Falling in Love with the Dingle Peninsula
Posted on Sep 03, 2018 by Dawn Rainbolt
It’s not often a place has the power to affect one so profoundly that you can’t get it out of your mind – yet, after a week hiking the Dingle Way along the Dingle Peninsula, I have fallen in love!
I’ve just returned from an 8 day walking trip – Hiking the Dingle Way. The Dingle Way is one of Ireland’s most beloved “ways” or long distance hiking trails and encircles the Dingle Peninsula, the northernmost of Kerry’s 3 peninsulas. Most visitors simply drive the peninsula in a few hours, but our group of nine spent 8 days walking around the Dingle Peninsula, enabling us to truly connect with place, culture and landscape.
The trip was off to a good start from the moment we were all met by our guide. A diverse bunch, we hailed from all corners of the world: Quebec (Canada), the USA, Australia, Russia, Ireland. Though mostly women, we ranged in age from 30s to 60s (in fact, we were even lucky enough to celebrate a 60th birthday on the trip while hiking through the historic beehive huts of Dingle!) and worked in a diverse range of jobs, including, but not limited to: a TV reporter, university professor, teacher, travel agent, and even a senator!
And then of course, there was our guide Tom – ex Navy, mountain guide, hiking instructor, singer, musician. Soft spoken yet witty, Tom dazzled us with his knowledge of Ireland’s history, culture and nature – not to mention his stories as a sailor on the high seas. But possibly the best was when he broke his guitar and book of songs to sing renditions of Irish songs!
The hiking trip started off in the village of Annascaul, home to Antarctic explorer Tom Crean. In fact, there’s even a pub there he once owned – after retiring as an explorer, he decided that being a publican was a (slightly!) safer career. Our first day commenced with a hike through rolling countryside, sheep fields, overgrown farmers’ tracks and farmland. A word to the wise: we also did a bit of road walking, as the Dingle Way does follow along country lanes throughout the course of the trail. (As our guide explained, this is because Irish land, except for national parks and protected forests, is all privately owned and trails through fields are at the behest of the landowner).
The next morning’s hike had a fantastic start! At the end of a narrow lane is a stony beach, above which is perched the ruins of a imposing stone castle. The medieval Minard Castle was one of three castles on the peninsulas built by the once-ruling family, the Fitzgeralds. From there, we hiked through fields and up hills, through thick mud, and over weatherworn stiles. In fact, one the clients was treated to a birthday serenade on one of those stiles (in English, Russian and French!). We snacked on wild berries as we drank in the views over the Atlantic. Along the way, we made friends with a few expected friends – doe-eyed sheep, sleepy cows and bouncing sheepdogs – as well as a few unexpected friends – a fluffy llama and a pair of happily braying donkeys. Leaving lush pastures behind, we walked through vast, haunting landscapes abounding in boulders and heathland, bogs and craggy hills, feeling like we’d stepped into a Bronte novel. We finished the walk by descending a long hill into Dingle.
Dingle town deserves a mention all of its own. The principle town on the peninsula, Dingle feels like a thriving metropolis. It’s colourful, dazzling, and busy. Dozens of pubs, restaurants and shops – so much choice after being in the countryside the past few days! Back in the old days, most businesses in Irish villages had dual or triple purposes – a barber and a postman, a fuelling station and a grocers, a shop and a pub. In central Dingle, there is a place that keeps to that old tradition: a pub and a hardware shop – both still very much in use! We were lucky to catch a pre-dinner trad (or Irish traditional music) session before popping across the road for a delicious meal and a bit of whiskey!
Though hiking the Dingle Way is always lovely, the next day west of Dingle is possibly the most brilliant. Starting at Ventry Beach, we kicked off our next day’s hike by kicking off our shoes to wade in chilly Atlantic waves. We climbed far above the road frequented by the day trippers, taking the time to wander across the fields and past rustic barns, dry wall stone fences and sheep pastures, each earning hardly a backwards glance the cars far below. The path becomes more rugged and the views get more spectacular. But the real treat is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention – at least, at first.
“See those stones down there?” Tom the guide says. “Those are Dingle’s famed beehive huts, like they have on the Skelligs. Those ancient ruins down there, they date back to the early Middle Ages, as far back as the 6th century.” But what is a beehive hut? Technically called a clochán, these are small, round structures in the shape of a beehive (hence the name!) – dry stone huts made in the corbelling technique. Though it’s true that compared to an early gothic cathedral or castle in France or Italy these clocháns might seem basic, they are nonetheless fascinating, and unlike anything else you’ll see in Europe. And there are so many of them! Dozens and dozens of beehive huts – the remains of an ancient settlement on the sea.
The route ends with a dramatic flair – turn the corner and we’re treated to a panoramic (if foggy!) view of Slea Head, Ireland’s westernmost point, and beyond that, the Blasket Islands. Our hike finishes with a sharp descent into the village where we make a dash for the cafe – hot chocolates and lovely views abound! We finish out our day with a visit to the Blasket Islands Visitor Centre. An archipelago of 6 remote islands, the Blaskets were inhabited by up to 176 souls in their heyday, including several writers like Peig Sayers, Maurice O’Sullivan, and Tomas O’Crohan. Once a thriving though remote island community where tradition (and the Irish language!) reigned strong, in 1947 the islanders were forced to send their infamous telegram: “STORM BOUND. DISTRESS. SEND FOOD. NOTHING TO EAT.” By 1953, the entire island had been evacuated to the mainland. The story of the Blasket Islands and its people is fully explored in the visitor centre.
Day five starts with two exciting things: first, a pottery making session! We learned the technique of throwing and shaping your own pot from a local artesian specialising in pottery while browsing his amazing collection. From there, we set off along quiet country lanes marvelling at the quaint stone houses.
Following the Dingle Way onto the beach, the sun broke through the clouds and the vibrant turquoises, golds, ceruleans and cobalts bedazzled us. We spent most of the day wading through the ocean waves and walking amongst windswept sand dunes – we lunched in an a sheltered cove on the beach! In the evening, we were meant to do a seaweed bath – a renowned and relaxing activity in Ireland – but technical issues mean that I’ll have wait a little longer to experience my first seaweed bath!
So, we went to the Gallarus Oratory instead. A 12th century dry stone “church,” it is also one of Ireland’s most important archaeological sites. In the evening, we went for pints (this is Ireland, remember!), and a hearty dinner – where we were treated to Tom’s lovely renditions of beloved folk songs sung to the tune of his guitar! It was brilliant, and certainly a trip highlight!
Our penultimate day of hiking was certainly the most challenging. Our day’s goal? Hiking the shoulder of Mt Brandon. We knew it’d be a challenge when Tom said, “Today, bring your gators and hat. Pack lots of layers. And pull on your waterproof trousers even if it’s not raining!” And off we went. Off road, we soon felt like we were eons away from civilisation, from people, from the 21st century. It was us, Mt Brandon, and the muck. Lots and lots of muck. We soon saw why we were all wearing those waterproof trousers!
Mt Brandon has a saintly connection – the mountain is named (possibly) for St Brendon the Navigator (or the paganIrish hero, Bran). St Brendon is said to have seen the promised land (America?) from the summit, though how he saw anything through those clouds is a mystery to me! Regardless, we loved it, gruelling and cold though it was!
The summit of Mt Brandon was well-earned, capped with an ancient ogham stone (a standing stone inscribed with early Irish text using ogham, an early medieval alphabet) – an site of a few quick selfies! Just below, the guide lost his glasses and wanted to tramp through the mud for a look – so what did the rest of us do to shelter from the wind? Hopped inside Tom’s orange survival tent (which was surprisingly warm!) for a hilarious team-bonding experience. (In fact, it was dubbed “The Laughing Tent” for the rest of the trip…). The hike ended with a descent back to the village for more pints before heading to our next accommodation and an elegant seafood dinner.
Our final treat: our last hiking day started with a visit and demo with a local woodworker. Indeed, he taught us about woodworking and carving chairs – but we also learned a lot about organic/sustainable living, philosophy, what it was like to grow up in a illiterate in a rural valley where oral tradition and apprenticeship still reigned. Fascinating is not a strong enough word!
The day’s hike was gentle – along the Maharees, a lengthy strand of perfect beach. The lighting was dramatic, illuminating the waves and contrasting with the sand. A place well-known for the outdoors, you might see people horse riding, kite-surfing, scuba diving, wild swimming, or golfing along the wildly-sculpted sand dunes. We celebrated the end of our trip with an exuberant and delicious dinner in a restaurant favourited by the locals. Craft beer, fresh fish and handmade desserts abound! And of course, we managed to convince Tom to play his music for us one more time as well.
Though our trip had come to an end, enjoyed our last morning together with a hearty breakfast, much laughter, and plenty of photo sharing. We survived a week in the wilds of Kerry, hiking the best of the Dingle Way. This intimate view of the Dingle Peninsula made us feel connected to the land and its people in a way that a quick driving tour of the region never would. Though we had to leave Dingle behind, we knew that we’d never forget this place.
Check out the Dingle Way’s next season’s departure dates below:
|4th May - 10th May 2019||Hiking - Dingle Way||€1,795||6 place(s) left||Book Now|
|25th May - 31st May 2019||Hiking - Dingle Way||€1,795||8 place(s) left||Book Now|
|15th Jun - 21st Jun 2019||Hiking - Dingle Way||€1,795||6 place(s) left||Book Now|
|29th Jun - 5th Jul 2019||Hiking - Dingle Way||€1,795||8 place(s) left||Book Now|
|20th Jul - 26th Jul 2019||Hiking - Dingle Way||€1,795||8 place(s) left||Book Now|
|17th Aug - 23rd Aug 2019||Hiking - Dingle Way||€1,795||8 place(s) left||Book Now|
|7th Sep - 13th Sep 2019||Hiking - Dingle Way||€1,795||8 place(s) left||Book Now|
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