Secret Ireland: The dingle Peninsula
Pol O' Conghaile uncovers coastal adventures and the freshest seafood, washed down with a heroic brew.
The Blasket Island scallops
There's no shortage of seafood in Dingle. The real trick, in a town that seems to have as many restaurants as pubs, lies in separating the magical from the mediocre.
Out Of The Blue leans towards the former.
Housed in a brightly painted old smoking house across the road from the marina, it sets out its stall with a matter-of-fact scribble on a blackboard outside: "Everything fresh or alive, nothing frozen, no chips."
Stepping in past the bubbling lobster tank, punters take a seat in a jolly little space crammed with paintings of fish. Menus rely on the catch of the day -- in my case, a small sole (€28.50) that doesn't justify the big price tag, and Blasket Island scallops (€13.50) that absolutely do.
The scallops come on a busy plate surrounded by several other elements -- olive tapenade, couscous, salad, pickled beetroot and so on -- but chomping through the seared exterior gives way to a creamy flesh done all sorts of favours by a surprising curry marinade.
Details: Tel: 066 915 0811; outoftheblue.ie.
The Antarctic ale
For the best part of a century, Tom Crean was the unsung hero of Antarctic exploration. Recently, the grizzled hero who retired from epic voyages with Scott and Shackleton to run a pub on the Dingle Peninsula has been celebrated in books and a TV series.
This summer, the Dingle Brewing Company paid the publican the honour of naming a lager after him. Tom Crean's, a sweet blend of malted barley, saaz hops, pilsner yeast and spring water, is available in pubs all over Dingle, but tastes best right where it is brewed.
A tour of the small brewery, based in Dingle's old creamery, includes the chance to observe the brewing process, read about Crean's adventures and have a pint. Make sure it is properly chilled -- a later dose in the Dingle Bay Hotel wasn't half as tasty.
Details: €6 for the brewery tour. Tel: 066 915 0743; dinglebrewing company.com.
A hospital for seals
Danu has a nasty scar under her flipper, most likely a propeller wound.
The little seal pup, just a few weeks old, was discovered on the beach at Inverin, Connemara. Her wound was gaping then, her prospects for survival slim.
Today, she's peering up at me with big pooling eyes, pert whiskers and a mouth you'd swear was smiling.
"This is a happy seal, doing that sort of banana position!" her keeper says.
Danu is one of more than a dozen pups rehabilitating at the Dingle Seal Sanctuary near Lispole. The sick, injured and abandoned creatures have come from as far afield as Sligo and Skerries and, after intensive care in their 'kennels', will move into purpose-built nursing pools, get gradually weaned off human contact, and ultimately return to the sea.
Visitors can watch their progress via a series of boardwalks built over wetlands, where you'll also find wildfowl enclosures, a playground and a café. You can adopt a seal online from €20, too.
Details: €6/€4. Tel: 066 915 1750; dinglesanctuary.com.
The strand from the silver screen
Okay, at 191 minutes, maybe 'Ryan's Daughter' (1969) was a tad long. And maybe the sweeping scale of its cinematography did end up dwarfing its characters.
But one thing's for sure, as an elderly lady tells me in Dingle: "That movie was the best government we ever had."
I ask her to explain. "It put Dingle on the map," she continues, with a steely certainty in her eyes. "That was when people here started eating dinner in the evening."
Little remains of the movie sets today, but several locations are unchanged -- including the stunning beach of Coumeenole, which watches out over the Blasket islands near Dún Chaoin.
When I visit, waves are peeling in and a clutch of surfers is lining up to catch them alongside a couple of ducking cormorants.
The wet brown sands are the colour of butterscotch sauce, and the familiar angular rocks make it look like the movie was governing only yesterday.
Details: Slea Head. See discoverireland.ie/dingle.
The overnight suggestion
Two words spring to mind when I first see the line of mini-mansions along The Wood outside Dingle: Celtic and Tiger.
Stepping into Castlewood House, however, my concerns are quickly dispelled by the sureness of hand with which Helen and Brian Heaton run the business.
Picture a cross between a B&B and a boutique hotel. Original art by Helen's mum, Irene Woods, hangs on the walls; a lounge is stocked with classic couches, antiques and coffee-table books; Helen is on hand with all the local info, and there's even takeaway coffee inside the front door.
Rooms are big, slick and comfortable, with heavy curtains blocking out the early light (and parting to reveal a champion view of Dingle Bay), a large wooden-framed bed, and a brace of Lily O'Brien chocolates on the dresser. Between bedroom and bathroom, space ain't an issue.
Everyone is talking about the breakfast, too. When I surface, Brian greets me in his chef whites. A buffet includes homemade breads, stewed rhubarb and pears poached in orange juice, and there's an 'L' beside dishes made with local produce.
I go for the eggs Benedict, a Saturday-morning staple simply presented on a black plate with light hollandaise sauce, a toasted muffin and a long, decorative chive. Just a five-minute walk from the marina, Castlewood offers a lot of polish for a very reasonable winter price.
Details: B&B from €45pp in November. Tel: 066 915 2788; castlewooddingle.com.
The little things
Dingle certainly punches above its weight as a tourist hub. Fungi the dolphin, thumping pubs, sizzling seafood and shop fronts painted up like a box of liquorice Allsorts have given it an international reputation other towns of its size could only dream of.
I prefer the hidden gems to the big hits, however. Think of the TV series 'Other Voices', which has brought an astonishing range of performers -- from Amy Winehouse to Anna Calvi -- to St James's Church. Or the spiritual centre at Diseart, across the road from Dick Mack's pub.
Secreted away in the chapel here, you'll find 12 stained-glass lancet windows from the peak of Harry Clarke's career.
There's also an unusual version of 'The Last Supper', by Eleanor E Yates. Take a close look at the apostles -- if they seem familiar, it's because they were modelled by local men.
Details: €2. Tel: 066 915 2476; diseart.ie.
The wilderness trek
It's a chilly Saturday morning with grey skies hanging low over the Dingle Peninsula. Three horses come galloping along The Banks, the squelchy throttle of their hooves, throwing clumps of sand and seawater up into the air.
Beach riding isn't for novices, of course -- the speeds and surfaces make sure of that -- but I do get to ride on the foothills of Mount Brandon nearby.
Mountain treks are another niche for Susan Callery's Dingle Horse Riding, a canny business on a peninsula not known for its horsey heritage.
Rosie is my mount, a cross between an appaloosa and Irish draft. As a beginner, I get some quick pointers on reins and riding position, before climbing up towards a panorama over Dingle with Susan, her daughter Sophie (11) and head girl Elaine Waters.
Horses make perfect sense here -- off-road on the mountain trails, we're accessing parts of the peninsula only hikers can reach, albeit with a much higher viewing position. The drizzly weather doesn't bother the animals either, and on a clear day, you can see Skellig Michael.
Details: €65pp for a two- hour beach and mountain ride. Tel: 066 915 2199; dinglehorse riding.com.
Windows into an underwater world
Aquariums in Ireland can be dank, disappointing affairs. From the moment I step inside Oceanworld, however, it feels as if someone cares.
The tanks, ranging from an eerie piranha pit to a 150,000-gallon pool dominated by cruising sand tiger sharks, are crystal clear and spankingly clean.
Yes, it's pricey. But there is no damp stink, kids can touch certain species under supervision, one tank holds the cast of 'Finding Nemo' and another highlights the effects of pollution by plonking a car bumper in with the fish.
Did you know a disposable nappy takes 450 years to degrade?
The newest additions are several sub-Antarctic Gentoo penguins.
The waterline in this exhibit is at shoulder height, so you can observe then both below and above the surface, and two of the penguins -- Hugh and Candy -- have even paired off, singing to each other and sleeping side by side.
Details: €13/€7.50. Tel: 066 915 2111; dingle-oceanworld.ie.