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The Lonely Planet journey: Ring of Kerry

The coast around Killarney is so striking that it even stops the locals in their tracks.

Of Ireland's three big loop drives (Ring of Kerry, Dingle Peninsula and Beara Peninsula), the Ring of Kerry is the longest and the most diverse. It combines jaw-dropping coastal scenery with more mundane stretches that are simply emerald green and sort of blissful. The circuit of the Iveragh Peninsula winds past pristine beaches, the island-dotted Atlantic Ocean, medieval ruins, mountains and loughs (lakes). Even locals stop their cars to gawp at the rugged coastline. And for many, the Ring is simply music to their ears as pubs with folk music sessions dot the villages.

The road begins in the town of Killarney, its studied tweeness set in the middle of the sublime scenery of its namesake national park – the first national park in Ireland, established 80 years ago. From here (heading clockwise), the vista-crazy road to Kenmare winds between rock and lake, the land growing more rugged as you head west. Rocks pepper the scenery and, with level ground at a premium, even the tiniest flat spots are used to grow potatoes and other crops.

The coast around Derrynane is magnificent, but is just the start of the Ring's true beauty spot. From here, the road climbs 200m to Coomakista Pass, and the views over Derrynane National Historic Park (whose oak woods surround Derrynane House, home of "the Great Liberator" Daniel O'Connell), the harbour and islands are magnificent – even heavenly, if the Madonna statue atop the pass is any indication.

Through Waterville, the road crosses to the shores of Dingle Bay, and along the foot of the Macgillycuddy's Reeks, as it turns back on itself towards Killarney, re-entering town as you left it: beside the peaty waters of glacial Lough Leane.

The journey today

To be honest, you could easily just stay a few more days in Caherdaniel: it's about as idyllically Irish as you can get. Last night, impromptu trad music flowed from the Blind Piper pub, and you may have had just one pint too many. The car's engine is as sluggish as your head as you motor out of town, grinding up to Coomakista Pass. The wind does what it usually does on Ireland's west coast – it's blowing like the Banshee – and below the stone wall and the Madonna, the peninsula slopes down into a foaming, furious ocean. You know that you're looking at a true natural beauty.

To the north is the wide bite of Ballinskelligs Bay and soon you are on its shores, crossing the outlet of Lough Currane into Waterville. It's a true seaside town – a little charm-challenged. But you've come to see the violent coast, so you drive on to Cahersiveen, once home to 30,000 before the 19th century famines. Today, the population is less than 5 per cent of that, and the town exudes a rawness not found elsewhere on this peninsula.

Further along, you can stop at Rosbeigh Strand, a tendril of sand protruding into Dingle Bay. You can wander along the strand's edges, switching from side to side. On the Atlantic side the wind whips the ocean ashore, but on the eastern side it's like a lagoon. And ahead, across the bay, is the inviting Dingle Peninsula.

The shortcut

The Ring can be driven in a day, but if you need a shorter route, the 14km section between Waterville and Caherdaniel has the highest wow value. It crosses between the area's main seaside resort (Waterville) and a settlement that barely qualifies as a hamlet (Caherdaniel), climbing above Ballinskelligs and Derrynane Bays.

This is an extract from 'Great Journeys', published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). Readers can buy a copy for £25, including UK P&P, by going to shop.lonelyplanet.com and using the code INDEPENDENT.

Essential experiences

* Brave the seas on a boat crossing to Skellig Michael – Ireland's own Mont St Michel – said by George Bernard Shaw to be "the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world".

* Play on the beach at Waterville, with its colourful houses strung along the N72.

* Take a hike in quest of Ireland's highest peak, Carrantuohill, in the Macgillycuddy's Reeks.

* Kick back during a traditional music session in one of the Ring's many pubs.

* Purchase some Kenmare lace, a famous folk craft taught by the nuns at Poor Clare Convent in Kenmare.