Sunday 21 January 2018

Into the wild: Scenic beauty on coastal driving route

One can drink in the scenery on the Kerry leg of the longest coastal driving route in the world, and samples some Irish delights along the way

The beautiful scenery at Cloghane in west Kerry.
The beautiful scenery at Cloghane in west Kerry.

Anne Cunningham

We all know what the WWW is, but how many of us know about the WAW? I knew precious little about the Wild Atlantic Way myself, until I got the opportunity to explore some of it.

The WAW stretches from Donegal right down to West Cork. It is the longest coastal driving route in the world – yup, you read that right! 2,400 kilometres of coast road is a lot of road. Oodles of time and money has been spent in making the route more driver-friendly; the roads having been improved, repainted and comprehensively re-signed from – literally – top to bottom.

Scallywag and I headed off on our road trip like Thelma and Louise. We got the wheels, we got the stereo, we got the shades, and look out Kerry here we come.

Our first stop was Ballybunion. I'd forgotten how spectacular the beach there is. But the trek we took around the cliffs with Danny Houlihan of Ecotrek Tours was even more spectacular. Danny is a real character – a historian, tour guide, musician and seanchaí, he regaled us with stories of pirates and mermaids, chieftains and smugglers. We were mesmerised.

And all of this was set against the backdrop of a purple-orange Atlantic sunset... what a wonderful introduction to Kerry.

Dinner at McMunn's Seafood Restaurant in Ballybunion was exceptional. McMunn's is a bar and restaurant, and the atmosphere couldn't be more relaxed, with a local songster giving a powerful rendition of Christy Moore songs, and a lively crowd soaking up the atmosphere. There was nothing relaxed about the food, though. It was superb. Crab claws and grilled garlic mussels to start – the portions were huge. Then duck for Scallywag and fresh grilled cod for me. We dawdled over dessert – didn't know where we could possibly put another bite – and so ordered what we thought was a taster of three different desserts, but even the taster portions were enormous, and sadly they defeated us.

McMunn's is a restaurant that's very serious about their food, and their highly acclaimed chef Greg Ryan is doing a fine job.

Overnight we stayed in the cool elegance of Teach de Broc, a beautiful country house hotel beside Ballybunion Golf Course. There was nothing cool about the reception we got, though, as owners Aoife and Seamus welcomed us like we were family. This really is a charming hotel. Late in the evening the guests – all repeat visitors – sat around in the lounge, having a casual chat, and I felt very much part of it all. Finding such an atmosphere these days is rare and precious.

Breakfast the following morning had everything you could imagine on the menu. Scallywag had the full French – delicious crepes straight from the pan. After the sumptuous feast at McMunn's the night before, I could only manage a warm, fresh-baked scone, but it was gorgeous.

This is the friendliest hotel I have ever stayed in. But we had things to do and places to go, and the first stop was the Tralee Bay Wetlands, where we took a boat tour with resident ecologist David.

The hand-reared whooper swans ignored us, they were too busy having a very loud domestic. We saw lots of birds on our boat cruise that are rare and protected species. A view from the centre's tower is particularly impressive. Along with boat tours and the interactive eco-centre, there are zorbing balls for the kids and there's a large restaurant with great views. This is a must-visit spot, a wondrous place for young and old alike.

Surf's up and so we went surfing. Really, we did. In Castlegregory, with surfing coach Philip of Waterworld, Ireland's largest diving and leisure centre. There we were in our wetsuits, two dead cool surfing dudettes, wading out into the Atlantic like we knew what we were doing.

The older dudette (much older!) got a wham of a big Atlantic wave and bid a hasty retreat. But not the younger, oh no. She braved it out and had a blast – definitely Scallywag's favourite activity of the weekend. The winds were high and the waves were higher and she'd never even held a surfboard before, but under Philip's watchful eye her confidence soared. To the extent that she's been bitten by the surfbug.

All that surfing made us crave some ice cream. So we drove to Murphy's ice cream cafe in Dingle. Special stuff is this. Every free-range egg is broken by hand, every drop of cream and milk comes from local Kerry cows, and the result is... well the myriad awards say it all.

It's highly addictive too. I tried the sea-salt flavour (they even make the salt themselves by boiling off Dingle sea water) and it's divine. Just a hint of salt, to give you just a hint of the sea, it's a really different and refreshing taste. Their brown bread ice cream is fab, too.

Dinner in Dingle's multi-award-winning Chart House restaurant was another real treat. Curiosity got the better of me. I had to see if their beef tagine would work as well as the more usual lamb. It was fabulous, a delicately spiced taste of Morocco served with lemon couscous, and the beef was fall-apart tender.

Their scallops were fat and juicy and served with the coral attached – most unusual, as the coral is highly perishable. I guess it proved how fresh they were. Marvellous.

Presentation was impeccable, and water came in big, colourful Louis Mulcahy pitchers.

We stayed in the opulence of the Dingle Skellig Hotel that night. What a view of the bay from the bedroom. And what a bedroom. Luxurious and commodious. The breakfast room overlooks the Atlantic from every table, and while sometimes large hotels serve pretty average breakfasts, this is not the case with the Dingle Skellig. Breakfast was really very good, although I think Scallywag – sticking to her French breakfast theme – tried to clear the place of croissants.

The staff was plentiful and couldn't be more helpful. It's a great hotel, full of quiet hide-away corners and turf fires, where you could sit over a drink and read for hours.

Finally in Dingle, Fungi the Dolphin snuck a few peeks at us on the Dolphin Boat Tour. And everything you've heard about what a thrill it is to meet him face-to-face is true.

Despite inclement weather, he didn't fail us. Up he popped and down he dived and it was an unforgettable experience to pay a visit to Dingle's most famous resident.

We just got a taster of the road-trip that is the Wild Atlantic Way, and we drove up airy mountains and down rushing glens, against the constant changing backdrop of the Atlantic ocean. The coastline around the Dingle Peninsula is staggering in its dramatic beauty. My native Meath is known as the Royal County, but Kerry really is The Kingdom.

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