The beautiful Garnish Island is one of my favourite places to visit in Cork.
The incredibly whimsical and tranquil gardens of Garnish Island in Cork are a popular place to head on the Beara Peninsula.
The 37-acre island is located in the small harbour of Glengarriff and is often referred to as Ilnacullin or Illaunacullin (Island of Holly).
Its famous gardens are what attracts the crowds, with a richness of plant variety and colours that change with the seasons.
In the guide below, you’ll find info on everything from the Garnish Island Ferry to what there is to see on the island itself.
Some quick need-to-knows about Garnish Island
A visit to Garnish Island isn’t as straightforward as some of the other attractions on the Ring of Beara route, but it’s still handy enough to get to.
Below, you’ll find some quick need-to-knows (note from the editor: I was here last year and the ferry we took didn’t accept card, so make sure to have cash handy).
Garnish Island is located in the sheltered waters of Glengarriff Harbour in Bantry Bay on the Beara Peninsula in County Cork. It’s not to be confused with another nearby island garden in County Kerry also called Garnish.
2. Getting there
The island is accessed by a ferry service from Glengarriff, with three different operators available. The short boat trips usually include a side trip to the nearby seal colony on the way. There’s more info on the Garnish Island ferry below.
Admission to Garnish Island costs €5 per adult and €3 per child. Families can get a combined ticket for €13. This is separate to the cost of the ferry and must be paid in cash (note: prices may change).
4. Opening hours
The island’s opening hours vary depending on the month. For April and May and again in September and October, it’s open daily from 10am to 5.30pm.
In June, it’s open daily from 10am to 5.30pm and until 6pm on Saturdays. In July and August, the island is open daily from 9.30am to 5.30pm and until 6pm on Saturdays.
The island is closed from November until March (note: the opening hours for Garnish Island may change, so check in advance).
5. Credit cards
Credit cards are not accepted on the island, so you’ll need to carry some cash with you for the admission fee and for the café on the island.
The Garnish Island Ferry
Taking a Garnish Island ferry is fairly straightforward, once you’ve booked in advance. There are three main ferry providers servicing Garnish Island from Glengarriff.
The Blue Pool Ferry leaves from the Blue Pool Amenity Area which is next door to Quills Woollen Market in the middle of town. They have departures every 30 minutes during the entire season from April until October. Tickets are €10 per person.
The Harbour Queen Ferry leaves from the main pier opposite the Eccles Hotel. These waterbuses depart every 30 minutes (quarter past and quarter to the hour) from April until October. Tickets are €12.50 per person.
Ellen’s Rock Boat Service leaves from Ellen’s Rock about a mile outside of Glengarriff on the Castletownbere Road. Kevin O’Sullivan operates an open-air boat with varying departure times depending on numbers.
A brief history of Garnish Island
The gardens on the island were designed by architect Harold Peto for the owner, John Annan Bryce who purchased the island from the War Office in 1910.
After Annan’s death in 1923, the development of the gardens was continued by his wife, Violet. In 1932, their son, Rowland took over the work and added plants from all over the world with the assistance of Murdo Mackenzie, a Scottish gardener.
When Rowland passed away, the island was donated to the Irish nation in 1953 and it has been looked after by the Office of Public Works ever since. However, Mackenzie continued to look after the garden until his retirement in 1971.
Peto was originally commissioned to design a mansion for the island incorporating the historic Martello Tower.
However, it was never built, with an extensive cottage built instead as the Bryce’s home. The family welcomed famous writers and poets to stay on the island with the beautiful surroundings offering much inspiration.
Things to see and do on the island
There’s a handful of things to do on Garnish Island (and one very unique attraction visible on the ferry ride over).
Below, you’ll find everything for seals and the gardens to views, the tower and more. Dive on in!
1. See the seals on the way over
The Garnish Island ferry and boat rides on the way over to the island include a side trip to Seal Island to see the large colony in the harbour.
The seal colony is comprised of around 250 seals who are quite used to the ferry boats and happy to bask on the rocks while you head over to observe them closely.
2. Explore the gardens
The Garnish Island gardens are an incredible patchwork of plants from around the world. The unique location of the island produces a microclimate which allows for exotic species to flourish.
There is a number of paths around the garden and to the Martello Tower which are outlined in a detailed map that you receive on arrival.
The Italian Garden is often considered the most outstanding part of the island and includes an Italian teahouse with colonnades, a pool and pavilion. For most visitors, a wander around the whole island takes up to 90 minutes.
3. Soak up the views from the Martello Tower
The Martello Tower is one of the original features of the island and dates back to 1805. It’s located on the northwest side of the island and is accessed by one of the garden paths.
The straight and cylindrical tower can be climbed to enjoy an incredible view over the gardens and island.
4. Ramble through the walled garden
The walled garden is particularly magical and is located almost in the centre of the garden complex. It’s a short walk to here from where the ferry drops you off.
It’s a beautifully manicured section with the plants crawling over the stone walls. There is also a clock tower adjacent to the walled garden which is worth seeing as well.
What to do near Garnish Island
One of the beauties of Garnish Island is that it’s a short spin away from a clatter of other attractions, both man-made and natural.
Below, you’ll find a handful of things to see and do a stone’s throw from Garnish Island (plus places to eat and where to grab a post-adventure pint!).
1. Glengarriff Nature Reserve
Glengarriff Nature Reserve is located near Glengarriff village and the perfect place to explore after a trip to Garnish Island. The huge reserve covers an impressive 300 hectares of old oak and young woodland.
There are a number of walking trails inside the park area to explore the forest, including the challenging climb up to Lady Bantry’s Lookout. There are plenty of other things to do in Glengarriff, too.
2. The Beara Peninsula
The driving route circles along the coast of the peninsula to Glengarriff from where Garnish Island is a popular place to explore as a side trip.
3. Healy Pass
Healy Pass is a shortcut route on the Ring of Beara scenic drive. It crosses the Beara Peninsula and the Caha Mountains from Lauragh to Adrigole. The hairpin bends of the road offer incredible views over the mountains and sea.
4. Whiddy Island
Whiddy Island is an island near the head of Bantry Bay off the coast of West Cork. Similarly to Garnish Island, it requires just a short ferry ride across from Bantry town and is a great place to head for a day trip.
The island is known as a wildlife haven with bird watchers and nature lovers flocking to the island to enjoy the tranquil and untouched wilderness.
5. Bantry House
Bantry House is a historic house and gardens estate overlooking Bantry Bay. The ancestral home of the Earls of Bantry, it’s a stunning stately home and is open for visitors from April until October.
The home is still owned and lived in by the descendants of the 1st Earl of Bantry, but it’s been open to the public since 1946. There are several other things to do in Bantry when you’re finished.
FAQs about visiting Garnish Island in Cork
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from where to get the Garnish Island ferry to whether it’s really worth visiting.
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
Is Garnish Island worth visiting?
Yes. Garnish Island is well worth a visit. Although, personally, I wouldn’t spend a long time on the island itself, the journey over, seeing the seals and stroll around the island is very enjoyable.
Where do you get the Garnish Island ferry from?
You can get the Garnish Island ferry from Glengarriff village. Make sure to get your ticket in advance if you’re visiting during the summer months and bring cash.
What is there to see on Garnish Island?
You’ll see the seals on the way over and then you can explore the gardens, soak up the views from the tower and kick-back with a coffee.
Elisha is a freelance writer, content creator and blogger and her work can be read in Lonely Planet, Remote Lands and Matador Network. You’ll usually find her travelling in offbeat places or hiking wherever there are mountains; always with a camera in hand.