We can thank travel guru Rick Steves for first recommending visiting the Dingle Peninsula. He promised that driving the scenic Slea Head Drive would be “more Irish” and less touristic than Skellig Michael and the Ring of Kerry, and that the loop road would be one of the best things to do in Dingle town. Even without having driven the Ring of Kerry, I suspect he might be right.
One thing’s for sure: Staying in a small, family-run bed-and-breakfast outside of Dingle certainly feels Irish. Ventry doesn’t cater to tourists. It has just one restaurant and one pub.
Plus, unlike its larger, more touristy neighbor, most of Ventry’s residents speak Irish (aka Gaelic) on a daily basis. Our son Jimmy couldn’t be happier about that. He brags about his Irish heritage so hearing Irish just makes this trip that much better for him.
Who am I kidding? Hearing the language makes the trip all the more enjoyable for all of us!
Lesson learned: Arrive early for traditional Irish music
On our first night, we battle rush-hour-ish traffic and drive into Dingle for dinner. In this part of Ireland, dinner is usually served between 6 and 8:30. After that, the pubs begin to fill up with locals who come for a pint and some “trad Irish music.”
Music generally starts between 9 and 10 pm. We go pub hopping after dinner, and pop into three establishments, each with duos playing different instruments. One pub offers a guitar and bagpipe team, there’s a guitar plus banjo at the second place, and at the last, a duet play guitar and accordion. All are different, yet each have a very traditional (“trad”) sound.
Alas, each stay is brief. You have to arrive early to snag a seat. This is nightlife in Dingle Town.
Ireland’s ancient beehive huts
Overcast skies and the promise of rain meet us the next morning, but in Ireland you can’t let let weather deter you. Driving the scenic Slea Head coastal road, even on a cold, wet, and windy day, is why we’d come to the Dingle peninsula in the first place.
We brave the dismal weather and leave our car to explore a few ancient beehive huts. These rustic, rocky igloos were inhabited until 1200. Elsewhere, sheep are penned in by mossy rock walls that have been there for centuries. Off in the misty distance, the stone walls of abandoned houses stand, silent monuments to those forced to leave their land during the Irish potato famine.
Taking Slea Head Drive around Dingle Peninsula
Slea Head Drive twists and turns along a picturesque coastline, offering stunning views all along the way. The narrow, winding road challenges us to pull off for a photograph, and we accept.
Only a few feet from our car, dramatic cliffs plummet to meet the clear, blue Atlantic waters. We hear waves crash against the rocks at their feet while the now-abandoned Blasket Islands rise from the sea. These are the panoramic vistas that photographers and painters covet.
Driving Slea Head promises to be an adventure.
Gaelic Ireland still exists.
Further west we drive, and more and more road signs are in Gaelic only. We laugh at our blundering attempts to pronounce the Irish words and names, not realizing that Slí Cheann Sléibhe meant nothing more than Slea Head Drive.
Here, County Laois is pronounced “leash.” The name Siobhan? “Sho-van.” And you’d think the scenic drive we are on, Slea, should rhyme with “flea”, but no, it’s like the word “slay” or the name Shea. Or sleigh. So … Sleigh Head, Ireland. Why not?
Ireland isn’t the only place where spellings can be deceptive. Even in English is hard to read, let alone pronounce. Never mind “through” vs “tough;” our ph makes a “f” sound, and an x in an English word might as well be “ks” or “z”. So who are we to complain?
We tire of the game just as a little shop appears in the distance, steps from a beach. It must do a brisk business in warmer weather.
We get out of the car to stretch our legs, take a bathroom break and order three hot coffees. The proprietor grins at us as we try to warm up. “It only rains twice a week here,” he says. “Once for three days and the next for four days.”
We rather believe him.
Lunchtime arrives farther along a back road, where no English can be heard nor seen. Neither can any buildings. Nearly despairing, we drive for miles before finally finding a local pub. It’s empty inside.
Our only welcome is the sound of the radio behind the counter, set to a Gaelic station.
Finally, the proprietor emerges from the back. Thank goodness he speaks English, but we soon learn that only two items are on the menu: soup or sandwich. We’re hungry enough to order both, plus “a pint” to warm us up.
In Ireland, a nip of any kind of alcohol hits the spot when it’s cold and rainy. This miserable weather has brought us to order a pint whenever possible.
The simple soup is a clear vegetable broth with split peas, carrots, onion, black pepper, rosemary and Italian seasonings, while the sandwich is ham, sharp cheddar, onion, and tomato on white bread, then toasted. (He kindly made vegetarian versions for Dan and me.)
Yes, this will do nicely.
ⓘ TIP: In Ireland, Bulmer’s Cider and Smithwick’s Ale are on draft everywhere. If you tire of savory hops, Bulmer’s offers a fruity change of pace. About as alcoholic as beer (4.5%), it is crisp and dry. As to the ale, Irish beers aren’t served ice cold like they are in the U.S., but who needs that when it’s cold outside? Cool basement temps perfectly enhance their flavor.
Back in Dingle
Slea Head Drive loops back to end in Dingle, conveniently just as the weather clears. Perfect timing. We have plenty of time before dinner to walk along the waterfront and along some of the streets, so we set off to see what we can find. It doesn’t take us long to fill our cameras with beautiful photos of Dingle. SEE THEM HERE,
Dinner and trad music in downtown Dingle
Finally, our day ends in a waterside family restaurant in downtown Dingle. After last night’s fiasco, we eat early and immediately set off to find early seating.
It still takes us a while to find a pub with seating for three cold, wet tourists. I’m not sure if it is the damp weather, the cozy pub, or the talented performer, but within minutes after finding our seats, it’s standing room only.
Plan your visit
- Find the Dingle tourist office at The Quay, Dingle. Open Mon-Sat, 9:00-17:00.
- Dingle-peninsula.ie is another good resource.
- See more of Dingle town and Slea Head Drive in our Dingle Peninsula photo gallery.
Where we stayed
- The Plough B&B, in Ventry, Ireland.