There's only one word to describe the Dingle panorama: Awesome
ON THE WILD ATLANTIC WAY: Off Slea Head, the Blasket Islands lie calm, sleeping as they always have on the edge of our world
“THIS IS better than Disney World,” said Anne Simmons – and she should know. She’s usually in Orlando, Florida, where she lives.
Today though, she is sitting on a low wall by the road at Slea Head at the very end of the Dingle peninsula and she’s simply knocked out by the view.
The word “awesome” crops up once or twice.
“Every corner we go around,” says her friend Carolyn Brewer from Garner in North Carolina, “we say it can’t get any better but you know, it just does. Awesome.”
“This is better than shopping,” quips Anne.
The sun is shining again, the sea calm and turning that magical turquoise as it nears the beaches.
The fuchsia is out and the hedgerows are filled also with woodbine (honeysuckle) in flower.
The day began well. The Butler Arms Hotel in Waterville rescued me from the rain on Thursday evening. I arrived a drowned rat and left rested, well-fed and dry, thanks in no small part to their baking hot drying room and welcoming fire in the reception.
The Butler Arms has the best spot in Waterville – essentially bang on the beach. It looks directly out into the Atlantic from whence cometh those downpours.
“We’re the only town on the whole Ring [of Kerry] where you can get out of your car and walk straight on to the beach,” says manager Louise Huggard, whose family has owned and run the place since it opened its doors in 1916.
She hadn’t heard of Fáilte Ireland’s idea of the Wild Atlantic Way but thinks it’s great – especially if it lures tourists away from the high-impact destinations such as Killarney and its big hotels.
The N70 Ring road towards Killorglin offers some seriously beautiful scenery – views across Dingle Bay and off west, out to the Blaskets.
The Macgillycuddy Reeks tower on my right, dark and powerful looking; across the bay, the Slieve Mish Mountains answer back.
Turning left at Castlemaine and on towards Dingle, the R561 hugs a narrow coastal plain, farmed for all its worth. The tide is low and the sea smells waft through the air – pungent but refreshing.
Inch, that massive finger of sand sticking incongruously into the bay at right angles to the land, is a heaven for surfers.
There’s a bit of a buzz in Dingle; it’s not swamped with tourists but there are enough visitors around to make the town hum.
When I was last here, maybe 20 years ago, it was still fairly sleepy. Now it has roundabouts, a one- way traffic system and the sort of visitor dependency I associate with villages in south Devon in England, such as Salcombe.
It’s Friday, farmers market day. A small cluster of maybe a dozen stalls fills the little car park in the centre of the town.
Jennifer Touchstone from Manhattan is selling cheese. She and her husband Brandon were travelling and saw an ad on a volunteer website ( workaway.info) put there by Maja Binder, who makes cheese in Castlegregory.
The next stall is manned by German-born Maja’s husband-in- waiting, Oliver Beaujouan, who hails from the Loire valley in France. He offers a serious collection of fish and meat pates, home-made sausages, salmon and chorizo. His pièce de résistance in showman terms, however, is a cheese melt created by flame- heating a large block of Swiss raclette and pouring the result on to a slice of bread.
“Hey, you’re the fellow on the bike!” exclaims Mark Murphy, the organiser of the market and a lecturer in culinary arts in Tralee IT. “I was reading you; I think the Wild Atlantic Way is a brilliant idea, brilliant!”
Out beyond Ventry, I drop into an old college friend, film-maker Nuala O’Connor, who lives tucked into the lee of Eagle Mountain with partner Philip King and their daughters. There’s some local anxiety about widening the N86 road from Tralee to 26 metres in parts, so people may come to Dingle faster.
She and some others think part of Dingle’s attraction, part of its defining characteristic, is that it is a little peripheral, a shade apart – a place to which one has to make an effort to come . . . which many people do.
“Does 10 or 15 minutes off the journey justify the extreme scale of what’s proposed?” she wonders.
The road to Slea Head and beyond is narrow and winding and a delight. Coumeenole beach – where schoolmaster’s wife Sarah Miles lost her heart as Rosy Ryan to dashing British officer Maj Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones) in Ryan’s Daughter – is constant, unchanging in its beauty.
Out to sea off the head, the Blasket Islands lie calm, sleeping as they always have on the edge of our world. The great island’s Dunquin-facing slope is bathed in sunlight. The lesser islands are smothered in low cloud; less distinct, more remote, darker. The sun shines on Blasket Sound.
And beyond it all, the great vastness of the wild Atlantic, at this moment calm, rising and falling slowly, gently, washing the edges of Ireland.
There really is only one word for it. Awesome.
Today’s journey: Ardfert to Galway; tomorrow Connemara