Can you virtually tour Ireland? I am — and here’s how it’s going

In southwest Ireland, there’s a circular scenic drive that contours the Iveragh Peninsula, weaving through lush coastal landscapes and itty bitty rural seaside villages. It’s called the Ring of Kerry, and it’s an iconic trek in Ireland — an open secret boasting some incredible vistas and glimpses of diverse wildlife. Tourists from around the world flock here for those views. The cliffs. The rivers. The waterfalls. All unspoiled. There are other sites, too, like centuries-old monasteries, castles and ancient stone formations. And of course, lots of cozy pubs to punctuate the day. Those who visit the Ring of Kerry often explore the 110-mile stretch by car. There’s a thrill to that, I’m sure. We, however, are traipsing through it by foot — virtually, of course. 

After going through somewhat of a slump in our exercise routine, the idea of doing a virtual challenge that promised a taste of travel, a dash of history and that sweet, sweet feeling of accomplishment once you’re done felt like something that could get us off our butts and on the trail. Here’s how it works: I signed up for the challenge via The Conqueror’s app (for a fee of $30), and after entering basic information about myself, my avatar was created. The app gives you the option to either link up your fitness device (or another app that tracks your mileage) or enter your walks manually. I did the latter, mainly because I didn’t want my “non-challenge” strolls, like my morning dog walks, to count toward my mileage. 

Next, we were off to Ireland! Anton and I kicked off our first walking trip in Ventura, through the Harmon Canyon Preserve. It was one of those days that started out cold. I was bundled up in layers, sealed in a fleece-lined, goose-down puffer. Slowly, as we walked deeper and deeper into the canyon — past stream crossings and enormous oak trees with their blackened trunks — the layers started coming off. I’m not sure if the sun had a change of heart or if our fast-paced walk was getting my blood pumping, but I was warming up real fast. The trail was also heavily trafficked at the start, and the crowds quickly died down. At one point, it was almost like we had the entire canyon to ourselves.

Virtually, our journey began in Killarney, a lively tourist destination on the edge of Killarney National Park (Ireland’s first park). The place has been drawing tourists since the 18th century — yes, you heard that right! And it’s popular for good reason. The town itself isn’t short on charm and some fantastic places to visit, like the 19th-century St. Mary’s Cathedral and the 15th-century Ross Castle. Horse-carriage rides are also quite popular, so much so that the clip-clop of hooves is a soundtrack most visitors won’t miss. I say this like I’ve been there, but really, based on my research, this really seems like a place to slip into that lost-in-time state of mind. And I try to, even if it’s just through reading other people’s reviews and perusing photographs. 

We clocked in close-to three miles that day — not too shabby for our first day in virtual Ireland — and celebrated our small achievement with a cold pint and a plate of tacos from our favorite food truck in Ventura. (Looking at you, Game Over catering and Topa Topa!) As soon as we got home that day, we punched in our miles and watched our avatars slide forward past other travelers. The street view showed us standing on a two-lane road flanked by greenery. It looked sunny in Ireland, just like here. “This could totally be California,” I told Anton. “It could be anywhere in the U.S.” Over time, however, the scenery began to change. An 80 kilometers per hour speed limit sign immediately hinted that we were abroad. Then there were the houses we passed by, ones that looked every so slightly different than anything you’d see here. A mountain range appeared on the horizon. Little details tipped us off to the fact that we weren’t at home. 

After work, close-to three times a week, Anton and I drive down to Mentryville Park, where a (seemingly never-ending) trail weaves through the historic ghost town. We walk till the sun dips too low and my twilight vision gets worse. We walk for over an hour, and since the internet drops out for most of our hike, we use that time to talk — and even more importantly, listen. It might seem like such a simple thing, and I don’t blame you for thinking, “Well, why don’t you talk more at home?” And we do. 

But think about it. When was the last time you dedicated a whole hour to conversation? Just conversation — no pings to distract you, no TV to cause your thoughts to branch out, no timer going off to remind you to take your dinner out of the oven. There’s also another factor, too. It turns out, the closer we are with someone, the less likely we are to really listen to them. This, according to the NY Times, is because “there’s an unconscious tendency to tune out people you feel close to because you think you already know what they are going to say.” 

Of course, this became even more true during the pandemic. We’re spending more time together at home. We’re working in the same spaces. We’re eating in the same kitchen, quite possibly the same meal. What is there to talk about? We are there, watching each others’ days play out in real time. But even though that’s partly true, the reality is: We’re still always changing. “The sum of daily interactions and activities continually shapes us, so none of us are the same as we were last month, last week or even yesterday,” Kate Murphy wrote for the NY Times. 

So, yes, we talk and we listen and we walk. A few weekends ago, we drove out to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, a stretch of rolling hills on the west side of Antelope Valley that bursts in shades of tangerine around this time of year. Or so the legend goes. We’ve never seen the poppies (aka, the California state flower) in bloom. This year, with the lack of rain, the field was barren and dry. A fierce wind lashed through. So strong that when it crept up from behind us, it nudged us forward like sailboats. On the way back, it made walking upright a challenge. Along the ridge lines of the hills, which get even more wind, it was hard just to stand in place. We didn’t do much talking then — the wind did all the blabbering. 

Along the Ring of Kerry, this got us past the coastal town of Kenmare. The Irish name for the town is “Neidin,” which I read translates to “little nest,” given that it’s nestled between mountains — Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and Caha mountains. I took some time to look at pictures of the town, which looks like a crayon-colored set on a gloomy day. It’s cloudy and moody, but I’m smitten. Good weather, I read, is a “rarity” in Kenmare. The day we virtually walked through the town, it was a brisk 55-degree afternoon. Perhaps not as windy as Antelope Valley. God, I hope not. That wind was something else.

The weekend after that, we meandered through the California Botanic Gardens. The weekend after that, we were back to Harmon Canyon, pushing ourselves to clock in 20,000 steps for the day. Every time we step outside, we walk virtually through an ever-changing landscape in Ireland. Just a few days ago, we meandered through a village called Sneem. It was hot in California, but pouring in Sneem. (I love the name, by the way. Sneem, sneem, sneem). Tripadvisor told me a blueberry farm is one of the top attractions in Sneem, and The Village Kitchen is a great spot to grab a bite. There was a picture of a burger, a basket of fries and a pint of the “black stuff” on the cover. I was sold right away. 

When reading about these places, I often wonder what it would be like to actually visit them. A part of what makes travelling exciting is the research hours you put in. The preparation. The anticipation. The waiting. All the information you have to soak in before you even board your plane. Doing this virtual challenge gives us a taste of that. It won’t be long till we can actually physically travel. Just last weekend, I hit a new milestone in my life. I received my first shot of the Covid-19 vaccine (a leftover dose that our local Walgreens was about to toss out at the end of the day). We’ve still got a long way to go, both along the Ring of Kerry and in life, but we’re inching closer, one mile at a time.