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Some destinations require pinpoint planning and meticulous itineraries...and then there's this quirky section of the south coast of Ireland.
“Fánaí” is the Irish word for “wanderer,” and on my first visit to this island of warrior bards, eloquent fabulists and garrulous strangers, a strict itinerary complete with hotel reservations seems wrong. So it will be a rental car, a real paper road map and a wanderer’s strategy as I set out to explore the south coast of Ireland.
I immediately become acquainted with another key Irish word, “clé,” which means left. That’s the side of the road I need to stay on. And I need to quickly forget about the Irish word for “wander,” especially when attempting a left-hand turn. I set out from Dublin Airport in a rented Renault with the steering wheel right above where the glove compartment should be.
Heading south on the M9, I pass through the city of Waterford (home to the namesake crystal), but my first goal is a little farther south. Tramore is a lovely seaside village with a crescent-shaped beach and enough crashing surf to attract plenty of boards and kayaks. It sits at one end of a little stretch known as the Copper Coast. My plan is to stop here for the evening and explore that scenic drive tomorrow. But then my whole idea was to not have a plan, as Ireland wastes no time in reminding me. I wander the streets, poking my head into each charming little B&B, looking for some lodging. Tramore, it seems, has not so much as a stable manger left to rent. So my exploration of the Copper Coast will begin sooner than I had planned. I get back in my car and push west in search of a bed.
R675, the Copper Coast road, is a shoulderless two-lane looping between seaside cliffs and stone-walled country fields on the way to the next best option, Dungarvan. It seems every time I stop to admire a stone farmhouse, a blast of sideways rain splatters my camera lens, but the little squalls never last long. On a hilltop just past a spot glorified on the map as Arnestown, I pull into a viewpoint and get out, held upright by the wind as I watch the waves on the rocks far below. The grass on the hillside is like multicoloured thread—red, green, yellow and even blue can be seen in the soft tangle beneath my feet. Where are all the tourists? Nestled into quaint Tramore B&Bs, perhaps.
In Dungarvan a clerk at a fully booked hotel suggests I retrace my path to the eastern edge of town and look for the Old Rectory. A former parsonage in a walled courtyard reached at the end of a long driveway, the B&B is run by Rose and Jim—mostly Rose. “Not a problem” is Rose’s answer to virtually every question, including, on this day, “Can a wanderer at last find a place to lay his head?”
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There are many situations—laser surgery, space walks, rodeo clowning, assembling Ikea furniture—for which winging it is a bad strategy. Along the Copper Coast, spontaneity is almost essential, as there’s not much to guide you. The next day, after driving through the village of Stradbally on a road not big enough to be on my map, I have pulled over to admire a verdant hilltop view when I see a car emerge from a side road just ahead. The lane is marked with a little wooden sign: “Ballydowane Cove.” A right turn, a couple hundred metres, a short path, and there lies a magical little landscape of cliff, carved rock, wind-sheared trees, beach and ocean. Over the course of the next hour, four or five other people show up, one or two at a time, but otherwise I have sole possession as surely as if I had called ahead to reserve.
A little farther along the road is another, larger beach at Bunmahon. I pull over at a spot overlooking the town and make a lunch of brown soda bread, Wensleydale cheese with cranberries and sliced ham while listening to a crucial match on the radio. Tipperary, says the broadcast team in tones of grave excitement, has shocked the world by reaching the semifinal against Mayo. The announcers speak of goals, but also field goals. I soon realize I have no idea what sport is being played. Never mind; it’s a good match and I am discovering how much I love soda bread. (I later learn the game was Irish football, a different sport than the English, American or Canadian games of that name.) Despite my silent encouragement, Tipperary’s fairy-tale run falls short. Great sandwiches, though.
Where to wander next? Rose ponders my question the next morning while serving me hot porridge and toast. “Ardmore is lovely, with the cliff walk,” she says. “The oldest Christian settlement in Ireland. My son took me for a meal at the Cliff House Hotel there on Mother’s Day. The money he spent…”—she shakes her head—“but, of course, it was lovely.”
Ardmore turns out to be a short hop south from Dungarvan, presenting a pretty but sleepy main street and, up a small hill, a beautiful and well-kept cemetery that’s dominated by a soaring round stone tower and a small, ancient church. It is said that St. Declan evangelized here even before the time of St. Patrick. Romance novelist Nora Roberts set several books here, and why not? I am in love with the place within the hour.
I head down a country lane to the Cliff House Hotel, which boasts sea-facing rooms and that Michelin-star restaurant where Rose once proudly fretted at the mounting bill. The hotel is also at the start of the cliff walk that can be completed by most in under an hour. Lined by wood rail fences tracing a crooked line high above the sea, the path winds by flower-carpeted hills, past the wreck of the crane ship Samson, an old guardhouse and a turreted lookout tower. I have been to the cliff walk in Cinque Terre, Italy, which is longer, perhaps a little more spectacular, but thronged with busloads of humanity trudging single file. Ardmore? I wouldn’t say this enchanting landscape was deserted. But I’ve seen more people at an afternoon screening of a Czech art film.
Back in town over a dish of french fries, a local tells me the horrible tale of how her kidneys shut down after she ate some spoiled leftover chicken. It might not sound like a vacation highlight, but it makes me feel I am already an Ardmorian—just another gossiping old-timer.
On the road again the following day, I pull in for gas just outside the city of Cork. “Where should I go next?” I ask the woman in line behind me at the register. “Cobh,” she says with a nod.
Pronounced “Cove,” Cobh turns out to be a place of historic importance. You’ll be forgiven if you don’t recognize the name—it was called Queenstown when it served as the final port of call for the Titanic. (The few names inspired by Queen Victoria understandably fell out of fashion about three days after the Irish revolution.) There’s a Titanic museum here now, as well as the massive St. Colman’s Cathedral on a hill overlooking the port. By, the docks a statue honours Annie Moore and her brothers—she was the first immigrant processed at New York’s Ellis Island. (It tells you something about the history of beautiful, troubled Ireland that a statue would commemorate someone who got the hell out.)
Heading west along narrow back roads, I learn with chagrin that spatial awareness is a real issue in left-side driving. Scratches on the passenger-side wheels caused by rubbing against curbs and rocks are the major cause of rental car insurance claims in this part of the world. “Ooh,” a local clucks when he examines my dinged-up wheels, “that could give you a sore pocket.”
The town of Bantry is the entry point for the dramatic Sheep’s Head Peninsula, a spit of land that features the serene Air India memorial. Just past that Canadian/Indian shrine I stop at the village of Kilcrohane, where the combination general store/post office/café even has a little pop-culture memorabilia collection upstairs. There’s some valuable stuff there—Star Wars toys, Batmobiles, rare records—all totally unguarded. “Aren’t you worried about theft?” I ask the busy clerk downstairs.
“Ah, no,” she replies. “For that it would be necessary to give a shit.”
Bantry, I am given to understand, is not among southern Ireland’s major tourist draws. Certainly the Harbour View B&B is not a place you can easily research without knocking on the front door and talking to Nora about a room. Yet, in recalling my magical Irish week, it is Bantry I go back to most often—the view of the little harbour from my upstairs window (Nora’s cozy nest comes by its name honestly), fine espresso at the genial Box of Frogs café, the town square with statues of St. Brendan the Navigator and Irish hero Wolfe Tone, whose illustrious role in the history of anti-English resistance is recounted to me by a local with a woollen cap and stubby yellow teeth as he puffs on the stub of a hand-rolled cigarette. Later, over a shared basket of local strawberries, another Bantry resident tells me nearby real estate is still quite affordable at present.
That’s where my imagination wanders now—a fond daydream of heading into Bantry from some reasonably priced farmhouse on the peninsula, slowly developing a genuine accent as I chat with neighbours on my way to pick up some fresh soda bread and a good cheese at the SuperValu. “Wolfe Tone?” I might answer to some passing tourist’s inquiry. “Well, sir, we honour his name in these parts. Let me tell you the story of that great Irishman…”