I grew up in Ireland and would drive down to Cork with my family, as a child, to stay with relatives in West Cork. Later, trips to Cork were a chance to show off Ireland to my new family from America. Here is a time-tested scenic trip from Dublin to County Cork. The driving time is 5 hours, but there are a number of stops along the day. The trick is to start out from Dublin early, so that you are not rushed when you get to the main sights, closer to Kinsale.
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Starting out from Dublin:
Leave Dublin in the morning. The interesting part of this trip is closer to Cork, so you want to make progress away from Dublin early. Get onto the M50 motorway and then take the Cork road (N7) at the Red Cow roundabout.
Through Kildare, past the Curragh
You'll drive past the Curragh racecourse in Kildare, where the countryside is flat and perfect for horseracing.
The Devil's Bit
Look out for the "bite" of one of the mountains you see off to the right as you approach Thurles. This is the Devil's Bit, and, as my grandmother would tell me, it was made by the Devil as he took a bite out of a mountain but then spat it out to make the rock of the Rock of Cashel. Which brings us to....
Cashel and the Rock of Cashel
The Rock of Cashel is a scenic view on the right-hand side as you approach Cashel. It is a nice photo opportunity. In Cashel itself, there are some nice cafes where you can stop for tea or coffee, with scones and some of the famous local Cashel Blue cheese. Bernie Goldbach has a great photo of the Rock of Cashel here.
Cahir Castle is a large and impressive castle on your right inside Cahir. Definitely worth a photograph. And, indeed, the "I deserve a rest" blog has some great photos of Cahir Castle here.
This is where we leave the beaten track (i.e. the main Dublin-Cork road, which we've been following thus far). In Cahir, before you get to the castle, take a left turn for "The Vee" (the R668). The Vee is a mountain pass road which is, in my opinion, one of the most scenic roads in Ireland. It is strangely unknown in Ireland, except to locals in East Cork and Tipperary.
The views on the Vee as you drive along the corkscrew bends up to the mountains, with the fertile plain of Tipperary laid out in front of you, are spectacular. The mountain pass itself is often misty, with heather on the hills and a small chapel. It is not a road to take a night if you are not used to driving on Irish roads, but if you set out from Dublin early then it should still be the late morning when you are here. [note that I say "mountain pass" but, of course, Ireland doesn't have large mountains so don't imagine it's going to be like the Rocky Mountain National Park or something].
The Vee brings you out at Lismore, site of the scenic Lismore Castle which you cannot visit (it's private) but you can certainly photograph it. It is much newer, and in a different style, than Cahir Castle at the other end of the Vee. Matthew Gottsch has some nice photos of Lismore Castle here.
Youghal, East Cork
At this point, my map directs you down to Youghal. Youghal has a great pottery centre and has a nice walkable town centre. If you're running late, or feeling especially hungry, you might want to skip Youghal (since you'll see pottery anyway, at the next stop...)
Shanagarry, East Cork. Pottery and a famous Cookery School
At Shanagarry, there are two stops close together. Firstly, there is the Stephen Pierce pottery workshop and factory shop [Ballycotton, very close to Shanagarry]. I bought some of my favourite plates here, and carefully brought them over to Boston with me when I moved here. Well worth stopping there, and the prices are cheaper than for the same items at the Kilkenny Shop on Nassau Street in Dublin. Also in Shanagarry, there is the Ballymaloe House restaurant and the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Nearby is a round tower, lovely beaches, and Ireland's only black lighthouse .
Bypass Cork, through the Jack Lynch tunnel
From Shanagarry, the R629 brings you back onto large roads again, in this case the N25. Follow this towards Cork City, then go through the Jack Lynch tunnel to the South Ring Road, and then you are in West Cork. Drive down past the airport to....
Kinsale is known as the "gourmet capital of Ireland" because of its great restaurants. It is on the water and has a scenic harbour, and great seafood [you can buy Kinsale scallops here in supermarkets in Boston, which says something when you consider the great seafood here]. Kinsale also has great friendly guesthouses. Memorably, when I was first there in 2001, one guest house was full and the owner phoned around to get us a reservation in another one. That's Cork friendliness.
In March we was back in Cork, I took this photo of the moon over Kinsale at night.
If you leave Dublin early, stop for photos a couple of times, get food in Youghal or Ballymaloe, then you also should be in Kinsale in the evening, in time to get some great seafood in one of the restaurants there.
If you're looking for a place to stay outside of Kinsale, not in the town itself, then there are some great farm guesthouses in the area. We stayed at one about 8 miles from Kinsale, and woke up to watch the cows being milked, and to visit the calf shed:
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