Dublin - Stepping out of the Dublin airport, the polyglot crowd of Germans, Americans, Poles, Spaniards and French waiting for rental cars on this early May morning seems confirmation that left-side driving should be a cakewalk.
Fast forward. We're barely half an hour into our adventure, experiencing vertigo, my husband clenching the steering wheel, circling a roundabout he can't seem to exit, when we gain two critical insights: First, we should have eased into this dyslexic driving, especially with jet lag; second, GPS navigation is essential, utterly worth incurring roaming charges.
Our friends have retired to Kenmare, in southwest Ireland, prompting our visit to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary in my husband's ancestral land. We're driving from Dublin to Cork to spend a week exploring Kenmare's environs. From there, we'll depart for four days of staggering coastal drives, dipping into the Wild Atlantic Way, through the Ring of Kerry, Valentia Island and the Dingle Peninsula, staying nightly at bed-and-breakfasts.
As we approach Kenmare, five hours southwest of Dublin, hills smooth as brushed velvet are dotted with sidestepping cows. We catch sight of ewes and bleating lambs, their fleeces dabbed with blue, red or orange dye, indicating their owners. We're in the land of wool and dairy. We're also skirting the Atlantic Ocean. Road signs with a cheery turquoise wave point to Wild Atlantic Way: 1,600 westernmost miles of awe-inspiring coastal road. Kenmare is deeply nestled in an Atlantic bay, poised between the Iveragh Peninsula (famous for the Ring of Kerry) and the rugged, mountainous Beara Peninsula. Talk about location, location, location!
Downtown Kenmare has a colour palette straight out of a child's colouring box, overseen by the copper-covered spire of Holy Cross Church. Like an efficient and compact primer, Kenmare provides a bite-size view into Ireland's long history; its walking-distance attractions range from ancient Celtic to contemporary Irish.
A five-minute walk away from Kenmare's Main Square, a sombre mound features a large Bronze Age stone circle: 15 huge, standing stones surround a flat-topped boulder dolmen, marking an ancient seat of Celtic power.
Skip forward a couple of millennia to Oliver Cromwell's victorious Irish Campaign, and the new reign of British landlords, among whom was Sir William Petty. Circa 1670, he founded Kenmare, designed around a traditional English village green, now Main Square. (Actually, it's more of a triangle!) To further cement a British town feel, in 1775, his great-grandson, William Petty-Fitzmaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (who later became prime minister), instituted Kenmare's unusual “X” plan, converging Kenmare's roads upon the Square.
Subsequent absentee British landlords oversaw the deaths of at least a million tenant farmers during the potato famine, from 1845 to 1852.
The national tragedy converted Kenmare in two ways. The city became the site of a local travel office for the White Star Line and the last glimpse of home for many a 19th-century Irish emigrant. And it compelled the Poor Clare's nuns to open a convent here, providing aid. Priests taught boys literacy, leatherworking and woodcarving.
But bold Sister Mary Francis Clare, says historian Stanley Edward Goddard, had an “overwhelming desire to allow women to be educated on a similar footing to men.” The nuns taught premium laceworking. Meet Nora and Emer Finnegan at the Kenmare Lace Centre - both authors, historians and teachers - keeping the tradition alive. Nora informs me: “Queen Victoria wore a lot of lace and it sure made a heck of an amount of employment for our women. Understand that, in 1866, a Texas woman paid 300 pounds for a Kenmare lace bedspread when you could buy a house for 100 pounds.”
Thousands of young women were given an education and a portable skill, their equipment - tatting shuttle, thread, needles, crochet hooks - small enough to fit in a pocket, and take to America.
Original artisanship continues to distinguish Kenmare today. Sure, some stores sell the ubiquitous heraldic mementos and shamrock jewellry - “paddywhackery” as the locals call it. More notably, Kenmare is a haven for shops offering cutting-edge crafts. Creations sells designer Sabine Lenz's bracelets inscribed with “croi álainn” (beautiful heart in Gaelic); Cleo sells Avoca woollens, modern leatherwork, and, like the lovely Purcell Art Gallery, beautiful contemporary art. At PFK, we watch master goldsmith Paul Kelly working and chatting away. “I was out on the skiff this morning,” he regales us, “and I tell you there wasn't a sinner around.”
We relish good traditional Irish fare: live music, fish and chips, bangers and mash at O'Donnahbain's. But we also savor high-end fish dishes at Tom Crean Food & Wine. The eateries of Kenmare take delectable risks. At Mick and Jimmy's for breakfast, owner Mick Wilson explains the contemporary California foodie vibe: “We wanted to shake things up a bit.”
Neil Harrington, who along with his son, Stan, runs the excellent Virginia's Guesthouse right upstairs, agrees: “A lot of people are tired of the cholesterol artery-clogging Irish food.” Kenmare also boasts the Park Hotel Kenmare, a grand former Victorian country estate, evoking Downton Abbey elegance. In short, Kenmare is compact and cosmopolitan, historic and avant-garde. Even the bustling weekly Wednesday market reverts into a time-honoured muddy animal fair every Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption.
Finally, and not to be ignored, is the stunning landscape encircling Kenmare. As the vector for many trails and roads, Kenmare is a hiker's, biker's and driver's dream. Daily jaunts take us, easily, to Killarney National Park, to Gleninchaquin Park's waterfalls, to the imposing Neolithic Uragh Stone Circle. Into the Sheen Valley Heritage area and through the rock-hewn Caha Pass. There's Moll's Gap and Ladies' View for panoramas. Or Priest's Leap with Bantry Bay to the south, the Caha Mountains to the north and Macgillycuddy's Reeks showing off Ireland's highest peak, Carrauntoohil. The landscape modulates with cliffs, moors, meadows, woodlands, bogs, rivers, lakes. Blossoming gorse and grasses make a gold and green carpet across the hillsides. Honeysuckles, fuchsias, foxgloves and rhododendrons blaze brightly.
We depart from Kenmare for our southwestern coastal tour. We've become semi-competent Irish roadsters but, even better, we are motoring in the opposite direction of the many tour buses. They clog the roadway and block views - but not so much when proceeding clockwise, with comely Kenmare in our rear-view.
* Calcagno is a writer based in Chicago.
IF YOU GO...
Where to stay
36 Henry St.
011-353-64-664-1021 or 011-353-86-306-5291
The small, family-run guesthouse inn features nine cozy rooms with white duvets. From about $90 (about R1 300), if booked directly.
Park Hotel Kenmare
A Victorian country estate, featuring an 18-hole golf course, WiFi and spa. Double rooms start at about $246, with breakfast included.
Where to eat
Tom Crean Fish & Wine
Run by the Antarctic explorer's granddaughter, this restaurant specializes in fish. The two-course dinner menu starts at about $28.
Mick & Jimmy's
36 Henry St.
The restaurant offers breakfast and lunch, from vegetarian fare to plump burgers, in a modern and cheery atmosphere. Entrees start at about $11.
What to do
Kenmare Heritage & Lace Centre
A historic journey into Kenmare history, featuring lacemaking demonstrations and a store. Open 10:15am to 5:30pm from April to October. Free.
Kissane Sheep Farm
N71 between Kenmare and Killarney
A traditional working farm, featuring sheep-shearing, lambs and a not-to-be-missed herding demonstration with Pepper, Ireland's top border collie. $8; children ages 5 to 10 $6; free for children under 5.