Glory of Green
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Stories from the Great Outdoors

 

The Wild Atlantic Way is a 2.500 km long driving route along the west coast of Ireland. Along the way there are plenty of sparkling destinations that invites you to step out of the car and start moving – some of them Irelands greatest tourist destinations, others more hidden gems. We spent two days on the beach in county Kerry. Come rain, shine or wind, you’re sure to have a wonderful experience on the cliffs and beaches that the route has to offer. While fog was enclosing the mountains, we found a Star Wars movie-location and a cave running through a cliff – the perfect universe for a microexplorer.  

Ladies' beach, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland
Slea Head Beach, Dingle Peninsula, county Kerry, Ireland

Important advice: Check the tides

When the weather stopped us from exploring the mountains ranges of the Dingle Peninsula, we headed to the beach instead. The most practical part of going to Ireland in the winter (as opposed to summertime), is that you don’t have to worry about water temperatures and waves and whether a beach is safe for swimming. It isn’t. 

But you do want to check out tidal water – plan it so that you are there for a hike when the tide is low. The difference is huge, and you do not want to be caught by the water coming in fast on the flat beach – with jagged black cliffs towering up behind you.

I once read a tripadvisor review of an old castle along the Wild Atlantic Way. The visitor was very much disappointed about the “lake” she had seen lying next to the castle in pictures. What had they done to it, she asked indignantly and pressed for that one single star being a bit overrated. Well… You know sea water at this latitude. So fickle, always drawn to the moon…

Ballybunion after Ryanair

North of Tralee we found Ballybunion – an old surfer’s turf that used to be bustling with summer guests until Ryanair sent them to Portugal instead (according to my newfound Tralee chiropractor). 

A rainy day in February, all summer resorts look a little tired, but I suspect Ballybunions days of glory really are in the past. Ballybunion is not one of Irelands most visited tourist destinations, but it has all the “hidden gem” charm you can get. And who knows? It might turn fashionable again. The cliffs are no less breath-taking than the ones at Algarve – and even though it might be sunny in Portugal, it’s the same body of water – with what I guess is almost the same temperature. 

Ladies' beach, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland


Ballybunion  - with it's colourful houses, landmark ruin and beautiful beaches

Caving at Ladies' Beach in Ballybunion

The two blue-flagged beaches, separated at high tide by a cliff, make a long stretch full of wonders. Seagulls, Crows and Pigeons bring life to the stark and brutal cliff walls towering at the right side when you enter the northern Ladies’ Beach – a name that puzzled the girls and made us all a bit instantly feministic and obstinate. Down at the beach we were drawn away from the rebellion and to the walls, though, looking at strange formations made by the sea and the different colours of minerals flowing through the rocks.

Ladies' beach, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland

Next to a small steel plaque, honouring some people who died here, Erla (13) climbed up to find a cave, running through the cliff. We couldn’t see through it from the entrance, but curiosity convinced us, and so we went on a little microexploration caving trip (trying hard not to think about the plaque). That was a good choice – the stout, black surfaces closing around us, water dripping into small pools and then the exit beautifully framing the beach. There are also shallow caves at the beach that can be explored without climbing.

Caving, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland
Caving, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland
Caving, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland
Caving, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland
Caving, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland

 Exploring the cave - step by step

Caving, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland


A shallow cave that you can enter without a climb

In weather and history

It took a while to be done with the cliffs – outside and in, but then the next highlight of the tour was awaiting: The exposed beach reef. We knew from experience that this was the place to look if we wanted to see animals – we always look for rougher costal parts when we travel in summer, knowing that most of the time a sandy beach will give you little besides bath-clothed butts and white feet to look at through your mask. One time I came upon a blue jellyfish, but that was exceptional enough to be remembered as an incident.

The reef came through, both with tiny crabs and an opportunity to come closer to the waves while still protected by the rocks. We took a stroll at Men’s Beach (a bit more boring that one, I’m afraid) and headed back, passing a dark ruin that hovered over us as we trotted the hard sand. The ruin stems from the 16th century and has seen destruction both due to retaliation for rebellion and by nature – in the form of lightning. Weather and history are felt everywhere in Ireland.

Ladies' beach, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland

Heading over Ladies' beach towards the exposed reef

Ladies' beach, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland



Exposed reef, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland



Looking for life on the reef


Ballybunion castle, county Kerry, Ireland


Ballybunion castle, county Kerry, Ireland

The ruin of a castle destroyed and  struck by lightning...

Ladies' beach, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland


Busy tidying up the beach before spring

Ballybunion Cliff Walk

Originally, we were headed to the Bromore Cliffs when we discovered Ballybunion. We ended our beach exploration with the short 1,6 kilometres Ballybunion Cliff Walk, to the north of Ladies’ Beach. Although not as high nor long as other and more known cliff walks further north, I assure you that this is a nice little hike to combine with an outing at the beach – the views are spectacular. 

The Virgin Rock, Ballybunion, county Kerry, Ireland

1. The Virgin Rock

2. The secluded Nun's beach north of Ballybunion offers no lifeguard and steep walls. Not sure how I would have entered this one...

Dingle Peninsula - GO WEST

Day two of fog, rain and WIND, I decided to go as far west as possible in Ireland without taking a boat to the battered Blasket Islands, as this is not possible in winter. My initial goal was to visit Slea Head Beach and walk the short Dunmore Head Loop on the very tip of Dingle Peninsula.

Landing on the parking lot, I instantly understood that I had to reconsider. I could hardly open the door – the wind was blocking it, balls of foam around 20 centimetre in diameter floated erratically by in the air and the car was shaking enough to make Alma (9) certain that our choices were to continue driving or be blown away. I forced myself out the door to test the conditions – accompanied by a lot of muted screaming in the car – and when I seemed to survive, I brought out the rest to feel the forces of nature. I was unable to hold still when taking photos.

Slea Head Beach, Dingle Peninsula, county Kerry, Ireland
Slea Head Beach, Dingle Peninsula, county Kerry, Ireland

Slea Head Beach and Dunmore Head

The Slea Head Beach offered a dramatic scene, especially because of the heavy wind. Foaming white waves from the Atlantic hammered upon pointed cliffs and exposed reefs. A few houses are standing forlorn on the green hillside and fog skulked around the mountains, creating a magical backdrop. This is not for swimming, it’s for inspiring awe. 

Slea Head Beach, Dingle Peninsula, county Kerry, Ireland


Slea Head Beach, Dingle Peninsula, county Kerry, Ireland

We managed to walk down to the beach, following an asphalted road, and was pleased to find that the wind was slightly milder when we entered the sandy cove down by the sea. We found a dead seagull trapped in a fishing net, a lot of plastic and other kinds of rubbish and decided to do what we always do when entering upon this kind of human horrors – we took some of it with us. 

Dead Seagull, Slea Head Beach, Dingle Peninsula, county Kerry, Ireland
Picking rubbish, Slea Head Beach, Dingle Peninsula, county Kerry, Ireland

Allways take more with you than you bring into nature - there's a lot of human waste to be found...

The Dunmore Head Loop with its Star Wars location would have carried us higher up from the parking lot and exposed us to even harder winds – which was not an option to be considered by any sane person. We got seasick from trying to stand upright and decided to go back at some other time of the year, bring Audun (the biggest Star Wars fan of the family) and add a trip to Skellig Michael Island. 

Star Wars sign or no Star Wars sign -  sadly there was no need to speculate about whether to take this route in a storm

We still managed to stop on route back to Dingle and look at some beehive huts like the ones used in Star Wars. Even if they had not appeared in any movies, it was pretty great just imagining how it must have been to live in one of these in the stone age. Especially considering the windy and rainy climate that we recently had experienced thoroughly. I’ve read somewhere that the stone walls might have been insulated with turf – I truly hope that is correct.

Beehive huts, Dingle Peninsula, county Kerry, Ireland


Beehive huts on Dingle Peninsula

Other options around Slea Head Beach

If the weather had allowed it, we would have hiked Mount Eagle, including Slea Head Beach. Alternatively, you reach this beach on the Dingle Way – a long-distance hiking route that goes around the entire peninsula. You don’t have to hike all of it – do your own research and you can get an immensely scenic hike for example from Ventry to Dunmore Head and back again.

Practical stuff

These beach outings don’t require compass, maps and a backpack with extra clothes – but put on something sensible that makes you free to explore the wet surfaces. Dressing up is not advisable considering that our clothes were soaked in salty water blowing in from the sea after visiting Slea Head Beach. Photographing is the thing to do at this site – I didn’t bring anything to wipe the lens with and regretted it as soon as I stepped out into the salty mist, hurriedly coming at me. 

Salty soup!

We had a bun in the car and never stopped to eat in Ballybunion, but in Dingle we found several places to grab a snack – amongst others an ice-cream parlour that served salty ice-cream, and so we ended up digesting the milky ocean in a safe way. 

Dingle, county Kerry, Ireland

Murphy's Ice Cream in Dingle is worth a visit if you want to taste some new flavours

After exploring the wintery beaches in the area, I recommend taking yourself and any travelling kids to the Aquadome in Tralee. My girls are good swimmers, the lifeguards were on duty – and I was free to hit the relaxing saunas with low light and meditative sounds. Something in it for everyone.