June 8th - DAY 4. We decided to try the Beara Peninsula and in particular Bere Island, advertised as one of the most pristine and unspoiled islands of western Ireland. The coastline out there is wild, rocky and rugged, best suited to hardy sheep and a few colorful milk cows who must have legs shorter on one side than the other.
The town of Castlebere was a charming village right at the water's edge that kept to southern Ireland's propensity towards painting its shops and buildings in a rainbow of colors. It took some doing to locate the ferry and realized right away why it had not been immediately obvious: it was the tiniest ferry either of us had ever seen! At a tight squeeze it could fit just 4 small cars on its foredeck with the ramp folded up. We wedged ourselves in there - only belatedly learning we should have backed aboard rather than gone in forwards - and then we set across the narrow straight towards the island. The sky was once again a drab overcast but even so we could see little fields and cottages scattered about. Once we survived the experience of backing off the ferry - with the shouted, enthusiastic and heavily-accented advice of our captain - we set off to see what an unspoilt island was about.
For one thing, the roads were all just one lane wide and probably unchanged except for marginal pavement since antiquity, and grass grew up between the tire lanes. It seemed like it would be a windswept sort of place in harsh weather, the few trees of any side congregating, along with the best-looking houses, on the more sheltered landward side. The roads were so winding and small, and visibility minimalized by hedgerows of brambles and weeds over old stone walls, that we rarely got over 10 or 15 miles per hour. So although small, it took considerable time to navigate the island.
We first found a Neolithic stone dolmen high upon a windy, grassy hill. Legend says that it marks the geographical center of the island, but at any rate, it made for a gorgeous if slightly hazy view from the top of that island world. The local sheep just looked upon us and said, "Baaa."
Then we meandered our way along to the only apparent village on the island, Ballynakilla, which we found to be, like everything else, small. There was a one-story hostel-hotel thing, a pub and another pub. We chose the first pub, Murpheys, because the façade mentioned food as well as a post office. Inside, the tiny front part gave way to a room in the back for the café, where a very Irish lady took our order for tea. She looked like just anyone's mom and I imagined her serving guests just the same as someone showing up in her kitchen. I had a tasty fish chowder with brown Irish bread which hit the spot nicely. Then we continued on to see what else we'd find. The map indicated there was some sort of late 1800s fort out there, but when we finally found it on the very far end of the island, it was guarded by an absurdly deep mote cut out of the island bedrock, a very high chain link fence and warning signs that the structure was unsafe. Inside a flock of goats grazed the weeds and dozed on the buildings' rooftops.
So, foiled at that endeavor we took note of a foot path and as the clouds parted and the sun bathed down, we wandered around the fort, climbed a stile over the fence and stepped off into a sprawl of grass and gorse that lead towards a distant rocky beach. Supposedly at some distant point in time a Spanish ship had landed there, but apparently nothing came of it. At any rate, it was a wonderfully peaceful spot to mosey amongst the wildflowers as the sun finally burned its way through.
Looking at the time, we resumed our loop of the island and navigated our slow, one-lane way back towards the ferry. The plan was to make a return to the mainland and do a complete loop of the Beara Peninsula, as well. But ... apparently I can't be trusted to read a ferry schedule correctly, because we arrived at the quay just as the ferry disappeared into the distance. *sighhhhh* The very sweet girl at the café took pity on us and rang the ferryman on his cell phone, just in case he might be making an early trip back with school kids. Alas, it was not to be. So, we sat outside the little café in the sunshine and I fumed for an hour and a half. Due to my mistake, we'd now be too short of time to make the Beara Peninsula drive and get back at a reasonable hour. But at least when we boarded, this time we backed onto the ferry properly and without drama. And then we waited.
A thing we have learned along the southern Irish coast: people do things here at their own good speed. Some places talk of "island time," but here it's, "Irish time." ;) So it was that our ferryman left the boat to freshen up at the café and didn't wander back until about 10 minutes past departure time. But there was an unexpected blessing to that: we met a lovely couple who were also vacationing in Ireland and while we chatted with them, they told us about a road not far away with view that we simply must not miss: Healy Pass. They were so enthusiastic that we decided to use that smaller detour as a consolation for missing out on circumnavigating the entire peninsula.
The road to Healy Pass turned off into woods and farms that splayed under the brow of high, green, bony hills and soon wound its way up and up into a country of scoured stones and windswept grass that rippled under a bright Irish sun. The further up we went, the more winding the road became until, with the pass in sight, we were very likely to meet ourselves at any turn. Indeed, from the summit the road looked like a Matchbox toy car racetrack. There a tiny gift shop perched beneath an oversized roadside shrine, where visitors could pause to drink in the view toward Bantry Bay or pop in for a trinket or a soda from the sweet Irish grandmother who assured me this shop was a family business and she made this commute - just 15 minutes, she said - every day.
Then we got back in the car and went over the notch-like summit towards Lauragh - and a view even more stunning than the way we'd just come. Lakes and peaks and a view that went on forever - it was breathtaking. We had to stop once again just to take it in. Then down and down and down we went to reach the waterside at Kenmare. There we paused to watch little sailboats along the Kenmare River/Bay and breathe in the salt air, before we finally regained the main road back towards home.