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The cliffs of Ireland: look before you leap

“Your instincts are absolutely correct,” Kevin, our inkeeper, tells us in his Irish brogue. “The Ring of Beara is much more scenic and less heavily trafficked than the Ring of Kerry. If you only have time for one, I’d definitely pick Beara.” Good. I like it when my research dovetails with what the locals tell me. It validates all the time I spend reading travel forums before our vacations. (On the other hand, one might say that I could just skip all the research and ask the locals…) Kevin looks pleased at our choice of the ring less travelled.

“It would be too much to hope for some sun, yeah?”

“Eh..” Kevin looks out the little window next to the breakfast table laden with half eaten bowls of oatmeal and a bottle of Irish Mist whiskey. “It’s going to be a foggy one, but I think it’s still worth the drive.

We say goodbye to Kevin and set out in our rental car. I say a prayer to the travel gods that our car actually work today, seeing as two days earlier it had stopped working entirely as we sat in a line of cars waiting to get onto a ferry. The people behind us were not big fans of ours. Apparently when you rent an automatic car in Ireland, they charge you double what it costs for a manual shift, and give you half as nice a car. At least by this point my husband Sam and I have mastered driving on the wrong side of the road; I am still terrified. Every time I look out the window I have to silently squelch a scream from seeing cars flying at us from what seems to be the very wrong direction. I have taken to closing my eyes, but I am determined today to see the beautiful scenery.

As we drive, the colorful jewel box buildings of Kenmare give way to the more muted greens and browns of the countryside and the ever -present ominous grey of the sky. The fields are occasionally punctuated by white blobs, which, as they come closer, reveal themselves as sheep and lambs. “Awwww, they are so cute!” I exclaim, making my husband Sam stop so I can take my thousandth picture of them.

“Mmm….dinner,” he responds. We’ve been having variations of this conversation every day since we got here. This trip has certainly not turned me into a vegetarian, but I have found myself pausing longer before ordering certain meats.

The scenery gradually changes as the hills turn into small mountains, and what green there was gives way to harsh rock faces. Instead of sheep and lambs, we see stone ruins on the side of the road. It is hard to tell what they once where – a small hut? A church? A grand castle perhaps? We swerve back and forth on the narrow curvy road, hoping another car does not come at us from the opposite direction.

We are halfway around the ring now, almost at the tip of the peninsula, when, almost without warning, the road drops down and we are face to face with the frothing ocean. The sea tries to match the sky in its anger, and the tops of the white waves reach up to touch the clouds that threaten to spill over with rain. Above us hangs the cable car to Dursey Island, sadly not in operation today – I had hoped to see it transporting livestock back and forth as I had read about. This is the only cable car in Ireland, as the ocean here is just too treacherous for boats. We stand and watch, transfixed by the sheer power of the water as it pounds at the cliffs, shaping them the way it has for thousands of years.

Continuing on our way, the ocean follows us for a bit and then we descend into the hills, presumably headed back to Kenmare. About an hour later, I realize we haven’t seen any road signs for awhile or any other cars for that matter. I glance at our “trusty” GPS system – it never does seem to know exactly where we are, since its maps of rural Ireland are not exactly accurate. It is telling us to turn left up ahead onto something that would best be described as a path, definitely not a road, and that’s if I am being generous.

“Um, Sam? Do you know where we are?”

“I’m just following the GPS.”

“But the GPS doesn’t necessarily know where we are.”

“Well, do you have a better idea?”

“We could turn around and retrace our drive until we see signs for Kenmare again.”

“That could take forever. Look the GPS is telling us to make a left right here…” As I try to make my case, the GPS lady politely but insistently tells us to “turn left iin 500 feet…turn left in 100 feet…” and before I can say anything else, we have done the GPS’ bidding.

The path we find ourselves on is basically two ruts in the dirt, more suited for a bicycle than a car. We go bouncing along, with me praying that we don’t break down and Sam trying to maneuver the car around the turns. We climb higher and higher, my ears popping from the altitude change. This does not make sense. I know from looking at a map this morning that the ring takes us all around the mountains on the coast, not into the mountains. Meanwhile Sam’s knuckles are turning white on the wheel and he is leaning forward, as if he can will the car up the mountain. I know he is worried that this car was not made for this kind of driving. I check the engine monitor, and we are starting to overheat. Maybe we should turn around…

I look to our left. “Oh my god!”

“What?” Sam has already stopped the car since we can’t drive through the sheep.

“You might not want to look over there…”

“Holy crap.” And he sees what I see. That we are perched on a cliff, and one wrong move will send us and our shitty little car tumbling into the abyss. And there is no room to turn around, or for another car to pass by. I try not to think about what will happen if we break down here. I realize I haven’t seen another car since we turned onto this “road,” and the sheep here clearly haven’t seen a car in a long time either. In fact, it is clear we have invaded their territory. They no longer dot the landscape in a bucolic farming scene while we drive idly by and snap pictures. Quite the opposite in fact. Huge groups of them, hundreds even, are relaxing in the middle of the road, looking curiously at our strange foreign vehicle. And they have absolutely no intention of moving.

We get out of the car to take a look at them, and then we notice what we were too worried to focus on before: mountains and sky all around us, with the waters of Bantry Bay in the distance, and absolute silence broken only by the bleating of the sheep. The kind of silence that makes it impossible to believe that towns and cities even exist, that there are other people out there somewhere. We breathe deeply, we even smile a little, and forget about our car and our lack of direction for a moment.

Reluctantly, we return to the car and inch our way forward, hoping the sheep will get the hint. We honk our horn a little and after giving us nasty looks, most of the sheep move to the side to let us pass. One problem solved. Now we just have to get home without falling off the cliff or having to leave our car behind. Sam drives faster than I would like, and I hold onto the door handle, attuned to every odd sound the car makes. And then finally I hear the welcome voice of the GPS lady, telling us to “make a right turn.” We follow her advice blindly yet again, but this time we emerge onto a road that we recognize. A real road, paved, with room for two cars, with a sign for Kenmare, and not a sheep in sight.

Kevin is there to greet us when we arrive at the inn. We talk over each other in our eagerness to tell him about our adventure, because now of course it is a great story to tell, and we were never really scared.

“Oh I know where you were,” Kevin says quite nonchalantly. “That was ‘Priest’s Leap.’”

And he tells us an old Irish tale of a priest who was riding in the mountains, pursued by soldiers, and when he came to the cliff he just leaped right off.

“Didn’t you see the stone with the cross?” Kevin asks.

“No, we must have missed that.” And boy am I glad we did.

More by this author at her travel and food blog.

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