On surfari on the Dingle Peninsula
Ireland's waves are the stuff of legend. Yet Alex Wade always preferred to point his surfboard in the direction of warmer climes. Then he visited the Dingle ...
Sunday 14 May 2006
The surf was small but consistent, the day perfect. Unusually warm sunshine caressed the clear waters of Coomeenole beach on the Dingle Peninsula, a place touted less as a surf spot and more as one of the settings for David Lean's romantic epic Ryan's Daughter. On the beach, crowds of bikers were sunning themselves. They weren't there when I paddled out, and now, as I rode my board back to the shore, they resembled a pod of over-social seals who had decided that they'd had enough of the water.
Ireland had always eluded me as a surfing destination. Despite its legendary waves, it had been passed over in favour of locations where the surf was both reliable and sun-kissed. Perhaps a strange sense of guilt eventually got to me when in mid-March I found myself plotting - in earnest - an Irish "surfari". It was time to ride some of the surf that, according to Celtic myth, had been taken on by no less a man than Finn McCool, the urbane giant whose most famous legacy is the Giant's Causeway on the Antrim coast.
With a family in tow and a non-surfing partner, surf trips take on a different hue to those of one's youth. There is no room for camping stoically on desolate headlands, braving ceaseless wind and rain in the hope that the swell will arrive. With this in mind I consulted my battered 1995 edition of the Stormrider Guide to Europe. I needed to find a destination that combined good surf with something for the family. The answer was to be found in the south-west of Ireland.
The Dingle Peninsula, said the Stormrider Guide, was "one of the most naturally beautiful areas of Ireland". Photographs of cracking waves marching in clean lines to deserted beaches were all it took for me to be convinced, but Karen, my wife, was taken by the remarkable landscape - a mix of rugged mountains, rolling green hills and pristine, golden sands. The scene was set yet more appetisingly when I read: "Spring is often blessed with the best weather, the water is still cool, but the swells start to settle and the surf is consistent." But better still: "Even if there's no surf the area is worth a visit."
Dingle Town was to be our base for a long weekend. The town is famous for its resident dolphin, Fungie, who first started appearing in 1984 and has been a fixture in the calm inlet ever since. Boats leave Dingle pier on the hour all year for Fungie-spotting trips; if he doesn't show, the trip is free. The boys were quite taken with this, but one small detour before we settled into Dingle was essential. We had to have a look at Inch Strand.
This is a four-mile stretch of white sand at the eastern end of Dingle Bay. Like Coomeenole, Inch Strand also features in Ryan's Daughter. It is a mesmerising place, hauntingly peaceful and undeveloped, but also a top surfing beach. On the day of our detour, lines of perfect waves were indeed making their way to the beach, in unseasonably bright sunshine. There wasn't a breath of wind. The trouble was, the waves were only a couple of inches high. "Is that why it's called Inch beach, Dad?" asked Elliot, my younger son.
On we went to Dingle, to check into the conveniently located Dingle Skellig hotel. We spent a lovely afternoon pottering around the town's brightly painted streets, and found that there is a different pace of life here when, bereft of any euros after lunch at The Waterside Café opposite the marina, the owner happily suggested that we return to pay him "whenever you're next passing". Dingle's hotpotch of arty shops, cafés and restaurants was joined by Finn McCool himself in 2001 - or, at least, Newquay-bred Ben Farr whose surf shop bears the giant's name. Farr uttered words that no surfer likes to hear: "You should have been here last week, it was pumping!" before waxing lyrical about the surf that batters the Dingle Peninsula. "We've got beach and reef breaks here, and there's usually somewhere that's got a wave."
That evening we walked the cliff route due south from the hotel, the boys vainly hoping for an appearance by Fungie. It was all so calming that I almost forgot about going surfing. The search for a wave continued the next morning, a compromise route being a journey over the Connor Pass to the north side of the peninsula.
We're a family that enjoys mountains, and we weren't let down. The Connor Pass yields wonderful views of Mount Brandon (at 951m, Ireland's second-highest mountain) and its outriders, as well as a tantalising vista of beach after beach. There I found another flat sea and Jamie Knox, an ex-professional windsurfer who has run a windsurfing school on Dingle for 16 years. He doubted I'd find much surf on this trip. "The charts aren't looking good," he said. "But try Coomeenole."
The next day we set off on the Slea Head Drive. This is a loop heading west from Dingle whose apex is Dunmore Head - sight of the wreckage in 1588 of two Spanish Armada ships - with a few surf spots on the way. The Dingle Peninsula - or Corca Dhuibhne - has been inhabited for 6,000 years, and the scenery along the Slea Head Drive bears admirable witness to the area's heritage: here is the world's largest collection of clochans, or beehive huts. Similarly, there are plentiful dunta or ring forts. Out to a decidedly unruffled sea, beyond Dunmore Head, were the Blasket Islands, whose last inhabitants upped sticks in 1953.
At last, we found the turning to Coomeenole, an exquisite beach whose appeal to the film director David Lean was easy to understand. The surf was no more than two-foot, but the setting was irresistible. Before long I was in the water, as the boys played on the beach and Karen caught the sun. The arrival of the bikers introduced a minor note of surrealism, but as I sat on my board waiting for waves, looking up at the dry-stone walled hills of Kerry sweeping elegantly down the cliff-top, I thought to myself: the waves might be small, but this is the most beautiful place I have ever surfed in the world.
For more information about the Dingle Peninsula contact Tourism Ireland (discoverireland.com)
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