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The Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry is a long, winding drive of about five hours from Irish capital Dublin, but still one of the most popular spots for urban dwellers when it comes to escaping the capital and heading for the countryside. Why drive so far? From the quaint local bars to the rugged hills, dolphins, distinctive ice cream and Ireland’s best small music festival, there are plenty of reasons.
If you’re thinking of making the trip to the south-east to indulge in a little rural exploration, here are the sites and experiences on the gorgeous Dingle Peninsula that make it simply unmissable as part of any extended Irish itinerary.
Let’s start with the obvious: meeting Dingle’s famous resident dolphin. Fungie has been around for years, with local legend holding that he lost his partner swimming in the Dingle Bay, and has (unusually for dolphins) lived here solo ever since. He’s a friendly creature, so much so that the company running the boat tours out to see him don’t charge you if he doesn’t show up. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can leap into the Atlantic on some trips, too.
Murphy’s Ice Cream is an institution, one that’s gained enough traction in Ireland in recent years to get a store set up in the capital, too. Dingle is the true home of the stuff, however, and there’s no better place to try it in the context of its weird and wonderful flavours. They include sea salt, lavender, brown bread, Dingle gin and Irish coffee. They also once made a smoked salmon ice cream, but they don’t like to talk about that.
Abandoned way back in 1953 after the government declared it unsafe to live there, the Blasket Islands, off the end of the Dingle Peninsula, are rugged islets that rise to almost 300 metres above sea-level and are often invisible through the Dingle fog. Popular for summer walking and sea life, they’re a real rural Irish adventure, with guided tours of the now-abandoned village on Great Blasket Island and basic accommodation now available.
At 456 metres, the Conor Pass is the highest pass in Ireland serviced by a proper road. That height might not sound mindblowing, but the scenery is, with narrow roads, sweeping lake views and sheer cliff drops. The climb is famous in bicycle races in Ireland, too, while for the brave, there are also running events heading up the route. You’ll have to come in summer, though; as soon as it gets even slightly cold and icy, this is a no-go.
This isn’t possible for most since Other Voices takes place once a year during the first weekend of December, but this tiny winter music festival, set up as a TV series, is one of both Dingle and Irish music’s finest offerings. The main acts play in the tiny St James’ Church, while guests can indulge in ample free pub gigs and other fringe events and party the night away. You’ll need a lot of luck to get in the 80-capacity main venue, with tickets literally ‘money can’t buy’ (you’ll have to win one), but the quality is astonishing if you get in. Previous performers include Amy Winehouse, Snow Patrol, Damien Rice, The National, Spiritualized and Hozier.
We’ll get to Dingle pubs in a looser sense in a moment, but first, let’s talk about Dingle’s famed explorer, Tom Crean. Hailing from Annascaul, 20 minutes from the town itself, Crean took part in three Antarctic expeditions, including as one of Ernest Shackleton’s crew, spending 492 days stranded on ice before being part of the party that escaped for help. Annascaul’s local pub the South Pole Inn (formerly owned by Crean) is one big tribute, remembering him with pictures, a statue and plenty of stories. The nearby Dingle Brewery has even named a lager after the main man.
Tucked away on the less-populated north part of the Dingle peninsula, this 1,000-year-old church is a beautifully curved structure that feels part of the landscape, being built from stones found among the peninsula’s cliffs. It’s a stark place, one that gives a real sense of what ancient life on this rugged peninsula might have been like.
A huge, beautiful expanse of sand on the south of the Dingle peninsula, Inch Beach has the sea on both sides of its own sand-duned outcrop as it guards the entrance to Castlemaine Harbour. Being at the mercy of the Atlantic, it can be wet and windy, but on a good day driving along the packed sand, taking surf lessons, dropping in on the summer bars and restaurants and soaking up the scenery is heavenly.
If you want to check out the crazy dual-use pubs that Ireland is famous for, this is where you’ll find some of the very best. From Foxy John’s (half-pub, half-hardware store with bicycle rentals on the side) to Dick Mack’s (a bar that’s home to an old leather goods shops as well as being Munster Whiskey Bar of the Year), this place has a nightlife like almost nowhere else. You’d be mad not to dive in.
What does acre after acre of perfect green pastures and a whole lot of cows make? Perfect milk, cream, butter and cheese. The latter is showcased in this wonderful little Dingle store, where the scent hits you the moment you push open the door. Most of the stock is local, and it makes for a fantastic petite foodie exploration.
This 952-metre-high peak has been ascended for centuries, since the pre-Catholic times of the once-pagan island. It’s honoured today as one of a handful of pilgrim pathways designed to introduce tourists to Ireland’s traditional trails, similar in a sense to Spain’s Camino de Santiago. The Mount Brandon route covers 18 kilometres of spectacular scenery, starting on the beach and finishing at the foot of the mountain. You might as well go on up, right?