Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ireland: Southern Road Trip - Dingle/Kerry/Beara Peninsula Drives

The third leg of our 12 day road trip around Southern Ireland took four days and covered Killarney National Park, as well as the three major peninsulas–Dingle Peninsula, the Ring of Kerry and Beara Peninsula (Ring of Beara), which we tackled in order as we traversed from north to south down the west coast.  For each loop, we continued our strategy of driving counter-clockwise so that we would be away from the steep cliffs and traveling in the same direction as the tour buses rather than trying to pass them on the too-narrow, windy roads.

Dingle Peninsula is less well-known than the famous Ring of Kerry, but its scenery is just as beautiful and since there are fewer tourist buses on the road, the trip is much more pleasant and relaxing.  Planning the route that would start at Tralee and end at our next overnight stop of Killarney, our goal was to take any available scenic overpass, as well as to reach locations at the tip of the peninsula, in order to get the best scenic views.  The other advantage for these treks is that often the roads are too narrow and steep for the buses to follow.   This was made apparent when we drove up and over "Connor's Pass" and spotted a bright yellow sign warning buses and trucks to "Turn Back Now!!"

There were so many opportunities to stop and take photos that it took us most of the day to drive our intended route around the Dingle Peninsula.  For the most part, we did not see many other cars on the road, let alone tour buses and we often were able to stop our car in the middle of the road to take a quick photo before continuing on.  The scenic views included green fields, sharp cliffs, sandy beaches and rocky terrain.

Our Dingle Peninsula drive also provided us with some unusual sights including the pretty 19th Century windmill in Blennerville, a stone table and benches on a remote hilltop overlooking a coastal settlement near Dunmore Head, a large religious shrine built into the mountains at Slea Head, and the car of Rich's dreams–a gorgeous bright yellow vintage style Morgan racing around the windy, mountainous roads.

The tourist town of Dingle is the primary destination for those driving the Dingle Peninsula.  Its main street is lined with pubs, quaint shops, art galleries and craft stores.  A friendly dolphin named Fungie lives in the harbour and a sculpture of him can be found in the main square along with a wave sculpture.  Since Dingle is a major fishing port, we were hoping to get some good fish and chips, and we were not disappointed.  Based on a recommendation, we visited Reel Dingle Fish which offers a wide variety of fresh, locally sourced fish and seafood including cod, haddock, ray fish, calamari and more.  Wanting to try something different that we could not get easily back home, we selected delicious pieces of battered monk fish and hake but asked for no "chips".  We had discovered early on that we did not like the fat fries (called "chips") served in Ireland and that we would be charged only for the fish if we refused the chips.  This worked out great since we would not be paying for an accompaniment that we did not enjoy, and when available, we could order a salad or coleslaw instead.

The Ring of Kerry is a 179km route around around the Iverlagh Peninsula, the largest of Ireland's west-coast three peninsulas.  This is the most well-known and most visited of the three circular peninsula drives, probably because it includes the equally popular and touristy town of Killarney as well as Killarney National Park which are located at the eastern end of the route.  There was so much to see in this area that we decided to spend two days here before moving on. The first day would be spent driving the Ring of Kerry itself, again trying to take the Ballaghbeama overpass to give us a good aerial view, and then reaching the tip of the peninsula where we would drive the small Skellig Ring.

Unfortunately, inclement weather derailed our plans.  We knew all along that Ireland was renown for its rainfall, and even learned that for the entire month prior to our arrival, it had rained just about every day.  Yet, we seemed to bring the sunshine with us and for most of our Ireland stay so far, it had been either sunny or at most merely cloudy.  We had gotten so used to this nice weather that to have rainfall on the day we planned to drive the Ring of Kerry almost felt like a personal affront by Mother Nature!   We continued on nevertheless, but did decide to skip the Ballaghbeama overpass, since the thought of driving steep, windy roads in the rain seemed to large of a risk.  Instead we decided to stick to the main roads, continuing to drive counter-clockwise in the same direction as the tour buses, rather than try to pass them, especially when they frequently took up both lanes.  It was disconcerting to encounter signs that warned "Slow .. Dangerous Bends" but luckily in these cases, there was very little other traffic around.  Often to figure out where we were or where we were headed, we had to use a combination of our GPS plus Google Maps on our IPAD because the places were too remote or obscure for the GPS alone to find.

The first major town that we passed through was Killorglin where we saw some interesting sights.  In the service station where we stopped for gas, I was delighted to spot a painted drawing of Mickey Mouse holding a Tim Horton's coffee in one hand and a pizza in the other. This is not the first time we spotted "Timmies" on this trip, since it is also sold in SPAR convenience stores across Ireland.  As we drove through Killorglin, we spotted two sculptures that had historical significance.  First was the statue of a goat with the engraving "King Puck" on it, commemorating an annual fair held in mid August since 1610, where a goat is crowned king for the duration of the festival.  Then we spotted the sculpture depicting Saint Brendan, who according to Irish legend sailed with monks to North America and discovered it centuries before Christopher Columbus.  Actually, we spotted this sculpture twice as we were trying to get out of town, alerting us to the fact our GPS was directing us to drive in circles.

Next we took the main road to Cahersiveen where we passed by the Old Barracks built around 1870 as a police station for the Royal Irish Constabulary, the ruins of 15th Century Ballycarbery Castle which was home to the McCarthy clan, and the Cahergall Stone Fort dating back to 600AD.  The attractions felt all the more eerie and mysterious because of the inclement weather.

The rain eased off as we left Cahersiveen and traveled towards Portmagee where we drove across the Maurice O'Neill Memorial Bridge to take a quick tour around Valentia Island.  On the island, we headed for Bray Head, one of the most western points in Ireland with stunning views of the coastline.  Crossing back to Portmagee, we next headed south on the Skellig Ring, a picturesque 20 mile drive along the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula.

Other than the beautiful scenery, one of the main (only?) attractions on the Skellig Ring was the Skelligs Chocolate Factory at Balliskellig, in a location so remote that it was surrounded by farmland and nature with no town or other commercial properties in the vicinity.  We were able to get a nice view of the Skellig Islands in the distance.  This was definitely a destination spot that you needed to make a concerted effort to get to by car, since the narrow windy roads prevented the tour buses from getting near.

The Skelligs Chocolate Factory consists of  a production area in the back, a boutique area selling the chocolate products, and a little cafĂ© where we ordered hot chocolates and a piece of cake.  But first, we passed by the tasting booth where we were offered so many different samplings of truffles of various flavours (milk, dark, hazelnut praline, Irish whiskey, strawberries and champagne, and more) that after a while, we could no longer taste the difference between them.  We ended up buying a bag of truffles that we could savour more leisurely, as well as some orange and mint flavoured brittle.  Unfortunately we had almost another week to go on our Southern loop drive, with unseasonably warm weather for a few days and no refrigeration.  By the time we got our chocolate back home to Dublin, much of it had melted into a big glob, but it was delicious nonetheless.

Back on the southern half of the Ring of Kerry, we drove through Waterville, stopping just long enough to get a photo of the statue of Charlie Chaplin in his iconic role as "The Little Tramp".  Chaplin and his family vacationed in Waterville annually for over ten years starting from 1959.  The next town of interest was Sneem where we ambled through the Garden of Senses and Sculpture Park, walked over a stone bridge overlooking a small pasture of cows, and lunched on some smoked trout and mackerel sandwiches that we bought from a local food truck.

As we headed towards our overnight stay in Killarney, the final stretch of the Ring of Kerry drive was again full of stunning vistas.  We drove by a scenic lookout called "Ladies' View", traversed some windy roads through hilly terrain and stopped to admire a break in the mountains that is named "Moll's Gap".  At one point, we parked near a pretty stone bridge and watched as several vintage cars rounded the curve including two more Morgans.

Although the Ring of Beara is the least well-known of the three peninsula loops, or perhaps because of this fact, it was by far our favourite.  We love the feeling of traversing off the beaten path and exploring beyond the usual popular tourist locales.  Not only did we not have to follow or navigate around tour buses, but for the most part, we had the roads to ourselves (even more so than on the Dingle Peninsula).  The scenery was as beautiful if not more so than the other two peninsulas and we had several memorable experiences on this drive.

Healy Pass is an eight-mile mountain roadway that passes through the Caha mountain range, rising to 334 metres above sea level, traversing between Adrigole in County Cork and Lauragh in County Kerry. Built in 1847, it was renamed in 1931 to honour Timothy Michael Healy, the first Governor General in Ireland.  While driving up and over the steep, windy road of Healy Pass, we encountered a fair number of sheep, both in pastures and grazing by the side of the road.  We had to be careful when turning sharp corners that we didn't run into one in the middle of the road. We learned on this drive just how dumb sheep are.  As we drove by, we spooked a pair of sheep who decided to run up the road to get away from us, as opposed to darting off into the wilderness.  For several minutes, we slowly followed behind them waiting for a chance to pass, while they continuously turned their heads to confirm that we were still on hot on their trail.

There were many spectacular views as we traversed up and down Healy Pass but one of the most awesome was at the very top.  Looking back down, you could see the winding, switch-back road snaking across the countryside for miles and miles and follow the approach of an oncoming vehicle from far off into the distance.  It looked a bit like an aerial shot of the Great Wall of China.  This top section is called "Flat Rock" and a religious shrine marks the spot where Cork meets Kerry.  A sign explains that the tradition was for funeral processions to stop here and pass the coffin over the border from one county to the next.

The other stop of note that we made was at the western tip of the Ring of Beara in a tiny place whimsically  named Lacheroo.  Here is the location of Ireland's only cable car which connects Dursey Island via a 15 minute ride each way.  Dursey Island provides an escape into natural beauty, featuring wildlife, birds, dolphins and whales swimming by the coastlines and hiking trails.  Unfortunately we did not have time to take this journey and settled for watching the cable car go back and forth.

It was in Lacharoo that we had our most memorable dining experience in Ireland.  Here we found a fish and chips stand selling local fish that came right out of the waters below.  In fact, we could see a fisherman standing on the rocks casting for more.  We ordered pieces of hake and haddock that were perfectly battered and sumptuously sweet and delicious.  Rich made the mistake of asking for some malt vinegar to pour over the fish and was chastised at length by the vendor about how it was sacrilegious to add any seasoning to this incredibly fresh and delectable fish–and she was right!  This dining experience was made complete when we found a stone ledge facing the water where we could enjoy our meal on a bright, warm, sunny day, while overlooking Dursey Island and the Atlantic Ocean.

1 comment:

  1. Loved your blog! We're going to Ireland in a couple of weeks and will be doing the Ring of Kerry clockwise as well. It seems to be the most important tip people offer - so glad I came across it. Sadly, we will 'rush' through the north side trying to make an early boat to the Skelligs, but will try to do a more leisurely trip along the south ride back to Killarney. Thank you for your blog - I loved reading about your adventures! A former Torontonian