- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

We were six couples, 12 friends. Three of us had walked out to the Horn of Africa one afternoon; several had circled the smoking rim of Vulcano in Italy’s Aeolian Islands and trekked across the Dolomites; all had hiked Colorado’s Elk Mountains. We decided on Ireland next.

The Dingle Way seemed to offer the best scenery of Ireland’s 32 marked hiking routes. It would mean walking 114 miles, and because some of us still work (at 74, I mainly play), we had just eight days in May to complete the route around the Dingle Peninsula, the most westerly point of mainland Ireland.

I reserved rooms at bed-and-breakfast accommodations found on the Internet (www.dingleway.net). From Amazon.com we obtained a concise guidebook, “The Dingle Way” (Rucksack Readers), by Sandra Bardwell. We all met on a Friday afternoon at Finnegan’s Hostel, which occupies one of many Georgian houses in Tralee, County Kerry’s largest town.

Finnegan’s was adequate and certainly economical, about $50 per couple for a room with a bath and “light breakfast,” coffee and toast. Did I hear muttering about “We hoped for better?”

We shopped that evening for good things to add to the light breakfast and for lunch supplies to stuff into our already heavy packs. At 8:30 a.m. the next day, we began to walk.

In the following days, we found most of the Dingle Way well marked with yellow arrows and the small figure of a hiker. Still, there were places where a signpost was missing, and it was a good thing that Chris and Christl had brought their global positioning system receivers and that Lucy and Ken had good maps.

There were no markers for bog, which we first encountered when, after three miles, we turned from a paved lane onto a path, the ancient route to Dingle. The mud wanted to hold onto our boots, and at one point, Mary Jane fell forward on all fours.

Eight days of this might be difficult, but it wasn’t raining, and the day was mild. We stopped for lunch, Dick pulled out his harmonica, and we sang what we remembered of “The Rose of Tralee.” Above us was the green mountain of the song, and later the sun would be “declining beneath the blue sea.”

After 12 miles, we reached Joanna Kelliher and her Sea View House in Camp, where we found pleasant, good-sized rooms with baths — and no complaints from my comrades. No restaurant, but Miss Kelliher arranged a van to take us five miles to Ned Natterjack’s for a good and hearty Irish dinner.

On our second day, we covered 11 miles over small roads and tracks. There was a lot of uphill walking, but we enjoyed the wide views over green pastures to cloudy mountains. Sheep were everywhere, with many lambs. We came down to the coast and lunched in a cafe by a three-mile beach, Inch Strand. By midafternoon, we reached the neat village of Annascaul, happy to have walked a day without bog.

I had reserved rooms for our group at Ardrinane House, but one room was lacking, and my wife and I stayed up the street at Teac Seain (Sean’s House) and found it comfortable and modern. Sunday supper was across the road at the South Pole Inn, opened in the 1920s by Tom Crean, who had gone to Antarctica with explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton.

After a good meal, we sat by the bar, songbooks were handed out, a fair lady played the guitar and the owner’s son the banjo, and we sang, starting with “Tom Crean’s Song.”

On Monday, we walked 12 up-and-down miles to Dingle, on small roads and more muddy paths. We came down to a little cove and the gaunt hulk of Minard Castle, built in the 1500s and shelled by Oliver Cromwell’s men in 1650. Beyond, we followed a side path to the spring of John the Baptist, where people had tied kerchiefs on tree limbs, as they have done at holy springs in this island since long before Christ.

The town of Dingle is sizable and attractive, with 2,000 residents and scores of new vacation homes. It also is the largest predominantly Irish-speaking town, so I kept my ears open but was disappointed to hear more English than Irish, at least in public places.

We lodged in Dingle at the Mainstay Guesthouse, an old but modernized and comfortable place run by Gus Cero, a native of New Jersey, and his Dublin-born wife. One of the two Marys in our group turned 60, and for her birthday dinner, Gus recommended Out of the Blue, a small restaurant down by the port, a 10-minute stroll from the Mainstay.

We were famished, but, objectively speaking, this was a great place, and we agreed it deserved four stars. I had scallops; Mary Jane, monkfish on a skewer. Fish, salad, vegetables and dark bread were all fresh and delicious. We paid about $80 per couple, not counting the wine, which was John’s treat.

Our fourth day was another 12-miler. An hour from Dingle, we came down to the beach at Ventry, and for 1½ miles our Way took us along the hard sand. It was a breezy, exhilarating morning.

Now came the best prehistoric part. The Dingle Way turned inland, but we kept to the road to visit a cliff-edge stone fort built centuries before Christ and then a settlement of ancient stone beehive houses. We rounded a bend, and there in the sea lay Great Blasket Island, the most westerly point in Europe.

The next day, I hoped, we would take the ferry to Great Blasket, the largest of the Blasket Islands, and walk its five-mile length. Years earlier, I had read “Twenty Years a-Growing” by Maurice O’Sullivan, who chronicled island life when, until 1953, it was inhabited.

Footsore I was when we reached Kruger’s Guesthouse and pub in Dunquin at the end of the Dingle Peninsula. I had read that Robert Mitchum liked to drink here when “Ryan’s Daughter” was being filmed nearby.

During our afternoon visit, the pub was inhabited by a half dozen Irish-speaking men. Two, I thought, probably had been there since Mr. Mitchum. We had been warned there was no restaurant in Dunquin and had brought a cold supper, which we consumed along with pints of Guinness from the bar. Kruger’s provided rooms for us all, but my wife and I had separate singles, and some of the doubles smelled moldy. No matter; in the morning, our hosts, the O’Neills, fixed us a good, large breakfast with cereal and eggs and bacon and sausages and more.

On that fifth day came hard rain and wind, and the ferry would not sail for Great Blasket. After several hours, the Way led us across green pastures so full of water it lapped at our ankles.

When we got to the village of Ballyferriter, we took refuge in the Caife na Caille for rhubarb pie and coffee. The young manager made phone calls and found two vans to take us onward. We stopped at the Gallarus 0ratory, a perfect stone structure from the seventh, eighth or ninth centuries, and went onward to Ballycurrane village and An Bothar Guesthouse and Pub, another comfortable and well-furnished place.

We had walked less than half of our planned 17 miles, but humans could do no more on such a day. Bill and Arlene, though, took a 15-minute stroll to Brandon Creek. From that little inlet, St. Brendan and a dozen monks may have sailed to America in the sixth century in a large hide-covered curragh. It was from there that adventurer and author Tim Severin sailed to Newfoundland in 1976 in a 36-foot replica of Brendan’s curragh.

The weather was still bad the next morning. John suggested we not keep to the Dingle Way, which winds high over the shoulder of Brandon Mountain. Up there we would be in clouds, and wind and cold might make us candidates for hypothermia.

Instead, we decided to take the Pilgrims Way, over a lower shoulder. It was still cold and very windy crossing this shoulder. Chris, who had sailed the Atlantic, called it a true gale. Soon, though, we were down at the head of a lonely valley, with one inhabited farmhouse and many stone ruins.

To our right, An Loch Dubh (the Black Lake) lay beneath gloomy cliffs. There were no trees, nothing but grass and nettle along old walls, but in an hour, we were down in lush country with willows and holly trees flanking our road.

In Cloghane village, we lodged well and ate well at O’Connor’s Guesthouse — with pub. We had 18 miles to look forward to the next day, a third of this along Ireland’s longest beach.

The morning weather was fine and the sand firm, but Mary Jane and I tired of beach and left the group to turn inland. We found two ruined churches along little lanes before reaching Sheila Rohan’s Castle House in Castlegregory village, having walked just nine miles. The Rohans built their house nine years ago, and built it well, going as far afield as England for fine wood floors and furnishing it with fine pieces.

By the time our comrades came, I had bought some Irish whiskey and snacks at the village supermarket. We sat around the pleasant peat fire in the parlor and decided to do our final day in easy style. It was 17 miles to Tralee, but we had walked much of this on our first day, from Tralee to Camp — and there was a bus from Camp to Tralee at 3 p.m.

On Saturday, on our way to Camp, we did another mile along a beach with hard, clean sand. The sky was blue and our spirits high. After eight days and 90 miles, my left knee hurt just a little.

The next morning, when we took a taxi to Kerry Airport for our Ryanair flight to London, we did not mind that, again, it was raining. Would we do the Dingle Way again? Sure, but with hopes for slightly better weather.

Planning, packing for Dingle

Tralee, Ireland, can be reached by train from Dublin (190 miles), bus from Shannon Airport (80 miles) or bus or taxi from Kerry Airport (10 miles; our taxi cost about $30).

The indispensable guide for the Dingle Way is “The Dingle Way” by Sandra Bardwell, 62 water-resistant pages in a ring binder, with color photos and good maps. We got ours at Amazon.com.

Also useful are Maps 70 and 71 of the Ordnance Survey Ireland series, available in many Irish bookstores. The best noncommercial Web site is www.dingleway.net, which I used to find accommodations.

Our reservations (prices are for double room and, except for Tralee, a hearty breakfast) were in

Tralee: Finnegan’s Hostel, 17 Denny St. Phone 353/66-712-7610, e-mail [email protected]; about $50 per couple.

Camp: Sea View House. Phone 353/66-713-0186, e-mail [email protected]; about $75 per couple.

Annascaul: Ardrinane House. Phone 353/66-915-7119, e-mail [email protected]; about $75 per couple.

Dingle: Mainstay Guesthouse. Phone 353/66-915-1598, e-mail [email protected]; about $90 per couple. We had an excellent dinner at Out of the Blue, phone 353/66-915-0811, Web site www.outoftheblue.ie.

Dunquin: Kruger’s guesthouse and pub. Phone 353/66-915-6127; about $75 per couple. (If we do the Dingle Way again, we may instead stay in Dunquin in the six-bed bunk rooms of An Oige Hostel, phone 353/66-915-6121, e-mail [email protected])

Ballycurrane: An Bothar Guesthouse. Phone 353/66-915-5342, e-mail [email protected]; about $100 per couple.

Cloghane: O’Connor’s Guesthouse. Phone 353/66-713-8113, e-mail [email protected]; about $75 per couple.

Castlegregory: Castle House. Phone 353/66-713-9183, e-mail [email protected]; about $80 per couple.

There are ATMs in Tralee, Dingle and one or two other places. Most proprietors take credit cards, for which some charge an extra 10 percent.

A trekker on the Dingle Way needs a sizable backpack, sturdy boots, good rain gear and warm clothing. Miss Bardwell’s book has an equipment checklist, to which I would add a poncho large enough to cover hiker and pack, two long-sleeved wicking undershirts, and a pair of sandals.

Several firms advertise guided treks along the Dingle Way. I would want to be sure that my guide had current information. When the Way is off roads, it is on private land, and on occasion a farmer may close a pasture to the public.

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