Helen and I hit the open road. Destination, the most beautiful place on earth. No, really. We’re not stopping until we go as far west as one can go in Ireland – to the seaside village of Dingle in county Kerry, once described by National Geographic as “the most beautiful place on earth.” But that’s an exaggeration of course – we actually stop a few times. We’re traveling from one edge of the country to its southwestern extreme, and even though it only takes about five hours to drive across the entire country, it’s still a trip worthy of little respites along the way.
We soon find ourselves in the tiny village of Anascaul and after going door to door in the light rain, we decide to stay at the Paddy Wagon bed and breakfast just a stone’s throw from The South Pole Inn. The heart of the village, it’s the public house that Tom Crean and his wife bought and ran nearly a hundred years ago. Tom Crean (1877-1938) was an Irish seaman, Antarctic explorer, and modest hero.
As a member of three major expeditions to Antarctica, Tom spent more time in the ice and snow than either Sir Ernest Shackleton or Captain Robert Scott. On his last expedition, Tom volunteered to go for help in order to save a comrade. With only two sticks of chocolate and three biscuits and no sleeping bag or tent, he walked for eighteen hours, earning himself the Albert Medal, at that time the highest award for bravery.
He returned to Anascaul, humble and relatively unknown, and married his wife Ellen with whom he had three daughters. He put all of his medals away and never spoke about his experiences in the Antarctic. As I sit at the bar in his South Pole Inn with my chips and Irish coffee, I wonder what Tom would make of all the fame that surrounds his memory now. There are photos, and books, and a bronze statue of Tom holding two of his beloved sled dogs in his hand. I hope that he wouldn’t mind too much.
The next morning we drive to the town of Dingle, and find not one, but two Murphy’s ice cream shops. In the Dublin shop, I have ordered “Dingle sea salt” too many times to count, but it’s not until I’m actually in Dingle that it means anything. (Oh, this is where the Murphys make the sea salt from the Dingle sea! This is where they get their milk from the Kerry cow!) The town is tiny but both shops are filled with locals and tourists.
And after ice cream, one of the best tourist attractions in the town is Fungie, the wild bottlenose dolphin. Fungie is a forty-year old bachelor who has been hanging out in the water surrounding Dingle since 1983. From all accounts, he likes to mingle with boats and people over a few pints of the plain stuff. On rare occasions he’ll have a Heineken – (just kidding) – and he has his own Twitter feed @fungiedingle – (not kidding.)
But it’s not Dingle itself – it’s the surrounding seascapes and landscapes of the Dingle Peninsula that make this part of world “the most beautiful”. A must-see is Inch Beach, six miles of sandy shoreline and the setting for the 1970 film Ryan’s Daughter. Hugged by dunes, cliffs, and mountains, it’s unlike other Irish beaches in that it’s wide with soft, white sand. People come here to surf and we watch as one man manages to wind surf seemingly effortlessly. A lone lifeguard sits outside his little hut, and compared to the sheer vastness of everything around him, he seems to me to be powerless.
We find ourselves on the road again; this time to the Slea Head Drive. And to a road that takes us to another beach far below jagged rocky cliffs. We walk down the path to where the waves meet the sand and we watch in awe as five young lads brave the freezing cold water to ride their boards together. And the combination of the sky and the water and the cliffs makes me think of continents dividing hundreds of million years ago. And I think I might have to agree with the writer of that National Geographic article.
The next morning we are sad to leave but happy to know that the Dingle peninsula should remain as beautiful as it is long enough for us to come back again.
At breakfast in our bed and breakfast, we start to talk to David O, a dairy farmer. He starts to tell us about the power and wonder of “sexed semen”. I heard him the first time, but Helen says, “Excuse me?” and so he says it again, as if he were saying, “buttered bread” or “skimmed milk” or – well, you come up with one. He explains that the heifers are inseminated with the stuff so that they produce only female calves. And yes, it is a bit expensive, as we might imagine, but it’s worth it in the long run because male calves are only worth about fifty euros and female calves are worth about 400 euros. And so we continue the conversation about heifer insemination as one is wont to do at breakfast in Dingle, County Kerry.
Hours later we run into David and his wife and his mother and mother-in-law. All five of us are carrying the same bag from the same shop. We laugh about the coincidence and we all show each other what we bought. (I hope that you didn’t think that all of that natural beauty stopped Helen and me from eating and shopping our way across Ireland.) So as always, it is the people we meet along the way – those living and those long gone – who make our travels so memorable.