The Legendary Slea Head Drive
Day 9 meant it was finally time to partake in the legendary Slea Head Drive. The drive is certainly not without its accolades. In 2006 National Geographic Traveler called it the most beautiful place in the world, and a few years later listed it in their “Top 10 Things to See Before You Die”. Going in, we were a bit worried that we were going to suffer from the aforementioned scenic overload syndrome and not find it as incredible as we otherwise would have. I’m happy to report that was not the case. Not even close.
We woke up to yet another hot sunny day in Ireland. At this point we were convinced that all the hubbub about clouds and rain in Ireland was just folklore to keep the crowds at bay. Later in the day, after stopping at the second of several turquoise, mountainous, sandy beaches along the drive we would nickname the island ‘Hawaiireland’.
Getting to Slea Head Drive is easy enough. There is lots of signage from the main harbor in Dingle. Ireland is great about their signposts. It is highly recommended that you do Slea Head Drive in a clockwise direction, as the road is often only wide enough for one car and you do NOT want to be the car going in the opposite direction of everyone else (especially the tour buses) when that situation inevitably arrises. Additionally, all the pull-offs are on the side of the road you’re on when driving clockwise.
The drive quickly makes its way to the coast, with some nice cliffs on the Dingle Peninsula itself that you drive along. Of course, there are mountains on the other side of the bay as well. This is the west coast of Ireland after all, and 180 degree panoramic views are for other places. This place is all about 360 degree views, all the time.
As you meander along the cliffs there are plenty of pull-offs, though parking in them often floods out onto the road itself. As you look down the coast of the peninsula, the most dramatic mountain/cliff appears to be way down at the end. That is actually one of the Great Blasket islands, a large Hawaiian looking mountainous island that used to be the most western settlement in Europe before it was abandoned. You can take a ferry across and explore the ruins, beaches, and mountains of the island, but we were never able to make time for this. Nonetheless, the island dominates the views on the early part of the drive and we were lucky enough to be doing it when a very cool cloud was pouring over the top of the island, clinging down the side of the mountain as it moved and creating a very cool effect.
Eventually you get to Slea Head itself, now the most western point in Europe, which for some reason is difficult to photograph as it never really looks all that special in photographs but it is a very beautiful spot. The big Great Blasket island is just offshore here, and completes the panoramic view (in our case, with that cool cloud still rolling over it).
To the right of the tip of Slea Head you see Coumeenoole beach, a remarkable sandy beach nestled amongst the cliffs with turquoise water that outshone anything we’ve ever seen in the Caribbean. It’s sad to think that most people don’t get to see the color of the water as it doesn’t come out when it’s cloudy out, which it allegedly is most of the time in Ireland (though I’m still not sure if I’m buying it).
Unfortunately, swimming on the beach is not recommended as the currents there are very strong. We actually heard reports of 6 different drownings on the radio during our visit to Ireland. Maybe the Irish aren’t used to sunny beach weather after all.
Nonetheless, that did not stop us from going down to the beach and standing in the very cool ankle deep water and admiring this beach that looked more like something out of a Thai or Hawaiian beach brochure than it did a spot in Ireland. Several people waded further out in spite of all the warnings about the currents. Even without swimming, we spent several hours there enjoying the beach and taking lots of photos (as well as a time-lapse of that cool cloud moving over the Great Blasket island).
Finally, our growling stomachs got the better of us, and it was off to grab a sandwich and a pint at a cafe overlooking yet another beautiful beach surrounded be big cliffs and turquoise waters. You know, the usual.
It turns out that beach was Clogher Beach, the same one we’d seen the Dingle artist painting in town a few days earlier. We made another stop here and spent another hour or two enjoying the beach. We definitely weren’t going to complete this drive in the half day that most guide books recommend to leave for it, but I guess most people don’t expect sunny beach weather when making the drive.
After again begrudgingly pealing ourselves away from a beautiful beach, we continued meandering along the coastline admiring the cliffs and mountains in all directions. Eventually, as the drive nears its end it turns inland and passes by Mount Brandon, the second highest mountain in Ireland. We took a quick detour to Brandon Creek which brings you down near a small creek coming off the mountain and meeting up with the ocean. It was worth the detour and, while most guidebooks recommended parking up at the top of the short road down to the creek, we didn’t have any difficulties driving down and parking/turning around at the bottom. On the way there, I happened across the scene below which just seemed so quintessential Ireland to me, so I had to get the camera out and capture it.
The last stop after the detour was Mount Brandon itself. You can take another short detour out to a parking area that has a wide pathway that leads all the way to the top of Mount Brandon. You need not go all the way to the top on the same day you’re doing the drive (better to dedicated whole day to that, which I had listed as an option for the next day but we decided to pass on) as you can get some pretty nice views with a short 20 minute walk up part of the way. It is quite steep.
From there, the road dropped us back off in Dingle where we happened upon a nice surprise.