There’s just something about Dingle. The hour drive from Kerry’s tiny rust-bucket airport acts like one grand sweeping driveway, leading all the winding way to the hilly little town.
Along the way, the view of Inch (surely Ireland’s most ironically named beach, because it stretches for miles) is enough to stop your heart.
Dingle town itself has plenty of pulse too. It’s no wonder it was chosen to host the highly-rated annual music festival Other Voices every winter. For one weekend, the hottest international singers, musicians and bands descend and brave the cold in the main venue — 200-year-old St James Church. Everyone from The National to Elbow, Laura Marling to Jessie Ware make the journey to this tiny town on the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, and no one goes away without having fallen in love with it.
In 2007, local producers, chefs and fishermen got together to create the Dingle Food Festival and it’s gone from strength to strength ever since. For the first weekend in October, the town is transformed into an open-air banqueting hall, with everyone from the local corner shop and café to the best restaurants in town offering delectable tasters of their finest fare. They call it the ‘taste trail’ and that’s an understatement. For as little as €2 (or one taste trail ticket) you can have a starter size portion of anything from homemade smoked mackerel pâté on brown bread with cucumber pickle served with a shot of Dingle gin and tonic granita, Annascaul black and white pudding, barbecued kangaroo skewers or fresh oysters served chilled with lemon Tabasco and black pepper.
Complete with its own farmer’s market serving up everything from vegetarian bhajis with minty yoghurt to organic steak burgers, it’s a gastronomic grazing heaven, with post gastric band surgery optional. Save room for dessert if you can, because locally run Murphy’s ice-cream is worth a trip, even if it’s snowing outside.
Perhaps the most pleasing thing to come from the festival is the for-us, by-us style Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards which take place during the same weekend in October. It may not be of as much interest to passers-by and occasional tourists, but the awards have become a huge indigenous success story and a vital means of championing the little, the local and the lip-smackingly good food that comes out of all four corners of Ireland.
Just for an idea of the scope of the awards, this year’s big winners included Quinlans Fish Kerry Crab Meat, Lullaby Milk from Bainne Codladh, Hot Smoked Chicken Fillet by Hannan’s Meats, Cornude Popcorn (a new start-up by Ruth Ormiston), Mild Yellow Curry Hake by fancy food company Kinsale Fare Limited and Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella.
After circling the food trail like a vulture, it’s tempting to get settled in a pub and stay put but then you’d be robbing yourself of a big gulp of the restorative fresh air along the jewel in the crown of what’s been dubbed Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. Walk, drive or do a bit of both along the beautiful and blustery Dingle Way. Stop and clear the cobwebs at Slea Head, and if you are brave, there’s Mount Brandon to climb.
In the town centre at the pier, be sure to book a harbour tour to see Dingle’s wildlife wonder — Fungie, the best dolphin in the world. This unusually solitary dolphin lives in the safe surrounds of Dingle Bay, choosing to make friends with tourists rather than sticking with other flippered friends. No matter how many times you’ve done the trip, seeing Fungie up close from the boat is enough to bring the big kid out in anyone, and there’s plenty of interesting historical chat about the harbour’s history along the way too. (Whale watching trips are organised in season, weather permitting, but I’ve never ventured out on one, for fear I might hurt Fungie’s feelings.)
I can’t believe I’m going to mention food again — but this one’s worth it. The best thing about the extraordinary produce in Dingle is that a lot of it gets served in ordinary settings. Out of the Blue looks like somewhere you might rent a wetsuit, but don’t be fooled — the fun, brightly painted shack-like exterior is home to some very serious food. From mouth-wateringly fresh seared tuna, panfried Black Sole and chargrilled John Dory to langoustine bisque — this is a kitchen that honours its ingredients.
Dingle has worked hard to earn and maintain its reputation as Ireland’s finest foodie town, but besides the buckets of fresh fish, it’s got bucket loads of character, charm and that funny little extra magic Irish touch that’s so hard to define, and totally impossible to forget.
Where to eat, drink and stay in Dingle
EAT: It’s practically impossible to get a bad meal in Dingle (although I can’t account for the dodgy-looking pizza place or the chipper) and you are stuffed if you don’t like seafood, but you should most certainly try Ashes on Main Street. If you want to blow the budget on a truly memorable meal, Out of the Blue (pictured) on the waterside is exceptional, and Global Village is surely one of the best restaurants not just in the town, but on the entire island of Ireland.
DRINK: You can’t beat Curran’s on the Main Street for an authentic Irish pub complete with snug and the most delicious, creamy pints of Guinness. You can buy a flat cap and a sturdy pair of wellies at the same time if needs be. Dick Macs is a real tourist favourite, as is hardware store/pub Foxy Johns but to be honest the loop of the town really lends itself to a little pub crawl so you could easily do them all.
STAY: Benner’s Hotel on the Main Street is right in the hub of things and as homely as you like with fires roaring, a great late bar for residents and the friendliest, most helpful staff you are likely to find for miles. It’s booked out in peak season months in advance so plan head if you’ve got your heart set on it. Main Street, Dingle, Co. Kerry, 00353 66 915 1638