’s a large kitchen with gas and electric stoves, refrigerator and freezer.

Top of the Rock is known as the “Walkers’ Junction of West Cork.” Because you can walk in any direction, your biggest decision will be “Which way today?” There are about 300km of dedicated walking trails that anyone can enjoy in West Cork…and lucky for you, I think David knows them all and can give suggestions.

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How to choose a walk?

Want to hear about many of the walks available as part of the Drimoleague Heritage Walkways? David Ross narrated a series of ten 15-minute recordings you can download to provide further insight into the wonders of each walk. Click here to give a listen.

David was kind enough to custom design a whirlwind tour for this journalist, who wanted to see everything, but had very little time to actually walk the trails and soak up all the countryside had to offer. You’d do yourself a disservice to do what I did, the paths are incredible and you’ll want to savor every step and discover West Cork’s treasures slowly.

World’s best Panna Cotta

Our first stop was a visit to his brother’s Glenilen Farm where I got to sample some of his dairy products. To say his Panna Cotta was the best I’ve ever had is an understatement. I had the Coconut & Passion Fruit which was out of this world.

Their yogurt is packed in 160g. glass jars with the natural fruit layered at the bottom, and has zero additives or artificial flavors. Don’t leave Drimoleague without picking up some of their products. You can thank me later.

Down to the river, we glimpsed Castle Donovan, one of the many charming scenes on the popular St. Finbarr’s 34km Pilgrim Walk. Walking across the stone Ahanfunsion Bridge (originally built in 1830) we explored the much more current, gently arched, wooden Manager’s Bridge.

What kind of animal is that?

Up another hill we found our way to the most enchanting of all the walks I did in Ireland this year – the Waterfall Farm and its Alpaca Walk. We couldn’t start the walk without first meeting Emma & Markus Bird, owners of this little bit of heaven. They are still developing this as an attraction for individual walkers as well as school groups.

Waterfall Farm has a variety of animals from Flemish Giant and French Lop rabbits to goats to the ungainly but loveable looking alpacas. Cautious but curious, the alpacas will certainly want to look you over.

Starting out at some of Ireland’s remaining standing stones, the one mile trail leads you past the pens of the male and female alpacas, past the donkeys, along some joyous looking Yellow Gorse shrubs, and down to the river. It’s here the real fun starts.

Walking along the stream, there are dozens of mini-rapids where the water spills quickly over rocks and makes the most remarkable and relaxing sounds. Wending your way through flower patches, under blossom-filled trees and over stone-step bridges, you’ll find your way to a mighty waterfall that feeds this entire area. If you want to linger awhile, you’ll find Ally’s gazebo tucked away nearby.

Can stones really stand?

Some distance away, we visited the Maughanasilly Stone Row which has been taking visitors since 1600BC. If you come here every 18-1/2 years (the length of the full lunar cycle) you’ll discover that the stones are perfectly aligned with the most northerly point of the moon’s rising. Ever wonder how the Bronze Age people got so smart without the Internet?

Irish males and Irish tales

Another short drive and we met Dan Sullivan and his restored Carriganass Castle tower house (built in 1541.) This was originally a five-story castle and eventually enclosed by a stone fort along the Ouvane River.

It was here I learned the legend of Donal Cam, who disguised as a monk, found his wife’s murderer here in the tower and tossed him to the river below. Factually there’s no evidence this ever happened, but it’s the best story going in these parts – so who’s going to ruin a good Irish tale.

Inspiring pilgrims since the 6th century

Finishing up the day we motored to the end of the St. Finbarr’s Walk to see the glacially formed valley known as Gougane Barra. Here, set on the edge of an idyllic lake is the shrine commemorating St. Finbarr who built a hermitage here in the sixth century, before moving on to create a monastery and the city of Cork.

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Warm hospitality in a glacial groove

As the day was drawing to a close, David and I were invited to the lovely Gougane Barra Hotel by proprietor Neil & Katy Lucey for dinner. They’ve been keeping a 400+ year-old family tradition alive since 2005. The hotel is open April through October each year. The hotel is recipient of dozens of awards and is a beautiful place to stay.

Food for the evening consisted of a salad of local West Cork cheeses with pear, bacon, croutons and honey dressing. The entrée was delicious, fresh deep-fried Dingle Bay Scampi with homemade chips and tartar sauce. That should have been enough, but they twisted our arms and insisted we try the ‘Gougane Mess’ – a heavenly combination of vanilla ice-cream with homemade mini meringue, red berry coulis and cream. Heaven in a glass.

Unexpected discoveries

Spending the evening with such good food, a view of St. Finbarr’s Oratory across the lake and in the good company of David Ross was truly a highlight of my Ireland trip. As we talked travel, faith and family, I was truly in awe of his accomplishments as a husband, father, minister, rancher and now proprietor of West Cork’s newest tourist destination – the Pod Pairc. This man’s energy knows no bounds.

I also made a discovery about myself. As a travel writer, I always tried to cram as many stops in one days as possible to be able to tell my readers more about what they could find at any destination. I measured success by how many photographs I could shoot in 24 hours.

While that is still necessary at times, what I discovered is that the true Ireland can best be appreciated by walking its paths and getting to know its people. If you want to meet two of the best, head to Top of the Rock and meet David and Elizabeth Ross. If a walking vacation is in your future, you can’t do better than this

Top of the Rock details:

7 Pods available:

· 2 Luxury pods have toilets, double beds and hand wash basins with mini-kitchen and dining table. A pull out sofa can handle an extra two people. €69-79/night (2014 rates)(pictured)

· 2 Family pods with three fold-up beds and handle five adults or six family members. Kitchen, shower and laundry facilities are in the main Pairc Centre building. €49-59/night

· 3 Standard pods come with two fold up beds for two adults and two small children (or three adults). Like the family pods, all services are close by. €39-49/nigh

Meals can be enjoyed in the Pairc Centre building, or Elizabeth can arrange a breakfast bag to be delivered right to your pod in the morning. It features those great Glenilen Farm products, jams and Elizabeth’s homemade scones (as good as I’ve ever had.

Good night

We got back to the Pod Pairc just as the sun had disappeared over the mountains. The twilight glow let me get a couple more photos before making a cup of tea and then turning in for a comfortable night’s sleep in my pod. This day certainly reminded me why I love traveling – especially to Ireland.

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