The Dingle Peninsula is a 40-mile finger of land jutting into the Atlantic from Ireland’s southwestern shore, as far west as the mainland goes. The next parish, as the local folks say, is Boston.
The Dingle’s stark beauty, rich history, and warm hospitality enchant visitors from around the world. I’m one of them. The coastline reminds me of California’s Big Sur, with its steep cliffs and jagged shoreline. But Big Sur doesn’t have signs in Gaelic, ogham stones with 5th-century carvings, jolly Irish pubs, or the intriguing Gallarus Oratory. The Oratory is the best preserved early Christian church in Ireland. Built of closely fitted stones without mortar, it is almost 1300 years old.
The peninsula has scores of other historic sites scattered around the rolling hills where sheep graze. There are the ruins of the 12th-century Romanesque Kilmalkedar church, castles, ancient wells, and ring forts on headlands. One of the most dramatic is Dunbeg Promontory Fort, dating from the Bronze Age, perched on a steep cliff above Dingle Bay. There’s a visitor center at the fort where sandwiches, coffee and tea are available.
The Dingle Peninsula has plenty of modern attractions, too. You can ride bicycles on country roads, go horseback riding, and golf on the most westerly course in Europe. In Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium, marvel at the sharks, sting rays, gorgeous coral and fish, and pet a starfish. For something wilder, take a ride from Dingle Pier to see Fungie, the friendly bottle-nosed dolphin. This remarkable creature showed up in the bay in 1984 and has never left, swimming with delighted tourists and around the boats that greet him.
Boats also go regularly to Great Blasket Island, as far west as you can get and still be in Europe, where you’ll catch a glimpse of a wilder, older Ireland. The rugged, windswept island is 3 miles off the tip of the peninsula. Broom and heather cover the ground, seals play in the clear water, and everywhere you’ll see rabbits and hear the calls of seabirds.
Back on the mainland, you can watch artists at work in Dingle, the main town, and try your hand at throwing pots in Louis Mulcahy’s pottery workshop. At Dingle Crystal, Ltd., find gorgeous crystal done by craftsmen who specialize in Celtic themes. Brain de Staic Jewelers make fine jewelry using Celtic tradition in original ways, and John Weldon Jewelers handcraft gold and silver jewelry in intricate Celtic knots. The workmanship of all these artists is extraordinary.
Where to eat in Dingle
When you’re looking for a good place to eat, you have a wealth of choices. Seafood is the obvious favorite in this waterside town, and it’s on most menus. Ashe’s Seafood Bar serves fresh fish in many forms – the chowder is great — in an unpretentious, cozy pub restaurant. Beginish is a sweet spot with gardens and outdoor tables. Meats and vegetarian meals are on the menu, but here, too, local fish is the star. The Charthouse, open for dinner only, is a bistro-style, very popular restaurant where the service and food are impressive. The Coastguard has a spectacular setting and fine food.
And Café Liteartha is unique. “The Literary Café,” set in a bookstore, offers soups, salads, and marvelous cakes, along with books on Irish history and literature. Finally, no one should leave Ireland without stopping into a pub for an evening of Irish traditional music, conversation, and casual bar food (shepherd’s pie, beef stew, fish with French fries). John Benny Moriarty’s Pub and The Dingle are a couple of good examples.
Where to stay in Dingle
Lodgings range from simple B&Bs to the sprawling Dingle Skellig Hotel and Peninsula Spa, on Dingle Harbor. Most of its 111 rooms have harbor views, and there are numerous amenities. Its sister hotel is the 250-year-old Dingle Benners Hotel, in the heart of town. Its appeal is more old-fashioned, with dark woods, some 4-poster beds, and 52 rooms of varying sizes.
Then there is Castlewood, a 12-room guesthouse outside of Dingle. This lovely place, a 5- to 10-minute walk from town, is just about perfect. Rooms have whirlpool tubs, TV, DVD and CD players, and Internet access. Breakfast, served in a dining room overlooking Dingle Bay, is more than ample. Not many lodgings serve apricots and figs soaked in white wine and star anise for breakfast, or porridge topped with Irish Mist. You can have pancakes, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, omelets… the menu goes on. And the welcoming hosts offer the best of Irish hospitality.