Seaside Secrets: The Southwest
Pól Ó Conghaile goes off the beaten track in search of Cork and Kerry’s hidden treasures.
The bucket and spade beach
Ballybunion oozes a kind of time-warp tourism, an age before package holidays when two weeks at the seaside was the highlight of an Irish family summer.
Its sandy strand breaks either side of a promontory castle, traditionally separating the old men's and ladies' beaches.
A bucket and spade or body-board is all you need to get the best out of Ballybunion in the sun, but there's plenty of coastal quirkiness up in the town too -- from seaweed baths to the sculpture of Bill Clinton outside the Garda Station and the 'Ballybunion Blast', a devilish mix of McCarthy's ice cream, strawberries, meringues and marshmallows at Sundaes ice cream parlour.
Don't miss the coastal walk connecting with Nun's Beach further along the coast.
It's a perfect horseshoe carved into the cliffs, sprinkled with seabirds and inaccessible by land, though I'm told the nuns from the convent used to access it by shimmying down a rope!
Details: discoverireland.ie/ ballybunion.
The ocean experience
Flicking through my five-year-old's copy of 'National Geo Kids' magazine, I'm amazed to see Dingle first on a list of amazing sea life. Fungi isn't its only aquatic attraction, it seems.
"I dive all over," says Eric Sas of Dingle Marina Dive Centre, whom I meet in Jack Benny's pub. "I head for warmer water throughout the winter -- the Red Sea, southern France, places like that. But every time I come back to Dingle, I think, this is my thing."
You don't have to be Jacques Cousteau to join him, either. Every morning, Eric places a sign on the marina. It reads: 'Dive Today, No Experience Required.'
The try-dives take beginners to a sheltered spot in the harbour, where soft coral, sea anemones and sponges are a virtual kindergarten for fish.
The water is hovering around 14Â°C at the moment, thornback rays are jetting about, and Fungi regularly sticks his nose in.
Bad weather scuppers my dive, but the Centre also does PADI courses, and experienced divers can nab the National Geo moments at several sites around the Blasket Islands.
Seals, dolphin and conger eel are common sights, and Eric has even snorkelled with minke whale.
Details: €99 for a try-dive. Tel: 087 413 1231; divingdingle.ie.
The seaside town with a sizzle
Kinsale is as much a place, they say, as a state of mind. When I meet tour guide Dermot Ryan, I see what they mean. The town centre is built on reclaimed land, he tells me, with sea water still flowing in under it at high tide. "So you're walking on water when you visit Kinsale."
Ryan is as much a fixture of this flowery seaside town as its window boxes, Victorian and Georgian houses and yacht-spotted harbour. He has a rolodex of quirky facts at his fingertips, too.
Did you know Alexander Selkirk left Kinsale in 1703, before being marooned on a Pacific Island and inspiring the novel 'Robinson Crusoe'?
Did you know there is a wine museum in its 16th-century castle or that the McCarthy brothers, their big ears immortalised in two bronze busts, travelled with Shackleton and Scott to the Antarctic?
Then there's the food. Kinsale provides the best fish 'n' chips of my summer so far -- with a tempura batter so light it could have been made with sparkling water, and a scoop of tartar sauce in an oyster shell. Costing €9.95 at the Fishy Fishy chipper, it's as much a plaice as a state of mind.
Details: Tel: 086 826 7656; kinsaleheritage.com.
The beach with a bite
The South Pole Inn is a blast of the Antarctic in Annascaul. It was here that wayfaring Kerryman Tom Crean retired after his adventures with Scott and Shackleton, and though no Crean family member is involved with the pub today, it continues to trade on his legend.
I sit beneath wooden beams, surrounded by images of the Endurance, browsing a menu featuring Crean with his pipe and woolly hat. An Emperor penguin looks down from the gable end. All make an irresistible contrast with the cosy pub chit-chat.
My fish 'n' chips arrive, chosen from a menu with a touch of the theme park about it (dishes include an Endurance Burger and Tom's T-bone steak). A crisp, herby batter crinkles around a big, juicy lump of cod, though the chips taste like standard fare.
Annascaul is a stone's throw from Inch beach, but you'll find a much quieter cove a couple of miles down a nearby bohareen at Minard. Here, a storm beach cuts into the cliffs under the eye of the ruined Minard castle, its sands cluttered with boulders.
Details: Tel: 066 915 7388; facebook.com/southpoleinn.
The coastal trail
You can walk, cycle or drive around the Sheep's Head, though I'd definitely recommend feet over wheels.
Nothing beats stretching the legs on the sandstone ridge, passing the gables of deserted villages or spotting whales from this network of old mass and fishermen's trails.
The full Sheep's Head Way measures 88km, but you can dip in and out of it as you please. Highlights range from the goat's path ("because it's only good for goats, I suppose", I'm told) to the Atlantic lighthouse and the snaking end of Dunmanus Bay, its tide pulled back like a bedspread.
Along the route, you'll pass Bantry House, old milk-churn collection points, swimming spots such as O'Donovan's Cove, a plaque marking the drowning of Booker Prize-winning author JG Farrell in 1979, and perhaps even a road-bowling event. It's a wonderful corner of west Cork.
The seaside shop
The bay approach to Courtmacsherry is so enchanting, I'm tempted to park my car in Timoleague and walk the final stretch along the waterside path.
The tide is out, a slippery layer of weed is as green as a field, and the Seven Heads peninsula is blushing with fuchsia.
As it happens, I park outside the Golden Pheasant crafts shop and cafe on Hamilton Row. It's just as intriguing.
On the ground floor of a converted stable is a shop full of Carraig Donn knitwear, Abbey Crafts figurines, Avoca scarves and Jerpoint glass. Upstairs, a café sells Mauds ice cream and hunks of apple tart and lemon meringue pie baked by the owner, Carmel Kiely.
The big surprise is in the garden where, under the shade of apple and eucalyptus trees, an aviary houses a long-eared American owl and dozens of pheasants. I amble in and find myself sharing the steps with a seed-pecking, electric red and blue Lady Amherst's pheasant.
"We thought that if people were looking for crafts they would like a coffee," Carmel says of the family-run operation. "It went from there." Dunworly is the pick of the local coves.
Details: Tel: 087 212 3612; seven headspeninsula.ie.
The summer boat trip
As the red and white Sherkin Island ferry pulls out of Baltimore Harbour, a seal pokes his head up into the wash. We pass the snow-white beacon marking the bay entrance, and within 10 minutes are mooring at the pier on Sherkin.
It's as short and sweet as a ferry crossing gets.
Sherkin is one of dozens of islands spotted about the wonderfully named Roaringwater Bay, and is home to 100 or so souls year-round.
A mile or so down a fuchsia-strewn bohareen lie the twinkling waters of Silver Strand.
The wow moments come thick and fast -- the ruins of a Franciscan friary by the pier, views of Cape Clear and Mizen Head, a solitary yacht in Horseshoe Bay. On the last Sunday in August, Sherkin sparks into life during its boating regatta.
Today, it feels as if I have the island to myself.
Details: €10/€4 return. Tel: 087 244 7828; sherkinferry.com; baltimore.ie
The overnight suggestion
Lissyclearig Cottage looks as if it's been part of the Kenmare landscape for generations. Meeting Carmel and Davey Breen amidst the undulating thatch, bright geraniums and white stone walls of their home, however, I'm astonished to learn that it is only nine years old.
"There was no point putting a modern bungalow here," Carmel explains. "Nobody would come and see us." So Davey got to work. He built a fireplace from local limestone, used the slates from his mother's house for the dining room floor, carved tables from spalted beech and made the bedside lamp stands from bog dale. He even reclaimed the prow of an old currach as a hall table.
Whether you find the results tantalising or twee is, of course, a matter of taste, but Lissyclearig is some testament to one couple's hard work and creativity. Davey is a champion angler too, as the trophies on the mantelpiece attest, so have a word with him if you plan on going fishing.
Details: B&B from €32pp. Tel: 064 664 2562; lissyclearig thatchedcottage.com.