If you’re looking for a nature-based day out in West Cork, a visit to Garnish Island is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. The island is packed with exotic plants, towering trees, and incredible viewpoints – all just a short ferry ride Glengarriff.
How to get to Garnish Island
The journey is definitely part of the experience. To get out to the island, you need to take a short ferry ride across the harbour. Boats leave from Glengarriff Pier, the Blue Pool, and Ellen’s Rock. But along the way, seals pop their heads out the water, while more lounge on a cluster of rocks known as Seal’s Island. These Harbour Seals are part of a large colony and watching them swim and bask on their craggy island is a highlight of any trip to Garnish.
Ireland isn’t exactly known for having balmy weather. But Garnish Island has an almost sub-tropical climate, thanks to its sheltered location and the influence of the Gulf Stream. This micro-climate allows exotic plants to flourish and it’s part of what makes Garnish so unique.
There’s a lot to explore on the island, so stopping for coffee at the small café before heading off is completely justifiable. After that, just choose a path and let yourself get lost for a while. When you reach Martello Tower, climb the steep stone steps. From the platform at the top of the steps, there are views of Bantry Bay and the mountains beyond.
The Italian Garden is a highlight of Garnish. Featuring a traditional tea-house (casita), an Italian temple, and a formal pool, the Italian Gardens overflow with bright, fragrant flowers. It’s no surprise that this is the most photographed spot on the island and it’s usually the busiest. But if you get tired of dodging other visitors, walk to the end of the garden, where the views of the sea are always serene.
History of Garnish Island
The island’s transformation began in 1910. John Annan Bryce bought Garnish when it was just a barren rock covered in furze and heather. At the time, the only dominating feature was the British Army’s Martello Tower. But with the help of Harold Peto, architect and garden designer, John planned and developed extensive gardens. It took over 100 men about four years to move soil and to create paths, a walled garden, a clock tower, and the lush Italian garden.
Things didn’t go entirely smoothly and bad weather damaged a lot of the initial planting. But Murdo Mackenzie, a Scottish gardener, was the man who turned it all around. By planting shelter belts of pine trees, he protected the gardens and enabled exotic plants to thrive. In 1953, the Bryce family donated the island to the state but Makenzie remained in charge until his retirement in 1971.
Glengarriff is a lovely place to stop after a visit to Garnish Island. Nicknamed the ‘Natural Meeting Place’, this colourful little town is surrounded by rolling hills and woodland. Head to the Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve and explore the trails. The mature oak woodland is crisscrossed by winding paths, so there’s a variety of walks to do. The Waterfall Trail leads to small, but beautiful, cascades and Lady Banty’s Lookout offers views of the Bay and the Caha Mountains.
Planning a visit?
- The Garnish Island ferry includes three main boat services: The Harbour Queen leaves from Glengarriff Pier, Blue Pool Ferry departs from the Blue Pool in Glengarriff, and Ellen’s Rock Boat Service operates from a small pier at Ellen’s Rock.
- There are a number of cosy B&Bs and hotels in the Glengarriff area, such as the Glengarriff Park Hotel and Casey’s Hotel.
- Driving to Glengarriff from Cork City takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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