If the whole island of Ireland was a poem, the Dingle Peninsula would be the catchy couplet you can't get out of your head. National Geographic once called this little piece of land "the most beautiful place on earth." While their complimentary assessment has become quite a lure for tourists, it doesn't capture the essence of a place that refuses to be defined. The landscape is wild and rugged, misty and mysterious, harsh and healing, whimsical and charming. The neatly painted houses that crisscross the land suggest a certain tameness that is contradicted by the coal-black cliffs, the crashing surf and the wildly unpredictable weather. The peninsula's appeal is only heightened by the fact that no other place in western Europe even comes close to matching the density and variety of its 2,000+ archaeological sites. Ruins stand tall around almost every corner, as common as the woolly sheep that contentedly munch the brilliantly green grass.
One of the best ways to witness the marvel is to take a ride on Slea Head Drive, a narrow, 30-mile paved path that encircles much of the peninsula. One is, of course, welcome to drive the costal road, but to fully appreciate your surroundings, we recommend pedaling instead. The hills can be a bit challenging but that just means you'll appreciate the views that much more.
Dingle is one of several quaint towns on the peninsula, but it is by far the most charming. Colorful storefronts, dozens of boats in the harbor and an abundance of pubs (54 by our last count) make this small fishing village one of the most popular destinations in Ireland during the summer. Several establishments like Foxy John's or Paddy's Bike Shop rent out bicycles so snagging a ride shouldn't be too tough. Technically you can ride whichever route you please, but the path of least resistance is clockwise, so head west out of the town and into the countryside.
The grazing sheep and stone fences make this spot look like any other on the peninsula, but follow the signs along the well-worn, narrow path down to the edge of the cliffs and you'll find one of Ireland's most dramatic ruins. The low walls and circular configuration have seen several millennia of history pass by. The promontory fort was likely built around 500 B.C. and was inhabited up to 1200 A.D.
At first glance the beehive huts may look like nothing more than crudely crafted structures. However, from an architectural perspective, they're actually rather impressive. Using a method known as corbelling, they were made by creating circular base of flat stones and then angling each successive layer ever so slightly so that the top could be sealed with a single capstone. Only a few remain today, but at one time abut 400 of the durable, waterproof structures dotted the hillsides nearby.
The Blasket Islands are clustered a short boat ride away from the coastal town of Dunquin. Until its 22 inhabitants abandoned the land in 1953, the area was home to a primitive but proud group known for their unique language, literature and lifestyle. Visit the compelling Blasket Center for a look into their unique history before hopping on a ferry over to Great Blasket to explore the community's remains, which are more ghost than town at this point.
Louis Mulcahy Cafe and Shop
Louis Mulcahy's Cafe and Shop is the perfect spot to stretch your legs and grab a quick bite. Their cafe serves all the local specialities like Dingle organic smoked salmon, smoked mackerel pate and a variety of cakes and scones. Perhaps even more appealing, the building is where Mulcahy, the acclaimed Irish potter, displays and sells his wares. He uses only the highest quality porcelain clays and makes all his own glazes. Walking out of there without at least one piece of artwork takes an incredible amount of self-control.
This small structure is the best preserved Christian church in all of Ireland and represents the pinnacle of drystone corbelling. The interior is composed of a single room and is completely dark except for one tiny window on the far wall. Local legend says that if an individual can climb through the small opening their soul will be cleansed. Several nearby Celtic grave markers also indicate the building was important in burial rituals.