Destinations, Ireland

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive

November 3, 2012
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There’s nothing quite like waking up, throwing back the curtains, and gazing out to sea, cows, and greenery. So far, Dingle has the pastoral, rural elements of Doolin which we were surprised to love so much. There are even horses right across the street from our B&B, and when a horse-drawn cart goes by from time to time, they all race over to watch it pass.

Yet a mere 5 minute drive down the hill brings you to the sprawl of Dingle shops, and if you follow the rise and fall of the road, it leads you out to a harbor chock full of boats. In this sense, it has the feel of Galway, where we wandered along the sea walls gazing down at the grizzled sailors in their small fishing crafts.

Beyond the harbor, the peninsular outcropping of Slea head stretches out into the distance, studded with ruins and rich with history. I can see why so many people – travelers and locals alike – cite their favorite place as being Dingle. Not too big, not too small, with plenty to explore and the perfect mixture of country, city, and sea. And since we were no longer here during high season, the B&B and town were both lively but not bustling.

Rumbling stomachs interrupted our scenery-inspired reverie, demanding something more substantial than sea air. We headed downstairs, gave the resident dog Rio a pat on the head, and headed into the dining room for breakfast.

It’s immediately apparent that Pax House prides itself providing a luxe experience, from the gorgeous place settings to little touches like elegantly scalloped spheres of butter at each table. Ask for tea, and your teapot of loose leaf Irish breakfast is accompaniedby a small birdcage, in which perches a little metal songbird. Placing the bird over your teacup, you pour the tea through to filter out the leaves. Perhaps not the most practical tea strainer solution, but it was still lovely and unique.

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

The bird tea strainer perches in its cage

For breakfast, Jason selected oatmeal, which came accompanied with honey and Bailey’s Irish Cream. Any excuse to combine booze with oatmeal is fine by me. I went for scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, the buttery-tender salmon tucked around the pillowy mound of eggs like a blanket.

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

The breakfast buffet was a treat, including more of the sweet, stewed rhubarb we couldn’t get enough of in Doolin. There were also stewed prunes (which, if you talk to some people, get a bad rap on account of being prunes, but I’ll happily admit they’re delicious) and ginger and cardamom poached pears. Petite homemade scones were piled high in a bread basket, dotted with currants and dusted with powdered sugar.

The misty morning cleared, giving way to a decadently clear sky. Post-breakfast found us in the sitting room, lingering over tea and discussing our planned route with the host. He gave us a Rick Steves driving tour and also made a recommendation that sounded exactly up our alley: stop at a little cheese shop in Dingle town before heading out for the Slea head drive. “Pick up some cheese,” he said. “Cheese, olives, maybe a bit of bread. Make a picnic of it at the coffee shop with the sea view on Slea Head.”

Who were we to refuse? That’s exactly the sort of thing we love to do.

Heading into Dingle, we parked next to the yellow pub and headed out for the cheese shop, checking the hand drawn map provided by the B&B every so often to ensure we were staying on course.

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

Spotted on the way: the well-known Foxy Johns, an all-in-one pub and hardware store

Many of the shops which had closed around 6 pm the evening before were now open, so we poked our heads into a few. I ran my hands over soft woolen sweaters and scarves, and picked up a locally-made, wood-wicked “Dingle candle” as a gift.

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

A wall mural near the cheese shop and bakery

Before the cheese shop we discovered a tiny bakery. Ducking inside, we were met by the sight and smell of all manner of delicious baked goods. It all looked very tempting, but I only had eyes for the rustic, still-warm loaves of brown bread. Less than 3 euros later and I was gleefully in possession of a loaf of bread bigger than my head. I could get used to this.

The cheese shop was its own place of foodie delights. A wall of specialty crackers greeted us as we entered, and then to the right: cheese-lover’s heaven. Wheels and wedges laid out along a long counter, and, to the right, large bowls of glistening, deep green olives. Behind the counter, links of charcuterie hung from pegs on the wall.

The proprietor recommended two local cheeses to go with our brown bread, and we got modest wedges of each – both cheddar, one a milder sheepsmilk with a rich, nutty flavor, the other a sharper and more attitudinal cowsmilk number – along with some chorizo and olives. On the way out, I eyed a selection of chocolates arrayed around a column in the middle of the small shop – stilton, walnut, pear, and port truffles? Hmm. I might have to come back for you later.

This would be the perfect lunch spread for a simple picnic during our drive. After poking around in a few more shops and picking up a “just in case” rainjacket for the woefully-unprepared Jason, we began the Slea head drive. It can seem overwhelming at first – the Rick Steves driving tour is several pages long and points out sights at regular intervals, some very close together. I skim read it quickly to make sure I knew what were in for.

Keeping the water to our left, we departed from near the docks, passing the Dingle aquarium and a number of large B&Bs and homes. Surprising though it may seem, the roads were often lined with palm-like trees here. We’d seen our first palms elsewhere in Ireland, but they seemed especially common in Dingle. They’re as much a part of the rich history here as anything else, having been imported by the Lord Ventry some time in the 18th century, along with the innumerable fuchsia bushes which now grow wild. It ends up that the Dingle climate is conducive to both.

The Slea head drive also reveals how a lot of the history in Dingle appears to be privately – rather than publicly – owned. From what we could tell, over the years families have passed down or purchased the plots of lands with various tourist sights. They set up a little cottage at the entrance and charge an admission fee to the family ruin.

Our first such stop was at the famine cottages. Several euro each at the family admission hut bought our entry, and thus began the hike past donkeys, sheep, and horses pasturing outside the thatched roof stone structures at the top.

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

Looking back down to the water from the path to the famine cottages

The information sheet discussed how the potato famine impacted the people who lived here: many of them died because their only payment for tilling the land was the food which they were able to harvest. It was decidedly not an easy life.

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

While the history of the land is fascinating, the cottages themselves were dark and musty, set up with what I imagine was an interpretation of furniture at the time. Creepy mannequins peered down from the rafters and the table was set with a meager meal of plastic potatoes.

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

I think I’d have preferred the cottages without the… odd reenactments

A single small beehive hut, orClochán, was tucked behind one of the cottages. Shaped much like the name implies, these date back to the Bronze Age and are usually made out of stone, spiraling and overlapping upward to form a watertight domed structure.

Below the famine cottages was a ring fort on a cliff –DúnBeag. We looked from a distance but didn’t end up going down, wanting to save our euros for the time being.

The drive was very beautiful. We stopped at an overlook, where a white statue of the Virgin Mary watched over the road and the sea. Here, the water went from a pure turquoise out into a deep slate blue. I’d never seen such a gradient before, and it even showed up beautifully in the pictures.

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

Just around the corner from the overlook and statue, we stopped at a café-slash-gift shop for some coffees (including a really delicious mocha) and to eat our feast of bread, meat, cheese, and olives while looking out to the ocean.

Ireland Day 9, Part 1: Slea head drive | Destinations Ireland

Here we ran into some of our B&B companions – the Norwegian men who were visiting Dingle to check on their whiskey. We chatted briefly and recommended Murphy’s ice cream to them after they mentioned how much they like Guinness (and, indeed, had just ordered beef and Guinness pies.) I hope they ended up going to get the Guinness ice cream – it’s so amazing!

Happily munching on bread layered with cheese and chorizo and sipping my mocha, I sat back with a a contented sigh. Good, simple, hearty food. Fresh bread made that morning. The crashing waves in the distance, green hills stretching to the left and the right, and a chill breeze. This is my idea of perfection.

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