Loop Head to Foynes
Welcome to Loop Head. Recently voted “The Best Place to Holiday in Ireland” by Irish Times readers, there are incredible scenes around every corner. On a clear day at the Loop Head Lighthouse, you can enjoy panoramic views that sweep from the Blasket Islands in County Kerry to the Twelve Bens in Connemara. This place is something special, and a night in the Lightkeeper’s House, surrounded by seabirds, churning Atlantic surf and rugged coastal vistas is something to remember. The connection with wildlife carries through to the Shannon Estuary, where conservationists Sue and Geoff McGee of Dolphin watch will bring you up close to the area’s resident dolphin population. Discover the incredible story behind the “Little Ark” at Moneen Church in the small fishing village of Kilbaha, before treating yourself to a traditional seaweed bath at the awardwinning Kilkee Thalassotherapy Centre. Body and mind refreshed, make for the Killimer car ferry and cross into County Kerry via the pretty coastal town of Kilkee, once a favoured bathing place for the Victorian elite. Leave the car ferry at Tarbert, and swing east into Foynes, County Limerick, where a chunk of aviation history and a very special coffee lie in wait. It was here, at Foynes airport, where Chef Joe Sheridan was asked to prepare something “to warm the passengers” whose plane had returned to Foynes after several hours flying in bad weather. The result: the first-ever Irish coffee. The story is brilliantly told at the Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum, which is housed in the airport’s original terminal building. And with a mix of clandestine war stories, a 1940s cinema and a meticulous replica of a Boeing 314 PAN AM Clipper Flying Boat, it’s definitely a unique and unexpectedly entertaining spot.
Foynes to Tralee
From Foynes, head due west to Fenit (via Ballyduff, headquarters of Samantha Jones and Sean Lyons’ North Kerry Heritage Trails) and explore the story of one of the most famous Kerrymen: Saint Brendan The Navigator. His story encompasses encounters with sea monsters and devils, and a grand quest for the “Isle of the Blessed”, which some believe to be North America. A truly dramatic statue at Fenit Pier and a lavish stained-glass window at Fenit Church have enshrined his legend. From here, it’s a short distance to the well-known town of Tralee (famous for its Rose of Tralee festival in August). Traditional culture and entertainment is enjoyably celebrated in town at Siamsa Tíre, Ireland’s National Folk Theatre.
Tralee to Dunquin (The Blasket Islands)
With Tralee at your back, all roads lead west to a place that National Geographic once called “the most beautiful place on earth”: the Dingle Peninsula. Creep along the north of the peninsula, tracking west past through the villages of Camp and Castlegregory. The hulk of Mount Brandon (named after Saint Brendan) looms large after tiny Cloghane village; it’s the highest peak on the peninsula and marks the end of a Christian pilgrimage trail. Next, along what is known as the Slea Head drive, stop at one of the peninsula’s most mysterious sights: Gallarus Oratory. Completely made of stone, and in the shape of an upturned boat, Gallarus Oratory (and its adjoining 15th-century castle) is an early Christian church overlooking Smerwick Harbour. The coastal scenery revs up the drama after the tiny village of Ballyferriter (and the very beautiful Beál Bán beach), as you head towards the pretty Gaeltacht village of Dunquin, with views that stretch out to the deserted Blasket Islands.
Dunquin (The Blasket Islands) to Dingle
Should Dunquin’s super-pretty harbour or surrounds look familiar, don’t be surprised. The film Ryan’s Daughter was predominantly shot in the townland here. Don’t miss a walk along Coumeenole Beach, with its little rock pools, tiny caves and surging blue Atlantic Ocean. The views of the deserted Blasket Islands are great from here – the last residents were evacuated from the islands on 17 November 1953, and most settled in Dunquin. You can take a boat from Dunquin out to the Great Blasket during the summer months, to explore quiet, pristine beaches and heather-flecked hills. Be on the lookout, too, for “An Fear Marbh” (The Dead or Sleeping Man), a Blasket island called Inishtooskert eerily mimicking a sleeping (or dead!) giant on his back. Bid farewell to the Blaskets and Dunquin’s quixotic harbour and begin the final scenic stretch to Dingle town. Make sure to stop off at Louis Mulcahy’s shop along the way, where you can pick up a beautiful piece of handmade pottery, or try your hand at making your own. Dingle town next and it is the best of both possible worlds. It has an arty bohemian vibe (local weavers, cheese makers, potters and jewellers call the town home), while at the same time maintaining a traditional heart that never seems to erode (unparalleled traditional pubs and friendly locals speaking beautiful Irish are two of Dingle’s claims to fame).
The town beats with a culinary heart, too, and its annual food festival (October) is one of the island’s finest. Savour excellent seafood at Out of the Blue and the Global Village restaurants; enjoy the “craic” at Foxy John’s, half-hardware store/half-pub; or get to know “real” Irish cookery at the Dingle Cookery School (from summer 2014).
Day three begins (possibly after a spot of horse riding on the dreamy Rossbeigh Beach) by stretching further into the scenic Iveragh Peninsula. Our first port of call, leaving Glenbeigh and heading west, is a view of the Skellig Islands. The story of the monks who made Skellig Michael their home is engagingly told at the Skellig Experience on Valentia Island (connected via a bridge to the mainland) where exhibitions unravel the mystery of the monastery as well as introducing some of the island’s winged residents. You can take a boat to the Skelligs, but it’s always weather dependent due to the rocky nature of where you dock on the island!
Valentia (Skellig Islands) to Derrynane
Continue along the peninsula towards Ballinskelligs Bay and the village of Waterville, where you’ll come across a bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin. The cinema legend enjoyed countless summers here with his family, and is remembered both with the statue and with a comedy film festival in August. Your next stop is Derrynane and the ancestral home of lawyer, statesman and “The Emancipator” Daniel O’Connell, Derrynane House. Derrynane Bay, where the house is located, is a dreamy vignette of vivid blue waters and fine white sand. Turn your gaze to the ocean and your eyes will fall on the island pair of Scariff and Deenish. Derrynane to Kenmare Derrynane’s effortless beauty will lull you into wanting to stay around, maybe even forever, but the lively village of Kenmare is waiting. Follow the twisting, turning Ring of Kerry through Sneem with its two picture-postcard little village squares. Before reaching Kenmare, stop off for lunch at the Boathouse Bistro at Dromquinna Manor, a lovely waterfront restaurant overlooking Kenmare Bay. Kenmare’s vibrant streets are lined with colourful knitwear shops, delis, cafés, pubs, and gourmet fish and chip shop. Framed by beautiful estate hotels, and with a lively atmosphere right throughout the year, Kenmare makes a great place to linger for a few days. Take tea and scones in cutsey Cupan Tae; feast on a bowl of wine-steamed Dingle mussels at Number 35 restaurant; and enjoy some traditional Irish music in O’Donnabhain’s pub. And while you’re at it, raise a toast to the Wild Atlantic Way.