Secret Ireland: Sheep's Head peninsula
A proper céad mile fáilte, heavenly food, hearty walks and hidden treasures are just a few of the delights Pól Ó Conghaile found in wildest West Cork.
The overnight stay
There are several B&Bs on the Sheep's Head Peninsula, which walkers can use like stepping stones as they progress along the four-day loop. Mine is Dromcloc House, an extended farmhouse whose northern rooms boast smashing views over Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island.
The digs are simple enough, with a dorm-like corridor leading to a small room with a tight en suite and a sink tucked away in the corner.
But then Mrs Dympna Crowley (above with husband Johnny and Biscuit the dog) appears, bearing the kind of old-school welcome I thought had gone down in flames during the Celtic Tiger.
First, Dympna brings me a scone and a cuppa. Then she disappears to turn on my electric blanket. After recommending two local restaurants, she organises her husband Johnny to drop me into town. When I mention my hiking plans, she even goes so far as to fish me out some sunscreen.
If ever a manual is written on Irish hospitality, Mrs Crowley should be on the cover. The ceád mile fáilte is alive and well in this old farmstead on the Sheep's Head Way.
Details: B&B from €32pp. Tel: 027 50030; dromclochouse.com.
The Durrus cheese tarts
Jeffa Gill first made Durrus cheese in a pan on her kitchen stove in 1979. Prepared from the milk of West Cork cows, it has since gone on to become a famous Irish farmhouse cheese -- though Gill remains based on the Sheep's Head Peninsula, in the upland valley of Coomkeen.
I stop by for a taste of her wares at The Sheep's Head Inn in Durrus, a small pub with a sign outside making a simple claim: 'Open for good food.' Inside, a busy barman ferries fish and chips and other fancies out to customers lunching by a big fireplace and exposed stone walls.
The TV is intrusive and the toilets lurk down chilly corridors, but a brace of Durrus cheese tartlets served with salad and red-onion chutney (€8.95) hits the spot. Biting through thin pastry, the gooey, rind-washed cheese spills enthusiastically over my lips, fingers and plate. It's hot and tasty artisanal fare, sprinkled with herbs -- as close as you'll get to a bit of landscape on a plate.
Details: Tel: 027 62822 (Sheep's Head Inn); durruscheese.com.
The island escape
Beside me on the 15-minute ferry ride to Whiddy Island are a small band of schoolchildren. In its heyday as a pilchard-fishing station, this island was populated by over 800 souls.
Today, the children are a smattering of just a few dozen people who call it home.
Whiddy's walking loop ties in with the Sheep's Head Way, so I follow its yellow markers for a while, picking through fields strewn with eggs cracked open by the villainous grey crow.
There are terrific views of the Beara Peninsula, hulking old batteries and a glistening tidal lake.
Oddly, Whiddy is also home to a gigantic oil terminal. It was here that French tanker Betelgeuse blew up in "a whack of an explosion" in 1978, as rural recreation officer James O'Mahony recalls. He was at a dance in Bantry on that fateful night, and emerged to see a "ball of fire" in the sky.
Today's huge vats stand in stark contrast to the tufts of daffodils sprouting around the island, and a lone hare bounding through the evening light.
It's an unusual gem.
Details: €6.50/€3. Tel: 086 862-6734; whiddyislandferry.com.
The scenic drive
If you don't have four days to walk the Sheep's Head Way, four wheels will do. The short circuit shouldn't take more than two hours driving (the stop-offs are up to you) and, unlike the better-known peninsulas to the north, there's no danger of spending it stuck behind a tour bus.
Start from Bantry on the north side. A winding bohareen steers between sheer cliffs and the sandstone ridge, passing curiosities such as Dún Óir Crafts before broaching the peninsula's tip.
Here, you can park outside Bernie Tobin's Café -- surely the closest on this island to Boston? -- and walk the 2.5-mile (4km) loop to the lighthouse, before returning to indulge in a slice of homemade apple pie.
From there, drive back towards Durrus along the wider southern road, passing the Air India memorial at Ahakista, the lonely Droumnea Castle and stopping for a dip at Kilcrohane or a pint in Fitzpatrick's. The loop ends as you swoop along the wooded crook of Dunmanus Bay into Durrus.
Details: discoverireland.ie/ westcork.
The world-class walk
In the Sheep's Head Inn, a quiet pub in the West Cork village of Durrus, a black and white photograph of Muhammad Ali hangs beside the bar. Ali is slamming a punch bag. "The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance over those lights," runs the quote beneath.
Preparation was everything for the Sheep's Head Way too. Stitching an 88km walk into a rugged sandstone ridge and plunging cliffs didn't happen overnight, after all.
The result, tracing an old network of mass, school and fishermen's trails on the peninsula, is an absolute champ.
The Sheep's Head is a mere 25 miles (40km) long and 2.5 miles (4km) wide, but the walk has helped make it one of just four official European Destinations of Excellence in the country.
It's the quiet kid of Irish peninsulas. Following the trail along the Atlantic coast by Gortavallig, I stumble across a deserted village, an angry blowhole and the cordoned-off sinkholes of an old copper mine within the space of an hour. All I can hear is gannets calling and waves crashing.
Details: Tel: 027 61052; thesheepshead.com.
The forgotten folly
"I've lived in Bantry 40 years, and I don't know what Godson's Folly is," a customer in The Stuffed Olive deli sighs.
I'm following the town's heritage trail, taking in stops such as the mill wheel and the site of Bantry's old fishing palaces, but nobody seems sure what this mysterious folly is.
The answer lies on Chapel Street. Godson's Folly is the site of a former hotel whose owner blasted a path to his property through a huge rock, spending so much in the process that he bankrupted himself. Walk through the chasm and see for yourself -- the zig-zagging grain must have been a devil to cut.
Another heritage highlight is the Armada anchor in Wolfe Tone Square. "We were close enough to toss a biscuit onshore," Wolfe Tone remarked when the French pulled into Bantry Bay in 1796.
Bad weather, of course, turned the 'Year of the French' into one of Irish history's great near-misses.
Details: Tel: 027 50229; discoverireland.ie/bantry.
The big house
"People think we must have an easy life," Brigitte Shelswell-White says, collecting my entrance fee at the door of Bantry House. But her work shirt and steely romanticism suggest otherwise.
Mrs Shelswell-White's husband is a descendent of Lord Bantry, and his family has lived in Bantry House since around 1765. Maintaining the place is hard work, she says. "It's physical."
The house peers over Bantry Bay like an old prince. Many visitors come for its gardens, whose terraces you can view by climbing 100 stone steps, but the interiors intrigue me.
As my eyes adjust to the darkness, one fusty treasure after another materialises from the shadows.
A faded tapestry in the Rose Drawing Room was made for Marie Antoinette on her marriage to the dauphin, later Louis XVI. A glowing doll's house was purchased for the children from a Christmas display in Cork in 1938. A four-poster in the west bow dates from 1780.
I believe Brigitte Shelswell-White. Bantry House must be gruelling to upkeep. It teeters on the brink of elegant distress -- and it's all the more spellbinding because of it.
Details: €10/€3. Tel: 027 50047; bantryhouse.com.
The fresh prawns
The Fish Kitchen in Bantry sits directly above the fishmonger it uses as its sole supplier. That means the catch coming in from West Cork harbours such as Union Hall and Castletownbere simply has to be carried upstairs to the chef. Food miles don't get much more efficient than that.
Reaching the first floor and thumbing the door latch on a Thursday evening, I step into a sparse room containing no more than a dozen tables. The specials are on a blackboard. I order a bowl of fresh prawns (€9.95) and a fillet of hake cooked in butter with caper and red onion (€17.95).
The hake is grand; the prawns sensational. Big as souvenir-sized lobsters and served in their shells, they make for a messy starter, but the cracking and scraping and licking of fingers is totally worthwhile. The flesh is delicious, right down to the pickings in the claws. A little tub of lemon mayo and a hunk of brown bread is all it takes to knock it out of the park.
Details: Tel: 027 56651; thefishkitchen.ie.