The (distant) second-best option to being out in the pubs today, St. Patrick’s Day, is to remember a 36-hour trip Jon and I made to southwest Ireland in November 2005. So here’s my tribute to St. Patrick:
We arrived on a Saturday morning at Cork Airport, got a snazzy green stamp in our passports (notable because all other EU countries have a boring, standardized stamp now), paid our 85 euros for an automatic transmission, right-hand drive Nissan, and after 20 minutes on the road, arrived in Kinsale, a town that is reported to be the Gourmet Capital of Ireland.
Kinsale has a harbor packed with sailboats and a waterfront of quaint, multi-colored buildings. The well-maintained, winding, cobblestone streets put the finishing touches on what, if there were such a thing as a Central Casting for Scenes, would be the place to go when your script calls for a picturesque fishing village.
The Old Presbytery B&B, where we stayed, is a converted townhouse that’s centrally located so we could walk around Kinsale without our car — a huge plus given that picturesque cobblestone streets make for unpleasant driving. Our room was spacious and comfortable, and Jon and I particularly liked the ways in which the Old Presbytery was more like an inn than a B&B. We came and went as we liked ,and even at breakfast the next day, there was no enforced socializing. Each room had its own table in the B&B’s small dining room, so we felt like we were eating at a restaurant, rather than in someone’s home.
Even though we were in Kinsale during the low tourist season (it’s kind of chilly in late November), the line was out the door when we arrrived at the Fishy Fishy Cafe for a late (2:30 pm) lunch. To us, the line at that hour and at that time of year meant that a lot of locals were eating at the cafe, so we waited another 45 minutes for an *outdoor* table. We were so glad we’d made the effort!
As you probably guessed from the name of the restaurant, the Cafe specializes in seafood. I started with the best calamari salad of my life. The rings of fried calamari were barely breaded, but enough so to add crunch, and the fresh sweetness of the calamari blended with the lightly-dressed greens. My steamed mussels in a wine, cream and basil sauce warmed me right up, and there was not a runty, dead mussel in sight. Every one was plump and juicy. I can’t even remember what Jon ate because my food was so good. And the best part is that with two glasses of wine and tip, our total for this simple, fresh and delicious meal was 65 euros.
Despite our experience of waiting forever for lunch at the Cafe, we failed to learn our lesson and remained a little too confident about being in Kinsale during low season. So we made the mistake of not calling to make reservations for dinner, despite the fact that it was a Saturday night.
Instead of eating at Crackpots or the Blue Haven (both highly recommended by friends and of course fully booked on that Saturday), we wandered aimlessly through town until we settled on a stylish-looking, somewhat-full restaurant called Le Bistro. Just from looking at the menu, we could tell the meal would be a mistake (e.g., what’s nasi goreng doing on the menu, and why is it 16 euros?), so all I can say is the menu had no focus and the food was bland. It’s clear the Gourmet Capital of Ireland has its share of tourist traps, and we were the suckers that night.
Luckily, tomorrow is another day, and after an artery-clogging breakfast (think English fry-up with soda bread) at the Old Presbytery, Jon and I hopped in our car and headed northwest for Killarney. Killarney is where we started the 110-mile driving loop in southwest Ireland known as the Ring of Kerry. As you drive around the Ring of Kerry, you see a lot of “sights” like the unfortunately-named-but-gorgeous Muckross House (click photo at right), as well as a lot of ancient, weatherbeaten churches and herds of sheep and cows.
By European standards, the Muckross House is a new home (built in the 1800s), so while Jon and I thought the house was pretty, it didn’t have enough historical draw for us to spend time and money to tour the interior. The grounds were the thing to see, so we spent a half hour wandering a wide, perfectly-manicured lawn that stretched out to the shores of the aptly-named Muckross Lake. The setting was begging for ladies in white carrying parasols, and of course it also needed Henry James observing from a window.
Moving clockwise around the Ring, we drove another 20 miles to Kenmare, which seemed a little less quaint and more yuppie than, say, Kinsale. There were a lot of small shops, coffee places and small department stores that I would imagine serve local residents in addition to visiting tourists. We stopped for a quick lunch and some shopping, and we continued our breakneck drive around the Ring.
While Jon and I encountered no traffic beyond the occasional sheep or cow herd, I can imagine that during high season, it wouldn’t take much to create a traffic jam of colossal proportions. I don’t know how a tour bus would even fit on parts of the Ring, especially because even though it’s technically a two-way road, in parts there was barely enough room for just our one car.
Our favorite parts of the drive were the lonely old churches on the side of the road and watching the sun set over the Atlantic coast from the southernmost part of the Ring. The towns we passed through – Sneem, for example – were smaller versions of already-small-and-charming Killarney and Kenmare. So if ruins, coastal views, livestock and grand houses are your thing, get thee to the Ring of Kerry.