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Cheers to the Dingle Peninsula, which doesn’t disappoint

Ellen Perlman for The Boston Globe

Sheep graze on a farm on the Dingle Peninsula.

By Ellen Perlman Globe correspondent 

DINGLE PENINSULA, Ireland — Along the Atlantic in the southwest of Ireland, views of a craggy coast, sheep-filled fields, and mysterious stone outcroppings make for a compelling and beautiful drive.

While planning a trip to the wilds of rural Ireland, the Ring of Kerry beckoned. But my traveling companion and I resisted that siren song, choosing the ring road less traveled, one peninsula north.

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The Dingle Peninsula juts into the sea and back in time. It brims with history and archeological finds, stunning ocean views, and a bit of Hollywood.

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We set out on Good Friday last year, planning to drive clockwise around the 30-mile Slea Head loop. First we would stop at the Dingle Distillery and then climb up to Eask Tower for views of Dingle Harbor.

Leaving behind the colorfully painted rows of houses of Dingle town, we tried not to let the heavy gray clouds dampen our day.

Plans quickly went awry. The distillery was closed for Good Friday — a harbinger of the speakeasy scene we would encounter later.

Ellen Perlman for The Boston Globe

On the road, driving to Dingle.

Down the road, we turned off to follow a series of small brown signs that took us on a narrow, winding path to Holden, a fine-leather store with a workshop on view behind glass. The beautifully made belts and bags on display seemed more fitting in a Fifth Avenue store in New York than in a shop improbably located at the end of an Irish country road.

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Perhaps we shouldn’t have detoured. When we reached Eask Tower, fog was rolling in fast. The farmer who owns the land advised us to come back later. “You won’t be able to see anything.”

Back on the ring road, the sodden gray clouds threatening all morning made good on their promise. We needed to rethink our plans. Through windshield wipers set on high, we spotted a coral-colored cottage in Kilvickadownig: the Celtic and Prehistoric Museum.

It hadn’t been on our radar, but it was a welcome refuge from the pouring rain. Inside we found a quirky, three-room museum displaying flint axes and other artifacts from the Jurassic period up to the Celtic and Viking eras.

There was “Millie,” an intact Woolly Mammoth with tusks attached, and a dinosaur egg nest and the complete skeleton of a 40,000-year-old Cave Bear. That was the prehistoric part. The museum also displays a pair of Dutch leather shoes, Viking bone ice skates and chariot mounts. And its gift shop sells pop-art toilet seats and assorted items displayed in the trunk of half of a 1956 turquoise Ford Fairlane — with a Colorado license plate.

Luckily, when we emerged from our hour-long visit, the rain had eased and we drove onward, turning off at a sign saying, “Visit the Fairy Fort & Pet Sheep Parking,” and pulled out the lunch we had packed. Soon, we were sharing pieces with friendly farm animals.

As city folk, we couldn’t resist the inquisitive sheep — spray-painted with a number and dabs of red, purple and orange — that were nosing at a wire fence separating us. Ewes monitored black-faced lambs, erupting intermittently with the sheep sound virtually every toddler learns to mimic.

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Cows in a nearby field nosed one another, ending up at times in chorus-line formation, heads in a row. Between this bucolic romp and the emergence of the sun, our day had brightened exponentially.

Ellen Perlman for The Boston Globe

A site of beehive-shaped huts, the type of relics thought to belong to Early Christian monastic sites.

Farther along the road, we visited a site holding remains of enigmatic beehive-shaped huts, the type of relics thought to belong to Early Christian monastic sites. We walked among the stacked stones that sit just off the loop road.

The Slea Head loop is a series of intriguing sights, and next we hoped to spot the “sleeping giant” we’d read about in travel literature. When I saw “him,” I was smitten.

The small island indeed looks like a tranquil hulk with a protruding belly. I learned later, it features prominently in the 1950s film “Ryan’s Daughter,” which was filmed on the peninsula.

We walked toward it through clumps of brush, occasional boulders and patches of small wildflowers hugging the dirt. At cliff’s edge, I sat with my legs over the side gazing out at the giant and down at the steep drop to the sea. The gray skies had returned, providing a dramatic backdrop for white birds swooping down and out of the cliffs.

Ellen Perlman for The Boston Globe

The small island, seen from the Slea Head loop, that resembles a sleeping giant.

The next stop was at the tip of the peninsula, where we could see several of the now-abandoned Blasket Islands. They were home to about 175 Irish-speaking people up until the early 1950s, when the government moved residents to the mainland.

It was time to head back to Eask Tower. The fog was worse, but we were determined hike up.

The farmer looked dubious as we dropped our 2 Euros in his honor box and trod upward, opening and closing gates and sidestepping sheep droppings.

It was steep. The air was damp and chilly. We reached the tower and couldn’t see a thing, just as the farmer had warned. Then we had trouble making our way down because we lost the path and couldn’t see the farm below.

When we finally made it, we met a friendly 12-year-old eager to educate us about her granddad’s farm. She seemed taken with the two Americans who were completely ignorant of the difference between Texel and any other kind of sheep, and enjoyed explaining aspects of animal husbandry to us.

After the raw day, we looked forward to a cold drink in a warm pub. We soon learned that because of Good Friday, pubs either were closed or had covered their taps with towels.

Except if they didn’t.

For select locals and guests at our B&B, the first-floor pub was secretly open. With a prohibition style feel, the taps were flowing, and a poker game was in progress at a table behind us. Our room key was the ticket in. All it was missing was smoky air.

The next day we headed back to Dublin, thinking our scenic peninsula tour had ended — until we drove along Conor Pass, Ireland’s highest mountain pass. Midway through, we parked at a scenic viewing point. Leaving behind a photo-taking crowd, we climbed for 45 minutes in soupy sod. The breathtaking views in every direction were worth the soaked shoes.

In a “Sound of Music”-like moment in the mountains, we turned ’round and ’round, taking in the awe-inspiring scenes of the once-again sunny County Kerry and the now viewable Dingle Bay. Our peninsula tour was complete.

Down the road, it would be nice to visit the Ring of Kerry. But our Dingle decision was a good one.

Ellen Perlman for The Boston Globe

A view of Dingle Bay from Conor Pass.

If you go . . .

The closest airport to the Dingle Peninsula is Shannon, on the West Coast. It’s worth it to rent a car so you can stop and linger anywhere along the Slea Head drive, and take the time to hike the mountains off Conor Pass. This year, for the first time in more than 90 years, pubs are permitted to sell alcohol on Good Friday, because of a law passed in January by the Irish Parliament. Visit www.dingle-peninsula.ie for more information, including guided tours, if you prefer not to drive.


Ellen Perlman can be reached at eperlman@gmail.com.