Maybe I’m a bit biased but I’m prepared to declare Slea Head Loop as not only one of the best scenic drives in Ireland, but in the WORLD! National Geographic got it right when they declared the Dingle Peninsula ‘the most beautiful place on earth’ some years back. This short Drive – just 30 miles (50km) – is around the western tip of that peninsula and while it journeys through ancient sites, coastal villages and Hollywood locations, its really ALL about the landscape. So its less about the stops and more about drinking in that scenery (although you will want to stop at every bend on the road!)
Our loop begins and finishes in the colourful fishing port of Dingle. Its very hard not to love this town. Yes it can be busy – especially during the summer months – but it never loses its charm. Its actually the largest urban settlement on the peninsula and full of pubs, restaurants, shops and accommodation options to suit every pocket. Its a great place in which to spend a few days but don’t get too lazy – get out and about and explore this beautiful region.
Once you leave Dingle, the rest of the headland is made up of scattered houses and small villages and hamlets….. and a lot of sheep! We’re very far west now – remember that the next parish is Boston!!
The first stop is at the little village of Ventry, around 8km west of Dingle Town. The sandy blue flag beach is about 3km long and perfect for a walk. If the sun is shining then stay and enjoy the water or sit and read your book for a while. (As with any part of Ireland, and any time of year, grab any good weather when you can!!)
I’m serious about that weather!! If the sun is shining get out of that car!!! We spent 4 hours on the beach – a local shop supplied coffee and sandwiches so that was lunch sorted.
On a clear day you can see across to the Skelligs….
There are several antiquity sites along the way. You’ll come across a few settlements of BeeHive Huts or Clochans built into the hillside. These mysterious drystone igloos may be associated with religious practice but have not been dated.
The first sighting of the Blasket Islands….
Further along the road, you come to the Upside-down Bridge! The stream coming down from the hill crosses the road here. Designed as a ford, you just drive through .. its not deep….
Cashel Murphy is one of the best examples of a stone settlement in the country. The Cashel was occupied until the 13th century AD by up to five families.
As you approach Slea Head the road narrows and traffic may build up (this is actually ok because you can enjoy the views)
Slea Head itself is marked by a stone crucifixion scene. There are a few parking spots (if you’re lucky) so hop out stretch the legs or sit on the wall for a few minutes and enjoy great views of the Blaskets and Dunmore Head
The most westerly point in Europe, the now deserted Blaskets were inhabited from the mid 1500’s. Numbers ebbed and flowed through the centuries. In 1840, there were about 150 residents but that number reduced to around 100 during the Famine. The population increased again and the highest number recorded was 176 in 1916. Unfortunately it wasn’t to last – continuous emigration reduced the numbers to 22 in 1953 when the last of the residents were finally evacuated to the mainland.
The islanders’ tough way of life has been documented in their stories – most famously the autobiography of the story-teller Peig Sayers, which we all studied at school. The Islandman by Tomás Ó Criomhthain is a lament for a passing way of life and in Twenty Years A-Growing, Muiris Ó Súilleabháín writes about leaving the island forever.
Dunmore Head is most westerly point on mainland Ireland. This is another good opportunity to stretch the legs. A 2.6km path circles the headland. You will be rewarded with (even more!) spectacular views. Make sure to carry something for wind and rain. Some StarWars scenes were shot here.
Looking inland, that gentle slope is the side of Mount Eagle. This was the first bit of land that Charles Lindbergh saw after crossing the Atlantic en route to Paris in 1927.
Tucked into the corner between Dunmore Head and Mount Eagle is the beautiful Coumeenoole Beach, location for movies Ryans Daughter and Star Wars. Its not good for swimming but it makes up for that with fabulous views.
Many of the empty homes you see on your drive were abandoned during the Great Famine.
The scattered townland of Dunquin (Dun Chaoin) is one of the most well known locations on the route. Farmers from the main Blasket Island would row across to the pier – on a calm day they could do it in 30 minutes. Once there, they’d dock their boat and hike 12 miles into Dingle to sell their produce. Today, the Blasket Islands ferry departs from here in season.
Not far from the pier is the Blasket Centre which offers insight into traditional island life through interactive displays, audiovisual presentations, etc.
Trivia Moment : Movie Locations on the Dingle Peninsula The rugged scenery was featured in the 1970 film Ryan’s Daughter. In 1991, the dramatic coastline was used in Far and Away starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Most recently, Slea Head again featured in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
Look across at the island aptly named the “Sleeping Giant”
At Louis Mulcahy Pottery you might catch the artist at work or pick up a nice piece of craft to bring home.
At Clogher Strand you could have another walk or just admire the views of the beach and beyond to Ceann Sibéal and the Three Sisters.
Fuchsia flourishes everywhere…
Gallarus Oratory is one of Ireland’s best preserved early Christian churches. As with other antiquities in the area, historians have been unable to date the structure. Its drystone walls are laid at a slight angle, lower on the outside than on the inside allowing rainwater to run off. The entire structure is illuminated by a single window. According to local legend, if you can climb through the window your soul will be cleansed!.
A privately owned visitor centre offers a video about the site.
The ruined 12th century Romanesque Church of Kilmalkedar is surrounded by a densely populated graveyard in which you’ll find medieval tombs, an early-Christian cross and and ogham stone.
The Three Sisters
According to Irish folklore, Brandon Creek is the location where St Brendan the Navigator began a journey to America (before Columbus or the Vikings!)
The Drive now turns inland and runs along the base of Mount Brandon, the second highest mountain in Ireland.
And you get back to Dingle for an evening of great food, ceol agus craic!
Start and Finish – Dingle.
How much time – minimum 2 -3 hours but more if you intend doing walks…..
Following the Route – The Route is very well marked – You cannot get lost!
Direction – Drive clockwise for the best views.
How to enjoy the Drive:
Yes its only 50km but make sure you’ve enough petrol before leaving Dingle – no one will thank you if you block the road at Slea Head!
Remember we drive on the LEFT hand side of the road!
I know I said you’d want to jump out at every bend in the road… please don’t!!!! Wait for the designated parking spots.
If a lot of traffic builds up behind you, just pull into the next free lay-by and let them pass (you will enjoy the scenery more if you can get rid of them and drive at your own pace).
There are a few narrow stretches of road, especially around the Head. Use the lay-bys to allow oncoming traffic pass by.
Allow enough time for your trip so that you don’t become frustrated with tailbacks and traffic jams…. you’ll get there sometime!
Be mindful of cyclists and walkers…..
….and animal herders! Slow down and allow them pass with their sheep and cattle.
Cash – stock up on euro coins – some of the attractions along the way (e.g. Beehives) charge €2 /€3 per person. Others have honesty boxes close to the entrance.
Language – The Dingle Peninsula is an Irish speaking region and road signs can be confusing – these are the main towns on the route…
Dingle – An Daingean
Ventry – Ceann Trá
Dunquin – Dun Chaoin
Ballyferriter – Baile an Fheirtéaraigh
Which is better – Slea Head or the Ring of Kerry?
This question is often asked by visitors trying to work out an itinerary. While both peninsulas are beautiful, I think that most people prefer Slea Head as its less busy.
but ….. seriously…..
(Dingle peninsula from Space Station)