Ireland is an easy country to travel by car. You can get from one end to the other in a day, and in a week, you can visit every tourist highlight. But to experience the tranquility, the undeveloped countryside, the very Irishness of Ireland, you have to do what the natives do--get on a bike.
My own six days of two-wheeling through West Cork enabled me to muck about on idyllic back roads and inspect sights, villages, and charming pubs that I might have whizzed by in a car. And I did it without having to fit my schedule to an expensive tour, drag my own bicycle over from the U.S., or be in training for the Tour de France.
RING OF KERRY. That's because Ireland can accommodate any level of cyclist and any itinerary, thanks to the Raleigh Rent-A-Bike network. This chain of 70 bicycle shops allows you to rent a touring bike in one town and drop it off in another. The cost is $10.50 (7 Irish punts) a day, $18 for the drop charge, and a $60 deposit. Raleigh has a brochure listing all the shops, or call its headquarters in Dublin (011-353-1-626-1333).
I picked up my 18-speed bike and double saddlebags at the Kilgrew Cycle Repair in Cork. My guide was an Irish Ordnance Survey map of County Cork that shows every lane and footpath in the region. Another useful map is the Irish Tourist Board's Cycling Ireland guide, which details 23 routes to take around the country.
I chose West Cork for its mild weather, lovely seacoast, and relatively few hills. My ultimate destination was Killarney, at the tip of the Ring of Kerry, but I could have dropped the bike off at any Raleigh shop along the way. A very casual cyclist, I averaged about 45 miles a day without trouble, taking back roads most of the time, but could have done the same route in fewer miles if I had stayed on main roads.
County Cork turned out to be a great choice. Ireland's gentle west coast is remarkably beautiful, and it's warm--the Gulf Stream caresses the shore, creating a balmy climate where palm trees thrive. I was traveling in October and came well-prepared for the rain Ireland is famous for. But most of the showers were light and short-lived. And, happily, there's usually a friendly pub nearby to revive you with a pint of Guinness if you'd rather wait out the weather.
Irish hospitality is particularly evident when you're on a bike. I stayed at bed-and-breakfasts along the way, chosen from another guide provided by the Irish Tourist Board. Most of the B&Bs cost $18 to $27 a night, including the filling hot breakfast that is critical for a good day of cycling. Tottering in at the end of the day, I was invariably greeted with a cup of tea and admiration for my cycling heroics, making me feel far more competent than warranted. I came across few other cyclists along the way, since I was traveling late in the season, but was told that in the summer the roads are teeming with tourists on bikes.
I did stay at one luxury hotel after a wet and grueling ride--the elegant Park Hotel in Kenmare--and found the experience more than worth the $90 tariff. Despite my muddy and bedraggled state, the staff rushed out to greet me in a pouring rain and ushered me to a lovely room with considerable solicitude. That night at dinner I was the center of attention, as waiters asked about my trip and regaled me with cycling stories of their own.
Ireland is a casual country, so the saddlebags I rented were more than adequate for the small amount of clothing I needed. Don't bring a sweater--there are too many beautiful chunky knit ones for sale, at about half the price of similar designs in the U.S. You might want to take a cycling helmet, however. My shop didn't rent them, and they are not commonly used in Ireland. The cycling was safe, though--there was little traffic, even on the main roads, and cars gave me a wide berth.
If arranging your own itinerary seems daunting, there are plenty of organized tours. Irish Cycling Safaris in Dublin, for example, runs weeklong trips for groups of 6 to 20 from May through September (011-353-1-260-0749). They provide bikes, make the lodging arrangements, and transport your gear for you. Plenty of tours also leave from the U.S. and include airfare, with prices usually around $1,800 for a week.
Whether you do it yourself or rely on a tour operator, you should definitely try a cycling adventure. If nothing else, the exercise will eliminate any guilt you might feel over those extra pints of Guinness.