My favorite place in Ireland is a place I never intended to visit. We hadn’t highlighted it in our maps, travel guides, or list of “must-dos”; in fact, we had intended to spend that day driving along the famous Ring of Kerry. Granted, the entire trip was loosely drawn — this was our Women’s Walkabout, two girls in their 30s wandering the southern half of Eireann, wherever we wished, because we could. We intentionally did not reserve our hotels in advance — except for Dublin on our first day and final two days — so that we could spend the seven days in between following our bliss (pro-tip: pre-purchase B&B vouchers) — but we’d also read guidebooks and asked friends for suggestions and browsed the internet, and the Ring of Kerry was on multiple lists. We figured we shouldn’t miss it.
But this is not a post about the Ring of Kerry. We got there, eventually, and it was fairy tale levels of lovely, but on this day, we got something significantly more story-worthy: we got Dingle.
The Dingle Man
“Have ye ever been to Dingle?”
I can still hear his voice ringing in my head, his lovely lilt and charming baritone. Maybe 15-20 years older than us, he was the proprietor of a random bed and breakfast in Kerry that we’d found after a a few false starts — the trusted B&B signs (indicating that they accepted our vouchers) were plentiful, but alas, no vacancy here, no vacancy there — until finally we found a lovely cottage across from a farm where, from the sound of it, there must have been a hundred sheep just beyond the mist, bleating their welcome.
Almost all the B&Bs we visited were clean and comfortable, a bit small, but always a private room for us to settle in. This place was the same, but it also had the benefit of a common sitting room with massive windows, where their other guests were enjoying tea and cakes and lively conversation — which was a key part of the equation for a Women’s Walkabout well spent.
The other guests were quick to share how we were in luck. This particular cottage was special, they said, and a requirement for all their visits to County Kerry. They were absolutely charmed by this man, and we quickly followed suit, on the heels of these rave reviews and this gentle soul, with his jingling laugh and easy manner. (Sadly I have forgotten his name, so for the purposes of this story, I’ll simply call him The Dingle Man.)
The Dingle Man helped us bring our bags to our room, and engaged in the token Irish B&B hospitality small talk, which always proceeded in this exact order:
- What’s your name
- Where are you from
- Where are you heading
When we responded to that last with “Ring of Kerry”, he shook his head in disappointment. “Everyone thinks they want to go to the Ring of Kerry. Ye want an adventure, though, right? Two girls, out to explore and see the real Ireland?”
Absolutely, we responded.
And then, his fateful response: “Have ye ever been to Dingle?”
We headed back to the common room, and as he served our tea and cake, The Dingle Man solicited the group: “These girls want to go to the Ring of Kerry tomorrow. I tell them about Dingle. They should go to Dingle, yes?”
Resounding yeses and cheers from one and all. “Ring of Kerry – boring!” “Go where the adventure is!” “Dingle, the scenic route!” “Dingle, the hard way!”
Now, let’s get real: it’s entirely possible that nobody said, “Dingle, the hard way“. But in my mind’s eye, you bet there was, because there has to have been that one person who gave us warning of what lay before us … and there had to have been that moment where we were given an opportunity to see the danger (the critical foreshadow) … and like good heroes, we had to not pay that person any mind.
We laughed, and drank our tea, and scarfed down our cake, and decided what the hell: let’s go on an adventure. Let’s go to frickin’ Dingle.
The next morning we had a breakfast that did not disappoint – truly one of the best on our trip, and we were surrounded by the same delightful company as the night before. The Dingle Man dropped off a map at our table, route highlighted in yellow. His look had hardened a bit from the night before, and he gestured toward the front windows. All we could see was a blanket of fog.
“Yer not going to get the best view this morning, I’m afraid,” he said sweetly, but with a few shades less joviality than the night before. “Best wait an hour or so ’til the fog lifts, so ye can see it better.”
He walked away. My friend and I conferred at the table, and it didn’t take long for us to decide to stick to our plan. The Dingle Man came back to our table. “Are ye still goin’?”
We nodded enthusiastically. “Absolutely! We’re ready for an adventure!”
“Well, all right, then!” The good humor was back in full force. “Now if you want to do it right, ye take the route I highlighted. There’s another path, but it’s much more boring. Ye won’t be disappointed, best way to travel to the best town in County Kerry.”
Sounds great, we agreed, and went back to finishing every last morsel of food on our plates, feeling ready for almost anything, blissfully unaware of what was to come.
We waited an extra hour to be on the safe side. Still foggy, but the road view looked clear, and at this rate we were confident that by the time we got near Dingle the weather would be in good shape. Today was my turn to be driver, so my fair companion grabbed the map, and we headed to our destination, by way of the scenic route.
At first the road was fairly consistent with what we’d been experiencing on our trip — it took several days, but by now I was almost adequate at the whole driving thing, although it was still challenging for two main reasons:
- Left-Side Driving. I’d heard that this has a learning curve, and I am at best an average-skilled driver here in the States (I actively avoid parallel parking, and have backed into a space maybe twice in my lifetime). I knew this was going to take me a minute. If you’ve never had this “other side of the road” experience, it is similar to writing with your non-dominant hand, or reading by holding your book up to a mirror — with the bonus feature of knowing that you could hurt someone if you mess up. By this point I was able to keep the car in something resembling center-of-the-lane, but it still took constant concentration.
- Narrow Roads. They weren’t just narrow, the kind that leave you with the paranoid thought: my car can just barely fit in this lane. On some roads, you have the very real, no-paranoia-required recognition: two cars cannot possibly fit on this road. There’s just not enough room for both of you. Ireland’s solution: one vehicle (typically the smaller one, often driven by an anxious tourist cursing her life choices) needs to pull over at a shoulder to permit the other (stronger, faster, larger) vehicle to continue its journey. This requires the shoulder existing, of course, or, at minimum, a patch of ground large enough to fit your vehicle. If you’ve ever wondered why cars in the UK look like small toys, this is why: the smaller you are, the more options you have to get out of the way and live to see your destination. So on the narrower roads, I needed to keep an eye out for both oncoming vehicles and upcoming shoulders, and try not to have flashbacks to story problems in 5th grade math class. (If only my math teacher had warned me about driving in Ireland … insert pithy maxim about hindsight here.)
Like I said, at first, the narrow roads were challenging, but the kind of challenging that I’d been getting used to. Still required all my concentration, but I’d been here before, and I was prepared for the extra effort involved.
What I was not prepared for, was the road getting narrower, such that our small toy car just barely fit on the entirety of the supposed “two lanes”.
What I was not prepared for, was the resurgence of the fog, blocking our view of what we assumed was something very scenic and lovely to our right, as our elevation increased as we continued along the tight path, and then increased some more, until we realized we were going to keep going up and up and up, on narrower and narrower paths.
What I was not prepared for, was the disappearance of any shoulders to pull onto when oncoming vehicles would head our way, and the appearance of rocky terrain to the left, and now seen to our right (the fog was lifting) — much to our shock and horror — there was no terrain.
We were driving along the edge of a small mountain, in the fog, where the slightest misjudgment of the lane would lead to disaster.
And that’s when the tour bus showed up.
Driving down the mountain. Very fast.
Coming straight at us.
I knew the rule: the bigger vehicle wins, and the smaller needs to dodge. So now it was a matter of figuring out where exactly said dodging could possibly occur. There seemed to be nowhere to go but forward or backward. To the left, I saw a wall of rocks and quarry, no obvious shoulder that would keep us safe while the bus passed. To the right, it was all downhill, down a (albeit, very scenic) rocky cliff-face, off of which we would potentially drive to our painful and bloody death.
But it was a Hobson’s Choice: I veered left, pretending there was a shoulder there, pretending the rocks would magically move aside. (Spoiler: they didn’t.) We heard the crunch and scrape of our car sideswiping Irish nature. And we both heard and saw the “WHOOSH” of the tour bus, adeptly angling itself just off the path (yes, toward cliff-side) to just avoid touching us (and I mean just — that bus was right there outside my window) and continue on their merry way.
Heart racing, breath coming in short audible gasps, knuckles appropriately whitened from my over-tight hold on the steering wheel, I turn to my friend (who is showing similar symptoms) and say:
“Sorry about the car.”
If looks could kill, I may as well have veered to the right.
After much debate about whether to keep going or abandon mission (we kept going), other than a few directions here and there, the car was pretty quiet for the rest of the trip. Both of us focused on getting to safer ground, and off this horrible Scenic Route.
As we passed the sign stating we had reached our destination, I felt a muted sense of relief. My main goal was to find the nearest place to ditch the car, get some space from one another, and shake off the terror of the past hour. We had put the address for James G. Ashe’s Seafood Restaurant in our GPS, at the behest of The Dingle Man (“Best clam chowder on the planet! I swear to it!”), which is where we swiftly parked, grabbed our notebooks (writers gotta write their stresses away), and made our way inside.
From the moment we walked in, we could tell we were someplace special. The atmosphere was quiet and welcoming. There were multiple rooms, each with soft cushion chairs and benches surrounding dark wooden tables. The lighting above was dim, yet each table perfectly lit for reading and writing. We chose an area with a fireplace and a large table where we could spread out and write ourselves into a calmer state.
Oh, and the clam chowder? Definitely the best on the planet. No contest.
By the time we finished our meal and expressed ourselves with pen and paper, we were not only back on speaking terms, but we actually felt pretty okay. Better than okay — the road had risen up to meet us here in Dingle, and we had not only survived, but apparently found the inn at the end of the world.
Now that we had recuperated, we left the restaurant and started wandering around. Our modus operandi on this trip (as you’ve likely suspected) was to not be overly attached to maps and destinations, but rather to go in the direction of sights and sounds — and absent that, pick a direction and see what happens. And when we got lost, we’d find someone who seemed kind (or at least not scary), and ask for help getting found again. Surprisingly effective, I have to say, especially when your traveling companion is beautiful and charismatic. (I made a decent wing-woman.)
Determining direction in Dingle was utterly uncomplicated — as chance would have it, we were there on their Market Day. This is essentially a farmer’s market meets an art fair meets the local circus set dressing committee. Vibrant in every way — and we would soon learn that this was the design of the entire town of Dingle — a town of bold, loud, outrageous, joyful, contagious color.
We continued our wandering, turning at random intersections and exploring the neighborhood. We were enchanted by the different color houses (see comment on circus design, above), the brightly designed storefronts, the sometimes absurd mural art, and the perfectly positioned animals patiently waiting outside the perfectly designed doors.
Dingle was undeniably adorable — the perfect counterpoint to the all-too-serious drama of getting there.
A little background on this next part. My traveling companion and I met via a community theatre group (that was partially founded by her parents), one that had recently had to abandon their physical space (a rundown building with a bright red door). I had recently recharged my life post-divorce, and this theatre community was a major part of my new start. We forged a bond through our love for writing, connected through our mutual wanderlust, and eventually decided we would make brilliant traveling partners.
With that context, I hope you can imagine our absolute joy when we wandered through a few more streets, and came upon the An Lab, a theatre arts building. Basically, a community theatre, right in the heart of Dingle. We walked around to see if it was open, and found the entrance — which was, of all things, a red door. Dingle was thus seeded into our hearts, permanently.
There was no one around, so we couldn’t help ourselves — we had to see if the door opened — and it did. (Why would it do anything else?) We quietly explored the halls, ignoring signs that said it was a private building only for An Lab purposes. We could imagine the energy of rehearsing scenes, the echoes of vocal exercises, and the smell of old costumes and makeup. We knew this world, and no longer felt strangers to Dingle. We were home.
At one point we were a bit split up, each exploring the hallways and rooms at our own pace, when I turned a corner and found a poem encased in glass on the wall. I got five lines into reading it when I shouted my friend’s name to come read text that seemed to be speaking directly to us. We squealed with delight as only two wandering women who had just cheated death and stumbled on a pile of symbolic treasure can squeal.
We reluctantly left Dingle, continuing our journey up the southwest coast. We drove a bit, listening to the radio, musing to one another about how magical the day was, nearly cinematic, and how we already missed being there.
My friend gave me an impish look out of the corner of her eye. “We could go back.”
“Back to Dingle?”
“We don’t have reservations. We can go where we want.”
“That’s a great idea. We might even have time to see the Ring of Kerry.”
So we changed course, and headed back to Dingle for another day. We stopped by the Dingle dolphin visitor’s center, explored more of their shops and piers, and had yet another extraordinary meal, this time at Lord Baker’s Pub (see below for its claims to fame, and another ode to the town).
As I conclude this tale, The Dingle Man’s words ring in my head. “Have ye ever been to Dingle?” So much love behind his words, such desire that we should understand that love. I’m so glad to be able to say that I understand now, that yes, I have been to Dingle … and it was brilliant!
I hope I’ve peaked your interest to experience Dingle for yourself. My story cannot do it justice, but with luck you too will someday find yourself laughing with The Dingle Man, and sharing your stories about the best town in County Kerry.
Just one last pro tip: maybe don’t go the hard way.