Our journey to Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula started with a scone recipe. As the Internet is apt to do, when you type in one thing, what you get is much more than you asked for. In this case, our recipe inquiry led to a place called the Dingle Peninsula. While we had never heard of Dingle or the Dingle Peninsula, it looked to provide a good dose of nature, culture and adventure, just the type of place we like. We later learned that Dingle is one of the most favored spots in Ireland for the independently minded traveler and one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Within short order we were booked with Celtic Nature Expeditions for a hiking adventure around the Dingle Peninsula. For a very reasonable fee, Claire Galvin and Kevin O’Shea booked our hotels, arranged for our meals, and coordinated the delivery of our luggage from one lodge to the other. All we had to do was follow our map, walk our 11 to 15 miles each day, eat our packed lunch and enjoy the countryside of South West Ireland.
The route we were to follow is called the Dingle Way. It is actually a walking path that has been used for centuries to get around the Dingle Peninsula. As such, it is a historic route and one that Ireland is doing its best to preserve. According to the literature that we received in the mail, “The Dingle Way traverses pristine sandy beaches, bordering on crystal seas, fuchsia and gorse lined green roads leading through pastoral countryside, heather and bracken covered hills, and mountain passes up to 2,000 feet high.” Unlike so many things you read today, all of this proved true. The Dingle Way is simply one of the most scenic and inspiring places you will ever visit.
We arrived in Kerry under somber September skies that soon let loose with more than an Irish mist. But with our waterproof hiking gear, we were more than ready for the Irish weather. From Kerry we were transported to the Finglas House in the village of Camp. That evening we were booked at Ashe’s Pub and Restaurant for our first Irish meal. Not knowing what to expect, we were absolutely amazed by the food of the Dingle Peninsula. Along the way we were to dine on some of the best mussels, clams, fish, lamb, beef and vegetables we have ever eaten. In addition, we were introduced to Guinness fresh from the tap. It is as the locals say, a meal in itself, and good for your health as well. Everywhere we went we were to see signs proclaiming – Guinness, Good For Your Health! We can attest that Guinness is indeed – Good For Your Health and made sure to have at least a pint with every restaurant meal. While at Ashe’s Pub we were also privileged to hear some of the finest Irish bagpipes and Irish ballads we have ever heard. There is something very satisfying about sitting next to a roaring fire, in the company of others, listening to Irish music. The ballads and melodies were as sweet as the sea-breeze and as haunting as the night.
Our first hike was 11 miles to the village of Annascaul. Maps can be funny things, what looks so easy on paper, can be quite a different story when you are out on foot alone in the Irish countryside. From Camp, the Dingle Way proceeds up a hill behind Ashe’s Pub between towering hedges of fuchsia. I couldn’t help but think that the only fuchsia I knew are those that grow in a pot. I had no idea that fuchsia came in the form of 12-foot-high, mile ling hedges. Things are definitely different in Ireland. While it started to rain, we are quite warm and snug with our rain gear and waterproof boots. The boots soon became a big plus as the paths, goat tracks, and “green roads” that we were following are literally covered with the manure of thousands of sheep and cows. With the addition of rain, we made our way as carefully as we could through a river or what the Irish politely refer to as “animal movement”. We soon come to a mountain pass and then descend through peat bogs. Here the earth is as rich and black as chocolate cake. While I had heard of peat, I had no idea that is still being used to heat homes. The sides of the hills (peat bogs) are cut into long slices, that are then cut into “logs” and dried and were most likely fueling the roaring fire at Ashe’s the previous evening. As we continued on we encountered our first or many megalithic standing stones as well as the ever present walls of stacked stone, and stacked stone homes also dating back to megalithic times. The feeling you get when here is of a different age, an age of knights, armor clad armies and castles of stone. In this land legends and fables feel very close in time.
Annascaul is one of the most picturesque villages you will ever see. With its bright green, yellow and red buildings, the town is a kaleidoscope of color. With world famous destinations like Dan Foley’s Pub and places like the South Pole Inn, Annascaul painted a picture in our minds that we will never forget. Here we stayed at the Old Anchor Guesthouse, and had another gourmet meal at the same establishment. The distance from Annascaul to Dingle, our next destination is 12 miles, not very far by car, but on foot and with the scenery before us it took us a lifetime of memories to reach Dingle. This hike takes you out of the hills surrounding Annascaul down to Kilmurry Bay and on to Dingle Bay. As you descend into Kilmurry Bay arrayed before you from mountain, to valley and down to a dark blue sea is a patchwork of the softest hues of green and yellow, each field a different color, separated by the ever present stacked stone walls. At the edge of this patchwork, standing guard over the Bay is Minard Castle. As you draw near you can see that the castle has been badly damaged. As it turns out the damage was inflicted by Cromwell’s forces in 1650 while they were on a campaign of sacking castles throughout Ireland. The view from the castle, across the stone pebble beach to the bay beyond is one of the nicest ocean views you will see anywhere in the world. On this day, with the sun shining, and the Bay beckoning, I was the lone swimmer in the peaceful, clear waters of Kilmurry Bay. After eating our lunch gazing out upon the Bay, we resumed our trek toward Dingle. After awhile our guidebook directed us to “ Go cross-country now, keeping an earthen fence on your left, over a stile and onto another green road, through a gateway and into a farmyard at Ballingarraun.”
Upon reaching the farmyard we could see that our side of the farmyard gateway was occupied by a very large cow. She just happened to be standing at the very gate that we need to pass through. This would not be a problem except for two even larger black bulls that were beating on the gate with their heads from the other side, trying to get to the female. While we considered opening the gate, ultimately we hauled ourselves atop the earthen fence, dropped into a shallow river and circumvented the farmyard love fest. Later we heard that a hiker was killed the previous year by a bull who happened to be disturbed by the hiker’s presence in his farmyard. Needless to say, we were very happy that we did not interfere with the bulls mating ritual.
From the farmyards the trek rises and falls across blue-grey rivers and ever-green hills to Dingle Town. Dingle is simply one of the most pleasant places on Earth. The seafood here, fresh from Dingle bay is world-class. With its yellow, orange, red and blue buildings, its striking bay views, salty sea air, charming pubs, restaurants and guest houses, Dingle is an enchanting destination that will only grow in popularity. Our stay was at the Captain’s House. We dined at the Charthouse at the “roundabout” and later sampled some fine Guinness and impromptu music at Paudie’s Bar. An old saying in this part of Ireland is “Fat as a Dingle Boy.” With the fine food and drink you can easily see how this could well be true. Humans are not the only ones drawn to Dingle. During our stay we were introduced to “Fungi”, a dolphin who has made his home in Dingle Bay since 1984 and has become a world-wide attraction.
Although we did not know it at the time, the next leg of our journey, a 14-mile trek from Dingle to Slea Head would prove to be the most difficult part of our journey. We left a little later than usual and were slowed down considerably by blistered feet, a near disastrous fall at a mountain river crossing and fog so thick that by dusk we could not see beyond arm-length. As we soon learned, the Slea Head countryside is as wild as it gets. Climbing an endless mountain in the darkening fog-filled twilight, we quite literally stumbled upon a series of bloody, headless sheep. Shortly later we then encountered their severed heads, looking as if they had been ripped from the bodies of the animals.
Out by ourselves in the gathering dark, obscured by a low, dense fog, on the slopes of Slea Head mountain, we were not sure what to think. Was this some type of Druid ritual? Would wolves rip the heads off of sheep, but then leave their bodies untouched? We could only wonder to ourselves as we continued on into the dark toward Slea-Head, hoping that whatever or whoever had killed the sheep was finished for this evening. By the time we arrived in Slea Head, well after dark, Claire and Kevin both had been alerted that we had not arrived at our destination and had come searching for us and led us to our lodging at Slea Head Farm. We were so unnerved by the scene on the mountain that we never did mention it and to this day have no idea what happened to the sheep on Slea-Head mountain.
Although we were only 14 miles from Dingle, Slea Head is a world apart from Dingle Town. The landscape here provides a sort of haunting beauty, you can sense suffering and hardship here. Peig Sayers, a famous Gaelic storyteller from the early 1900’s speaks of the “clouds of sorrow” endured by the residents of this area. The feeling here can be summed up in one word – harsh. Exposed to the full force of the Atlantic, the winds, rain and sea pound Slea Head and the Blaskett Islands, just off the coast, unmercifully. Although we stayed two nights here in order to take a ferry to the Blaskett Islands, we never made it due to the rough and unforgiving seas. Instead, we kept a low-profile out of the howling wind and rain.
From here we entered the heart of Gaelic Ireland as we made our way first to An Ghlaise Bheag in Ballydavid, then Cloghane and finally Castlegregory Village. Here the way is marked by signs both in English and in Gaelic. The journey from Slea Head to An Ghlaise Bheag is a 12 miles of unending beauty. Here the green slopes of the mountains cascade down to a surging ocean in a jagged series of sea-cliffs. As you make your way, you are accompanied by the ever present screaming of sea-birds, the roar of the surf and the mist of the crashing waves.
That night we took shelter at Gorman’s Clifftop Restaurant and Inn as a strong storm rolled in from the Atlantic and enveloped the entire Dingle Peninsula in driving wind and rains. The next day was supposed to be our crossing of Mount Brandon, Ireland’s tallest mountain. However, we were strongly advised to not attempt the crossing given the extreme weather. We were told that many hikers had become lost and disoriented in the thick mist and clouds while hiking the mountain in these conditions. Given our recent experience wit the dense fog on the slopes of Slea Head, we reluctantly heeded the advice of the locals and accepted a lift to our next lodging, O’Connors Guesthouse in Cloghane. Here we did like the locals and checked ourselves into one of the villages pubs, sat down next to another roaring fire and proceeded to enjoy a few pints of Ireland’s finest Guinness.
The last leg of our journey found us trekking 13 miles through farmland and across miles and miles of beaches to Castlegregory. Here we enjoyed green patchwork quilts of mist covered hills, golden sand dunes, pastel blue waters and finally, Castlegregory, as nice a village as you will find anywhere, with people as friendly and welcoming as your own family. Our last night in Ireland was spent at Aisling House amid a profusion of purple and blue hydrangea.
The Dingle Peninsula proved to be a great adventure. Just like our guide book said, it is the perfect place for the independently minded traveler and one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
We look forward to seeing much more of this hauntingly beautiful country.
Story and Accompanying Photos by Joe Prickitt