When friends ask me about the weather of Ireland, I tell them that on some days, you can see all four seasons in a single day.
As it began to get nicer and warmer around May, my husband and I finally got started with planning our summer getaway. It was the only time we could take risk on the weather as compared to the rest of the year. Living in the UK for 2 ½ years and now Ireland for some time has programmed our system to accept whatever weather conditions we encounter with minimum cribbing. So we decided that may the winds blow, thunderstorms fall or the sun glisten (hopefully), we will embrace it all. Summer had arrived and we were going on a holiday!
Kerry or ‘the kingdom’ as the locals like to call it, was once cited as ‘The most beautiful place on Earth’ by the National Geographic Magazine. It is located in the south-west region of Ireland and is home to some of country’s’s highest mountains, sparkling lakes of Killarney (famed in songs and story), 12 EU credited blue flag beaches and remote silent valleys in the shadow of great mountain ranges. A paradise for the adventure-loving hikers, climbers and surfers, Kerry boasts of a plethora of welcoming towns, cosy B&Bs and several award-winning restaurants which specialise in sea food, serving ocean’s direct bounty from the fishermens’ boats. With its mountainous interior ringed by the rugged coastal scenery and spectacular views over the Atlantic, Kerry has been a picture postcard image of Ireland for ages now and attracts people from across the world round the year.
We chose to take a flight to the Kerry airport from Dublin to save time and the train changes. It was the shortest flight I had ever been in and after only 45 minutes in the air, pilot was announcing the landing.
As we descended from the little airplane, it seemed that we had traveled back in time. Gone were the crowds and the high rise grey office buildings. In their place were the vast stretches of green and open fields, towering mountains and gushes of fresh coastal air. I was delighted to be this close to nature without the interfering barriers of concrete and felt far removed from the usual bustle of the world.
We had booked a shuttle to pick us up from the airport to take us to our Breakfast & Bed in a little village of Ballyferriter which was our first destination. A robust cheerful fellow greeted us at the arrivals gate with a board having our names on it and in no time, we were on our way.
This journey to our accommodation in itself was sheer tonic for the eyes. The road skirted atop cliffs overlooking the Ocean, beneath striking mountains. The sun shone bright in the skies, adding several warm autumn colors to the nature’s palette already spattered with a hundred shades of green. Every bend brought another scene that produced gasps of wonder.
We soon reached our B&B by the name of An Speice located in a small one-street bustling Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) holiday village named Ballyferriter. The village is nestled in a stunning green valley and the surrounding waters are sheltered by a trio of cliffs affectionately known as ‘The Three sisters’. There is a total of two shops, a church, a post-office and several pubs for the tourists to enjoy. It is definitely a more traditional part of the country and most road signs we saw were printed in Gaelic only. Our hostess Alice cheerfully greeted us with a “Top of da mornin’ to yeh” and we knew we really were in the heart of Ireland.
She invited us to sit in the glass room with a gorgeous view of ‘the three sisters’ and also brought out a welcome tray of hot tea and home-made cakes. They were divine! Thanking us for the compliments, Alice informed us that the cakes were made of ingredients that she kept soaked in tea for many days. My tea-loving hubby wanted to know if the tea brand is a local one so that we can buy some to carry home with us and a highly amused Alice replied- “You know, I think it is actually from your India!! Indian tea is the best” That was funny.
We spent the first afternoon wandering around and simply taking in the scenic surroundings. If we wanted, we could have hiked up on one of the cliffs but we decided against it. It’s always a good idea to take it easy on the first day of one’s vacation even if the travel has been short like ours was. It wears you down more than you’d think. So we mostly relaxed on a little beach near the village center to charge up our energy for the rest of the trip. The weather was balmy and the warm sun felt amazing on our backs as we dozed off to the soothing lullaby of the waves and the other sounds of nature.
We got our first taste of Irish hospitality on our first evening in Ballyferriter itself when we went to the restaurant named Ceann sibeal hotel for an early supper.
Kerry is synonymus with fine dining. Food is not cheap but then it is a tourists’ hub and the prices reflect that. Being Ireland, restaurants aren’t shy when it comes to portion sizes either. They are truly enormous. Nevertheless, what bowled us over the most was neither the delicious food nor the amazing local beer (it did bowl us over a fair bit though, in literal sense). It was the sheer intensity of warmth and good humor we came across in this place that truly won our hearts.
We were served by a sweetest mother-daughter duo named Eileen and Eilis Ni Ghairbhi and they were both extremely humorous, friendly and great to talk to the whole time. Nothing seemed too much trouble for them. My husband who wasn’t sure about the type of local beer that he should try, was rewarded with a bottle of each kind flooding our table. “Take your time choosing!” our waitress said with a wink. Then there was that time when we decided to share a dessert. Eileen (mum) asked me- “Two spoons?” and I joked “Yep.. bigger one for me!” Next thing you know we have our sinful chocolate cake with ice-cream in front of us, with a tablespoon for me and a teaspoon for my husband!! Nothing that hubby could say would make her change it. That cracked us up to no end. Essentially the Irish are as colorful on the inside as they are on the outside.
Kerry is immensely blessed with a rich vein of tradition and culture and moreover, they have managed to beautifully preserve their vintage ways to this day. The Irish accent is among the most musical and ear-pleasing ones I have heard and it’s only enhanced by their pronunciation of certain words. The word “three” becomes “tree” and “thirty” becomes “terty”. It was in this place that we were hearing people actually conversing with each other in Gaelic for the first time. It seemed that English is only used for interacting with the tourists. Thus, the accent sounded even more concentrated and thick to our ears.
There is a wealth of Irish songs, music and wild style of set dancing in the area. Come evening, pubs big and small, are full of life and local brews are served over the bar by friendly bar staff, as traditional Irish music is no doubt played by one man and his guitar to an audience of locals and tourists alike. It truly offers a slice of authentic country life. The energy is electrifying.
As we walked back to the b&b in the evening, we came across several signboards with ‘Star-wars’ written on them. When we enquired about it with Alice later on, she told us that bits of the ‘new star-wars movie’ had been recently shot in one of the the hills that could be seen from An speice’s driveway. “Even one of the older one was shot a fair bit in the nearby locations, you know” she told us. I am not a Star-wars fan but it was still a good piece of trivia to tease your nerdy friends with, after getting back home.
After having had an eventful day, we returned to room and were deep asleep in no time.
Next morning, I woke up to the sounds of distant waves rolling against rocks, chirping of the morning birds and an urgent call of a seagull. It seemed surreal. I let hubby sleep in for another half an hour and after freshening up, went to the garden on my own for a little morning walk before breakfast.
The view of the three sisters in the morning was absolutely breath-taking.
Such statements about the term ‘three sisters’ to address the three cliffs of the region are a source of great entertainment to locals around this village. ‘Hiking up the three sisters’, ‘Tallest of the three sisters’, ‘I made it halfway up on one of the sisters’. One just can’t avoid the jokes. I tried substituting them with words like cliffs or hills but people catch the drift and with a twinkle in their eyes, prod you till you end up saying a silly double-meaning statement about the three sisters. So yes, the view of the three sisters in the morning was simply breath-taking.
I stroked a little cat who had come to lie down at my feet and sat outside for sometime, enjoying the calm. It was a new day and we were going to visit Dingle’s most popular destination today- The Blasket Islands.
These are group of islands 15 minutes away by boat from the mainland of Kerry. Some say that it is the western most point in Europe. The name “Blasket” is a mystery and nobody knows how or why the group of Islands came to be known as “The Blaskets”. One suggestion is that it originates from the Norse word “brasker” which means “a dangerous place” The Blasket Islands are made famous for the rich literary tradition that emerged, the gruelling lifestyle endured and the stunning natural beauty of both the islands and the surrounding areas. The main island is mostly uninhabited now but a completely Irish-speaking population (what is today known as a gaeltacht region) lived there until the 1950s. The decline in Island population was due to younger generations migrating away from the Islands when the life on the islands got too difficult to carry on.
Story of the islanders is very interesting. They led simple but hard lives. The island is rocky and is made up of sparse grasslands. The Islands’ steep topography made it very hard for the islanders to grow food so they fished for sustenance. They made a living from fishing and their diets mostly consisted of potatoes and fresh fish. There was no plumbing at all and water had to be fetched from some of the springs on the island. The people living on the island had to make their own entertainment seeing as there was no electricity for radios or tv’s. For the most part, they went to each others’ houses for their entertainment, engaging in singing songs or storytelling. Luckily for the them, there was no shortage of storytellers, seeing as the place is home to many of Ireland’s great writers. They spoke only gaelic and were very passionate about preserving their heritage.
The islands were so isolated that islanders had to travel miles to get to the nearest town, three of those miles had to be traveled by boat. During the winter, the island experiences adverse weather conditions which could prevent someone having to travel across waters to the mainland in an emergency and yet, living an isolated life no doubt appealed to many of the Blasket Islanders. It reminded me of the Amish lifestyle in many ways.
On 17 November 1953, the last 22 people were moved to the mainland due to safety issues when finally a young boy died when he couldn’t be taken off the island in bad weather. The islanders, especially the older generation, were extremely heart-broken to leave their homes behind. Their love for their way of living has sustained them in harsh conditions for a long period but finally they had to leave it behind. They were given houses in Dunquin and some went to America. We had a cab driver during our trip who told us that his grandmother was one of the last lot of people to live on the island. “It killed her to leave” he said.
As a Gaelic-speaking community, away from the influence of the rest of the country, the islands had gained a reputation for refinement of language that attracted scholars to their shores in the summer months. No other island community of this size has yielded such a literary wealth, producing world-renowned writers. Knowing their way of life was coming to an end, some islanders decided to write down their memories. They wrote in Irish, their native language, but their books have been translated into English, and some into German and French. There have been a number of good books written about the community that lived on the Blasket Islands, one being The Islandman, and another being Peig Sayer’s autobiography.
The only way to get to the Blasket Islands today is by ferry which leaves every hour from the Dunquin pier and needs to be pre-booked in the busy season. We missed the morning ferry which was fully booked even when Alice called a day in advance to get us a place on the earliest boat. So, we were booked on a 12:15 pm one instead and at breakfast, Alice generously offered to drive us to the ferry point.
The drive to the ferry point has been one of the most pleasurable drives of my life till now. Alice gave us the running commentary on the area throughout our drive and as we had some time to kill before our ferry, she dropped us around 3 kms further away from the pier so that we could walk back to take in the stunning views around us.
Slea Head drive, as the looped way is called, is a magical tour around some of the most stunning scenery in the world, immortalized in several legendary movies like ‘The Ryan’s Daughter’. Bounded on three sides by the sea, it combines in its landscape, the ruggedness of rocky outcrops and cliffs with the soft shapes of hills and mountains, skirted by coastal lowlands.
The blazing sun shone on an expanse of brilliant green that Ireland is so famed for. We meandered along the narrow coastal road that wove through an idyllic setting of white and beige houses nestled amongst steep green hills that overlooked the shimmering ocean. My husband chased after sheep happily grazing on the fields nearby, only to receive angry “Baas” of irritation from them as they fled from him and his camera. The tranquility and the incredible views over the Atlantic with its mirror like waters reflecting incredible cloud formations , Slea-head drive is a paradise for nature lovers like us. We looked down at the beach where ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ was shot many years ago and just stood there, basking in the feeling. I am lost on words to describe how extraordinarily gorgeous the views were.
Walking back to the pier after about an hour, we were soon sailing across the navy sea, on a small ferry packed with tourists and locals. It was still windy and quite brisk for my liking but the Irish in attendance were unpertubed, sipping coffee and merrily chatting with everyone on the boat.
We reached the landing point of the island in about 20 minutes and spent the next 3-4 hours hiking among the ruins and around the considerable length of the island. The magnificent views, the hidden beaches and cliffs, clear sunny skies and picnicking at the top of the mountain with a packed lunch we had got from our B&B, rendered a day way better than the expected vistas.
We also saw many seals in the ocean but not as many as we would have liked. There’s a cafe that has been recently opened here for the tourists to grab a bite or to use the washroom facilities. Interesting fact- throughout our trip, we were delighted to see the staff at the cafes, restaurants and pubs using colored or numbered rocks as the token numbers to keep tab of the orders. It was the same at the island cafe as well.
Looking at the abandoned structures and crumbling ruins on the island, I really got a sense of the isolation involved in living there and how watching the mainland and the dreams that it held must have sent the younger generation of the islanders willing to leave behind their primitive lifestyle. The good thing is that one can still visit this place, walk the bog tracks, marvel at the scenery and wonder at what it would have been like to discover what tea is for the first time, when tins of tea were washed up on the shore. How the inhabitants must have spent the nights at the beach, huddled around the fire, telling tales of their ancestors to each other or singing and dancing to the local folk songs. It brings to life, the timeless way of living on this mystical place long ago. Such places always leave a magical effect on me, a special feeling, like it has been waiting just for me to tell its tales that would leave a lasting impact.
Numerous people camp on this island and I wondered how spending the night in pitch darkness without any facilities would make me feel. My over-courageous husband was more then ready to stay there overnight to make an adventure out of it but thankfully (for me) I could convince him that we did not have the necessary amenities needed for a spontaneous night stay. Now, I am also quite a sporty person myself but certainly not upto this extent just as yet. We didn’t even have a tent and moreover, there were several animals on the island- sheep and donkeys and hares! Sleeping on grass with no bathroom facilities at night except for the bushes where you may run into a donkey, is not my idea of fun. I was tired after day long hiking and couldn’t wait to go back to our b&b and to my warm cozy bed.
We took the last ferry to the mainland at around 4:30pm and hitch-hiked with a group tour who kindly dropped us to our accommodation on their way. We rested our tired feet for a while before heading out to the village for dinner.
We both walk a lot during all our vacations and it frees us to lavish ourselves with a calorific indulgence at the end of each day. We have a fixed set of guidelines pertaining to our meals on a holiday and they are-
- We always go for a b&bs instead of hotels mainly because they have more character and also, because they usually offer amazing variety of home-cooked delicacies for breakfast to kick-start the day.
- After a heavy breakfast, lunch is usually a filling sandwich/sub/burger/panini with fruit-juices or crisps or other munchies.
- Lastly, we end each day with an early fancy dinner at a nice restaurant.
This way our meals are light on the stomach as well as on our pockets!
We ate at the same pub as the day before and as we were to leave for our next destination of Kerry the next morning, we bid goodbye to the pub staff after our meal there. There are no hand-shakes in this place but tight bear-hugs and lots of wishes whenever one bids farewell to the locals. “Mind y’rself” is the most common farewell statement. Waving to the lovely staff and locals of the village we had befriended, we made our way back to our B&B. It’s incredible how much you get attached to the place in just a couple of days.
One doesn’t need much to live a good life. I think that the less materially wealthy and prosperous a place, the more hospitable, trusting and generous its people. Here, there were lesser facilities, less technology, lesser choices and in turn, great satisfaction out of leading such a simple, uncomplicated life. Regardless of the causes, the result is love and warmth that flows from the Irish soul and bestows a unique welcome to those who grace their beloved land. For me, days in places like these unfold like the pages of a fantasy novel.
Next morning, we waved as our taxi pulled out of An Speice’s driveway. Alice had offered to drive us till Dingle which was midway but we did not want to cause her the trouble.
At this point, I feel it wise to suggest an essential piece of advice if you are planning to travel to Kerry- RENT A CAR!!!!
Since the beginning, my husband had been very much keen to make this particular holiday a road trip but I had remained firmly against it. All the videos and documentaries that I saw, showed the roads of the Wild Atlantic way as narrow, extremely steep, twisty or winding. Moreover, hubby had not driven a car even once since we had arrived in Ireland and despite all his arguments, I was not willing to let him drive in a new country for the first time, on the cliffs surrounded by deep waters from all the sides. Thus, we finally decided to rely on the public transport as always. The problem- There’s hardly any in Kerry!
The most popular option to see the sights around Kerry is to book a guided tour and travel in a van as a part of a group. That has never really been our style. We both love to walk and trek and spend hours at a single place to soak it in. Hubby sometimes takes around 15 minutes just to take a single picture. A tour always seems to rush through the sights and we are not big fans of time-tables on our vacations. Kerry is a vast stretch to cover and there is no reliable bus service there except for a single one which runs in the morning through the peninsula and does a return run in the evening. There are cabs/shuttle service available but it gets very expensive to use them to get around on daily basis when the distance between the various villages/towns/landmarks is so extensive.
Thus, if we have to do it again, I would definitely get a vehicle of my own for this particular place. It gets very binding otherwise. One can imagine the number of ‘I told you so’s I got from ‘you-know-who’ throughout our trip. Sigh!
As we made our way out of the village, hubby began chatting with the friendly cab driver and I looked back at ‘the three sisters’, wondering if we’d ever return to this isolated part of Ireland again. Roaming through the captivating wild beauty around Ballyferriter had been wonderful and now we were headed towards our next destination to spend the next three days there. The Inch village, famed for one of the best beaches in Ireland- the Inch beach, boasts of a sandy beach of three miles renowned for bathing, surfing and sea angling. We would be staying at a b&b named ‘Foleys’ which was located within a kilometer’s walk from the beach. As we had a couple of hours to kill before we had to check-in at the new accommodation, we decided to stop mid-way at Dingle to have lunch at one of their famous restaurants and also to explore the Dingle village center.
I was excited to see which hidden gems lay waiting for us on the next lap of this magical journey of discovery…….
TO BE CONTINUED……..