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Ring of Kerry (Kenmare to Dingle) drive. Safe? Will family get "wigged out"?

Hello RS friends,

My family will be traveling in a 7-seat SUV vehicle (self-driven) clockwise around the Ring of Kerry in early November. I have allotted an entire day to drive from Kenmare to Dingle (leaving from Kenmare around 8:30 AM), and we will not be in a hurry. I plan to include driving thru Portmagee and Valentia Island. (The RS guidebook indicates this should help avoid tourist buses traveling counter-clockwise.)

My wife has a significant fear of heights, and I hear of people losing side mirrors, and rather sharp (blind?) turns. Should I have concerns? Do you have driving tips when in a tight area with a wide vehicle approaching?

I'd appreciate your candid thoughts on this! I have watched some You-Tube videos, and what I've watched looks doable... however, I am concerned that the road may be too narrow and scary for some members of my family, and I don't want them to get "wigged out" on our vacation. I, of course, want it to be a safe journey.

(FYI: We will be staying several nights in Dingle, and also plan to drive the Slea Head Loop Drive while there.)

Please share your candid thoughts. Many thanks,

Posted by
6570 posts

If you're a reasonably good driver and can handle driving on the left side of the road, you should not have too much problems on main roads. But you have to watch closely because some bridges are one lane, even on more major 2 lane highways.
When you get on the back roads, travel can get more difficult. The region's roads are narrow with either deep ditches, hedges or rock walls coming right up to the road. Back roads are often crooked, hilly and not especially well paved for a modern country.
But if you want to see the most scenic sights, self driving is the only way to go.

Posted by
5011 posts

Of course it's doable. It does require some skill. I found it tiring and somewhat stressful (especially after many hours), but ya gotta do it so suck it up and get 'er done. Some tips based on recent experience on these very roads...

The driver needs to be on his/her "A Game". All the time. Don't drive when you're exhausted, grumpy, not feeling up to giving the task all of your attention. It really requires a lot of concentration, and while that may sound easy (and it may be, for a few minutes), maintaining that degree of focus and concentration for hours and hours does take its toll on you. Stay VERY alert. Give yourself breaks. Offload all non-critical tasks, to...

You need a left-seat copilot. The person sitting beside you is NOT a passenger. They play a vital support role and they need to take their role very seriously - like, deadly seriously (think: head-on collision at high speed serious). Your copilot needs to handle all non-driving tasks - everything other than what you need to do with your hands and feet to drive the car. That includes navigation (GPS and map, physically pointing to and calling out every turn, referencing signs, providing you with advance warning of everything coming up, double-checking the driver clearly understands, etc). They need to help you navigate all the roundabouts. They should regularly (maybe constantly) remind you to "drive on the LEFT" (especially after making a turn or doing anything other than just driving straight ahead). They should be scanning the road ahead on narrow roads, warning you of any oncoming wide vehicles (farm tractors, trucks, and yes, tour buses). They also should give you frequent "spacing checks" - giving you feedback on how close to that stone fence at the roadside you are, how well you are centered in your lane, and general encouragement. They should check on the driver frequently - are you OK, need a drink of water (done very carefully if at all), need anything else? The copilot job is critical and they will be as busy as the driver.

I did all the driving on a recent trip and after one particularly long day in the saddle (started in Galway, drove through The Burren, the Cliffs of Moher, all the way to Dingle), I was completely wrung out and wasted. I did it safely and carefully (I've done a lot of driving overseas, including plenty of "opposite side of the road" driving) but when I finally peeled myself out of that car in Dingle, I was so glad to be there I nearly kissed the ground (so did my copilot spouse). And this was in a very small car. Honestly, I wouldn't want to do the same drive in a 7-seat need to be super super careful.

Start very, very cautiously. The first 15 minutes of driving in any foreign country are the most dangerous (and terrifying). Ease into it. Stay sharp and demand help from your copilot, and be sure someone else keeps everyone else in the car under control to minimize distractions. They are not allowed to get "wigged out". If anyone starts to get "wigged out" then you should stop and let them get out and walk the rest of the way (because noise and distractions from the back seat could get all of you killed). Everyone with skin in the game (anyone in the car) needs to be on-board with the plan, understand the stakes and cooperate. It's serious stuff.

Good luck!

Posted by
5011 posts

BTW, Kenmare to Dingle isn't nearly as long as the Galway-to-Dingle stretch I did...but you will want to do many more stops than we did, so it's still going to be a long day in the car. Start early. Take lots of breaks.

Posted by
576 posts

I will echo both Davids's responses. David's (I don't remember which one), advice to have a front seat co-pilot is particularly right on. I have been the left-seat navigator on multiple trips. I always have a paper map (or downloaded map) in my hands and we have a GPS on the dash. Although I do not recall any particularly harrowing turns or heights on the main ROK, if your wife is nervous she should not be the front seat co-pilot. Hopefully there will be someone else with navigational skills who can assist. The other role of the co-pilot, especially early on during your trip, is to remind you not to over compensate when driving on the left side. I would usually say something like "one click to the right" if my husband was getting too far in the left lane. An experienced driver sitting in the left seat will also have a "feeling" of where the car should be in the lane and can help the driver stay there.

Other tips: If you miss your exit in a roundabout don't panic. Go around as many times as necessary. Irish drivers are very courteous and will pull over and direct you when needed - the tour bus drivers are particularly good at that. If you have a few days before renting your car, take a taxi or two and ask to sit in the front - it will help accustom you to being on the wrong side of the road. On a multi-lane divided highway slow traffic is in the left lane. You pass on the right. Mileage to next exit signs read from the bottom up, not top down. In other words, the next exit is on the bottom of the sign, not at the top. Early on in the trip, if you are on an empty road with bumps in the lane markings line your tires up on the bumps and see how that lines up with your car windshield. That will help give you a heads up visual of where the car should be. Finally, Don't panic. You'll be fine and you will have a wonderful trip.

Posted by
3554 posts

I haven't driven in the UK or Ireland. I've only been a front seat passenger with UK residents. The only thing that felt really odd was making right turns across traffic. Traffic circles weren't an issue.

I'm not at all familiar with this route, but it appears from the maps of the drive that going clockwise will sometimes bring you close to the water.

Wouldn't that put the passengers on the left side of the vehicle closest to any dropoffs since you are driving on the left side of the road? And wouldn't you encounter the buses from the front, perhaps in situations where you or they will have to make way for the other?

Posted by
1970 posts

First of all, there are no "heights" worthy of the name along your proposed route so you can cross that one off your list of things to worry about.
If you're ever concerned about clearance/safety issues when encountering opposing traffic on any of the rural roads simply slow down (to a full stop if necessary) and look for a designated pullout to let the other vehicle pass. If it's a bus, look at the driver who will be directing you to permit both vehicles to pass safely - they deal with this sort of thing all the time and are very patient with visitors ... it's really not that big a deal.
The route you propose to drive is quite safe, even (and especially) the Skellig Ring up to Portmagee and the roads on Valentia Island all the way to the ferry.
You can preview any section of the road that concerns you by looking at the street view feature on Google maps - helps to have seen road conditions, signage,turns,etc in advance. Someone here a while back suggested YouTube videos as a way to help get your bearings and put your mind at ease, which I think is a great idea.

Posted by
1878 posts

It’s nowhere near as hard to drive in this area as you fear. I drove in Ireland in 2003 (including the Ring of Kerry) and 2016 (including Dingle peninsula). I don’t recall anywhere we drove having big drop offs or the famous tight tolerances that will take your mirror off. There was some unexpected damage on the underside of the bumper, not significant enough they would even bother to fix it, that may or may not have happened on my watch. Get the super CDW. A navigator is a good idea. I will say though with a big SUV your experience may differ. That said, big buses drive this route.

Posted by
26010 posts

They should regularly (maybe constantly) remind you to "drive on the right"

I hope not

Posted by
5011 posts

Old habits die hard, no? :)

Right-side-ism is deeply engrained in some of us...


Posted by
272 posts

I would find out when sunset is and plan accordingly. While the driving is very doable I would prefer to do it in the daylight. And in November I'm guessing it could be dark by 5:00 pm.

Posted by
56 posts

Thanks everyone - terrific feedback!

Robert, I especially value your comment about using "street view" within Google Maps. I have routed us on almost exclusive travel on two-lane roads. While there will naturally some single lane roads for shorter stretches, I found all of them to be in good condition. Two of us will alternate driving duties, with a dedicated navigator. I know we will miss some turns (many are rather poorly marked, however as you suggested, studying key turnoffs using "street view" will help the three of us to notice key landmarks. Plus driving in November will be slow season, and I anticipate we will see much less traffic.

I REALLY appreciate everyone's recommendations... we are taking each recommendation to heart. I am convinced that we are in great shape!!!

Happy travels,

Posted by
9 posts

Hi, Ron,
I just returned from a trip to Ireland where I had to drive alone for a week. I arranged to take a 1 1/2 hour driving lesson when I arrived in Dublin to increase my safety and decrease my anxiety. I knew the lesson would be helpful, but it totally changed my trip experience. My instructor customized my lesson, giving me practice in the specific kinds of roads I'd be encountering and, at my request, did the lesson in my European rental car which had different features than American cars. He gave me valuable tips that I hadn't read anywhere (even though I read many on-line "lessons"). He even gave me his mobile number to phone during my trip, in case I had questions (which I did!) If you're flying into Dublin, I cannot more highly recommend Alan O'Connor of Southside Driving School as an instructor. His cost was very reasonable and he couldn't have been more professional, skilled and helpful. (If you do this, be sure to get a fully certified driving instructor with plenty of positive reviews.)

Posted by
6 posts

Ron - we got back from 2 plus weeks in Ireland just a few days ago. My husband and friend did most of the driving so I can't speak to that but I was navigator most of the time. A paper map and a GPS and even a phone with data service are really really helpful. We found the GPS sometimes sent us strange directions or couldn't find the detail we needed.
My husband would tell you that being well rested, taking breaks to get out and walk around the small towns (or if you are in Sneem to get ice cream) are helpful.
At this time of year I'm not sure it matters which way you drive Kerry there isn't much traffic. We went counterclock wise. Self driving you get to do the Kerry cliffs which you can't see on a bus AND which are probably one of the more memorable sites. The weather will determine how much you actually see and how interesting it will be to your passengers. We had a driver to do Kerry in a van similar in size to yours because of all the stories we had heard. It was a long day just to do the drive so would plan it taking twice as long as the 3.5 hours of driving the maps tell you.
Will you go through Killarney and the national park? That was some of the prettiest portions we thought but we were based in Killarney. Honestly - Slea head Loop was more scenic.

You will love Ireland! Julie

Posted by
56 posts

Thanks Julie.

We are taking a train from Dublin to Killarney, so will be driving through the National park on our way to Kenmare. Did you have cell reception while driving Ring-of-Kerry, and up the west coast?

Posted by
11266 posts

luckyirish - thanks for that great tip, of taking a driving lesson from a local driving instructor!

Posted by
1800 posts

Totally agree with David!!

The driving isn't scary due to heights, it's more about the narrow roads and a "very intense" driving experience since there is little room for error: walls or dense hedges on one side and oncoming traffic on the other (I'm talking rural roads, not highways) It was honestly exhausting for the driver. But, you can do it! Just be very rested and very careful. Also, what looks like a 3 hour drive could take you 5! On our next visit I will cut those driving times down between destinations.

If you are only driving from Kenmare to Dingle, and then in/ around Dingle it wont be bad. It's the day after day after day driving those roads that make it super exhausting. Just take it slow, be alert!

Posted by
754 posts

Is it any worse than driving through the single lane roads in Cornwall England for anyone who has done both ??? We did lots of single lane and tight roads in Cornwall in a 7 passenger van..... wondering if the experience will be better, worse or about the same.

Posted by
65 posts

David's advice is spot on. We used the copilot system and before arriving, came up with a simple single code word for same to alert the driver when starting to drift over to the "right" side of the road: "Drifting". That eliminated potential for insult and squabbling. LOL and it worked!

Driving the Ring of Kerry road was a hair raiser, especially on the hairpin curves with buses in the oncoming lane. Tip: do not look down at the steep drop off the narrow shoulder of the road! I won't tell you they are straight up and down and possibly a one mile drop. Nope. You didn't hear that from me. :-)

Posted by
16 posts

Went this past summer with our family in an suv. We drove around on the west coast area, Galway , Adare, Shannon. As others have said it’s not heights from what I personally felt as much as roads are more narrow then we are used to with many blind curves. Husband drove, I watch the gps and navigated and tried to give him heads up on stuff watching for signs he might miss. You definitely should have someone in front helping navigate and giving info to driver bc they are busy focusing on road esp with the switch of sides . This was his first time driving on opposite side. We got used to it pretty quickly. I am a scary cat in general and I was ok on the roads as passenger but I’m being honest there are times you feel like trucks are coming at you awfully close. We personally choose not to drive at night and did all driving before dark or if we went back out close to hotel used taxi. It is also dark there, in comparison to home. Again we just aren’t used to it. But rally you will be fine. Just take your time. I think rental cars are marked well and honestly I felt Irish drivers were nice, we took our time nobody gave us a hard time. Good luck

Posted by
453 posts

Ron here is great alternative, trust me. Take a day off of driving and hire Paul Brown for a private tour of the ring. Paul is a great guy and will provide great insights and highlights on the tour. I loved the challenge of driving on the left but this drive is one to be enjoyed from the passengers seat! Paul will pick you up and drop you at your B&B, ours was in Kenmare for that portion of the trip. He has a great van that would easily hold your group and provide excellent viewing for all riders. He will take you to spots you would not know to visit or would be hesitant to attempt. Paul will ask what special interests you may have and will alter the tour if there is something you are especially interested in. The tours are not especially cheap but our tour was one of the highlights of our wont regret spending the extra cash and taking a day off from behind the wheel. Paul even helped us plan our next days self drive of the Beara Peninsula, a great drive too.

Posted by
479 posts

I started to prepare a reply involving driving tips and our experience driving in Ireland -- then I noticed "7-seat SUV" in your question. Under those circumstances, at least on ROK and Slea Head, a professional such as Mr. Brown would make sense. (We booked him in 2018 for an interior ROK day-trip, but had to cancel due to a medical issue; we regret missing that opportunity -- he is highly regarded by experienced Forum contributors.)

The other advantage of a professional driver on the more exciting drives is that YOUR designated driver gets to enjoy the scenery vs. clutching the steering wheel. If it's in the budget, engage Mr. Brown or another professional. If not, just take it easy and relax -- on-coming tour bus drivers will frequently be offering you directions with hand-signals from their elevated perch. Better to establish eye-contact with him/her and focus on their suggestions than to look at the stone wall or drop-off in your mirror or out your window. You'll be fine.