After savoring one more breakfast at the B&B, we hit the road. Today’s route would be fairly simple. It’s possible to get to the Dingle peninsula by heading east, following the coastal curve inland to Limerick, and then back down southwest. However, this would easily be close to 5 hours when you factor in stops. After several days with a lot of time spent in the car, we were ready for something more direct. Instead of the scenic route, we’d be taking a more point-to-point southerly drive, made possible by a car ferry from Killimer to Tarbert.
The drive would still take about 3 hours not including stops, so time to make haste for Dingle! Well, er, almost. We kind-of-maybe-possibly had a quick detour to Lisdoonvarna. I know, I know; it’s bad form to be making our first stop not even 10 minutes outside Doolin, but in addition to being the fixture of a month-long matchmaking festival in September (yes, that really exists – and no, that’s not why we were there, or so Jason tells me anyway), it’s also home to the Burren Smokehouse. Priority number one on the way to Dingle? Smoked salmon all the way, baby.
For those so inclined, they also had an interesting selection of chocolates, tea, biscuits, etc., if you’re looking for something to bring back for foodie friends and family (or y’know, just to nom on in the car – not that I would know anything about that). This included some of Cocoa Bean Artisan Chocolates’ intriguing offerings like gin and tonic dark chocolate and rose and pistachio milk chocolate.
In any case, tasty hot smoked pepper salmon was now safely in our possession. Jason could rest at ease knowing that we hadn’t passed up that gourmet opportunity, and so we forged onward.
So! One quick note about the ferries: if you’re planning out your driving routes, keep in mind that relying on a car ferry can increase your travel time if you don’t plan ahead. In the Killimer-Tarbert (north to south) direction, they leave every hour, on the hour. From south to north, every hour on, on the half hour. Either way, if you miss one, you’ll be stuck waiting for as long as an hour, so it’s good to plan accordingly.
For this reason (and not at all because of the jaunt to the Burren Smokehouse, no sir), we had to skip one stop we’d considered making. It would have taken us an hour or more out of our way along a peninsula to Loop Head, where there are beautiful views of the water and the possibility of exploring the Loop Head lighthouse (yes, this would somewhat defeat the purpose of skipping Limerick and taking the ferry, but – but – photo opportunities!) By the time we reached the turnoff where the choice had to be made, however, we knew we could catch the 1 pm ferry on the dot. So, onward it was – no lighthouse today.
I’ll be the first to admit that making these kinds of cuts in advance of your trip can feel punishingly difficult. I spent countless hours researching and agonizing in the months before we traveled. Jason was the tiebreaker: I could be my own worst enemy when second-guessing myself on our itinerary. I’m great at the planning and researching until it comes to making the tough decisions.
That being said, it felt less difficult to make those decisions once we were there. You never know what you might be missing, but, at the same time, we felt like we’d already seen so much and still had so much more to see. It seemed highly improbable that we’d look back on our trip and think, “Man, that was pretty great but it would have been so much more awesome if we’d just gone to see that one last lighthouse.” Toss it on the list for a return visit. It’s good to have something to come back to.
In any case, nothing too much to report on the ferry ride. You drive onto it, it goes for about 20 minutes, and you drive off (incredible, I know. We’re all about the hard-hitting facts here. I have a sneaking suspicion that all ferry rides are going to feel this uneventful from here on out).
Lunchtime was fast approaching. We stopped in Listowel for food and to pick up some maps from the tourist office (which was cleverly disguised as a bookshop. We walked past it three times. Tourist offices are crafty beasts.)
Even halfway through the vacation, it takes some getting used to that you can drive into a fairly large town and a stone’s throw away there will be a castle or a cathedral. We took a peek at the Listowel Castle before our stomachs got the better of us, then got food at a restaurant across the way from a ferris wheel (15th century castles and theme park rides in the same city – truly a place of contrasts.)
Before we set out again, I warned Jason that this was possibly going to be the drive to top all drives. I’d been telling him throughout the trip that we were building him up to the more difficult drives later on. From time to time he’d ask me, “Was that the one you were telling me about?” Well… not quite.
You see, we’d decided to take Conor Pass.
If you’ve been to Ireland or researched going, you may have heard about this drive. It’s received a somewhat infamous reputation for being a narrow, winding road through a mountain pass. Add to that the fact that it’s only one lane at points even though it isn’t a one-way road, and then things start to get interesting. I don’t know why someone thought it was a good idea to make a twisty mountain road only one lane. Maybe there was a contest among the civil engineers for who could get away with devising and building the craziest possible road.
In any case, Jason said he was prepared. He had been relishing driving in Ireland. He was resolved that this would be no exception. So, onward and upward!
We got out of the city limits on our way toward Dingle, and the commuter-esque roads gave way to country once again. To our left and right were woodsy mountains, and between the misty rain that was beginning to fall and the trees lining the road, it felt as though we’d been picked up and dropped right back in Seattle in the blink of an eye.
The way to Conor Pass was thankfully well marked, so we followed the signs and began our ascent. It was getting more grey and misty by the moment, though the earlier weather had been fairly clear. The B&B owner we’d be staying with in Dingle had mentioned Conor Pass for the views in his email a few months back, but he’d recommended going on a clear day. Oh well. We couldn’t have predicted the turn in the weather (and, let’s be honest: when it comes to Irish weather – can anyone?)
The trees lining the road gave way to steep outcroppings of rock and grass. To one side, a low wall – crumbling and dilapidated at points – was all that separated us from open air. The ground below was surely out there somewhere, but completely obscured by mist.
It was impossible to tell how high up we were, and with the limited sight distance and everything beyond the low wall bordering the road blanked out, our world had been reduced to just this small patch of roadway. It was as if we were somehow in perpetual orbit around this serpentine mountain path.
Sheep bleated as we passed by. They balanced on precarious ledges and outcroppings which seemed too impossibly small for anything to stand on, much less them with their twiggy legs and barrel-shaped cottonball bodies.
As promised, our two lanes narrowed to one. Jason slowed down. Tight bends around the edge of the mountain meant limited visibility. Perhaps it was the weather, but we didn’t encounter another car for a while. Thankfully when we did they were just as cautious as we were to go slowly around the corners, so there was plenty of room to navigate and negotiate your way around each other.
The etiquette up here is that when you encounter another car in the road, whomever is closest to a turn off point will pull their car into it. By “turn off”, I mean that there are small bits of shoulder to the left along the cliff face where you get an additional quarter- to half-lane of space, which doesn’t sound like much but is more than enough to pull over. So long as you’re polite and move aside as needed, that it’s only one lane didn’t seem too bad.
What was bad, however, was the weather: the wind was growing howlingly fierce, buffeting the car from side to side, mercilessly beating its fists against us. The mist in the valley scuttled back and forth with the changing winds, and sharp little droplets pummeled the car.
Fairly soon after the road’s narrowing we reached an overlook with a larger area for several cars to pull into and park. The rain had let up – perhaps it was even just mist droplets on our faces again. Here, a waterfall burbled down from the top of the mountain.
Crossing the single lane to stand on the other side, we peered down and across a fog-obscured valley. Small lakes peeked out from underneath their misty blankets.
To the left and the right stretched the mountain with its sinuous road, but only until it curved around the other side. Cars would slowly make their way around the bend from one direction or the other from time to time, their headlights always cautiously preceding them around the corner before creeping forward.
We stayed for as long as we dared in the cold wind, taking pictures and occasionally ducking into the car to clean water droplets off of the camera lenses.
After waiting for a few clumps of cars to pass in either direction, we continued on our way. The road wound upward, then made as if to level off and suddenly widened back into two lanes at a second overlook. “That’s it?!” Jason exclaimed. “I thought there would be way more than that!”
See, what did I tell you? Totally meant to be an Irish driver.